White Box 
Barbara Cameron

Winner, Howard Frank Mosher Prize for Short Fiction

“My medication is mixing weird with my marijuana.”

“Turn right at that billboard. GPS woman with British accent says in 500 feet turn right.”

“Drive into it. I want in that billboard.”

“I like the black stars.”

“What are you talking about?”

“On my phone. The grammar thing.”

“Asterisks?”

“U-turn it, hurry.”

“Fuck you.”

“What the fuck?”

“Not you, my Snapchat password.”

“Hi. I am saying hi to me. I’m social.”

“Can’t you hear the music?”

“Faster.”

“The white light.”

“Mommy.”

#

The audio transmitted from her son’s phone is her black box, similar to an airplane’s flight recorder. By accident, his phone had been on record. Touching its glassy surface shocks like electroshock therapy. With the opposite effect: detachment from reality, desire to commit suicide. She does it anyway. Listens as an addict would, again and again, until she can no longer stand the fucking thing near her. Maybe the recording wasn’t an accident? These kids think–thought–everything they say–said–and do–did–has–had–monumental importance.

Now, as it turns out, it does have value to this mother of the driver: Linda.

Linda’s son, Charlie, the science kid. Handsome Charlie, dark hair–highlighted red when the sun hits. Eyes the color of Linda’s favorite flower, the charismatic blue forget-me-not, as if she had picked those eyes.

“Look,” Charlie said, defending himself. “I am.” Linda had caught him flipping screens and accused him of playing video games instead of doing homework. “See. It’s not like the airplane’sblack box. In science, the black box is an open system viewed solely in terms of stimuli inputs and output reactions, the system itself is black to the observer without any knowledge of its internal workings.”

“I’m impressed,” Linda responded genuinely. Charlie, so smart if only he could get focused, stay organized, and apply himself. Also, she was tired of arguing about unfinished schoolwork, incomplete college applications and essays, and pot. Mostly, Linda understood none of it. On her terms, like everything nonsensical, she made some kind of sense of it all.

“The opposite of the black box is the white box,” Charlie concluded. “A system where the inner components or logic are available for inspection.”

Three viewings and funerals behind her, Linda needs a white box.

The woman driving down the hill, “a quick ice cream pick-up,” neglecting to follow safety rules to buckle up before colliding with Charlie, had been mercifully thrown into the 25 percentile of people who live ejected from a car. “She is,” her husband said on the local news, “resting, medicated.”

Linda refused drugs. Raised by a dictatorial, although loving, father, she is nothing if not resilient. He worshipped at the altar of education. “Getting the grades” in her house was a moral virtue, so Linda got them. Straight As. Once, receiving a B, her father said, “There’s no such thing as a B.” Linda never demanded As from Charlie. Just that he get organized, do his homework, and go to class. That was all she asked.

Sobbing friends presented dolls, stuffed animals, and sentimental mementos all over the crash site. At the burial, in California’s irrepressible November sunshine, appropriately still enamored of spectacle, children sought her out. Tears smeared across tender faces with the back of their hands, sleeves clutched in their palms–the way teenagers do, Linda noted longingly, and adults do not–a tiny girl, long bangs covering acne scars, introduced herself.

I’m Rach” opened her delicate fist as if something would bloom from it. A miniature gray plastic cat with a sprig of green attached to its side. On its back, a lobster bound to a brick of rice by a thin strip of nori. “It’s a sushi cat. Charlie gave it to me to hang from my rearview mirror. He said I was a bad driver, and it would bring me luck. Charlie was such a good driver, and he loved cats so much. We all loved Charlie.” Quickly, Rach dropped it into Linda’s hand and ran, leaving Linda greedily clutching the keepsake.

Some in suits and ties, a few in flowy floral dresses, others skinny jeans and wrinkled dress shirts, one by one, they hugged Linda. Over and over, she hugged back until her arms dropped by her sides, limp, and the children held fast. One fortunate friend, not in the car that night, told her, “Nothing will ever be the same without him,” before he fell into her arms crying. She stilled, and then hugged back, knowing that, for this boy, the statement would not hold. For Linda, like chewing earth for iron, anything to keep her tough the way her father raised her, it would.

In freshly dug earth, Linda spied half a worm, alive, wiggling, and burrowing. She threw a ceramic angel prayed to while trying to get pregnant with Charlie atop the coffin and watched until it vanished.

The next morning, Linda wakes up to a single thought jammed into her head: It’s my fault. Knowing he got high, how could I have let him drive? An impulse denied: re-drive their final journey, straight up, past the accident site. Sensing distant peril, drawn to it, anger wanting in for days, Linda takes it head-on: God-damn defiant Charlie, come home.

She strays to the window, awed at the life charging at her. A mailwoman stuffs a small metal box with oversized junk-mail and a bird wisps by while Linda’s neighbor wheels her mentally disabled daughter around the courtyard, as she does every day, as the trees and random trash blow.

Had Linda loved Charlie as unconditionally as she believed?

In their–unbeknownst to Charlie–shared iCloud Notes, a month ago, Linda had found, along with the password for his phone, his half-finished college applications. Sparse offerings, ill-fated from the beginning. Charlie’s attempts to apply to college, tiny points of contention that had added up to non-stop arguments. She strains her thoughts to this stale safer torment, opens, and rereads Persuasive Essay Idea # 1: Why science is just as important as humanities. Discuss atoms being mostly empty space and how it relates to everything. Idea #2 Bananas and their lifestyle, a documentary. Bananas should be grown in trees and not in bushes. Thousands of dollars spent on tutors and prep for that?

“What’s the bar on this?” Charlie asked in the middle of a fierce fight three weeks ago. Linda had received an email from school: Charlie’s missed schoolwork and perpetual lateness had put him at risk of failing three classes.

“The bar?” Linda answered sarcastically. “The bar is going to school, getting there on time, and doing your homework, and believe me, it isn’t that high.”

“God, you come in here, all freaking out yelling. Calm down, dude.”

“I am not your dude, I’m your mother, and I wasn’t yelling, but I am now,” Linda lit into him. How was Linda to know the Beast, thief of magic, lay waiting? On the floor now, no one there to pick her up, swiping his phone obsessively, Charlie’s voice lifts and drops Linda the way he had when he first discovered he was taller. His last cry–Mommy–will never be silenced.

#

Her reaction, and not the school’s, to that email, extreme, had landed them at Charlie’s therapist, Dr. Truitt, for an emergency session.

“She brings me down. Every time something good happens, she says something that makes me feel bad about myself,” Charlie told him.

She shrank, mouth shut; this therapy was for Charlie.

When Charlie was sixteen, Linda had found a bong in his backpack and toilet paper rolls filled with dryer sheets in his dresser drawer. Confessing to getting high two to three times a week meant every day. She had arranged for Charlie to see Dr. Truitt: the doctor asked to see them together.

After owning up to getting “toasted every morning before school,” with his help, Charlie had quit. In a private session, which they did from time to time, the therapist told Linda: Charlie admitted he was able to get sober for a few months because it was “too much for him, the way it affected his relationship with you.” Pride and shame interwove surprisingly cold comfort.

Eventually, Charlie went back to getting high, although not nearly as often, and they stayed with the therapist. They liked him. Two weeks ago, as she did from time to time, Linda went alone.

“Why do you think Charlie isn’t applying himself?” Dr. Truitt asked.

“I think he’s confident, and sometimes, deluded, and plain god-damned lazy.” Anger languished. “He said he wanted help with the ACT test and then missed almost every appointment.”

“Maybe how you’re feeling is a better place to start.”

“Who knows?” All the secrets Linda kept, even to herself about herself, nothing scandalous or sensational, just in her sedated subconscious, a learned way to be, as needy as she was self- reliant. “Like I’ve mentioned, growing up in my house, we lived in fear of my father’s wrath. The key was endurance. I hate confrontation. Even with Charlie. In many ways, he can be a bully.”

“How do you mean?”

“Basically,” she said, “if he doesn’t get what he wants or I pressure him, give him an ultimatum, he’s miserable and argumentative.”

“Well, most teenagers are.”

Charlie punching his fist through the closet door. Charlie, taking her car after the fight resulting from finding his weed. Refusing to come home, saying he was parked blocks away and would sleep overnight in the car. Past midnight, freezing in her pajamas, Linda walked the dark streets begging him on the phone, which, at least, he answered, “Come home, please, it isn’t safe.” Linda told Dr. Truitt everything.

“He came home?”

“Uh-huh. Finally.”

“They’re tantrums, clear, and simple, Linda. You need to draw the line.”

“Sometimes, though, weeks fly by with just hugs and jokes. We’re close, you know that, but Charlie wears me down. I give him more room because his anxiety can be off the charts, and I’m all he has to push against. Mother and father.”

Linda took her phone from her bag; she could have sworn it rang? She shoved the phone back in her purse. “Sometimes, my heart breaks for him. Before the anti-anxiety meds, once, he grabbed a knife. ‘Maybe you would be happier if I was dead, and you had a normal kid,’ hesaid.”

“Did he–”

“No. He just held it in his hand.” Linda realized she had never revealed this to anyone, not even Charlie’s prescribing doctor. “I told him how much I loved him and that there is no normal. After his explosions, he melts and opens up about how bad he feels about himself sometimes.That’s when we have our best talks.”

“Probably so,” Dr. Truitt said. “However, Charlie has to learn how to deal with his emotions without exploding. The older he gets, the more abusive it’ll feel.”

“I don’t feel abused.”

He waited, questions like speed bumps on side streets dangerous to travel too fast.

“Linda, was your father ever violent?”

For the first time, Linda observed the doctor, almost scientifically, assessing his skills. “No. My father never hit me. Or my mother.”

“Was there anyone else to hit?”

She found the doctor’s questions strange, like a light shining on her concealed independent mind: a man interested in her feelings, even if it was his job. Twice, her father had hit her older sister, Vivian, the one who fought him. “Yeah, my sister, Vivian. It’s funny; I used to say: ‘My father hit with his mouth and not his hands.’ One day, Viv heard me and flipped out. Understandably,” Linda qualified, raking her reddish-blonde hair with her fingers. “He hit her twice. Once, a slap, but the second time, a real beating.”

The doctor’s facial expression flickered lightly like candlelight: Linda, all her delicate anticipating of other’s needs while trying to keep the peace in her house growing up–she was good at reading people–could not tell what he was thinking.

“What caused your father to lose control with your sister?”

“She refused to eat her peas. Swear to God.”

“Was food a big thing in your house?”

“Not wasting food, being disciplined with food, was a thing. You know what’s funny, I kept a shoebox in my closet filled with sweets because my father counted everything. One doughnut per family member, you know. But I never ate them, just switched them out when they got stale incase I needed them.” She smiled at the memory.

“Well, of course you did, in that house.”

She felt a heart thud, the way she used to on the swim team, racing breaststroke in a relay. Flipping her underwater turn, her father’s unmistakable voice above, watery below, “You’re losing time on your turns.” Linda’s feet against the cement wall; anger pushed her off and away. Sometimes propelling her to win, sometimes to defeat.

“It wasn’t as if I had a terrible childhood. There was a lot of love, too. I mean, my dad was not a monster.” She shrugged and surrendered to end it. “I don’t know? Why was I the one who was always trying to keep him happy? And then trying to please everyone my whole life. Even Charlie.” So young, all of a sudden. Shy. “Maybe because I was overweight? Although looking back at photographs, I look average now. Everyone was skinny back then.” He didn’t even blink. “Listen,” she said, “I don’t think I feel lovable.” It hit the air unskilled, never having been articulated. “I mean, romantically, sexually. Even after I gained weight from the anorexia. It wasn’t until I turned forty that I realized how lonely I was, but I never craved being a wife, only a mother. I never tried very hard, either, to have a relationship.”

The look on the doctor’s face, Linda had a desire to ask for it back–that last piece of information.

“You mentioned anorexia? Did you get therapy or go to rehab?”

“It was the early 1980s. No Oprah, no word anorexia,” she quipped. “Basically, I cured myself.” She laughed. “I’m sorry, it’s not funny, I just remembered something my dad did once. He had this cyst on his chest, about the size of a quarter. I noticed a bandage and asked, ‘When did you have it removed?’ He said? ‘I didn’t. I got my navy surgical kit, put whiskey on it, drank a shot, and cut the damn thing out myself. Those bastards wanted five-hundred dollars to do it.’”

A hush.

“Linda? No parents or friends stepping in? How thin were you?”

Linda manufactured a forsaken smile. “I weighed 102 pounds at 5’7”, and no, no one stepped in.” Her phone buzzed: Charlie sending a video of their cats, leaping gloriously through the air, chasing a fly. She showed Dr. Truitt. As there was a strict no-pets policy in their apartment building, he had written the letter for Charlie declaring them emotional support pets. “I never wanted them. He promised to do everything for them, and then I ended up with all the responsibility. I kept thinking my father would have said, ‘Take care of them, or I’ll give them away,’ kept his word, and followed through. Anyway, I gave myself over, and, oddly, it bonded us again.”

“In what way?”

“Oh, how I fell for these cats. Talking to them the way I talked to Charlie when he was little. Sweet. Affectionate nicknames I had for Charlie, like Pudikins. So I say, ‘How are my pudi-cats today?’ I feed them ‘Mommy’s special dinner.’ Maybe watching me with them, he remembers how much I love him?”

“Maybe you both do?” For a few moments, there was a mutual waiting. “Linda, did it ever occur to you that you could make Charlie honor his commitment to care for the cats without threatening to get rid of them?”

Linda said nothing.

“May I ask you something a little more personal? If I say anything you’re not comfortable with, let me know, okay?”

Linda made a face, a less legible expression. “Sure.”

“Do you ever think about why you chose to have Charlie on your own? No judgment, believe me. Statistics actually show that unmarried women your age are happier than married women.”

His statistics didn’t help. As annoying as the gynecologist asking if she was sexually active or planning to be? No, and probably not, Linda always responded falsely: not at the moment, and possibly. Linda had decided a long time ago that the truth in these matters was not possible. It was a stone, and the deep, solid, sinking to the depths of Linda’s oceanic soul stone was admitting that no one had ever loved her enough to pursue her in that way, all the way through the resistance she subconsciously put forth. Dreaming of it as a young girl–love–but always a fantasy: Linda thin. By the time Linda became skinny, still: fat Linda.

She threw back her stock answer: “I swore I would never let anyone control me the way my father controlled us.”

The reality of that stone: a feather floating mid-air because the stone didn’t haunt Linda. Egg-donor sperm-donor, she carried Charlie, gave birth, lost her period, and, without the hormones flowing, never thought about marriage again.

“I guess, in retrospect, I let go of the possibility of marriage.”

“In retrospect?”

“Things kinda hit me later. That’s how I am.”

“Linda, can you tell me anything about the time your father beat your sister?” He surprised her, his dark eyes warm, regarding.

#

Lying on the couch, she unmutes the TV. Mostly Turner Classic Movies, no chance of being blindsided by contemporary youth. A tribute to Barbara Stanwick, a tour de force and a wreck, from Meryl Streep. Linda clicks the MUTE button and watches the visuals flutter away before her eyes until she dozes off.

A knock at her door wakes her. Late-afternoon reveals Amanda, her dear friend, naturally pretty, wearing a long, shapeless tunic like a maternity shirt, and skinny leggings underneath, at the door. Neither speaks until Amanda says, “Are you going to let me in?”

“Of course.”

“How are you doing?”

“It’s fucking unbearable,” Linda says, only wanting to collapse into her arms.

“You’re one of the strongest women I know. You’ll get through this.” For a short time, Amada says nothing, and then she clicks off the TV and pops the top of her Tupperware, scaring the female cat, Little Girl, so easy to startle. “I’ve made a fruit salad,” she says, pulling off the lid.

The perfection of color is like Dorothy landing in sepia tones in The Wizard of Oz, which Linda had seen that morning. You never knew you craved it until she stepped out that door, her dress turned blue, and that brick road was bright yellow. Linda plucks a purple grape, its initial sweetness unexpectedly bitter.

“Sour grapes,” Linda says and laughs.

Little Boy, the male cat, noses and rejects the fruit. Linda brings a cold bottle of Fiji water, the best she can manage, and offers it up. “My heart goes out to you,” she remembers someone saying at the funeral.

“Where will my heart go now?”

“Aw, sweetie, come here.”

Linda remains frozen, the condensation on the bottle cooling her hand.

“I can’t bear to think of his face in the headlights. Did he live for a second after the crash? Did any of them?”

“Honey, you can’t think like that.”

“Whatever thoughts come, I let them.” Linda gasps, “How could I have been so negligent?”

“Linda, it was an accident.” A subtle expression of doubt crosses her friend’s face, the mother of a teenager as well, whose daughter has never experimented with drugs but with whom Linda has shared her concerns about Charlie. “Can I ask you something? And if you don’t want to answer, that’s fine, you can tell me.”

Linda says nothing.

“Was Charlie high? Please know, I’m not asking to torture you, but it might help to have someone to talk to about it if he was. You know I’m your friend, and I understand.”

Linda, without Charlie, is no one. Just Linda. How could she have foreseen losing the piece that had made her somewhat like other people? A mother. Part of a collective charity, giving to one another, sharing, understanding. Although she had many lovely friends, the truth was that Linda had felt alone until she gave birth. Linda’s group of mother friends had been an unexpected added benefit of parenthood.

“Is the mother of a dead child still a mother?” Linda asks.

“Don’t say that, Linda. You were a wonderful mother, always there for Charlie, and he knew it. Teenagers can be agonizing.”

Face turned upward to the ceiling, Linda thinks back to the night of that blood sacrifice–to what god she has no idea. Before he left, Charlie had hugged her goodbye. As he had a habit of doing, taller now for years, he affectionally patted her head, and said, “I love you, little mama.” Daggers into the edge of heaven, zero gravity, Linda floats up, a lonely slave to her hopeless love for this child, to see him once again and tell him what? Gravity binds humans to earth. Cars hit head-on release them.

“No, he wasn’t,” Linda looks right at Amanda’s face and lies as if she knows. If she says otherwise, somewhere on another day in another friend’s living room, unable to help herself, Amanda will confide to that friend, also sworn to secrecy: ‘Poor Linda, wasn’t sure if Charlie was high that night.’ She knows how this works. Highly alert, she feigns exhaustion.

Impossibly, Amanda says, “Well, that must be some comfort.”

“There’s nothing for me,” Linda mouths. Out loud, she says, “Solace or otherwise.”

“What did you say, honey, that first part?”

“Nothing.”

“Listen, I’m here. I’ve cleared my calendar.”

“I think I need to be alone.”

“I’m not going to hover.” She scans the room. “I’ll clean up.”

A week in, Linda misses believing in God, that airy way where you don’t have to do anything but fall to your knees and give in to prayer.

Because how many times, after complaining about feeling drained from trying to please everyone since childhood, has Linda been told, “It’s not their fault if you don’t say what you want, Linda.” She can no longer count. Out of pure animal jealousy, Amanda, with her living child, Linda attacks. “I said I wanted to be alone. What aren’t you hearing?”

Amanda turns crossly, spins back, face blushed, and takes Linda’s hand. Without breaking eye contact, gently, she pries open each finger to reveal the sushi cat. “It’s mine,” Linda rasps. She fists it, her nails digging into her palms, folds her arms tight, and feels her rapidly beating heart like a bird stuck inside a glasshouse, banging around until it will stupidly, innocently knock itself dead.

“Maybe you can’t know what you want right now.”

“What is there to understand?” Linda wildly bites the air. “You know what I want, I want Charlie.”

“There must be something I can do for you,” Amanda says to defend herself.

“Oh, I know,” Linda says, ready to pounce. “Myperfectbaby1. Lindalovescharlie4ever. Charlielovesscience%15.” Amada looks puzzled. “My passwords! Let’s change them! I’ve got it. Charlieisdead18.” Tears pour out of her. “Nobody thinks about that stuff, Amanda. I want those parents to have their children back, and I want Charlie, but I can’t have him, so for the love of whatever god, leave me alone.”

Shocked, Amanda looks down as if to remind herself where she is, in what room, sharing what circumstances. “It’s okay, honey,” she says. “I love you, and when you are ready, I’ll help. I can’t even imagine having to type them.” This sweet woman, unable to grasp: Linda will never change her passwords. They embrace, and she leaves. Linda. Dead alone.

Hilarious, so easy to fool, Linda thinks. When have I ever needed anyone more? Why couldn’t she have asked Amanda to stay? Damaged, that’s why.

Falling onto the couch, she spies The Princeton Review Best 382 Colleges in the bookcase, shoots up, rips it off the shelf, and tosses it out the kitchen window. Had Linda withheld love because Charlie was not a good student? The way her father had tortured Viv who defied him, grades worse every year? Yes, yes, and, without realizing it, yes.

Alone again, Linda cannot perform the miracle of doing anything but sleeping and watching TV. All About Eve. For no apparent reason, certain films bedevil rather than soothe. She switches back to National Geographic Channel, her other anchor since the accident. Nature shows: sanctioned barbarity. These, Linda can stomach, refreshing in the way Machiavelli and MalcolmX had been when she’d first read them.

“Danger stalks the open grassland,” Powers Boothe narrates. “Ghosts in the moonlight, if animals can hate, this between the lions and the hyenas is a blood feud of hatred.” Linda wonders: Do animals hate? Last night, another documentary stated that much research is being done to debunk human exceptionalism. What they do know: exclusively, humans create gods and write poetry. “The ability to produce strings of conscious thought makes us human,” the documentary flatly stated.

Poetically, Linda’s thoughts spring with a mysterious tie-in she can’t decipher. Is hate a human survival instinct? By the time Linda was a young woman, she had told people, “I hate my father,” so quickly, it was shocking.

#

Weeks previously, when asked by Dr. Truitt about Vivian’s beating, without warning, Linda was crying. Her stupid glasses lenses always filthy, she removed them, wiped her eyes, and, blurred, continued. “Jesus, it’s not like, Oh, my God, it’s all coming back to me. I’ve told thisstory before. Vivian, tenth grade, so I was in seventh? My father said, ‘Finish your peas.’ Vivsaid, ‘I don’t want them.’ He yelled, ‘Eat your god-damned peas.’ She pushed her plate away and left. He shoved his chair back and chased her into the living room.”

“Were you a witness to the hitting?”

“Yup.”

“Did you know that when people witness violence, especially children, they experience it as well?”

So tightly, his words squeezed, and it hurt, but everywhere, nowhere specific Linda could conquer. She slid her glasses back onto her face. “It wasn’t like he hit all the time. Men who hit hit, right? Not that I’m making excuses, but mostly he yelled and screamed about our grades andthe house not being immaculate. Which, believe me, was fucking hell, too.”

“What did ‘fucking hell’ feel like? Can you name it as an emotion?”

“Hate.”

“Okay. I’d like to go a little further with that unless you think it’s too much for today?” Eyeing the time on her phone, Linda felt broken and perceived she had unwittingly passed it on to Charlie. Removing her mini glass-cleaning kit from her purse, she stood, held her eyeglasses to the light, and polished them for the drive home, recovered. Linda could not trust him. After everything she had revealed in the past hour, how could he think she could ever admit that anything was too much?

“Ask away,” she said.

“Never mind, let’s schedule next week with Charlie, and then with you alone again.”

One hand on the doorknob, Linda pushed the hair off her lightly freckled forehead with the other, relieved the session had no particular effect on her mood now that it had ended, agreed, and left.

#

Powers Boothe says, “We examine the horror, the turmoil of their hidden battlefield of secret, special magic.” Linda clicks mute.
Is love a human survival technique? Linda, the first to forgive her father when he begged for it later. “No human ever,” Linda moans, clutching an indifferent cat, squirming to get out of her stronghold, “cradles their newborn and says, Oh, boy, am I gonna fuck you up.” Her father had not, and neither had she, but, a single mom, if Charlie was fucked up, and if it was a parent’s fault, it’s all hers.

It was all Linda’s at the funerals.

Charlie, haughtily presenting his Medical Marijuana Card, purchased the day he turned eighteen from some charlatan in Malibu for sixty lousy fucking bucks. Linda, repeating her rant. “I get it, overcrowded jails, blah, blah, blah, but vaping weed and nicotine in candy flavors, eating cannabis mints and gummy bears? These stupid pot-head losers and money-making- lobbyists, when they made it legal, was anybody thinking about the kids? Did this idiot know you’re on Prozac for anxiety and take meds for ADHD? That your prescribing doctor told youit’s the worst thing you could be doing?” Linda asked.

“God, mom, everyone else thought it was funny. Even the teachers at school. Of course, you have to react like a crazy person.”

He was over eighteen, what could she do?

Maybe Charlie had been sober? This single thought allayed Linda’s insufferable existence for days because that’s what mother’s do, they hope, and she cannot shed motherhood. His recorded voice never claimed to be high. Petting Little Boy along his jawline, the exact point that sinks his entire body with pleasure at the same time slacks his mouth and bares his savage teeth, Linda remembers the particular hollow-sounding groove in Charlie’s infant back where she had tapped lightly, soothing him to sleep. Something he would never have known. Something she might have told him, much later, maybe when she was old, if he asked, “What was I like when I was a baby, mom?” the way she had once asked her mother.

Attracted despite herself to the visual on the TV–lioness and newborn cubs–Linda unmutes. “Separated from the pride to give birth, the lioness’s secret spot tucked away, chosen to protect her cubs from hyenas, turns out to be a bad choice.”

A cobra appears, dances in front of them briefly, before biting them all. Almost immediately, the lioness’s cubs die. Dazed, blind, terribly weakened as the poison fills her bloodstream, the mother can only sniff her dead babies before the hyenas take possession, carrying them away to feed their young.

Linda did not protect Charlie. In doing so, she failed to protect the other children in the car.

Within minutes, the lioness collapses and dies alone. “Life on the savannah goes on, never a moment of repose, always alert. Another lioness hunting baby zebra successfully kills her prey.”

Back to the pride, the screen reveals the lion’s head deep in the striped beast’s carcass, inner organs and flesh clawed out, “the frenzied banquet of a hungry animal. The male eats first and leaves the scraps. Soon, after feeding, he will rest in the shade. His spot.”

The lion of the pride: Linda’s father. Your father’s chair, your father’s bread, and your father’s maple syrup from Vermont.

“Self-preservation rules the animal kingdom in Africa.” The best bacon, the best fruit, and the best piece of fish always reserved for Linda’s father. Yet, unlike the male lion who “pays little or no attention to the cubs,” Linda’s father loved and sacrificed for his family. Linda’s father, and no one else’s, happily took their friends for ice cream on warm nights. And more. Her father and not her mother had been the storyteller in the family.

Unless he was in a bad mood, and then he withheld. He was a steadfast provider, never a drinker or gambler. He protected his children, and he beat Vivian.

Beasts and humans.

Everything depends on Linda being able to shut down. Mr. Boothe continues on and, dreamy, catatonic as if drugged naps pull Linda, a grateful haul down. Stupor-like seconds convert tender pain drops, evaporating Linda’s severe case of introspection. She falls in and out of blissful archaic sleep, sedated by crushing grief, unable to brush her teeth or eat.

Until that sleep trembles with a nightmare in which she is burning her dead son’s clothes. She wakes.

Is suicide a survival instinct? She heads to his room, remembering how lately she entered to nag him. “Throw away these empty bottles, ice-cream-cone wrappers, and put your dirty dishes in the sink.” But, mostly, “Are you doing your homework?”

Should she call Dr. Truitt?

Restlessly cliché to think she should have done anything differently. Day-to-day living requires chores, upkeep, and hygiene. And, dammit, education. What would Linda say if she had a second chance? There are paths you can never come back from, and it’s my job to guide you. You’re a young boy growing into a man. Dangerous roads I’ve seen others go down; I have to block, or at least warn you against.

She had said all those things.

The cats trail her, sniffing for Charlie, and settle. Linda falls into a pile of his dirty clothes, crouching with them like an animal in hiding, nestled in the stale odor of him, Fiji Old Spice and perspiration. “You try this motherhood thing without instinct and instinct alone. You try this with a mind, a heart, and a past,” she tells the cats. She remembers barging into Charlie’s room one night, shortly after he’d brought the cats home. “It’s one thing not to take care of yourself,” she said, crossing a line, trudging onward. Someone had to say it; it was her job. “Not showering or brushing your teeth, your room a pigsty, but how can you let these poor things wait for food, clean water, and litter box? They’re babies. They depend on you to take care of them.”

Hurting him deeply.

Linda’s mother was kind, even if weak when it came to standing up to her father. “It was an accident, honey,” her mom said. Linda, age ten, in the backseat of the car. Having slipped on a diving-board ladder, each metal-thump down had ripped her chin open. Shivering, she held a bloody towel to her jaw on the way to the hospital. “There’s no such thing as an accident, only carelessness, and negligence,” her father sternly lectured. Linda knows now: Her father was afraid, unable to keep his daughter out of harm’s way.

The alert sound on her iPhone. An email from the school. “Jesus fucking Christ.” Neglecting to remove Linda from the list: a vigil and special remembrance, as well, free counseling for those students, cost covered by the school, to help deal with “this tragic, abrupt loss of three classmates.”

Can Linda live in a town where three children might have died because she didn’t insist Charlie not take her car that Friday night? Untamed, no matter the danger, her thoughts roam. Did the lioness think about suicide in the seconds after she discovered her cubs were killed before she succumbed? Did she berate herself for her poor choices? Linda could go to the top of that peak, abandon her pulse into the earthy dampness below.

Little Boy scratches the cat tower, climbs it, and, perched at the top, stares out the window. The gnawing at Linda’s bone-thoughts: could she step out with drugs? Never. Linda, built to last like the appliances in her home that her father, having bought the best, refused to get rid of until they broke down. The twenty-five-year-old Frigidaire with the tiny icebox that had to be defrosted weekly with hot water. Like Linda, it kept running. “When it breaks, I’ll replace it,” her father said.

Linda dives onto Charlie’s messy bed, sheet slipped off the corner, dirty socks, his belt, and a few hangers. Little Boy leaps atop, flips, belly exposed, and curls his head into Linda’s chest. Thumb gently to his nose, she digs back through the middle of his eyes the way he likes it and traces back to the time when Charlie’s future was a golden glow, reflecting onto Linda. “Sweetboy, you’re the perfect baby,” she coos. “If you blink your eyes when you look at me, I read that means you love me. Do you love me, Little Boy?” Slowly, they shut and open. “You do love your mother.” Little Boy stares his cat-blank stare. “He was mine. The kid needed boundaries, and I fucked up,” Linda says, shoving him off the bed. “Too bad, born into the wrong family,”she whispers at his aloof glance from the floor. “Like Charlie.”

And what the fuck difference does it make now if he was driving high? That accident could have happened if he was sober, valedictorian of his class, and had completed all of his college applications.

What was at the top of the hill?

Linda will never know, so she begins the treachery of the living aimed at the dead by cleaning his room. Keeps going until every hairball, Dr. Pepper bottle cap, cotton swab, Drumstick ice cream wrapper, Cheetos Flamin’ Hot Crunchy bag, and speck of dirt is off that floor. She might hate cleaning, goddamnit, but raised by her father, Linda knows how to clean.

Delicately now, she dusts her Valentine’s Day present given to Charlie when he was in fifth grade. The red ceramic car, two M&M’s, holding hearts in their laps. One M&M hand waving, the other’s hand cracked off in a fall, Charlie found it a few years later in the trash, incredulous.“I love that car. You gave it to me. I don’t care if it’s broken.”

Lastly, the plastic bag with the clothes he died in. How can Linda throw them away? She cannot. Vacant habit, as always when doing his laundry, she roots through the pants pockets for stray paper or tissue that transform into a disastrous lint detonation in the machine.

Crumpled, a receipt in his faded black jeans. Her body is air. All fatigue.

Always, Charlie will have her heart by the throat.

Physical threats of harm over, deceptive, this unraveling receipt a serpent slithering until the discovery breaks open raw pain. Soaked with sweat. Dizzy. Found, therefore, fact.

RECEIPT # 100Z5T
Granddaddy Purp Weekender
Thank you
Choosing ERBA Warning: This product can expose you to chemicals including marijuana smoke which is known to cause Cancer. For more information www.P65Warnings.ca.gov.

Budtender: JOHN

page23image57882880

Order Completed:11/22/2018 5:15 pm.

#

Time of death: 11/22/18 9:43 pm. Drugs. Stimulus: response.

Life. Stimulus: response.

Death: a Black Box.

Linda calls Dr. Truitt.

#

“That narrow road. And they would’ve probably been going too fast, anyway, like teenagers do,” Dr. Truitt is telling her. Framed by the light coming from the window, he looks heavenly, so Linda decides to believe him, even if just in the moment.

Linda laughs a lying laugh that spooks them both. “Say what you will, my father taught me to persevere, to survive. Jesus Christ Almighty, you have to be a fucking sheet of metal to survive this world.” The light changing, Linda sees Dr. Truitt’s facial expression now: attachment. “My father would have never let me have his car if he knew I was using drugs.”

“Slow down, breathe.”

“This nature video I watched said that humans can, if desired to be broken, break their habits. All I ever wanted to do was to raise Charlie with love, not fear. I caved a lot when I tried to be firm. He had no fear of me.”

“All parents sometimes feel that way, Linda.”

“No,” she says fiercely. “Not all parents.”

Calmly, Dr. Truitt says, “You’re breathless. Relax.”

It is only then that Linda understands the depth of what she still has to face.

“A week before the accident, we had a brutal fight. Charlie woke me out of a sound sleep, asking to go to a friend’s house downtown. So fucking tired of losing battles, instead of flat out saying no like I wanted to, I asked, ‘Why tonight?’ He said, ‘No, reason.’ It was too risky, so I said, ‘No, you’re not taking the car. There’s no need to go now.’”

He went back into his room, and I thought, Wow, it worked. But then, out came Charlie with his backpack. ‘I’m taking the train,’ he said. I said, ‘Absolutely not. You’re not taking a train downtown at midnight. It’s not safe.’ Other times, in the past, I had let go, justified: Okay, he has to learn the hard way, but that night, God help me, and not the Friday of the accident, I thought: I can’t live with myself if I don’t stop him and something terrible happens. Like seeing the hyena and not the cobra.”

“Excuse me?”

“Nothing.” Her eyes searching, voice full-speed, “Back and forth, we yelled until Charlie shouted, ‘You think I want to stay here in this house with you? I fucking hate you!’ Something snapped. I screamed, ‘You’re cruel. I don’t want you here. Go!’ For the first time in his life, I struck him–with my mouth, even if not my fist. And then the door slammed, and he was gone.”

The doctor takes Linda’s hand. Seeing a tear in his eye, she feels it on her skin and continues.

“I never cry.” The doctor visibly winces. “My glasses felt, I don’t know, in the way? So I took them off, and it started. My face in my hands, I sobbed and sobbed.”

“Well, of course, Linda. Defenses require a great deal of energy.”

“The yelling, the door slamming? Who knows? But out of nowhere, maybe because you were asking about it, but it all came back to me, that night my father beat Vivian. Fast, like it was happening.”

“Emotional recall usually works that way. What did you feel when you remembered?”

“I don’t know? Scared?”

“Maybe we can remind the little girl watching that night that she is safe, and we can go back there?”

“That’s stupid.”

“Just stay with me in the present, see yourself in that room and tell me what you feel?”

“Helpless,” Linda whispers. “To help Vivian.”

“Well, yes, and yourself, Linda. Maybe, at times, Charlie, too.”

This slays her. Something inside of Linda that always determined she had no right to indulge her feelings, bother anyone with them, disappears. “But it was the weirdest thing,” she says. “At the same time, other flashbacks came, too, but the opposite of abuse. Memories of my father’s kindness. On a ski trip, taking off his gloves in the bitter cold to retie my laces. Looking up at him, how protected I felt! How I loved him!”

“It’s perfectly healthy to have different feelings toward people at once.”

“I loved Charlie. But I couldn’t get past the stupidest things. I was so underneath-mad all the time, it seems now. Because he vaped and neglected school? I was mean, sometimes. How could I have been so mean,” her voice sings up to stop the tears, “ever? When I loved–love–Charlie with all my heart?”

“What about that night, Linda, the beating? Where were you physically?”

“I couldn’t leave my sister, so I sat on the third step to the top. I did nothing. I watched.”

“You were a child, Linda. Powerless.”

“No, if I had run downstairs, he would have snapped out of it. I know he would have.” She touches her heart. “I can’t.”

“You assume that now, but you couldn’t possibly have known. There are no right answers, just what you feel.”

Correct and incorrect answers permeate her life. Good and bad decisions, a delicate trust so thin that Linda knows to hold tightly, slightly aggrieved she has fallen for this, her face pointed with determination, her voice swollen, inflamed, she keeps going. “Vivian’s thick hair, my father’s arms, wild. Finally, one last whack, it ended. I followed Viv upstairs but heard panting. When I looked back, my father, out of breath, breathing heavily, was sitting in his red leather chair, his two arms extended on each armrest as if in an electric chair, staring straight ahead into nothing.”

“The aftermath of violence is usually feeling defeat and humiliation, especially for a controlling person.”

“The house was dead with it.”

“Linda, you never mentioned your mother. Where was she that night?”

Unflinching, “She had to work. She was in real estate. Showing a house. Her job gave us financial freedom, no more begging my father for money! But she left us alone to fend for ourselves.”

“How do you feel about that?”

“Women were powerless back then.”

“Parents are the adults. While blaming them is useless, at times, they do have to be held responsible for their children’s well-being.”

“Is Charlie driving high my fault? Yes. I’m the watcher, frozen during the most important fights of my life.”

“It was an accident, Linda.”

“That night of our fight, crying, alone, I thought: Great, I’ve failed at this, too.” Linda speaks calmly now. “Then I heard the door.”

“Charlie?”

“Charlie came back. Bloody hand from punching god knows what, ‘Come here,’ he said. Shaky, I went to him. He wrapped his arms around me. ‘It’s okay. I’m sorry, mama, but I came back,’ he said. He patted me on my back, and I cried into him. ‘You only love me when you’re getting what you want, Charlie, and it’s painful,’ I said. ‘You do that to me, too, mama,’ he said. Neither of us knew how to break it, so we held each other for a long time.” Linda stops, skimming her fingers along her brow as her brain is an open wound. “And that night, I knew we would always be okay. No matter what happened, Charlie would always come back to me.”

“Linda, I am so sorry for the little girl, enduring everything in that house, and for your pain now.”

Scarcely daring to move, bright and empty, tears flowing, “The thing is, if Charlie had lived, I think we would have made it through the teen phase. I think we would have been fine.”

#

Fear scratching raw at the back of Linda’s neck, compelled to understand because that is what human animals do, Linda takes the drive to trace the scent of her dead cub. Her sushi cat dangling, tied to the rearview mirror and swinging, Sunset Boulevard’s view cut with billboards, no less than ten advertise cannabis until Linda sees what she is looking for, the advertisement Charlie’s friend had claimed he wanted to be in: Marijuana is Here! Delivered to Your Doorstep.

Knowing she never had, nor has she now, any power to banish danger, Linda starts up the hill. It is almost dark, the end of the day spikes through the greenery.

Ascending, nothing Linda sees on her drive, thus far, adds up to anything she can go home with and not want death. Had Charlie thought of Linda in the end? Yes. Mommy. If only she can make it past the accident site without looking. She is too strong; she looks. As humans will, amongst the ground cover of flowers and stuffed animals, someone has left a patch of battery-operated candles. Pale yellow illumes a photo of Charlie, staring at his mother. 

Clipped with a wooden clothespin to a make-shift popsicle stick fence squaring—ruffled like Charlie’s hair in the dim glow—a richly soiled plot: A Forget-Me-Not Memorial Seed Packet. Beside it, handwritten: Do Not Despoil: Seedlings Planted. For Linda, In Loving Memory of Charlie, Amanda. 

Surviving on the instinct of the insane, her mind is alive. She keeps going.

The top. A dry night, sticky only at the bottom of the hill, the moon is rising. The black sky is wounded with white star punches. Glittering asterisks. The view remaining shadowy, the empty tug of a windless twilight. The air stinking potent and beautifully full of skunk shoots into Linda’s nose. She stands perfectly still, perched at the edge. Scattered in the void, prayers, and old warnings. Unheeded. Charlie tore loose from her anyway. This youth has passed. Charlie’s youth has come and gone. Linda’s youth has come and gone.

Drawn to the vast night sky, the moon visible now in full force; madness, so gorgeous out there. “All creatures strive blindly toward life,” Powers Boothe had concluded. It would be beautiful. If she could be a part of the Universe? Linda imagines that she is in a documentary, hears Powers Boothe narrate. Linda, a mere human, with all of her humanity, her battle of wits, and control? Her crazy deep love? She, too, is a part of the poetry of our magnificent Universe. “Show me how,” she breathes, letting her resting-heart throb.

No black box; no white box. Only remnants. Steadied, Linda tosses both the phone and the sushi cat into the abyss, feels her wet face, the hair on her head tingle, and shrieks into the night.

Barbara Cameron lives in Los Angeles, where she manages a restaurant in the historic Sunset Tower Hotel. Her work has appeared in Northern Colorado Writers: Pooled Ink (Editor’s Pick), Angels Flight Literary West, & American Literary Review (winner, first place in Creative Nonfiction). Barbara received her BA from Barnard. She lives with her teenaged son.

Reading in Northern Ireland
Nick Miller

Runner-Up, Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

Shane Dugan reads Irish whenever he can, although he is no good at it. Is fearr Gaeilge briste, ná Béarla clíste / Broken Irish is better than clever English. He read a lot of things, poetry and prose, truth and fiction. He tried to stay away from newspapers; they often miss the most important parts of the story. For example, they never mention how hot rubble is when it rains down upon you.

The first piece of concrete was the hardest to move, but once it was gone, the young man reveled for a moment in the sweet oxygen that rushed in from above, like an angel pulling him into the light of a future where bombs were to be replaced with nights at the dance hall and motorcycle races and records so cheap you could pick them up by the handful. That was not real. Real was smoke billowing into dead air that rang with screams of women and children and men bawling a perverse chorus. After he emerged from the island of rubble, Shane listened and watched as if he were a spectator to the attack rather than a victim. It all went silent once he staggered forward, the sight before him too much to comprehend.

A man in a tattered shirt tried to put his little boy’s arm back on his body, the frail arch of his back hanging over the man’s shaking knee. The lump of a human laid dead in his hands as he tried to stop the blood with same tweed coat the little boy wore when grandma and grandpa gave him his first hurley on the Donegal beachhead last spring—the day he stuck out his chest and beamed. The man in the tattered shirt held his boy’s body together, refusing to let the ambulance take his universe entire. From him came a wail of pain unimaginable, the utter and complete loss of something one cannot comprehend until it rips through you. My boy. My boy. My boy.

 

Shane awoke to the murky light of a hospital, slowly, that faded to reveal a hideous mustard yellow room with old, rumbling medical equipment shared between three other victims. They were in the Catholic hospital. His father, old and lean, looked out a window, elbow above his head on the window overlooking the city as if he himself were planning where to plant the retaliatory bomb. He was silent without anyone to complain to as his wife had gone for a bite to eat. He knew that Marianne would never give a fair listen to any of his thoughts. Marianne, Shane’s steady from their first days at university, noticed him first, jumping at him, holding his bandaged head in both her soft hands, running her fingers through his curly black hair. She started to cry.

“Jesus Shane I tought they took you …”

He was still too dazed to speak; his head rang from what he was sure was a concussion at the very least. Marianne barked at his father to get the doctor. He didn’t listen, instead turning around and lumbering over from the window hurriedly. He slapped his son on the shoulder with an empty jubilance, feigning that everything was okay. “There he is, there’s the man! I knew it! Too strong to be taken down. How’re ya feeling?” You may imagine that Shane would have asked what happened. He didn’t need to. That was Belfast in 1978 when you were a Catholic, or a Protestant, or just a person.

Soon enough, a doctor walked briskly in and glanced at him, reviewing the details of his injuries with an inhuman nonchalance. A twisted ankle, gash in the head, concussion, nothing horrific. The rubble did most of the damage; he was lucky to be in the alley rather than the pub itself. With that, the doctor got up to leave, likely tending to something far worse, perhaps the man in the tattered shirt himself. The silence opened a hole for his father to speak once more, this time refusing to bow to Marianne’s distaste for politics.

“And you know the police won’t do a damn ting about et, that’s for sure. No such thing as justice in this community.”

Marianne ignored him completely and took Shane’s hand as they looked at each other while his father’s words melted into the nothing they were. Her lightly curled strawberry blonde hair was a lovely mess, bouncing and swaying off her head like mountain water. If he looked like more of a Spaniard than an Irishman, she was Queen Maeve herself, the goddess of Connacht there to tend to his wounds or slash them again if she wished. This former would prove difficult.

She asked him if he was okay, and he said he was. This was a lie. He wouldn’t be okay, not for some time, not until long after the little boy with the tweed coat and hurley was buried and blessed by the parish priest with the whole neighborhood in attendance; not until long after the man in the tattered shirt was free of his pain, whether it be through time, a bottle, a bomb made himself, or maybe even until the soldiers go home forever.

 

Five days after the incident, he sat in their shared flat sipping muddy tea after Friday classes, staring at a wall as she walked in with produce and a bottle of cheap wine. He didn’t acknowledge her.

“You alright there, Shane? Starin’ at the wall like it’s the cinema.”

He responded accordingly. This was his new, special talent. Telling people that you are all right is a real challenge at first, but then it gets real easy, like a dog learning to chase a rabbit on cue.

“Oh yeh, just grand, love.”

She rubbed her hand through his hair again like in the hospital, casually this time, almost like he was a good dog, a good boy who could do whatever was asked of him. Now he was asked to be okay, so he was.

She smiled a real smile—that warm type of smile that is reserved for the quiet moments, when it is raining hard and you and the one you love are close to one another in the street—like the pair on the cover of that Bob Dylan record they listened to when they sat inside and read books together. It was a lovely, lovely smile there for a moment and gone like a flash in the pan. Shane didn’t bother looking at it.

Marianne put the groceries down and left to put the record on and roll a joint on the cardboard cover, returning to the kitchen where he sat as the record spun from “Blowin in the Wind” to “Girl From the North Country.” She leaned her shoulder on the doorway, crossed her left ankle over the right and craned her head down so that brilliant hair fell over, out and about all down her tight red sweater. She interrupted Shane’s date with drywall. “Between my finger and my tumb the squat joint rests, snug as a gon.”

She continued, stepping towards him, taking a seat next to him, hand slapping his thigh. “Under my window, the clean rasping sound of a match burning and falling to the ground … oh feck off that’s brilliant!” She paused as he looked over and forced a smile so poorly she could tell it was forced. Bad dog.

The trouble with dead little boys is that they have a way of sneaking up on you. They find ways to catch you with their blooddrained faces in drywall or showing you their burnt, crispy shoes on a roach. Shane watched her take a big hit and let the stench sneak up his nose and crawl into each crevasse of his head, his eyes still fixed on the dying flame as it gently fell apart. Before, he would have laughed, loudly and freely, but not today. He was in his own postlapsarian world.

Was it wrong to take it? Was it wrong to see a little boy cut down and pretend that he could just go on and indulge in everything under the damn sun because fuck-it-I-don’t-want-to-think-about-it? Was this any different than getting on a plane for London or Trieste? Fuck if he knew. Fuck if anything was going to get better. Fuck if it even could. As Bob Dylan dipped into “Masters of War” Shane lost the strength to even hold his head up and dropped his it into Marianne’s lap, crying for the lost boy with the hurley. He cried for all the lost people buried beneath hot rubble, all the once beautiful and ugly people reduced to tally marks on the nightly news. He paid the price of being human in a world that serves tragedy once a day and twice on Sundays. He tried to articulate it, this mess, this weight to Marianne, which only made her start to cry too as Bob Dylan’s voice died without resuming. He cried until he had nothing left to give to God or the ether. That was being human in Belfast.

 

What you need to know about the Irish is that they have an uncanny way of speaking for hours and saying nothing while managing to impart the greatest wisdom in the Western world between gulps—you never sip Guinness, you gulp it. Shane emerged from his short sleep with messy hair and a thirst for a pint. The outburst was cathartic, a moment of humanity that allowed him to return to normal, but now he needed a pint. He needed to chat, he needed to argue and laugh and be the human part of him that was still free. The reason that the Irish go out as much as they do is that going out does not feel like you are out at all—a good pub is an extension of the home. Shane joined up with his friends at their spot to raucous applause. It was the first time they had seen him since he first left the hospital. Drinks were on them, which was just grand, and for a time, Shane felt like he was normal again. They moaned over the calls in the latest match and pined over girls across the bar. They didn’t talk about anything serious, either because it was too sad or too boring. Eoin joked that he didn’t want the argument to get “explosive” for Shane’s sake. Cillian slapped him upside the head as an awkward silence filled their area for a moment until Shane laughed along, claiming that he would be the only one that would survive.

Just then, as if on cue, a tall man in fading tweed approached with his hands in his pockets. He stood with his shoulders back, bottom lip drooping in a casual, authoritative look on his face, sizing up the casualty before him. If Shane didn’t like what he was about to say, it wouldn’t matter much. “Shane Dugan. I’m glad to see you’re still in one piece. I’m buying you a drink.” He began to turn away with an assurance that would have compelled Christ himself to follow. The lads gave Shane a look that urged him to go along, and he obeyed as the chatter of the busy bar faded away. The man didn’t introduce himself, and he didn’t need to. They passed the traditional band and sat down in a dimly lit room in the back.

“Yer father told me you’re doing all right, but I tought I’d check in myself.”

“I’m just fine really, more shaken about the others to be truthful.”

He nodded a nod that he had done many a time before. He was the type of man who knew what true terror and death was. He leaned forward and gestured with his finger, pointing at him and the rest of the bar.

“Good. I’m not going to waste yer time, Mr. Dugan. You’re feeling a pain we all feel, son. All of Ireland feels it and has felt it for so long it’s a part of our psyche—700 years of that pain and humiliation and suffering in this community in particular. I want ye to know that we are taking care of it.” The stress in Shane’s eyes shifted the man’s pitch as he backed off, less confrontational. “The families, I mean. They’ll be taken care of, funeral expenses, the whole lot of it. I offered some to yer da, in fact, but he said you would likely be more interested in making sure the father of the little boy was all together. Is that right?”

“Yes sir. That was the worst part.”

“I bet it was, it bet it was.” He looked down at his shoes for a moment, collecting his thoughts. “He was foive, ya know. Foive years old a week ago; they went to a beach in Donegal and he got his first hurley. It barely goes up to my knee, knob to head.”

Shane could only manage to nod silently as the old man leaned back in his chair and crossed his knee over the other, placing his old, rugged hands atop the boney knob extending through corduroy. Just then, the door opened and the barman brought two full pints into the room, set them down and left, the door standing slightly ajar. Music began to leak into the room. Go on home British soldiers go on home, have ye got no fuckin homes of yer own? The lanky man continued, his voice as dead as a living man could be. “One day, Shane, there won’t be a need for bombs or for men to protect us from the police. It doesn’t end through song though, not through song alone.” He started to unfold himself from his position in the only way a man broken from war could: painfully. He took a gulp as he stood up, reaching into his coat pocket slowly, his hairy hand reaching for God knew what. “Your father tells me you’re a reader.” Great Men of Ireland: James Connoly fell with a dead thud on the table. “Take care of yourself, Mr. Dugan. The world won’t do it for you.”

He shuffled out back into the bar, opening the door once again to allow the songs to flood back in. So fuck your Union Jack, we want our country back … The book was dog-eared to page 16, which had an address just around the corner from his flat scrawled across the bottom. Shane looked at it for what felt like 800 years.

 

The bed was cold and empty as the morning light crept between the blinds and the window, striking a fine line across the linen. Marianne had been gone for some time, likely having tea with her gran as she did on Saturdays. Shane pulled himself out of bed and lumbered into the kitchen for an egg, flipping the sitting room radio on along the way. He gathered the eggs from the fridge and caught a glimpse of the book as he closed the door. Jesus, that book.

The address wasn’t far from where he stood, not far at all. The man in tweed was convincing last night, much more convincing Shane would have liked. Everything he said was, in one way or another, true. The little boy’s hurley was short, only up to his knee at best, ripped apart and splintered like bones that were still growing into a man. In a momentary lapse of reason, Shane left the sizzling egg on the pan and reached for his jacket.

He didn’t run. He walked with fury, his feet clopped the sidewalk as if he was leading the volunteers in Dublin himself. He was falling, nay, charging into a tradition bold and brave. No real man could curse or compel him to do anything else, not today. He rapped on the door before placing his hands in the front pockets of his jacket, subconsciously puffing out his chest to appear as though he was a tough son of a bitch who had been there from the beginning, as though he’d laid every brick in the house.

A stout woman with a skeptical, angry look to her opened the door as far as the chain allowed. She peered out with one eye at him, speaking up after a moment of stale silence. “Well, what is it you’re wanting?”

It was in that moment Shane realized that he had no idea what he was doing. He stammered emptily before simply telling her who he was, banking on the prospect she was in on the meeting.

“Is that name supposed to mean somting to me?” He paused again, crippled by both fear and mere social ineptitude.
Just in time, the man in tweed appeared and shooed the woman off, opening the door to him. “Shane Dugan. I tought I’d be seeing you. Come in.”

Shane followed him into the house and hung his coat behind the door, still feeling the woman’s eyes slicing straight through the back of his shoulders. The man gestured towards the sitting room and Shane followed.

They sat on upholstery that was faded and loose to the touch, creaking and straining beneath the modest payload that was Shane’s lanky body. The man sat in his tell-tale position, head back and pointed slightly up towards the ceiling as he struck a match on the bottom of his shoe to light a pipe. These were only sounds populating the room. Finally, after taking a puff and leaning back once again, the old man spoke up.

“You’re a quick reader.”

“I’ve heard a thing or two on him before.”

“And tell me, how do things go for Mr. Connolly?”

“Not well.”

“Tied to a chair and shot like a dog because he was too wounded to stand. No, Shane—not well at all, but some things are bigger than we are.” He sat up and leaned forward, resting his sharp elbows on old, bulbous knees, looking him square in the eye and pointing to him with the mouthpiece of his pipe. “And you know that. That’s why you’re here.” He reached into his pocket and grabbed another book, or rather a leaflet bound in string at the sides and nothing more. “I’ve got some other pressing affairs today, so I haven’t much time.” He chuckled and took another pull from his pipe as he handed Shane the booklet. “I’m not supposed to give this to you yet but I trust ye. Now, when you leave, stuff it in your coat pocket or your jocks. It’s a manual for our operations, not a copy of Oliver Twist. Take the quickest way home and read it front to back tonight. Bring it back here next week and we’ll swear you in. That’s your new bible; you’ll find all kinds of salvation.” He grinned at the brilliance of his final thought.

The pages were crinkled and hard, yet the book could have only a hundred pages at most. Shane took it and felt its massive weight in its hands, each word and page both sacred and terrifying to the touch. A faint noise from upstairs leaked through the ceiling as he tucked it away, prompting the woman to scurry into the room and whisper something in the man’s ears. The old man took her words with no visible emotion—at this point, anything she could have told him was old hat. He nodded and heaved himself up from the chair, still a picture of nonchalance, one hand casually resting in his pants pocket while the other removed the pipe, punctuating the final thin cloud of tobacco smoke that ran from his crooked mouth.

“That’ll have to be it for now, Mr. Dugan. Read that and read it well. Make sure your head is together before you come back here. There’ll be no going back then.”

Shane nodded and stood up as well, shaking the man’s hand. He turned to the door and grabbed his coat.

Upon arriving home, Shane tucked the book under the mattress and took a shower to think about anything else. Instead, he thought about Ledwidge’s “Ireland” that he had studied last term.

And then you called to us from far and near.
To bring your crown from out the deeps of time,
It is my grief your voice I couldn’t hear
In such a distant clime.

Ledwidge was blown to bits by a German shell while sipping tea. It’s been said that he was convinced he was fighting for Ireland rather than for its oppressors, but people tell themselves lots of things when they are killing other people. Now Shane was one of them. He stepped out of the shower and killed the water—Marianne would have his ass for the heating bill. He wondered why she hadn’t said something already as he stepped out from the bathroom with just a towel around his waist, reveling in the cool air for a moment as he walked into his bedroom, changed, and returned to the small sitting room adjacent the kitchen of their shared apartment. Marianne stood in the doorway between the sitting room and the kitchen barring him from the hot tea, her arms crossed while holding a copy of the little green book. Her eyes were lovely daggers that plowed into his chest, pulled his heart down into his stomach, through his shoes, and into the floor. Her voice shook with a profound disappointment as she stormed him and dropped the book on the coffee table. “Please tell me, somehow, that this isn’t what I think it is.”

He wished he could say that it wasn’t, he wished that very badly.

She continued, “I know that what you saw and what you went trough was hell, Shane, I really do. But not this. You have seen it, Shane, we have both seen it. We have both seen people eaten aloive by this—I thought you were better, I thought we were better.” She raised her hand from the table and gestured towards the sky. “You fooled me into believin’ you were above the politics, some sort of artist, a lafty intellectual, but here ye are falling for the same shit everyone else does.” She paused for a moment and looked down at the ground, sighing loudly. “Not me. I will not be another helpless, pining waif who watches the people she loves daye and kill women and babies. I will sooner leave you right here and right focking now than stick around to watch you become—”

“Become what? Become a man? Become more than chattle taking everything without as much as a—”

“A focking statistic! That’s what!” She forced the book into his chest and stormed off into their bedroom. He tried to reach out to her, to grab her and explain.

“Don’t touch me, Shane. Get out of here, take yer damn book with ye and don’t bring it back. You with yer tears for the little boy—crocodile tears.” She was pointing at him forcefully, her outstretched finger digging into him, scooping and unearthing everything nasty beneath as if he had already pulled off a hit or twenty. She slammed the bedroom door behind him, leaving Shane in a crater.

He stormed out through the kitchen like he was cavalry again, plowing down the apartment stairs and into the night air. He kept walking, book tucked tightly in his side pocket, down this street and that street, still never registering where he was, why he was, or where he was going. The smiling dog who could play along with the world was now a wolfhound angry enough to free Ireland himself, lifting her above her oppressors—Eire’s Atlas.
Damn if anyone could tell him that he was wrong to fight that for his people, that he didn’t have a right to break everything and everybody that snapped that little boy’s spine, that he was some sort of villain for resisting and raging against death. All of this and more clogged his mind with rage until he winced in pain at his ankle, the only thing still rooting him in reality. He looked down at it as he hobbled over to the curb, forced to take stock in his surroundings.

It was rubble, cool to the touch now but the same, unmistakable rubble, much of it still strewn about with nothing but thin rope separating what was once a real place full of real people from the street. A memorial display sat where the door once was, the once warm stoop still rooted in the good earth. By now, the candles were extinguished and filled with stale rainwater, the flowers brittle.

Shane sat straight down and confronted the display and all of its hollowness. The pictures had been crinkled with dirty rain water. He saw the little boy as if god himself had put Shane on this earth for no reason other than to stare at a polaroid. He sat there alone for some time, just staring. Shuffling dress shoes interrupted his enraged meditation, kicking rocks about as they moved. A well-dressed man took a seat next to Shane on the ground, knees drawn in like an upright fetal position with his back arched over it all. Keeping his eyes straight on the display, he spoke up.

“I haven’t seen you here before. Did you lose someone?”

“Nobody in particular. They almost got me though.”

“Aye.”

The wet, rotten air went cold. Shane asked the man who he lost.

“There he is,” he said, smiling the saddest smile Shane had ever seen, that smile just forced enough to be clearly fake.

Shane tried to match it. “I heard he loved his sport.”

The man chuckled. “Yes, yes he did. Just like his old man.” More pounding silence sat between them. The man in the tattered shirt, now the man in the suit, continued with his casual tone receding. “I’m guessing the men from the brigade had a word with yeh then.”

Shane played dumb.

“Yeh can stop with that, trust me. I know all that well. I even know where you hide the damn book.” He outstretched his hand for it. Shane complied like a schoolboy caught with chewing gum. Taking it, he brushed through the pages, nodding with a sad familiarity, before sighing again, looking up to the sky as if the stars spelled out what to say next.

“I was 27 when I joined up after Bloody Sunday, too young for kids of my own.” He sighed again, unsure how to relay the weight of his words. “When you have a child, you recognize that your life is not yours anymore, that a human you made is running around totally at the mercy of the world. And now he’s gone. He’s still gone every morning when I go and look at his little empty bed and wonder whether or not the other parents keep them unmade too.” He finally turned to look at Shane, who couldn’t bear to look back as the image of cold blankets and sheets in crinkled, chaotic positions engulfed him. The man held the book out to him.

“I’ll be keeping this then, yeah?”

Shane nodded. The man stood up once again, tucked the book into his small of his back, and extended his hand to Shane. He didn’t take it, still too ashamed to move. The man gave him a pat on his shoulder before striding down the street into darkness. Shane covered his eyes from the world and wept into the damp pavement.

 

Shane closed the door slowly and shuffled into the kitchen, flipping the light on as he placed his keys in the bowl. Marianne rounded the corner gently, crossing her arms once again as she lowered her head and looked down at the ground, speaking softly.

“Yer not taking another step if have that focking book on ye.”

Shane took his jacket off and emptied everything from his pockets, dropping it all on the ground with his shame in tow, unable to look at her. His shoes came off next, then his socks and sweater, stripping nearly everything down until he was there in just his trousers, no book in sight, clothing and pocket change and pieces of paper scattered about on the floor, desperate to prove he didn’t have it, desperate to prove that his bare skin could undo it all.

Nick Miller is a student at UVM majoring in English and Political Science. 

An Embarrassment of Riches
Wendy Fontaine

Winner, Creative Nonfiction Prize

There is a moment when my car rounds the corner at our subdivision, when I glide past the cool blue community swimming pool and onto Mira Vista Street—a quiet cul de sac in southern California, with a name that means “look at the view” in Spanish—and think to myself this cannot be real. This cannot be my house, my address. It is not my front yard, not my three-car garage, not my plump and rounded hedges, pruned perfectly to look like clouds.

I think about the real occupants of this home, people who will be here any minute now, back from vacation or the supermarket, sacks of groceries in each arm. They’ll wonder what I’m doing here, what my family is doing here. They’ll call the cops and make us leave.

In the weeks before we moved, I kept photos of this place on my computer. I tabbed through pictures of the kitchen, of the living room, of the jacuzzi tub in the gleaming master bath. My husband and I paid the security deposit. We took the measurements and called a moving company, but I never really thought it would come to pass. Houses like this don’t happen for people like me, people who grew up in mobile homes and trailer parks, on dead-end streets with no streetlights, in factory towns that smell like sulfur from the chemicals used to make paper.

And yet, my key always works. I open the front door and see my shoes, my chair, the one plant I have managed to keep alive. No cops come. No bewildered strangers arrive. On social media, friends write, “Congratulations on your new home! You deserve it!” They send cards and gifts, sometimes even checks. I am tempted to send it all back. To say it’s just a rental. By that, I mean it’s not really mine. I do not belong here.

*

When I was a kid in rural Maine, I never invited friends to my home. Not for sleepovers. Not for dinner or to play video games. I didn’t want them to see where I lived. Their houses were big, two stories, with dining rooms and staircases, grassy yards and basketball hoops in the driveway. Ours was a mobile home, long and narrow, made of aluminum and steel. We put it in a trailer park, then moved it to a dead-end street behind the grammar school.

Our place was small and simple, with wood-paneled walls and brown polyester carpeting. A dark, narrow hallway connected three bedrooms. Mine first, then my brother’s, our parents’ all the way at the end. The kitchen contained the basics—oven, refrigerator, cabinets for dishes and food. Mom set plants along the windowsills. Ivy, a spider plant, a cactus that bloomed bright pink every December. In the living room, bookcases held a set of encyclopedias and Dad’s vinyl records—records he liked to listen to after having a few beers.

For years, I thought people who lived in regular houses were rich. I pictured them eating dinner every night at the kitchen table, then huddling around a glowing fireplace for family conversations. My parents worked in the local shoe factory. We ate spaghetti or Hamburger Helper from TV trays in the living room, in front of Wheel of Fortune or the evening news. In the winter, a portable kerosene heater kept us warm.

Maybe it’s not that I didn’t want my friends to see where I lived. Maybe it’s that I didn’t want them to see how I lived. My father didn’t just drink when he listened to records. He drank all the time—workdays, weekends, birthdays, anniversaries. I once saw him crack a beer at 8:30 in the morning.

*

Here, in the new house, my first thought upon waking is that this place is too big. The master bedroom sprawls like a hotel suite, with a stand-up shower and jacuzzi tub, his-and-hers walk-in closets. I barely make it to the toilet in time when I have to pee.

In the hallway, I run my hand along the smooth wood bannister by the stairs. I curl my toes into the thick, blond carpets. Carpets that show everything. Carpets that stain. Rich people don’t think about that, do they? They don’t think about how much work it will be to keep it all clean?

My daughter’s room feels like a separate wing of the house. I pass the staircase and cross the hall to check on her, relieved at the sight of her curled-up, sleeping body. Good, I think, she’s still here. But where did I expect her to go? A person could get lost in a place like this.

Downstairs in the kitchen, I make coffee at a countertop dedicated solely to my brewer. Can you believe that? An entire countertop with only one purpose? I pad barefoot over tile flooring to the refrigerator and retrieve the milk. Then I reach into a drawer and fish around for a spoon. On our second day here, my husband, James, labeled all the cabinets and drawers with blue tape and black marker so we’d know where things went: drinking glasses over the sink, measuring cups in the bottom drawer, trash bags in the cabinet by the dishwasher. We kept the labels up for over a month, trying to learn how to live here.

*

After the shoe factory closed and moved its operations overseas, my father started a new job at the upholstery plant thirty miles away. He got home late, skies already dark, his breath already yeasty and sour from the beers he drank on the carpool ride home. I didn’t know then he was an alcoholic, that he was self-medicating his depression one six-pack at a time. I just felt nervous about what kind of mood he’d be in when he walked through the door. Would he be tipsy and loose, complaining about taxes and frost heaves and politicians not doing enough to protect manufacturing jobs? Or would he be sullen and angry, his rage directed at us?

In our trailer, we had no place to hide. If I’d forgotten to fold the laundry, if I’d left the bathroom light on at the end of the hall, he grounded me. If I played his Simon & Garfunkel record when he wasn’t home, just to hear “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” he grounded me. I didn’t try to explain or defend myself. That would only make things worse. I took my punishment, head down and mouth shut.

I did invite someone over once—a girl from school. Her family lived in a trailer too. Then her father built them a regular home, large and made of wood. It sat back in a field away from the road. One Friday she came over to spend the night. I don’t remember what we did, if we watched movies or played games. I don’t recall how late we stayed up. What I do remember is her fear. Fear of my dad, of the long shadow he cast in our home. She refused to come out of my bedroom. I apologized and pacified and begged her not to go. But early the next morning, she called her mother and left.

I didn’t blame her. I wanted to leave too.

*

One day, when I was in junior high, I walked home down our dead-end street and saw pieces of gray carpeting stapled around the base of our trailer. Dad must have gotten it at work, at the upholstery plant, which made carpeting for automobiles. The stuff on our trailer looked like what you might find in the back of a minivan or a station wagon—dark, dense, scratchy. My friends, I hoped, would never see it.

I knew what he was trying to do. He wanted to protect us for winter. The carpeting would help keep cold air out of the space beneath our trailer. Mobile homes sit up off the ground about two feet, high enough for wind and frost to get underneath. His undertaking was practical, sensible. I only wished it weren’t so ugly.

Despite his efforts, our pipes froze every winter, sometimes in the middle of the night or Sunday morning before church. The freeze infuriated him. He yelled and cursed, shoved aside the furniture. Then he crawled under the trailer to look for the frozen spot. My job was to hold the hair dryer like a gun at the place where the pipes came into the house. If I held it straight, if I held it low, then maybe the ice would melt. Maybe he wouldn’t be mad anymore. But after an hour or so, my arm ached with the weight of that dryer, with the burden of anger, poverty and shame. I had to set it down and take a break.

*

Truth is, the house on Mira Vista is just a regular house. Big, yes. But not extravagant. It looks like every other home on our block, in our suburban neighborhood north of Los Angeles. The rent is about the same as any other apartment or bungalow in the city.

It feels indulgent, though, like a fancy dress that doesn’t quite fit. Like the clothes my mother bought for me at yard sales held by other mothers with girls a year or two older than me. On Saturday mornings, we’d wake up early and drive to their houses. I’d climb out of the car, anxious to see what they had for sale but also a little embarrassed by my own need. Mom made me try on everything—the dresses, the sweaters, the pink polo shirts with tiny green embroidered crocodiles. My skin burned hot and red, but I tried every garment in my size—and some a few sizes up. I desperately wanted those things. Those soft, pretty things. I wanted them so much my body ached.

Another truth: My husband and I could buy this house if we wanted to. The down payment would deplete our savings, move us from living comfortably to living paycheck-to-paycheck. But we could do it. In that regard, I guess we are being practical too.

*

Over the years, I’ve lived in a handful of places, all but one of them rented. A loft with a small window overlooking the river in Rhode Island. A drafty farmhouse in coastal Maine. An outdated Cape with mint-green walls in New Jersey, and the bottom half of an old Victorian in the same town where I grew up.

When I met my husband, he lived on the second floor of an apartment building in Los Angeles, in a place that could only be described as a bachelor pad—utilitarian, functional and sparse. James worked in the movie business, with long hours and modest pay, and the best he could do then was a secondhand couch, a makeshift bar, and some framed movie posters on the wall. Over time, things became more homey. We bought nice plates and ate dinner at the kitchen table. We put fluffy towels in the bath and hung a painting in the living room. We invited people over a couple of times. For weeks beforehand I worried what they’d think of the place. Of what they’d think of me.

Then James started getting bigger production jobs with better pay. We began to look for someplace new, something with a back yard and a little more room. For years we searched, with a real estate agent and again without, but nothing measured up. Every house was too small, too old or too expensive. Some were too close to power lines or freeways. Others needed a lot of work we didn’t have time to do.

Maybe that’s how it is when you move up in the world. Nothing seems to fit. No place feels right. Or maybe it’s me that doesn’t fit.

*

When my daughter makes the swim team in our new town, we go to the home of another swim mom for a party. Cheryl lives on a cul de sac too, in a gated community next to the golf course. At the gate, the security guard asks where we’re going, what our last name is. He gives us a parking pass to put in the car window and waves us along.

Cheryl welcomes us at the front door. She hugs us, even though we’ve only just met. Turns out, her house is a fortress. Spanish-style with stone floors, steel appliances and ceilings so high my voice echoes. Outside, a patio with a firepit overlooks the valley. We arrive just in time to watch the sun set behind the mountains, watch it cast the yard in a dreamy orange glow. Mira la vista.
As my daughter eats pizza with the rest of her team, I sit on the patio with the other moms, wondering if their houses look like this too. Wondering if any of them grew up like I did, getting food baskets from church at Thanksgiving or blocks of government cheese. Can they see it on my face or in my clothes? In the way I’m sitting here in my chair? We talk about our kids’ practice schedules, about their coaches and teachers, about the ways we juggle meal planning and exercises classes, if we find time to exercise at all.

Between bites of taco salad and barbecued chicken, I can’t help but look around, at the palm trees swaying in the breeze, at the blue-tiled water fountain burbling like a stream. I wonder what Cheryl and her husband did to deserve a place like this, and what I did to be here too.

*

Later, as my parents neared retirement, they moved out of the trailer. They bought a regular house one street over, small but comfortable and inexpensive—though it has all the things I’d learned to associate with people who have money: an enclosed porch, a staircase, walls made of real wood.

They decorated their place with new shelves and cabinets, wooden tiles for the floor. A short time later, my father got sick. Congestive heart failure and Parkinson’s disease. A series of ischemic strokes. He couldn’t drink anymore. He couldn’t eat. He lived the last year of his life in a tightening circle, which rarely extended beyond the front door.

Now my mother lives there alone. She plants flowers along the driveway, tends vegetables in the yard. When my daughter and I visit, she bakes muffins and cookies and pies. From almost every window, we can see that old trailer. See its rectangular form, its aluminum siding, thin and vulnerable to winter winds. Someone else owns it now, a man who works at the paper mill. But it lives inside each one of us, someplace deep and rigid, someplace fixed. Shame is a thing you take with you, no matter where else you go. It’s always there, hiding, whispering, telling you you don’t belong.

*

On a Monday afternoon, my daughter and I return from running errands to find my husband at home on his lunch break. He’s outside, under the pergola, eating from a Styrofoam takeout container. With him are two coworkers, eating from takeout containers of their own.

I freeze, my mind scrambling around the boxes we haven’t unpacked yet, around the random items scattered in unfinished rooms. Kitchen gadgets and sporting equipment, winter coats and cleaning supplies. A stack of framed art and family photos sitting by the wall in my office, waiting for the moment when I can finally hang them, when I can say yes, this place is mine.
I don’t want anyone to see our mess, our disorganization, all the ways we are flawed and unpolished. Then I remember. There is nothing to hide here. No secrets, no rage. Nothing to fear or try to explain. This house may be gorgeous, but one ugly thing remains: my own abiding sense of unease. My unworthiness. What did I do to deserve a place like this, when so many others struggle, when so many others freeze? I can’t think of a single thing. And yet here I am. Here we all are.

There may never come a day when I don’t feel some amount of discomfort about the place where I live, whether that’s a trailer park or a cul de sac. I might never be able to sit with other suburban moms and know that I am one of them, that I belong here. Right now, I feel a mix of joy and bewilderment when I show people the fireplace, the double ovens or the laundry room at the top of the stairs. And maybe that’s all right. Maybe that’s how you begin to neutralize the shame. You meet it with gratitude. You give it a name. You say, this house is beautiful and we are lucky to live here, even if it isn’t technically ours.

As I walk through the kitchen, open the sliding glass door to the back yard and greet my husband and his friends, something warm fills my chest. I take a seat in the fourth patio chair, under the cool shade of the canopy, and share a bit of their lunch. They offer rice, teriyaki chicken, small dumplings filled with vegetables and pork. We talk and laugh about the stifling summer heat, about the projects they are doing at work and our kids home on school break. We look out across the neighborhood, at green lawns and wide sidewalks, at citrus trees and juniper hedges, at song sparrows balancing on telephone wires.

And then I offer them a tour.

Wendy Fontaine is a multi-genre writer whose work has appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Entropy, Full Grown People, Hippocampus, Mud Season Review, & elsewhere. She’s been nominated for a Pushcart, awarded the Tiferet Prize for Creative Nonfiction, & featured as a speaker at literary conferences around the country. A native New Englander, she currently lives in southern California, where she is at work on a novel & a memoir. Find more of her work at wendyfontaine.com or follow along on Twitter @wendymfontaine

In Love with the World
Suzanne Roberts

Runner-Up, Creative Nonfiction Prize

When we got back to the apartment, I was still buzzing with the beat of Shakira, the novelty of dancing late into the night at a Spanish club. But David turned to me, and he said, “I saw how you danced with all those guys.”

 “What? I danced with my students. And my boss. You’re being ridiculous.”

“Am I?” he asked. He stood in our narrow hallway.

“Yes,” I said, wondering at first if he was joking, but knowing, even then, that he wasn’t. I pulled off my earrings and washed my face in the small sink of our tiny bathroom. He stood at the bathroom door and said the thing we were both waiting for him to say: “You cheated before. How do I know you won’t do it again? Do you know you won’t do it again?”

I didn’t know, but I could see that there was no way I could escape this, his lack of trust and the belief that once a cheater, always a cheater. I wiped my face with a hand towel and said, “I don’t know. But there’s nothing I can say or do that’s going to be the right thing to say if you don’t trust me.”

I had been offered a job teaching Spanish poetry, film, and wine (a dream job, I know) for a semester in Salamanca, and I invited David to come with me. This seemed like an easy way to try living together, since being elsewhere was all we had ever known as a couple—meeting secretly in Mexico and London and Las Vegas until my divorce was final. I wanted to make it work. Hadn’t I broken up a marriage to be with him? 

That night, I danced to “Hips Don’t Lie” in a small, underground club in Salamanca with my students and the director of the school where I taught, and I felt truly happy. I was living the life I had imagined for myself—I had both responsibility and freedom. I’d been chasing happiness, had wanted nothing more than to travel the world. I’d figured out a way to incorporate travel—being elsewhere—into my real life.   

I’d managed to convince David he had nothing to worry about, in terms of my infidelity, but still, I felt tentative and insecure around him. One night after class, David and I sat in the café below our tiny Salamanca apartment, and I put down my journal and asked him what he loved about me. 

Before we go any further, I know how pathetic this sounds. 

He looked up from his novel and said, “I love how smart you are.” 

The candle between us struggled to stay aflame, and I smiled at him. I took a sip of Rioja and felt a renewed sense of our relationship. “What else?” I asked, greedy for his attention.

“I love that you’re adventurous.”

“I love that about you, too,” I said. “And spontaneous.”

David went back to his book, and I went back to writing in my journal. I ordered Spanish tortilla and olives. The bartender dished out small plates from the trays in front of him and handed them to me. “Gracias,” I said, trying to get the Castilian lisp right. I had been eating and drinking like this nearly every evening, and had gained weight, a lot of weight, but I didn’t care or at least I told myself that because I wanted to experience all of it, including the Spanish food and wine.

“Do you want some?” I asked David, holding up the plate of tortilla, and he shook his head. Then I asked him, “Do you love that I’m a writer?” I had published a handful of poems in small literary journals and had started a memoir that didn’t seem to be going anywhere, but I was beginning to think of myself as a writer, though it was hard to claim that identity—being a writer seemed much more to me than someone who writes. 

“No, I don’t love you for being a writer,” David said, not looking up from his book.

“What? What do you mean?” I took another swallow of wine.

“It takes you away from me, so no, it’s not one of the things I love about you.” He looked up at me briefly and then back down at his book. 

“But it’s me. You can’t separate it.” I was surprised at how indignant I sounded, but it was one of those things you learn about yourself only when confronted. 

“You asked,” David said. 

I had had issues with my ex-husband, lots of them, but he had accepted this part of me, celebrated it even. The candle burned down to the lip of the wine bottle that held it and went out.

Over the next few days, I tried to reason through what David had said. It was true; writing did take me away from him. I wanted to be adored, and didn’t that mean I should also adore him? But I was often lost in my own world when he wanted my attention. When I called my mother and told her about this conversation, she stayed quiet until I asked her, “Do you think it’s a big deal?” 

“You tell me,” Mother said. 

“I’m not sure,” I said, walking circles around our small apartment. I looked out our tiny window, where I could see a small rectangle of the sand-colored cathedral, its spires jutting into a white sky. 

“I think,” she said and paused, “you already know.”

I’d cheated on my husband with David in Mexico, and now I couldn’t stop myself from trying to make meaning out of a mistake. I had the guilt-fueled notion that my actions would be justified if I committed to a relationship with my new lover.  But guilt is a terrible motivation, and in the words of a dear friend, a waste of an emotion. And David, who had once been playful, spontaneous, and adoring had become judgmental, sullen, and mistrustful. I had become desperate, trying to make things better between us. 

One evening, I came home from school and planned a sexy evening with David. I lit candles, put on music, and when I heard David in the hallway, fumbling with his keys to our apartment, I ran to the door, opened it, and said, “You’re home!” I was wearing the sexiest lingerie I had brought with me to Spain—a shabby black bra and lacy thong underwear. 

He pushed past me as he said, “I’m meeting Ravi at six to play guitar.” He didn’t look at me. I followed him into our small bedroom, where we had put the double mattress from the living room sofa bed onto the floor of the bedroom because the apartment had come with a twin bed. Above the mattress, black mold spread across the slanted walls of the attic apartment. I kept cleaning it off, but still it grew—this was a metaphor for something, I was sure, but I couldn’t say what.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” I said, trying to make it obvious that I wasn’t merely in the middle of dressing, that this is what I had chosen to wear for his homecoming.

He looked at me for a minute, his face still a blank.

“I was hoping we could … you know …” I sat on the mattress. The walls seemed to collapse into the room, yellow but not cheerful. Splotches of black mold shined in the light of my mood candles. 

David’s face finally showed a flicker of recognition, which made my face flush with humiliation. “But you’re busy. So never mind,” I said and got up. I put my robe on, went into the bathroom, and shut the door. I untied my robe and looked into the mirror.  I blamed my body. After a steady diet of Spanish tortilla, jamon, and Rioja, the clothes I had brought with me were too tight. I had to go shopping, but none of the clothes at the fashionable Zara fit me either. I ended up buying a pair of corduroys and an oversized sweater at H&M, and this outfit became my new uniform. I had told myself it was fine, just part of the experience of living in Spain. Now, I stood in the fluorescent lights of the bathroom, and I hated myself. 

Why hadn’t I been like those skinny Spanish ladies who shopped during lunchtime and siesta instead of eating and sleeping? 

David left for his guitar date, and I got dressed and went downstairs to the café where I ate more Manchego, drank more red wine. I couldn’t help but see the irony: the word adultery implies hot sex, but the sex, which had never been better than mediocre, dwindled to nothing. It felt like my punishment. I no longer wanted the life I had created—a life for which I had broken up a marriage and moved to another continent. What if I wasn’t having a fabulous love affair after all? What if I had just fucked up? 

But I don’t give up easily, which is to say I don’t give up when all evidence suggests that I should. I was even more determined to make it work. I filled our weekends with romantic getaways—vacations from our vacation. I wanted to recapture what we felt for each other in Mexico, and every once in a while, there were glimpses—hiking to the top of the cross in San Sebastian, eating fresh fish in Santiago de Compostela, watching the wooden barrels of port float down the Douro River, clapping to the flamenco dancers in the caves of Seville, walking through the courtyards of the Alhambra in the rain.

But it was never enough. Or rather, it was enough, but it couldn’t fix our relationship. 

I thought I had been courageous, leaving my husband and setting off across the world. But if I had really been brave, I would have gone alone. Instead of creating the life I yearned for, I used this relationship as a stand-in for what I really wanted, which was the extraordinary life I could only fashion on my own. If I had stopped to think about it, maybe I would have seen that. Instead, I kept going—another gelato, another glass of port, another weekend excursion—always moving.  

I finished the semester in December, and David and I flew to Italy for the holidays. Any relationship seen through an Italian lens seems hopelessly romantic, or at least the way it all sounded—Italy for the holidays!—made me believe that I really was living my best life. 

And that’s how we decided that David would move back to Lake Tahoe with me in January. Looking out from the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, he said, “I have a year sabbatical, and we have to go for it. I’ll go back to graduate school in Reno, and we can see how we do in the real world.” 

When I said, “This is the real world,” David shook his head like I couldn’t possibly know what I was saying. 

And the “real world” experiment didn’t take long—twenty days to be exact. 

I came home from skiing to find that David’s car, the one that had arrived days earlier on a car-carrier trailer from Illinois, had been packed up. “If you hadn’t gone skiing today, I wouldn’t be leaving,” he said. “I decided that if you went skiing today, that was it.” It had snowed more than a foot the night before—a powder day. When it comes to skiing fresh snow, I can be a very selfish woman indeed, something avid skiers understand. And David knew enough about me to know this: he had devised a test for me that I would fail. 

And it was never about the skiing. David believed I would cheat on him. He didn’t know this, or maybe he did, but it’s only so long before you become what someone already believes you are. It’s easy to be untrustworthy when you are not trusted. I cheated, and then I cheated again: the first time was on husband with David; then again on David with my ex-husband—a palindrome of desire and shame.

One night, a week before David left, I called him and told him I drank wine with my writing group, that I couldn’t drive home, and I was staying with a friend. David offered to come get me, and I said no; it was snowing, and I was fine where I was. The wine part was probably true—a way to quiet my inner voice, which was telling me I had made a mistake. Why had I agreed to David coming home with me? I wanted to assign meaning to the affair, to believe I had broken up my marriage for good reason.

But I didn’t stay at my friend’s house that night. I walked the two blocks from her house to the house I had once shared with my ex, the one I owned and still paid half the mortgage on. The streetlamps glowed through the falling snow, the ice on the road shined like glass. The cold air’s grip felt elastic.

My ex had heard I was back in town, so when I showed up at the door, he didn’t seem surprised. I walked across the hardwood floors I had loved, and he asked me if I wanted a drink. I said no. I don’t remember if anything else was said. I do remember walking into the bedroom we had shared: a way to even the score, making sure everyone lost. I shouldn’t have done it, but I did it just the same. And now, it’s just another point on the plot of my life, one that I get to assign meaning to: I wanted to stop pretending to make it work with David. And that did it. 

I never told David about spending the night with my ex, but I imagine he suspected it. And with the power of hindsight, I can see that David would have left anyway. That snowy afternoon when David said, “I love you, but I have to leave,” I nodded. It was inevitable but not surprising—a boring end to a narrative that we had both believed held so much promise. He kissed me on the forehead, and I just kept nodding as he spoke. I had that feeling of being outside my body, watching him talk at me, our breath foggy in the winter air. My inner voice saying, “Thank you for leaving.” 

My now-voice says, What the fuck was up with that condescending forehead kiss? And I wish I had been the one brave enough to come out and ask him to leave. Instead, I said, “What about Tiffany’s wedding next week? I RSVPed for two.”

“You’re joking,” he said, though he could see I wasn’t, so he shook his head, saying, “You’ll just have to go alone.”

“I can’t just go alone when I’ve said there will be two of us. The wedding is next week. On Valentine’s Day. And it’s a formal wedding. Fancy. Everything’s set.”

“A wedding? I’m leaving, and you’re bringing up a fucking wedding?”

I knew he was angry. He never said the word fucking, and he didn’t like it when I used it, which was often. 

 “Sorry,” I said, even though I was already trying to figure out who to bring in his place. And that’s what I was thinking about as he drove off. Not that I had failed at another relationship. Not that my lover was leaving three weeks into our co-habitation. Not that I would likely never see him again—and still haven’t—but that going to Tiffany’s wedding alone would screw up her seating arrangements. 

Throughout the affair, I had learned to compartmentalize things in order to distract myself from thinking about the hard things—I was divorced, had lost my house, my furniture, and many of our mutual friends. The only things I had left were the teaching job I had outgrown, the dog I shared with my ex, and the car I would total on an icy road within a week. I was going into debt renting an over-priced condo that was decorated Miami Vice-style, with white carpets and gold framed mirrors on every wall, including the stairwell. 

I went back inside and called my friend Andy to invite him to the wedding. I left a message saying, “Find something fabulous to wear. This wedding is going to be fancy as fuck.” 

I have never been good at letting go of things, but this relationship was a thing I had wanted gone so badly that I took down the pictures of David and put them into a box. I sat on my borrowed couch, and I felt dazed and relieved—what should have been no more than a week-long fling in Mexico was finally, mercifully, over. 

What I needed had been my freedom, an untethered life of wandering the world.  I needed these things without having to apologize for needing them. I could now see that it was never about David; rather, I had fallen in love with the world—first Mexico and then Spain—I was in love with the soaring cathedrals, the olive trees, and the tapas bars. I was in love with the Plaza Mayor and strong coffee served in tiny china cups on white saucers. I loved the young women navigating the cobblestone streets in their high heels, and I loved the old men playing chess in the park. 

When I think of the affair now, it’s in that nostalgic way, where the story’s foreground is full of sensory detail but the character has gone hazy, disappearing into the landscape. I can’t remember the smell of his body, only the musty Alhambra or baguettes at a Paris cafe. I can’t remember the sound of his voice, only the birdsong of an early morning in Cuernavaca, the beating heels of a Flamenco dancer in Seville, the seals barking in San Sebastian, the chiming of Big Ben with each new hour. I can’t remember the taste of his mouth, only the barky depth of a Guinness in a dark Dublin bar, a red wine in the caves of Burgundy, strawberry gelato in Florence. I don’t remember our fumbling lovemaking, only the way the damp fog of a Normandy Beach curled over the war-torn barracks, the winking lights of Monaco at midnight, and the shudder of walking among the olives trees, trying to find the place where the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca had been shot. 

Suzanne Roberts is the author of the travel essay collection BAD TOURIST: MISADVENTURES IN LOVE AND TRAVEL (University of Nebraska Press, October 2020) & the memoir ALMOST SOMEWHERE: TWENTY-EIGHT DAYS ON THE JOHN MUIR TRAIL (winner of the National Outdoor Book Award), as well as four full-length collections of poetry. Named “The Next Great Travel Writer” by National Geographic’s Traveler, Suzanne’s work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays & included in The Best Women’s Travel Writing. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, CNN, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, The Rumpus, Hippocampus, The Normal School, River Teeth, & elsewhere. She holds a doctorate in literature and the environment from the University of Nevada-Reno & teaches for the low-residency MFA program in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada University. She lives with her husband & dog in South Lake Tahoe, California.

The Thing About Perfection
Don Colburn

Winner, Ruth Stone Poetry Prize

in memory of Don Larsen (1929-2020)

The thing about perfection is
how nobody sees it coming
except those destined for disappointment.
A journeyman hurler, brush cut and big ears,
whose teammates call him Gooney Bird,
goes out-and-out untouchable one fall afternoon
and 63 years later his obit in the Times
has to say “perfect” a dozen ways.

He wasn’t scheduled to pitch that day,
Game 5, Dodgers and Yankees,
until he opened his locker and found
a warm-up ball in one of his cleats,
the manager’s unspoken code.

The best he could hope for
was to keep the Yanks in the game
against Jackie and Campy, Pee Wee
and Duke. But by the top of the fifth,
goose eggs accumulating, the crowd
began to murmur and buzz.
In the dugout they shunned him,
no chatter, no eye contact, nothing
to jinx what might be happening.

Skill played a role, of course,
and skill’s uppity cousin, luck.
Mantle robbed Hodges deep in left center.
A hot grounder caromed perfectly
off the third baseman to the shortstop
and Robinson was out by half a step.
Amoros’s homer hooked a few inches foul.
The final pitch wasn’t a strike, but he got the call.
Yogi ran out in full catcher’s gear and leaped
into his arms, nearly obliterating him
in the perfect front-page photo.

Then came the hard part, the rest of his life,
perfect strangers mistaking one game
for the whole ordinary story, 15 seasons,
seven teams, more losses than wins.
Soon he was in extra innings, a second career
out in California selling cardboard boxes.
He learned what to say when anyone wondered.
“Goofy things happen,” he said.
“Everyone’s entitled to some good days.”

Don Colburn came to poetry late and unexpectedly in the midst of a newspaper career. A longtime reporter for The Washington Post & The Oregonian, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing. He has an MFA from Warren Wilson College. He has published five collections of poems, including four chapbooks; all five won or placed in national manuscript contests. His latest collection, MORTALITY, WITH PRONOUN SHIFTS, won the Cathy Smith Bowers chapbook award. His full-length book, AS IF GRAVITY WERE A THEORY, won the Cider Press Review Book Award. Other writing honors include the Discovery/The Nation Award, the Finishing Line Press Poetry Prize, residencies at The MacDowell Colony and Yaddo, & five Pushcart nominations. He lives in Portland, Oregon. For more info: doncolburn.net.

The Bloom’s Beauty Is Insistence
Tobias Wray

Runner-Up, Ruth Stone Poetry Prize

When I was thirteen, I had a friend named Carly
who was obsessed with pills—she took supplements, like echinacea,
obsessively, counting them out, holding them in her hand.
She liked the way the light cascaded off their slippery backs,
something like that. Carly was a beauty and smart, but one of those
who vanishes after high school, like wind over a rocky ledge.
When my niece first went into the hospital at 12, it was ideation,
not a poet’s ideal. It sounds too much like possession,
or cultish reprogramming, or something you do to crops.
She sounded like herself on the phone—even sounded strong.
We had a witty chat about the merits of the gayer therapist.
But then, came the pills: 28 of them. Attempt is no better.
Worse, if I’m to be honest. It strangely underscores the outcome
as failure. She lives and has to go on attempting to live. Why do it,
live?  The wind sings of terror outside the window at night.
Who can’t relate to that? I answer her with this: the blooms
come back again, I’ve never seen them not do it, and they pulse
with future-hunger same as we do. Whole fences, whole hillsides,
lit with that desire to extend, that single intention. My advice
is to find an idea that distracts you beyond comprehension, one
that has no apparent outcome, and attempt it, over and over
like breath, like hunger. You know you can do it. Listen
to every iteration for a better answer than the last. You can make
a life of this, hold it in your hand. See how it wants to be remade again?

An editor, literary event planner, & critic, Tobias Wray’s poems have found homes in Blackbird, Bellingham Review, Meridian, The Georgia Review, & elsewhere. They are also gathered in volumes such as THE QUEER NATURE ANTHOLOGY (Autumn House Press). He directs the University of Idaho’s Creative Writing Programs.

Brief Candle 
Jenna Wengler

Overall Winner, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult Literature

Fair is foul, and foul is fair.

—Shakespeare, Macbeth

 

After school, Blanca takes me to the Sonic across the street for half-price happy-hour limeades to apologize for making me almost-late for the history final. I love their limeade—the fizz stinging my nose, the crushed ice slushing against the Styrofoam cup like boots in week-old snow—but today it’s hard to be in the mood for it.

By now, Blanca knows how I work: Before a final, I needed time to review my notes, fill my water bottle, take some deep breaths, line my pencils up at the top of my desk. For that, we need to be at school by 7:10, but this morning she didn’t roll into my driveway until 7:20. “Sorry, Macy,” she said, looking at her phone as I slid into the passenger seat of her Prius, but she didn’t really seem sorry. “I was about to leave, and then I got another message from Flora, and our conversation just kind of snowballed. I don’t want her to think I’ll be the kind of roommate who would just leave her on read.”

It made it even worse that her lateness was because of Flora, her new college roommate who she hasn’t even met, but who has suddenly become her best friend.

“I want cherry,” I mutter as Blanca rolls down her window and presses the button to order. The spring air is muggy and still, the kind of air that foretells tornados, or at the very least, storms. I roll my window down too, in a futile attempt to get some cross breeze.

Blanca grimaces. “Cherry dye looks so gross. Like blood.” A voice crackles over the speaker, and she orders two large limeades, one regular and one cherry.

“Blood’s not bright red,” I snap when she’s done. “It’s got a rusty undertone.”

Blanca rolls her eyes.

I know I’m being argumentative about stupid things, but I’m still irritated with Blanca for this morning. The whole way to school she blabbed on and on about Flora Garcia, her future roommate at Missouri State. Flora is from St. Louis, practically a five-hour drive away from Southwest Missouri, but they met on a Facebook page for MO State housing. Flora messaged Blanca because they had the same last name. “But it turns out we’re not even related!” Blanca said, as if in awe of the coincidence, when she first told me about Flora.

“Duh,” I said. “There are millions of people with the last name Garcia.” What I really meant is that she shouldn’t be getting a roommate at all. I should be her roommate. Only I don’t know yet if I’m going to Missouri State, or if I’m staying here to go to community college. And of course I can’t expect Blanca to wait for me. If I don’t end up going, then everyone normal will have already paired up, and she’ll get put with some weird loser who couldn’t find anyone. I can’t ask Blanca to risk that for me, but I wish she wanted to without me asking.

“Have you talked to anyone who’s taken the calc final?” I ask as we wait for our limeades. We have it tomorrow, and Mrs. Duncan’s tests are notoriously hard.

“We are not talking about finals, Macy,” Blanca says. “I’m trying to get your mind off school. Think about how we’re finally about to graduate. Think about Project Grad. I heard they hired a hypnotist.” Project Grad is the lock-in the PTA puts on to prevent us from drinking on graduation night, but I’m not ready to celebrate yet.

I sigh and shift my backpack so it’s resting between my knees, positioned as if I birthed its contents from my hips. In a way, I did, throughout my four-year labor of AP classes and all-night study sessions. I can’t falter now. Not with the Hecate Fund on the line.

In eighth grade Melinda Hecate died of leukemia, and in the midst of the candlelight vigil and army of extra guidance counselors, her parents announced the creation of a scholarship fund in her honor, with its first payout going to the valedictorian of her would-have-been graduating class. Technically, there are seventy of us in the running, but only four have ever had a shot: me, Blanca, Theresa Cawdor, and Madison Duff. Blanca resigned herself to the loss when she got a B+ in physics last semester and fell to fourth in class rank, but I’m still in the thick of it. Theresa was first for a while, but last month she got caught smoking pot in the parking lot during lunch, making her ineligible to be valedictorian and pushing Madison to first and me to second. But if I get an A in calc and she gets an A, I’ll pull ahead of Madison.

As if I conjured her with my thoughts, Madison pulls into the slot next to us and rolls down her window to order. All three of her passengers are fellow members of Club 121, the group that gathers around the flagpole every Wednesday morning before school, praying as if it’s the dusty hem of Jesus’s robes billowing in the wind above them.

“Hi, Blanca!” Madison says, extra chipper. Even though it’s my open window she’s talking through, she looks straight past me, as usual since she found out about me and Lonna. Even for the Bible Belt, Madison Duff takes Christianity to another level. She’s wearing a shirt with the Frito-Lay logo, except it says “He’s the Way.” Madison has tons of shirts like this, with logos that look like one thing but end up being about Jesus.

“Are you going to Project Grad?” Blanca asks, and they start their usual canned niceties. Blanca hates Madison as much as I do, if not more, but they have Advanced Studio Art together, so Blanca finds it easier to be fake-friendly in person and bad-mouth her behind her back. I’m sure Madison does the same to Blanca. In ninth grade, she invited Blanca to get ice cream, then halfway through her butter pecan she told Blanca that she wanted to introduce her to “my very best friend, Jesus Christ.” Apparently, she assumed that as the only non-white kid in our class, Blanca must be a particular heathen. Blanca told her she was already Catholic, which Madison said didn’t count.

A voice comes through Madison’s speaker to take her order, and Blanca turns back to me. “What’s done is done,” she says, drumming her thumbs on the steering wheel in a preamble for the coming rain. “Just relax and do your best tomorrow.”

That’s easy for her to say; her parents can afford to pay for college. If I don’t get the Hecate Fund, I’ll either be buried in loans or have to keep living with my mom and go to community college. I have to be valedictorian.

A girl in a baggy red polo delivers a tray of drinks to a nearby truck. The carhop’s dyed-black hair is up in a greasy ponytail above the band of her visor, but a recalcitrant chunk has escaped and lies limp on her shoulder. She turns, revealing a dermal piercing with a diamond stud on her cheekbone, just under her eye.

“Oh my god, I can’t believe they’d let someone like Hazel Sanderson work here,” Madison, now finished ordering, says to Blanca. The gossip sprinted through school last month: Madison’s boyfriend had been busted having sex with Hazel in a band practice room, right up against the piano, keys pounding in a bodily cacophony. Most people surmised it was revenge on Hazel’s part. When we were in ninth grade, a rumor went around that Hazel had an abortion, and Madison convinced everyone to shun the “baby-killer.” The dyed hair and piercings came after.

Madison lowers her voice to a mock-whisper. “She’s been giving tarot readings at lunch. I can’t be around devil worship.” She turns to say something to her passengers and then drives off without even getting their drinks.

Blanca and I make eye contact, then burst into laughter.

A moment later, Hazel is at Blanca’s window with our limeades. Blanca passes me mine, and I pop the straw through the plastic lid while she pays.

“I heard you can tell the future,” Blanca says to Hazel, and I shoot Blanca a look, which she ignores.

“I can,” Hazel says. Up close, I notice that she has a babyish pudge in her cheeks and fine dark hairs along her upper lip. Her cat-eye liner is done meticulously, in perfect symmetrical swoops.

“Macy is freaking out about finals,” Blanca says, gesturing at me with her thumb. “Can you tell her what she got on the history exam today?”

Hazel thinks for a second. “Ninety-three point two percent,” she says.

Blanca is delighted that Hazel is playing along. “And what’s she going to get on calculus Thursday?”

Hazel smiles. “A hundred percent.”

I cough a laugh. “Yeah, right.”

Hazel’s dermal piercing catches in the light, flashing. I want to reach out and brush it off like a crumb. She shrugs at Blanca. “I’m just telling you what I know, future valedictorian.” She turns back toward the kitchen.

“See, nothing to worry about,” Blanca says, laughing.

I put my drink in the cupholder and get out my phone. “You’re stressing me out even more.”

“You’re not checking your grades, are you?” Blanca asks. I refuse to answer while I tap the PowerSchool shortcut and type in my password. My stomach pulls toward my spine as I wait for the app to load. Numbers appear. I stop breathing. A grade sits in the final exam column that wasn’t there before. In history. A ninety-three point two percent.

“Holy shit,” I say.

“What?” Blanca grabs my phone. Her eyes widen. “Well,” she says, grinning, “I guess you don’t have to worry about the calc final anymore.”

*

When Blanca drops me off at my house, there’s a beat-up Buick in my driveway. “I told Lonna I needed to study alone today,” I say, slamming Blanca’s car door. Her Prius crunches out of the driveway behind me.

Lonna’s already inside, sitting at the kitchen table eating a bowl of Froot Loops. The formerly pink peonies on the wallpaper above her faded to mud years ago, and the finish on the table is clouded by water rings. But Lonna’s never bothered by any of that the way I am.

“What did you do, jimmy the lock so you could steal our food?” I say.

“Love you too,” she says, standing and leaning down to kiss me milkily. I slip my hands into her back pockets. She’s wearing her favorite jeans, the ones with rhinestones on the ass that she got at Goodwill. A few of the stones are missing from their rivets, leaving indents for me to press my thumbs into. I don’t have the heart to tell Lonna these jeans have gone out of style.

Despite her dated fashion, Lonna is gorgeous. She has the soft angles of a birch tree and long hair the color of an overripe plum. She gathers it in her fist and tosses it over her shoulder as we separate. “I got here as your mom was leaving for her night shift, and she let me in,” she explains.

Of course. My mom loves Lonna. When we started dating, my mom was overjoyed to see her strangely studious, high-strung daughter with someone who smoked and drank and acted like a normal teenager. At school, people were less than thrilled. Especially Madison. But Lonna was popular, so no one ever says anything to my face, even though she graduated two years ago.

“How was the Haven today?” I ask, unzipping my backpack. Lonna is taking classes at the community college while working part-time at a daycare called Harper’s Haven.

“Terrible,” Lonna says. “I accidentally stepped on a baby doll and dented its head, which made a three-year-old cry.” She hates her job, but jobs are too hard to come by for her to quit. Too many people sticking around after high school and college, living in their parents’ basements and clogging up the job market.

Lonna winds her arms around my waist from behind, leaning around to kiss my neck. I elbow her off and pull my calculus book out of my backpack. Being with Lonna is like the breath you take when you miss a step. I can’t afford that loss of control, not now.

She sits back down across from me. “Listen,” she says. “I want to talk to you about something.”

Her tone makes me look up from my math.

“I should have told you this weeks ago,” she says.

“What?”

Lonna takes a long breath. “Remember how I was a teaching assistant for Mrs. Duncan during my free period senior year? Well, I know where she keeps her answer keys. And I know how to distract her.”

I stare at her, wondering if she’s joking. She doesn’t break my gaze. I stand, knocking my chair backward. “You want me to cheat? Who do you think I am?”

“I think that you’re the hardest-working, smartest person in your class, and I also know that tests can be subjective, can be affected by whether you studied the right question or got enough sleep or stayed calm enough to avoid simple mistakes.” She stands too. “I don’t think you should leave something so important to fate.”

“Why would you bring this up now?” I ask. “The day before the test?”

She shrinks, staring down at the table. Hunched like that, she hardly looks like herself at all. I’m used to playful Lonna, daring Lonna, romantic Lonna, but this is something new. “You’re the only good thing in my life right now,” she says. “But keeping you here would be selfish. I don’t want you to end up like—”

I take a step to Lonna and kiss her before she can finish her sentence, even though we both know how it ends. “I’m not cheating,” I say.

She wraps her arms around my waist for a moment, then lets me go.

After Lonna leaves, the sky purples and the clouds tighten into knots. The cicadas go wild, chirping a constant thrum of warning. I try to study, but too many thoughts churn within me. I hover my pencil above a derivative, thinking about Lonna. In high school, she was super-involved: student body president, varsity volleyball, Spanish club secretary, National Honor Society, Youth in Government committee chair. Everyone knew her, and everyone loved her. No one expected her to get stuck like this.

I force myself to do a row of problems and check the answers in the back of the book. In my distracted state I missed three. Rain starts all at once, smacking the kitchen window. I flick on the light above the table, switching my view of the darkening yard to my own mirrored reflection. Thunder tumbles across the sky.

I think again of Hazel’s prediction. Maybe there’s a reasonable explanation for her knowing my history grade. Maybe she saw the graded tests sitting out on Mrs. Marlow’s desk. But what are the odds that she’d remember my score so exactly? Or that she’d see me later that day and have an opportunity to use that knowledge? And there’s no way she could be right about me getting a hundred on calc; half the class usually failed Mrs. Duncan’s tests. Unless, I think. Unless she really could see the future, and she saw Lonna’s plan unfolding.

I try to replay the conversation with Hazel. I can picture her limp hair, her flashing piercing, the dark fuzz on her upper lip. But what was in her eyes as she said I’d be valedictorian? Did she look at me with admiration? With disdain? With teasing superiority?

Suddenly, lightning turns the window from mirror to transparent glass, revealing tree branches that flail in the wind like drowning arms. I gasp in realization. I can’t remember the look in Hazel’s eyes because she wasn’t looking at me at all. It wasn’t me she called valedictorian. It was Blanca.

*

I’m silent in Blanca’s passenger seat the next morning, in such a state of panic that I’ve turned the corner and become calm again. My eyes ache. Hazel’s prophecy murdered any chance of sleep last night. Instead, I knotted myself in the sweaty cords of my sheets, becoming increasingly enraged. I was still awake at four a.m. when I heard my mom get home from the Super 8 where she manages the front desk overnight and slip into her bedroom.

Lonna was right—I’ve worked so much harder for this than Blanca. Blanca whose parents both have degrees. Blanca whose mom helped her with college applications. Blanca who got a car for her sixteenth birthday. Blanca who’s never had to worry about anything.

“I’m so embarrassed,” Blanca says as she changes lanes. “Last night Flora asked me if I was going to the first LSA meeting, and I told her I hadn’t heard of LSA. Turns out it’s the Latino Student Association. She’s the president of her high school’s chapter, and she seemed kind of freaked out that I didn’t already plan on being involved.”

“I’m sure it’s fine,” I say as Blanca pulls up to a light and flicks on her blinker. “How can she expect you to know about campus organizations before you even get there?”

“I’m worried that she wanted to be my roommate because she thought I was Mexican,” Blanca says.

“You are Mexican.”

“I mean, like really Mexican. Not the kind of Mexican person who doesn’t speak Spanish and only has white friends.”

I don’t point out that around here it’s a choice between white friends and no friends. Instead, I stare out the window. The sky is bright, but still tinted by the storm, a slight green that makes me feel underwater.

As Blanca accelerates, the road seems to press in, tightening around us. In just one day, everything I’ve planned so carefully has flown apart as if caught in last night’s wind.

I almost don’t notice when Blanca pulls into the school lot next to a Buick. Lonna leans against the trunk, sipping a half-empty bottle of Diet Dr. Pepper, and as soon as I see her, I know what I’m going to do.

“You go ahead,” I tell Blanca, and she starts for the door.

“Okay,” I say to Lonna. “What’s the plan?”

Technically Lonna is supposed to get a visitor badge, but no one stops her as we head past the front office. The halls are still mostly empty; the few students who are here this early are in the cafeteria hanging out or cramming for exams. On our way to Mrs. Duncan’s room, Lonna swings her pop bottle at her side as she describes the filing system under her breath. In the second drawer from the bottom, Mrs. Duncan has a folder for every quarter, subdivided into “Homework,” “Handouts,” and “Tests.” In “Quarter 4Tests” I’ll find the final exam and, behind it, the answer key. All I have to do is take some quick pictures with my phone.

As we approach the classroom, I almost tell Lonna to forget it. How will it feel to get the Hecate Fund knowing that I haven’t earned it? But I have earned it, I remind myself. I’m sure neither Blanca nor Madison studied as hard as me. And yet with the storm and the prophecy, I’m not myself. Taking the answer key won’t deceive anyone about my abilities, just show them more accurately.

I wait around the corner while Lonna peeks into the classroom. I hear Mrs. Duncan’s voice. “Lonna! What a nice surprise!”

Lonna turns her charm all the way up. “I was missing the old days and wanted to say hi,” she says. I can’t hear Mrs. Duncan’s reply, but then Lonna says, “I would love to, but I also want to see Mrs. Marlow, and I only have a few minutes before I have to leave for work.” I wonder what Lonna will do if Mrs. Duncan simply says goodbye and stays in her classroom, but the ploy works, and the two of them stroll down the hall away from me, chatting merrily.

I dart into Mrs. Duncan’s room and head straight to the filing cabinet behind her desk. The answer key is exactly where Lonna described it, and it’s in my hand before I have a chance to think. I hold it for a moment, feeling the weight of its pages. The empty room is eerily silent, and I feel like someone is watching me, but of course when I turn around, no one is. I’ve never done anything like this before, and I can hardly believe I’m doing it now. I almost put the test back without taking any pictures, but then I think about the conversation Lonna is having right now, just so I can do this. How the teachers are eager to know what she, such a promising student just two years ago, is doing now. How she has to tell them that she’s working at a daycare and taking a break from school after she finishes her associate’s degree. Just a break, to save up, of course. But how many people really go back after that break? You lose momentum, and that’s the end of it. My mom has been going back to school “someday” my whole life. I imagine the teachers’ disappointed ohs, their polite smiles that will never fool Lonna. I can decide later whether to use the pictures, but I can’t make her go through that without at least taking them. It’s easy: flip, tap, flip, tap, flip, tap, and then the answer key is back in the drawer and I’m back in the hallway.

Lonna meets me in the cafeteria. She peels the label off the Diet Dr. Pepper, then transcribes the answers from my phone onto the blank side with a thin-tipped Sharpie. 1a, 2c, 3b, 4a … When she’s done, she takes a glue stick from her jacket pocket and re-adheres the label, then shows me how to tilt the bottle to make the answers appear.

She sets it on the table in front of me, her writing now hidden by the dark liquid. “Good luck,” she says, and kisses me goodbye. No luck will be needed, I almost remind her, but before I can, she’s gone.

*

The Diet Dr. Pepper taunts me from the center of my desk in Mrs. Duncan’s classroom. I’m not going through with it. Instead, I will stand and walk over to the trash can and drop the bottle in with the swish and thunk of a flightless baby bird falling from its nest. In just a minute I will do it. I really will.

The bell rings for the first exam of the day to begin. I don’t move. Blanca turns around and mouths, “You got this.” I don’t move. Mrs. Duncan tells us to put away our phones and take out a pencil and calculator. I don’t move.

And then the test is lying in front of me, the paper tooth-white and curling. The copier blotted the ink along the left edge. The corner is stapled with a tight, electric precision.

I solve the first question, a word problem about acceleration. According to my calculation, the car is moving negative forty-five miles per hour. Shit. My pencil hand trembles. I comb through my scribbling and realize I’ve multiplied instead of adding and said that three plus four is twelve. I fix my error and carry the correction through, but now my answer is negative two miles per hour. My chest tightens. The room boils.

Slowly, I unscrew the plastic cap. I glance at Mrs. Duncan, who is absorbed in her laptop. It won’t hurt to look at just a few answers to get my confidence up.

I tilt the bottle like I’m going to take a sip and squint at the first five letters through the plastic. When the liquid reaches my lips, I press them closed in a chaste kiss. Then I return the bottle to my desk and replace the cap. I trace the sweet liquid on my mouth with the tip of my tongue. I mark five answers on the scantron and flip to the next page, where I solve the first three myself, fumbling through the calculations, before realizing that the girl sitting beside me is already two pages ahead. I take another sip of Dr. Pepper and get the rest of the page’s answers, plus correct one that I missed. There’s no point in trying to solve them myself, I realize. For the rest of the test, I stall on each page, running through meaningless calculations until it seems like I’ve taken a reasonable amount of time, then bubble in the correct answers on my scantron.

After we pass our completed tests forward for Mrs. Duncan to collect, I wait as Blanca packs up. “That was awful,” I hear Madison tell two of her Club 121 friends behind us. “I didn’t even have time to solve the last page. I had to mark c for everything.” I grin. I got one hundred percent. I made Hazel’s prophecy come true. But part of me can’t relax yet.

“I thought you didn’t like Dr. Pepper,” Blanca says, nodding toward the bottle as she slings her backpack over her shoulder.

“It’s okay,” I say. Blanca squints at me. She knows me too well. “Lonna got it for me to wish me luck, and I didn’t want to be rude,” I add.

“Then can I have the rest?” Blanca asks.

I have to think quick. “Lonna drank out of it, and I’m pretty sure she’s getting a cold,” I say as I toss it into the trash on our way out the door. I planned to throw the bottle away in the cafeteria to get the evidence away from Mrs. Duncan’s room, but I can’t risk Blanca looking at it closely.

Blanca and I head for the cafeteria, shouldering our way through clusters of freshmen walking the wrong way down the hall. A group of guys throws a football above students’ heads, relishing the fact that no teacher will feel like writing them up on the last day of school. The last day of high school ever, I think. After lunch and the English final, we’ll be done. Graduation is Saturday, just two days away, and then all this is over.

Blanca steps to the side to avoid a pop bottle that someone kicked down the hallway. It bounces off a locker just ahead of us, then skitters toward the other side of the hall and rolls to a stop. I freeze. My Diet Dr. Pepper! I look again. Of course not, it’s just a Coke. I take a deep breath. Relax. It’s done.

Blanca takes her home-packed lunch to our usual table while I get in line with a tray still steaming from the dishwasher. This is the last day of square pizza with too-floury dough. The last day of fries soggy from oil. The last day of milk from a carton that dissolves into papery mush as I drink. I smile as I punch in my lunch number and walk to our round five-seater against the back wall.

Two feet from the table, I stop. Blanca is laughing with our usual tablemates—Henry, Beatrice, and Liz. They’ve left me an open seat next to Blanca. Except it’s not open. Right where I am about to set my tray, facing me, is a half-drunk bottle of Diet Dr. Pepper, its label slick and shining.

“What the hell,” I say. Four faces turn, moons caught in the bottle’s immense gravity. “Who did this?” I shout, gesturing at the bottle. My words taste of bile.

“Sorry,” Liz mutters, pulling the bottle toward herself and laying it in her open lunchbox.

I look again at the bottle, cradled like an egg in the insulated cloth. It’s not a Diet Dr. Pepper anymore, just a regular Dr. Pepper. And it’s empty, the inside of the label clearly blank. But I know what I saw. It must have changed somehow. Someone is playing a trick on me. I just need to get my mind untangled so I can figure out how.

No, that’s ridiculous. I take a deep breath and sit.

“What’s wrong with you?” Blanca whispers as the rest of the table resumes conversation. “I know you’re stressed, but you’ve been kind of a bitch lately.”

“Are you kidding me?” I say. “You of all people think I’m being a bitch?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“All you can talk about is Flora this, Flora that,” I say. “You’re becoming someone you’re not just to impress her.”

“At least I don’t think one dumb test is going to change my life.” Blanca whips away from me and starts a conversation with Henry.

The test is over. I’m valedictorian. I’m supposed to be happy.

I eat my now-cold fries, grinding salt crystals between my molars.

*

The English final after lunch is easy, and I finish early. After I turn it in, I refresh PowerSchool on my phone, but there aren’t any changes. I sneak a look at Hazel across the room. She’s still writing, her dark head bobbing gently. I refresh PowerSchool again, and there it is. The calculus final: one hundred percent. I let out a breath. Seeing the official score gives it a wonderful sense of finality.

I text Blanca: im sorry, youre totally right. ive just been so stressed.

Yeah, Blanca doesn’t understand what I’ve been going through, but she’s just excited for college. As I should be, now that I’m going to get the Hecate Fund.

I just need to confirm a few things, and then everything will be okay. I’m actually looking forward to Project Grad. Lonna is coming as my guest, and she and Blanca and I can hang out all night. I know Blanca will accept my apology. We’ve been friends forever, and we’ve gotten through bigger fights.

When the bell rings, I text Blanca again to say that my mom is picking me up. Then, I head to Mrs. Duncan’s classroom. The teachers wave goodbye to the busses on the last day, so I know she won’t be there. I press the door handle, and it’s unlocked.

I shut the door behind me and peer into the trash can. It was a dumb place to throw away the bottle, but now I can fix that mistake.

The bag is bunched up, hiding its contents in its folds. I work my hands around the inner sides, smoothing the bag, but all that’s in the trash can are scraps of paper and a red jolly rancher, slick with saliva, glistening against its open wrapper. I reach all the way in, avoiding the candy, and press my hand against the bottom to make sure there isn’t anything else. There isn’t.

I straighten back up, heartbeat in my ears. Maybe the janitor already came to empty the bag, and the paper and candy just got stuck. Surely that’s it. It has to be.

But now the second part of my plan is even more important.

The school parking lot is already emptying. I pass the line of pickup trucks blasting the first songs of summer on their subwoofers as I race to Sonic. I perch on a table on the center concrete island. As I wait, I pick at a misshapen gob of plastic on the table’s edge with my thumbnail.

A few minutes later, Hazel parks in an employee spot and goes in the back door, then emerges carrying a drink tray that she delivers to a nearby car. As she slips the money from the order into her apron, she sees me and smiles. She counts change and hands it through the window, and then she’s beaming down at me.

“You must be happy, valedictorian,” she says. The wings of her eyeliner seem even thicker than yesterday.

“That’s what I came to ask you about,” I say. “You said that Blanca would be valedictorian.”

Hazel laughs. “Blanca will be valedictorian when Madison Duff does doggy style in front of our graduating class and trees grow through the floor of the gymnasium.”

“So … never?”

Hazel grins, revealing that one of her incisors is turned sideways. I wonder if her parents couldn’t afford braces either. Then, before I can thank her, she’s gone.

It takes me an hour to walk home, but I don’t mind.

*

Graduation is held at the church next door to our school, the only place in town with enough seating for the seventy graduates, our teachers, and our guests. I part ways with my mom and Lonna in the atrium. They follow the families into the sanctuary, while I go to the rec room to put on my cap and gown, both red, our school color. I find Blanca standing under the folded-up basketball hoop and help her pin her cap to her hair. She texted me last night to say she forgave me and she was sorry too, but today she is quiet.

I’ve wanted to be valedictorian for so long that I forgot one day it would actually be happening. I imagined Valedictorian-Macy as a smarter, steadier version of myself. But here I am, just the regular me. I flap my arms like a bat in my gown, which makes Blanca laugh, and I know she’s softening.

“You have your speech?” she asks.

“Yep.” Writing it yesterday was the perfect release for my pent-up emotions.

As class president, Madison gathers us in a circle around the perimeter of the room and leads us in a prayer, which I don’t mind as much as I usually would. “Separation of church and state, my ass,” Blanca whispers, but it feels nice to stand together, all seventy of us, one final time.

Everyone lines up in alphabetical order except me and Blanca. We stand in the front as valedictorian and salutatorian. Madison must have really bombed Mrs. Duncan’s test, because Blanca ended up second in class rank, after me. We lead the procession into the sanctuary and take our seats. The president of the school board makes some remarks, then Principal Wright, and then it’s my turn.

I arrive at the front of the room without remembering walking there. I smooth my paper on the pulpit. After I thank everyone for coming and our parents and teachers for their support, I take a deep breath and begin the heart of my speech:

“In this school, and in this town, a few people have all the advantages. Some people in our class had resources and opportunities that I did not. For them, life came easy. But they didn’t work as hard as me. Standing up here, I have proven that effort and determination are rewarded, that the further down we start, the higher we can rise.” I pause, gazing out over the light-bleached faces of my audience. Then I let them blur in my vision and return to the page in front of me. “But even if my hard work in high school has paid off, it’s not enough to bask in my success. Plenty of people around here have early success, but never amount to anything. I have to keep pushing forward and never give up.” Then I look back over the audience and conclude with the lines I’ve memorized: “High school was only a brief candle in our lives, and now it’s burned out. It’s time to look toward tomorrow. Tomorrow we will be dedicated. Tomorrow we will be ambitious. Tomorrow we will do anything it takes to meet our goals. Thank you.”

I swim through the applause back to my seat.

After we’ve all received our diplomas and shaken hands with a line of official-looking adults, we march to the lawn for the cap toss. I spot Blanca in the crowd and bump her with my hip.

She rolls her eyes and turns away.

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

Madison’s voice comes over a megaphone, telling us to flip our tassels to the other side. I walk around Blanca to see her face. She looks pissed.

“Was your speech about me?” she says as she unpins her cap, holding her hair clips in her open palm like shining beetles. “Do you think I had it easy? That I didn’t work hard?”

“Of course not,” I say. “But it is true you don’t have to worry about things like I do.”

“Seriously?” Blanca says. “I’ve been the token brown girl my whole life, and just when that might start to change, my best friend tells me I’m being fake. I’m too brown for the white kids, and now I’m afraid I might be too white for the brown kids, and when I tried to confide in you about it, you ignored me because you’re so wrapped up in yourself.”

Madison gives the signal and the caps rise like birds, hanging against the sky for a moment before plummeting back to earth. “And you should know I’ve worked my ass off in high school,” Blanca finishes. As everyone scrambles to reclaim their cap, she disappears into the chaos.

My mom appears with Lonna hovering behind her in a floral-print dress. “I’m so proud,” my mom says. “I just saw Mrs. Hecate, and she gave me her contact information so we can make arrangements for the college money they’re giving you.” She smiles. “I mean, the college money you earned.”

I feel sick. I did earn it, didn’t I?

The graduates start shedding their gowns into pools of cloth on the grass. My mom takes mine, kisses me on the forehead, and tells me and Lonna to have fun at Project Grad. When she’s gone, Lonna turns to me. “I’m going to head out.”

“But you’re coming to Project Grad with me.”

She shakes her head. “You should enjoy your time with your class.”

“But I want you there.”

“Really?” She tilts her head at me. “You want to spend time with someone who never amounted to anything?”

I gape at her. “I didn’t—”

“You can’t tell me you weren’t thinking about me when you talked about people giving up after high school.” Kids are kicking balloons around, and one floats near Lonna’s face, but she bats it away.

“You said you didn’t want me to end up like you,” I say. “You said it, not me.”

“That’s the worst thing I think about myself,” Lonna says. “You’re supposed to be the one who tells me it’s not true.”

I watch her walk toward the parking lot, her heels sticking in the grass with each step. How did Blanca and Lonna both interpret my speech so wrong? I was trying to air my frustrations with the way the world works. I wasn’t trying to say those things about people I love.

But you were thinking them, says a tiny voice inside me.

*

The PTA volunteers decorated each section of the school in a different theme for Project Grad. The atrium is Old Hollywood, with a “red carpet” made of butcher paper taped to the floor and silver cardboard stars hanging from the ceiling on fishing line. A mom standing between two giant inflatable Oscars hands me a raffle ticket and directs me to a table with plastic champagne glasses full of sparkling grape juice. I look around, unsure where to go without Blanca or Lonna. The group beside me heads for the cafeteria, so I follow.

The cafeteria is dark, and everyone is either wearing glow sticks or waving them in time to the music, creating streaks and arcs in the air. Neon and black lights illuminate a game area where people are playing cornhole and life-size Jenga, near a food table with bowls of Chex Mix and rows of homemade baked goods. I search for Blanca. Surely I can get her to understand she misunderstood me. But did she? the voice asks. Shut up, I tell it. Shut up.

I spot Blanca at the front of the cafeteria by a low portable stage. But before I can get to her, a crowd forms. The ripe bodies press in, pinning me to my spot. Someone turns on the section of lights over the stage, and a man wearing a purple sequined vest introduces himself as Mr. Mesmerize, hypnotist. The cornhole game ends as more people wander over, curious. Mr. Mesmerize asks for volunteers, and among the frantic hand raising I try to get to the front of the crowd, but someone blocks me with his elbow.

When Mr. Mesmerize has picked his ten victims, including both Madison and Hazel, he makes the rest of us back up and sit down. There’s a commotion as half the crowd sits on the feet of the people behind them, and everyone has to scoot to make space. I’ll have to wait until after the show to talk to Blanca. As Mr. Mesmerize tells those on stage to close their eyes and relax, I text Lonna: im really sorry and i want to talk to you. theyre keeping the doors open for 30 more min. please come.

When I look up, Mr. Mesmerize is sending three people back into the crowd for not being “susceptible enough to the power of suggestion,” but the remaining seven slump, eyes closed. I think of a puppet show I saw on an elementary school field trip and the unused marionettes hanging limply backstage.

Sweeping his hands above the still bodies, Mr. Mesmerize announces that when he claps, they will wake and begin barking. We wait. Clap! They spring to attention, baying like chained pit bulls. He claps again, and they all freeze; their heads drop. Those in the crowd who were laughing, assuming Mr. Mesmerize was full of it and the hypnotized subjects were just playing along, fall silent, clearly spooked.

I check my phone, but Lonna hasn’t responded.

The hypnotist makes his victims laugh uncontrollably, then do the chicken dance, then point to the sky as if they see UFOs, falling back to sleep between each performance. “Now,” Mr. Mesmerize says, “I will rest my hands on one set of shoulders. When I do, they will not simply bark, no! They will transform into the dog. Embody the dog. Become the dog!” He hovers his hands over a few different victims, milking the crowd until people are cheering for who they most want to see make a fool of themselves. He finally settles on Madison. As soon as he touches her, she drops out of her chair and onto her hands and knees. She barks into the crowd, then pants a few times and wags her butt like a tail. The kids erupt. “Get it, Madison!” someone yells.

I’m laughing too—Madison in her right mind would be mortified by this—and then I stop. At the end of the row, Hazel is not under like the rest of the hypnotized people. Her eyes are open, and she’s looking straight at me, smiling. Her words fly back into my mind: “Blanca will be valedictorian when Madison Duff does doggy style in front of our graduating class and trees grow through the floor of the gymnasium.”

I leap up, prompting a “Hey!” from someone sitting behind me, and sprint out of the cafeteria and toward the gym. Once inside, I stop in horror. A DJ is playing for a group of graduates dancing in the center, but the room as a whole has been transformed into an enchanted forest. Fairy lights and paper butterflies hang from the mezzanine. A wire archway leads to a photo booth with a glittery backdrop. And the columns that stretch from the floor to support the balcony above are wound with crinkled brown paper that branches across the ceiling between clusters of fake leaves.

Someone says my name, and I turn to see Principal Wright. “Can I see you in my office?”

*

Mrs. Duncan is already in the office when I arrive. “Hello, Macy,” she says, but her eyes well with disappointment.

Principal Wright sits at her desk and sighs. “Is there anything you need to tell us about your grade on the calculus final?” she asks.

I know I should tell the truth, but my voice has vanished. Even though I know it’s over, I feel myself shaking my head no.

Mrs. Duncan closes her eyes for a moment, and I can tell that my answer is worse than if I’d confessed, but I still can’t bring myself to say anything. She reaches under the desk and pulls out my Diet Dr. Pepper bottle, now empty, with the test answers visible through the plastic.

“A concerned individual brought this to us after graduation,” Principal Wright explains, “and I’m afraid we can’t ignore it. You scored the only one hundred on the test, and the video footage from the hallway shows you bringing a bottle like this into the classroom.”

For a moment, I’m sure Madison must have ratted me out. But she would have brought the evidence to them immediately. Maybe it was Blanca. She could have taken the bottle out of the trash the day of the test but waited to turn it in until she’d decided what kind of friend I really was. Or maybe it was Lonna, regretting the sacrifice she’d made on my behalf. Or Hazel, making her own prophecy come true.

Principal Wright tells me that I will receive an F on the test and a disciplinary infraction on my record, which will be sent to any colleges who request updated transcripts. And, of course, I will be stripped of my valedictorian title. Mrs. Hecate will be informed, and the fund will go to the runner-up. If Blanca doesn’t already know what I did, she’s going to find out, and this time she will never forgive me.

When I leave the office, I’m not sure where to go. This part of the school isn’t open for Project Grad, so the hallway is dark and quiet. I slump against the wall.

I said in my speech that high school was nothing more than a brief candle, but that doesn’t feel true anymore. It’s more like a wildfire—impossible to contain, destroying everything in its path—and I’m in the center, the flames licking my skin, reducing me to a charred pile of ash and bone. All that’s left is to wait and see what remains when the blaze subsides.

Jenna Wengler is an MFA candidate in fiction at Indiana University & the former Fiction Editor of Indiana Review. Originally from Kansas City, Missouri, she earned a BS in Secondary Education & English from Vanderbilt University and taught high school English in Tennessee. She is currently at work on a YA fantasy novel. This is her first publication.

The Midnight Owl of Gumbucket Hill
Noah Weisz

First-Place, Katherine Paterson Prize, Middle Grade Fiction

“Gumbucket!” the conductor called.

Caleb jolted awake. He’d been leaning against the window of the train car, dreaming of a milky-eyed old man beckoning to him with a toothless smile and a paintbrush. Grandpa had better not be anything like that.

“Great,” mumbled Aidan, Caleb’s older brother. “We’re here.”  

Caleb stood on the seat and lifted his suitcase off the luggage rack. It was only half full, but terribly heavy, since it was packed mostly with books. Ammunition. He had stocked up like a soldier preparing for a long winter at a frontier outpost, only this was worse—it was the last two weeks of summer break. His parents had been fighting a lot and had decided a tropical vacation, just the two of them, was what they needed to fix everything. Caleb doubted it would work, but you could always hope. In the meantime, he and Aidan had been shipped off to Grandpa: two weeks in the middle of nowhere with this random stranger, some sort of artist, who was technically their mom’s father but whom they hadn’t seen in eleven years. 

The train squealed to a stop. Caleb followed Aidan down the aisle. The conductor in his dark blue uniform squinted at them from near the door of their car.

“You getting off?” he said.

“What does it look like?” said Aidan.

He stared at them. “You know this is Gumbucket.”

“Do we look like idiots?” Aidan answered. Caleb knew Aidan was only getting defensive out of instinct, from years of dealing with people who made fun of Caleb’s stutter. But he still wished Aidan would shut up sometimes. It had gotten worse ever since their parents started fighting. The slightest thing set Aidan off, made him say or do stupid things. Now he took every potential insult more personally than Caleb did himself. 

The conductor slid the door open, eyebrows raised. “Well, enjoy your stay, I guess.” 

*

Gumbucket was an odd little town. If, like Caleb and Aidan, you were from one of the bigger cities a couple hundred miles away, you had probably passed it on the train once or twice. But the station would have been so misty you would never have seen the clock-tower topped with a seahorse statue or the salt-crusted beachcombers wheeling their barrows along the street, hawking seashells and starfish and anything else the ocean left behind. You would have shrugged and gone back to your book. For this reason, Gumbucket was a name you knew like a nursery rhyme—familiar when you heard it but impossible, somehow, to recall the next day.  

The rocky shelf below Gumbucket stuck out into the ocean like the bill of a duck. On this shelf, below Gumbucket Hill (known as the Hill to the locals), the town sat curled like a cat, balanced between the forest and the water. On rare mistless summer mornings, when the sun snuck up behind the trees on the Hill, the shadows of houses, streetlamps, and the one rusty swinging traffic light would creep down the streets, past the shops, and over the sand, to be swallowed up and freed by each wave. It never seemed possible for the shadows to reach that far, yet here in Gumbucket, they did.

It was not one of those clear mornings when Caleb and Aidan stepped out onto the platform. The mist met them right away. Caleb felt the droplets prickling light and cool on his cheeks and for a thrilling moment imagined he was thousands of miles away in a tropical rainforest. Specifically, he thought, the cloud forest way up in the Andean mountains of Peru, the one with the spectacled bears. Mist floats through the forest like silent ghosts. That was how it was described in one of his books.

“How are we supposed to find him in this?” said Aidan, shaking his head. 

Aidan could always pull off the Slow Disgusted Head-Shake or the Textbook Eye-Roll. He was fourteen, after all, two years older than Caleb, and had already had his growth spurt. He liked examining the hair in his armpits in front of the bathroom mirror, sniffing, saying, “Oh, man, whoa, man, jeez,” and then rubbing a stick of deodorant back and forth for five to ten minutes. Usually when Caleb tried the Head-Shake or the Eye-Roll, people just laughed.  

Caleb ignored him now and took the lead, wheeling his suitcase behind him. It was amazing, the way you couldn’t see more than a few feet in any direction. There could be bears lumbering toward him. There could be a woolly monkey on the roof of the ticket booth. A giant harpy eagle could have soared over him that very moment. He shivered excitedly. “Come on, Aidan,” he called over his shoulder. It felt good to be the one taking charge. 

The train heaved and groaned and set off through the mist, shuddering at last into silence. Caleb stopped and for a moment he could only hear the sound of something dripping. Then, ahead of him, he heard voices. 

“I’ll take it for twenty and not a cent more.”

Twenty? This is a prime specimen, Doc, prime. A-plus catch. Look at that speckling, the size of the thing. Fine addition to your collection, I’m telling you. Thirty-five bucks and we’ll call it a bargain.”  

“Thirty-five bucks! I’ve found bigger nautiluses in the storm drain. Save your A-plussing, Hal. I’ve got kids to find.”

The mist parted then, and Caleb found himself only a few yards from the speakers. Two men, just turning away from each other. One was wearing a knit hat, his back bent as he pushed a blue wheelbarrow full of seashells. The other, facing Caleb, was older. Everything about him was short and thin: his body, his white hair, his tan pants bunched under a fraying brown belt—even the leathery toes sticking out from his sandals.

“Are you … Aidan?” the man asked.

“Caleb.” He had gotten the C out, yet still felt like he’d already failed a test.

“Oh. Well. How do you do? I mean,” the man said, clearing his throat, “I’m your grandfather, I believe.” He thrust out a spidery hand and half-smiled. At least he has teeth, Caleb thought, though one of the front ones angled down into the other like a doorstop. “You can call me Felix.” 

Caleb shook his hand. Felix? 

“Grandson, eh?” said Hal. He had turned his barrow back around. “Buy him a shell, Doc. Come on, pick any one you like, kid. I comb the beaches day and night, so I only stock the finest. Not your average sand dollar, I can promise you that.”

Caleb glanced at the wheelbarrow. He had never collected shells, but then he’d never seen any shells like these before. He picked up a huge striped spiral-shaped one. Then he looked up at Felix and saw he had turned red. He was fishing in his wallet for bills—flipping through receipts, pulling out one dollar, flipping some more. Caleb tossed the shell back.

“I’m good, thanks,” he muttered. He was glad the words had slid out cleanly.  

Aidan appeared then, brushing his brown bangs across his forehead. “So you’re Grandpa,” he said to Felix, raising an eyebrow.

“Guilty,” Felix answered, stuffing his wallet back in his pocket. Caleb wanted to reassure him, say, “It’s okay,” but this time his stomach seized, and the I tilted sideways and got stuck in his mouth like a sofa trying to fit through a doorway. 

Hal started to push his wheelbarrow away, shaking his head. “Find me later,” he said, “or the best picks’ll be gone.”

Felix took a breath and glanced down at the suitcases. “Well. All right,” he said, trying to look cheerful again. “We’re all set, aren’t we, kids? Well, you probably don’t like being called kids. Aidan and Caleb. Okay.” He scratched his left ear vigorously, squinting one eye. “I’m sorry about all this.” He made a vague gesture at Hal’s back, then pointed the opposite way down the platform. “Come on. We’re going to have a great time. I promise.”

*

Though Caleb hadn’t noticed, someone else had gotten off the train at Gumbucket. A tall man in his forties, thick brown hair swept back over a broad, tanned face. His green eyes were bright and constantly moving—up to the nooks between beams in the overhang, down to a feather skimming the ground in the wind. As he strode along the platform with an oversized backpack on his back, thumbs under the straps, he would stop now and then, seemingly at random, and tilt his head, as though hearing music too high-pitched for ordinary human ears.

“Do you know the address of Dr. Felix Bellbridge?” he asked when Hal materialized out of the mist.

“Felix Bellbridge,” Hal mused. “Now let me see.” He cast a backward glance. You could just barely hear the wheels of Caleb’s suitcase rolling away in the opposite direction. “You wouldn’t be interested in a first-rate chambered nautilus shell, now would you, sir?”

“Not even the slightest bit,” said the man, smiling warmly. “But if it’s money you’re after …” He pulled out a wallet and handed Hal a $100 bill. “Just tell me how to find Dr. Bellbridge.”

Hal stared at the bill for a long moment before reaching out and taking it from the man’s fingers. “What sort of business you got with Felix?”

“Bird business.” He gestured to a pair of sleek binoculars dangling from a strap on his backpack. “Time-sensitive.”

“Ah,” said Hal, though he still looked suspicious. He slid the bill into his shirt pocket. The sound of Caleb’s suitcase had faded away. “Just take a left out of the station,” he said at last. “Then go up Flood-of-1930 Street, away from the docks, till you hit the bottom of the Hill. There’s a dirt road there, by Ernie’s Catch and Coffee, going steep right up through the woods. It doesn’t have a name, but that’s the one you want.”

“Appreciate it,” said the man. “Hideous weather, isn’t it?” He smiled again and walked off into the mist, his binoculars swinging behind him like the pendulum of a clock.

*

“So what do you do?” Aidan asked.

They were in the cab of Felix’s battered red pickup, climbing the dirt road through thickening trees. 

“I do many things,” Felix replied. “I walk. I think. I pick wild blueberries. They’re so much tarter than the ones at the market.”

Caleb laughed. There was some spite in Felix; it was good for Aidan to get that every now and then.

“But what’s your job?” said Aidan.

“Oh!” said Felix, as if he really hadn’t gotten it before. “I’m a natural history artist.”

“What’s that?” Caleb asked. 

They crunched to a stop on a gravel path that led up to a small, low wooden house set back against the forest. Hoses snaked across the path and vanished in the garden beside it, which was swollen with tomatoes and tentacled zucchini plants and a sea of swaying pink milkweed. Perched on the roof was what looked like an exceptionally tall, collapsible lifeguard chair.

“Drop your things in your room and I’ll show you,” Felix answered, hopping nimbly out of the truck.

A mat with a huge woven hummingbird welcomed them at the door. Inside, the small living room was crammed: stacks of books, empty tanks, a ratty brown rug and matching sofa, butterflies mounted in tilted frames on the walls, and turtle-shells and seashells perched on every available surface. 

Caleb glanced at Felix. He seemed to be taking in the living room for the first time himself, his mouth slightly open, his eyes roving slowly in dismay. Then he seemed to wake up. “Oh, do you want something to drink? Coffee? Tea?”

“Yeah, I’ll have a chai mocha latte with five shots of espresso,” said Aidan. “I mean, come on.”

“Do you have l—” said Caleb, then stopped. L was a horrible sound. Tongue stuck between teeth like it was painted with peanut butter. “L—” 

“Lemonade,” Aidan finished for him, and Caleb felt the familiar feeling, that surge of gratitude and that cold shock of envy.

“Oh, yes, certainly!” said Felix. Caleb was used to that kind of overreaction. People always sounded too excited when they finally understood what he was trying to say. “I have lemonade. Right in the fridge. Your room’s down there, just go get settled and I’ll bring you some nice, cold lemonade.”

They walked down a dark hallway, past a tiny bathroom leaking the thin, wet stench of old towels. Luckily, their room seemed all right. It had a bed big enough to share and a window out to the forest. The sun had come out and the mist clung faintly to the tops of the trees. A family of deer grazed along the edges. Every now and then the deer would look up, meet each other’s eyes, and look back down, content. Caleb felt a small throb, like homesickness, but not for any home he had. 

Aidan threw himself onto the bed and said, “So how are we going to make these two weeks bearable? We don’t even get service up here.” He held up his smartphone.

“I want to check out the forest,” said Caleb, turning away from the window. 

Aidan groaned. “You and your animals. You need to learn how to do things with people, you know that? Let’s go to the beach. Maybe there’ll be some girls there. Or at least let’s find some people playing soccer or something.”

“You’re just scared of going into the forest.”

“What?” Aidan swung his legs onto the floor so he was facing Caleb. “I’m the one who stands up for you day after day in school and now you’re trying to pretend like you’re braver than me or something?”

“I never asked you to stand up for me,” said Caleb, feeling his face heat up. “I’m twelve, did you notice? I can stand up for myself.” The s-t sound had caught for a second but come loose.

Aidan raised an eyebrow. Another skill Caleb had never been able to learn. “Fine,” Aidan said. “I’m actually glad to hear that. Maybe you’ll stand a chance when you’re on your own this year.” Aidan was moving up into high school in the fall. “But next time you want a glass of lemonade, don’t expect me to—” 

“Here,” said Felix, entering the room right on cue, holding two glasses that clinked with ice. “Now follow me. I’ll show you my studio.”

He led them back down the hallway, his bare feet slapping against the wood. Caleb sipped the lemonade. It was way too sweet.

As they passed the front door, there was a knock. 

Felix stopped. “Not expecting any packages,” he muttered. Then he slipped into his worn-out sandals again and opened the door.

A tall man with bright green eyes was standing on the mat, his feet on the throat of the hummingbird.

“Dr. Bellbridge?” He offered a hand and smiled. It was something about his smile—so relaxed, like he thought it was only natural everyone would like him—that made Caleb dislike him immediately. “I’m Neville Sharpe.”

His eyes roved to Caleb and Aidan, then back to Felix. “Just coming through the area,” he went on, “so I thought I’d try and find you. I’m a long-time fan of your field guides. Best there are.”

Felix shook his hand, looking pleased. “Birder, are you?”

“Life list of 4,687. May I come in?”

Felix’s eyes bulged. “4,687? You’ve seen half the bird species on the planet?”

No way, Caleb thought. He glanced back at Aidan, but he was playing a game on his phone. Not because it was fun, of course; just so everyone would know he couldn’t care less.

“Well,” said Sharpe, with a modest smile. “Not quite half.”

A flicker of something like fear crossed Felix’s face, and suddenly he put a hand on the door.

“Yes, well, very nice to meet you,” he said. “Enjoy your stay in Gumbucket!”

“Wait!” said Sharpe. “Won’t you at least show me your studio? It must be fascinating.”

Felix paused, his hand still on the door. “Well … I suppose that’s all right,” said Felix. “I was just going to show my grandchildren my studio anyway. This is Caleb. And Aidan, put away your phone.”

Aidan ignored him, tapping deliberately for four or five more seconds, then slid his phone into his pocket. 

Sharpe stepped up through the doorway and towered over them all. As they passed the kitchen, Caleb slipped away and poured his lemonade down the sink. Wrinkling his nose at something, he noticed a small pot on the back burner of the cooktop. Inside, three hot dogs were floating in a thick grayish liquid; it looked like they’d been boiled in canned mushroom soup. Caleb gagged and hurried back into the hallway, hoping that wasn’t supposed to be lunch.

Felix opened the last door. A faint smell of chemicals and fur floated out. Felix flipped a switch. 

It was like walking into a zoo. Dozens of creatures gazed curiously at Caleb from paintings that hung on the walls, leaned against cabinets, and stood on teetering piles of oversized books. Black crested birds with beady red eyes. Lizards sunbathing on mossy rocks. Raccoons on a stream bank, washing their hands, one mischievously splashing the other. The paintings were as lifelike as photographs—more lifelike, Caleb thought, because you could sense the animals’ personalities. 

“What do you think?” said Felix.

“It’s magnificent,” said Sharpe.

Caleb looked at the rest of the room. Dark chests of wide wooden drawers lined three of the walls. Snakes and frogs floated in liquid-filled jars of various sizes arranged neatly on top. Near the fourth wall an ancient-looking desk with feet shaped like bird toes stood on a rug. Scattered across the desk were papers, inkpots, paints, pencils, erasers, protractors, rulers, and small, dainty bones.

“Working on my mammal field guide these days,” said Felix. He picked up a few of the bones, held them up to the light. “Ribs of the tawny grasshopper mouse. I have to study the skeletal structures if I want to draw the creatures right. It’s the cardinal rule of natural-history illustration, the Triple A: Absolute Anatomical Accuracy. Look.” 

From behind his desk he dragged a stuffed bobcat, staggering as he lifted it and set it on its feet in the middle of the room. “Just finished stuffing this guy last week. I’d been tracking him for days before I found him by a stream. Sat down on a rock to sketch him as fast as I could when he stepped on a copperhead coiled in the leaves. Couldn’t believe my luck.”

Caleb stared at the spotted grey-brown fur, stroked the tufted ears of this beautiful dead thing. Sharpe just nodded, smiling, saying it was a job well done, but his eyes were scanning the bookshelves, searching for something. Aidan turned away from the bobcat, swallowing hard, lips clamped shut. He was clutching his stomach. Caleb caught his eye and couldn’t help a small, triumphant smile.

“Shut up,” Aidan hissed, going bright red.

“Well, Mr. Sharpe,” said Felix, “I’d like to spend some time with my grandchildren.”

“Of course. But would you mind very much if I asked you something?” Sharpe’s eyes were wide and innocent. “Birding advice, just a quick private consultation, while I’m here.”

There was the slightest emphasis on the word private. Aidan took his chance to leave. Caleb glanced at Felix, saw the fear on his face again.

“I really don’t have time now,” said Felix.

“It will only take a minute.” He was standing very close to Felix, looking right in his eyes, only the bobcat between them.

“All right, all right,” said Felix. “Caleb, you can start unpacking.”

But Caleb had no intention of unpacking. As soon as he shut the door of the studio behind him, he crouched down next to it. From down the hall came the sound of Aidan retching into the toilet. After the flush, there was quiet.

“I’ve done my research, Dr. Bellbridge,” Sharpe was saying. “I know the midnight owl is real. Sailors have seen it hundreds of miles from land, more often than you might think. Never saw a bird so big, they say. Some told me they thought it was a gigantic bat, or an unmanned espionage device. A shard of night sky. I’ve been tracking these sightings for years, Dr. Bellbridge. Gradually linking them to land records, observations that have puzzled careful birders and scientists, local legends, everything. I’ve been tracing the stories. And the greatest cluster have their roots right here in Gumbucket.” 

Caleb realized he was holding his breath. The midnight owl. He could imagine it, this lonely bird, soaring silently over the dark ocean. He could see it plummeting downward, yellow eyes flashing, see its black wingtips pierce the water and rise again, beating the air, see it vanish into the night with a dolphin in its talons. 

“The midnight owl is a myth,” Felix said.

“I thought you might say that.” Caleb could hear the smile in Sharpe’s voice. “And yet I have reliable information that the female returns from its wanderings once a year, after mating at sea—just after the heliacal rising of Sirius—to nest in some chosen spot in thick coastal forest. The same spot, year after year, for a month until the owlets fledge. I don’t think I need to tell you that the rising was yesterday, Dr. Bellbridge. You are the most brilliant naturalist in the state, if not the country. Why do you choose to live in Gumbucket, of all places? Don’t answer. Just tell me this. Will you help me find the nest of the midnight owl?”

“The midnight owl is a myth,” Felix repeated. “So you can forget it.”

Caleb didn’t understand. Why wouldn’t Felix budge? Caleb had always felt there was more weird stuff out there than anyone really knew. Santa Claus wasn’t real. Obviously. Or at least, if he was, the stories were totally wrong. There was no way he could make it around the globe to drop off everyone’s loot before dawn, even if his reindeer galloped through the sky at the speed of light. Caleb had calculated it once. But other stuff—fairies, witches, even dragons—why not? People laughed, but who really knew for sure? There were fish that flew and kangaroos that climbed trees. There were flies that could turn ants into zombies. There were vampire squid and giant salamanders and lizards that could run across water. Really, a great black owl that spent its life over the ocean wasn’t hard to believe at all. 

Sharpe lowered his voice. Caleb pressed his ear to the wood. “Are you willing to bet ten thousand dollars on that?”

For several seconds Caleb heard nothing. 

“What do you mean?” Felix said.

“I mean that’s what you’ll get if you find me a live midnight owl within the next forty-eight hours. Birder’s honor.”

Caleb imagined Sharpe holding out a hand. Imagined Felix’s fingers shaking. He thought of the hot dogs, those shredded sandals, those fingers searching and searching through the wallet.

“No,” said Felix at last. His voice was hoarse; he cleared his throat. “No. I’ve never seen a midnight owl and I’m quite certain it does not exist. I can’t help you, Mr. Sharpe.” A chair slid back.

Caleb’s heart was pounding. There was something in Felix’s voice. If he was lying, he was terrible at it.

*

Two hours later, long after Sharpe had left with an icy thank you and Caleb had forced down a few bites of his re-boiled mushroom-soup hot dog lunch, Felix took Caleb for a walk in the woods. Aidan wanted to go down to the beach; he said the forest was boring during the day. He’d go explore it himself at night.

Sure you will, Caleb thought. 

The trees here were enormous and packed close together. Though the mist itself was gone, the wet remained. The rich smell of damp earth mingled with the scents of pine and something faint but unmistakably animal. Leaves and needles crunched softly as they walked, and droplets of water sprang onto their cheeks whenever they brushed the branches of a sapling.

Felix had given Caleb a pair of binoculars. Before Caleb had even grown comfortable adjusting the focus, Felix had pointed out eight birds and taught him their calls—despite Felix’s insistence that early afternoon was the quietest part of the day. He even identified a fallen feather on the trail. “Fourth tail feather of a song sparrow,” he said, holding up something that just looked brown to Caleb. It was like he was fluent in another language. A language Caleb wished he could speak. He kept hoping for a giant, midnight-black feather, but there was none. 

“There’s no way Sharpe is a better birdwatcher than you,” he said. 

“He’s not,” said Felix. “He’s an addict. With a limitless supply of money to fund his addiction. That’s just plain dangerous.”

“But,” said Caleb, frowning, “it’s just being outside all the time, looking for birds.”

Felix shook his head. “If you’re obsessive like Sharpe, there isn’t much difference between birding and trophy hunting,” he said. “You advance slowly. Carefully. Only one thought in your head.” As he spoke, he crept theatrically off the trail through the leaves, more quietly than Caleb would have thought possible, his binoculars up to his eyes, sliding left to right. Caleb laughed but tried to copy his movements. “You look, you listen, and,”—a high-pitched chip-shoooo rang out above them and Caleb caught a flash of red in his binoculars—“Bam,” Felix finished, making a gun-firing motion with his fingers. “Spot that scarlet tanager, put it down on your life list, feel that release. Possess its beauty and rarity forever.” 

Caleb lowered his binoculars. Felix was sweating, breathing heavily, his eyes wild. “I had a life list of 1,296 before quitting,” said Felix. “I wanted to spend time with my grandchildren. But it was too late. Your mother never forgave me. All her childhood I was either out birding for work or out birding for fun. She was a teenager before I realized I didn’t know her at all, and then she left home, forever. When you and Aidan came along, she cut me out of your lives completely. I don’t blame her one bit. But I suppose now she decided to give me a chance. Probably figured you’re old enough not to be corrupted by me.”

Caleb felt that strange feeling again, a wish to comfort Felix, reassure him that he was doing all right. It’s okay, he wanted to say, but once again the I got stuck. He tried to force it out, but it was like trying to launch a car out of a deep puddle; the wheels were just spinning and kicking up mud. He heard two blue jays screaming and switched plans completely. “Are the birds really talking to each other?” he said.

Felix’s face relaxed. “I tend to believe so. People argue whether it’s language or not, what birds do, what dolphins and elephants do even better. But it’s highly sophisticated communication, there’s no doubt about that.”

“So, if birds and dolphins and elephants can talk, do any of them ever stutter?”

Felix stopped walking and glanced at Caleb. “What an amazing question. Never even occurred to me.” He put his hand on Caleb’s arm to steady himself and stepped over a fallen log. “That opens up a whole new line of inquiry. Assessing communication and language development in animals by looking for signs of speech impediments or irregularities. You’d make a first-rate scientist, you know that?” 

Caleb felt a warmth in his chest. Felt like he was finally understanding where he got his weird obsessions from, the things he loved and the things he thought about that made him Caleb. It was like waking up a little more solid, finding your grandfather and discovering a friend.

*

Aidan met them back at the house in time for dinner. He’d found some high-school kids playing basketball. Caleb could picture it: big kids like Aidan who already smelled when they got sweaty, kids who jumped and darted and said things like, “Nice shot, man.” But the twinge of longing he often felt and always hated was gone. He’d spent the afternoon doing things he wanted to be doing.

Aidan had apparently decided to cut his losses after the grey hot dogs and had brought home a pizza from the one pizza shop in town. Felix seemed to enjoy it the most. 

Before going to bed, Caleb and Aidan looked at the great black mass that was the forest outside their window.

“I’m a little too tired right now,” said Aidan, “but I’m going in there one night. You’ll see.”

“What’s the point?” said Caleb. “You won’t be able to see any birds, or any of the other cool stuff.”

“You don’t understand anything, man. Birds have nothing to do with it.” Aidan pressed his face against the glass. “The point is to not be afraid of anything.”

*

The next morning, Caleb and Felix headed back into the woods. Aidan went into town to find the basketball players. 

Felix seemed more at ease than yesterday. He was light on his feet and there was something young and bright in his face. He pointed out the nesting holes of woodpeckers and flying squirrels, the human-like footprints of a juvenile raccoon, the alarm call of a robin that meant a hawk was overhead. 

Caleb couldn’t contain himself any longer. “Felix,” he said, as they walked. “I have to tell you something.” He took a breath. “Yesterday, I was listening through the door when you were talking to that guy.”

Felix stopped. 

“I just wanted to ask you,” Caleb went on recklessly. “If the midnight owl’s real, will you show it to me?”

For a long time Felix said nothing. They ducked through a narrow tunnel of bent aspen branches whose leaves trembled in the wind.

“You are my grandson,” said Felix.

Caleb looked at him.

“I think I—” Felix swallowed. “I can trust you.”

He sat down on a log. Caleb sat beside him, heart racing.

“The midnight owl is the rarest and most extraordinary bird on this planet,” said Felix at last. “Curse me forever for saying this, but I’ve never loved anyone as much as I love that bird. If the birding community finds out about it, tourism to Gumbucket will explode. The owl’s nesting site will be ruined. People will start scouring the Earth for other midnight-owl nests. The last great secret of the avian world will be shattered.”

“But—” Caleb said, “—you make field guides. You want people to know how to find animals.”

“Right, and sometimes I think I’ve done a terrible disservice to the world,” Felix said. “I’m afraid of capturing everything. I’m afraid of us knowing everything.” 

He was fidgeting with an aspen leaf, a jagged heart shape, spinning the stem back and forth between his calloused thumb and forefinger.

“I won’t tell anyone,” Caleb promised. “Only Aidan.”

Felix nodded, slowly. “Well, tonight’s the night,” he whispered. “I’m as certain as you can be about these matters. It’ll be three nights since Sirius first appeared on the horizon, and the weather’s been clearing, and the moon is full for ease of navigation in the forest. The owl comes back tonight.”

Caleb shivered. “Will it be hard to find?”

“Oh, that won’t be the trouble,” said Felix. “The trouble will be making sure Sharpe doesn’t tail us. If I know addicts, and I do, Sharpe is camping in the forest not too far from my house. He thinks the owl is already here somewhere. He’ll be watching and hoping I lead him to it.”

“Can we lead him the wrong way on purpose?” said Caleb.

Felix stared at him, then said, “I knew I liked the way you think.”

*

That evening, over pizza again, they filled Aidan in about the midnight owl.

“You’ll be the forest lookout,” Felix told him. “So you’ll climb up the lifeguard chair on the roof and watch where the bird lands. Some years it uses the same nest as the year before. Other times it builds a new one nearby.”

Aidan nodded. He was actually paying attention, for once. “So this is like, a huge bird.”

“Huge, beautiful, and dangerous,” said Felix. “So you just watch where it lands and don’t move a muscle. If you follow it to its nesting site you’ll end up skewered and eaten like a shish kebab. That’s a promise.”

Aidan had an excited grin on his face, like life over here was finally starting to get interesting. Was there a hint of fear underneath? Caleb wasn’t sure. 

“You heard me, Aidan?” said Felix after a moment.  

“Loud and clear,” said Aidan.

*

At sunset, around nine p.m., Felix and Caleb climbed into the red pickup and rumbled down the gravel path onto the dirt road. Felix dropped Caleb off near the bottom when he was sure no one was watching. Caleb’s job was to walk to a spot on the beach a mile south of the docks where, year after year, the owl flew in. Meanwhile, Felix would park his truck in as visible a place as possible and wait in Ernie’s Catch and Coffee until Sharpe arrived. Then he would drive to the decoy spot north of the docks and pretend to wait there for the owl. Hopefully, Sharpe would follow.

Caleb set off. Soon he reached the beach and turned left. In the fading light, he could see the fishing boats bobbing in the tide. Behind him, narrow houses kept watch along the boardwalk. Twig nests topped several of the chimneys like wigs. A seagull stood in one of them, glancing around, looking pleased with itself. Caleb thought of Sharpe and walked faster. 

He tested the walkie-talkie Felix had given him. “Aidan? Felix? You there?”

“Here,” came one voice, then the other.

After twenty minutes, just as Felix had described, the sand gave way to rocks, and a bit farther along, several boulders formed a heap maybe ten feet tall. 

By the light of his flashlight, he climbed to the top of the rock pile. Then he pulled his knees under his chin, turned the light off, and waited. The air was uncommonly still. He couldn’t help but think there was something horribly selfish about what Felix was doing, keeping this wonder all to himself, even if he thought it was for the owl’s own good. And yet, Caleb had to admit he loved this feeling, being let in on a secret—a magnificent secret—known to so few.  

Midnight arrived, then passed. The black water shimmered with moonlight and jellyfish. Looking out at the vastness of it, it was hard to believe there was really another continent on the other side. You could know it was true, and still not feel it, not really believe it. And to think the midnight owl crossed this ocean and others besides, all year long, with nothing but its wings.

Something caught his eye. A shape moving on the water. Or, no, not really on the water, but just under the water. A deepening of the black, maybe a hundred yards out and coming closer. It widened, wavered, then split in two, then split again, and then with a great crash four manta rays leapt out of the water. Their black fins spread like enormous wings and they seemed to fly for a second before diving back below. Caleb sat trembling. Just visible against the sky was another shape now. If that was the owl, was it chasing the manta rays? Hunting them?

They breached again—hurtling upwards, flapping once, and plummeting down. It didn’t seem like fear. It looked more like a game, or maybe a performance. And then Caleb understood. They were saying goodbye. A farewell escort for the empress of the ocean.

The owl soared into view. 

Sharpe had been both wrong and right. The midnight owl was not all black, but it did look like a fallen shard of night. It was a shifting blur of deepest purple and blue and inky black, speckled on the underwings with silver-white dots like stars. Watching it fly was like seeing the shimmer above an exhaust pipe—suddenly the air itself gains texture. And yet, for all its size, and the power of its wings sending ripples of wind against Caleb’s face, the owl flew in absolute silence.

It passed low over Caleb’s head and he let out a yell. It had to be twenty-five, thirty feet across. Then it vanished in the direction of the forest.

Caleb fumbled with the walkie-talkie.

“Guys!”

“Did you see it?” said Felix and Aidan at once, through the crackling.

“It’s here! It’s coming up the Hill!”

“Aidan, get ready,” said Felix. “And remember what I said. Keep your eye on the spot where it lands but don’t move. You understand?”

“What if I can’t see it?”

“Trust me, you’ll see it,” said Felix. “Now Caleb, get going.”

Caleb was already running. Down the rocks, across the sand, onto the boardwalk, past the quiet houses where the people of Gumbucket slept, unaware of what had just flown over them. 

As he reached the docks at the corner of Flood-of-1930 Street, he had to stop, doubled over and gasping. From somewhere nearby he heard a clattering.

“Isn’t it a bit late, kid?”

It was Hal, pushing his wheelbarrow, his face gaunt in the light of a streetlamp.

“Hey, did the Doc dig up any cash yet? By a fluke, I still got that shell you were eyeing. It’s your lucky day.”

Caleb, still bent over, shook his head. He could hardly believe this guy was still up, let alone trying to sell him something. Just another five seconds to catch his breath. Then he’d keep running.

He straightened up to find Hal studying him. “You’re a good kid, you know that? Quiet. I admire that.” Then he added, “You know that fellow who dropped by the Doc’s place?”

Caleb started. How does he know that?

“Well he came back down here this evening. Gave me a little something, told me to let him know if I saw you or your brother here at night. I’ll take his money any day of the week but I don’t trust him as far as an oyster can jump. Do you know what he’s up to?”

Caleb tried to make sense of this. “You told him where I was?”

“Well sure, a couple hours ago, you were just on some rocks watching the ocean. Was it such a big secret?”

Panic rose inside him. He took off again, further north along the boardwalk, past the docks, toward Felix. If Sharpe knew Caleb had been there, he would have guessed the whole plan. He would have realized Felix was a decoy, would have sat there waiting, maybe just a few yards away from Caleb, would have seen the midnight owl appear over the water, would be racing up the Hill to find it this very minute.

“Guys!” Caleb shouted over the walkie-talkie again. “Sharpe knows! He’s on his way up!”

Static and choppy voices crackled back. But by then Caleb had found Felix, just starting the engine of the red pickup.

“Get in!” he yelled through the window.

A moment later they were hurtling up Flood-of-1930 Street and on up the dirt road. Caleb kept expecting to see Sharpe in the headlights, but he must have had too much of a lead.

“Aidan,” Caleb said into the walkie-talkie. “Did you see it land?” 

Static.

“Aidan,” he said again. “Aidan!”

They came to a grinding stop on the gravel path and Caleb jumped out before the motor was off. Fear bubbled cold inside him. He didn’t know which was worse, that Aidan might be alone with the midnight owl or what he might be doing to stop Sharpe from finding it.

Caleb shined his flashlight at the roof. The lifeguard chair was gone.

For a moment he was paralyzed. Then Felix was next to him, saying, “We have to check in back.”

Caleb ran. Images of Aidan sprawled on the grass, his chest sliced open by talons, shot through his mind. But there was no one behind the house. Only two long grooves of flattened grass that vanished at the trees, as though someone had dragged the lifeguard chair into the woods.

Caleb broke through the knot of weeds at the edge of the forest and kept running—ducking branches, stumbling on roots. It seemed like an hour but it might have only been a minute before he saw a light. 

“Aidan!” he shouted. 

Nothing.

But then he found the light source. In a wide clearing, twenty feet in the air, beside the massively thick trunk of a warped, ancient pine, Aidan stood on the seat of the enormous lifeguard chair, a flashlight in one hand, his smartphone in the other.

And just a few yards away, at his eye level, in a bend in the trunk where it twisted horizontally, sat the midnight owl.

Aidan was leaning as far forward as he dared, the phone raised and shaking. The lifeguard chair wobbled on the uneven earth, and Caleb did the only thing he could—rush forward and hold it steady. The owl shifted its position, cleaned under one of its folded wings with a beak like a scythe, and swiveled its great head toward Aidan. Perching, it was still far taller and wider than Aidan standing up. Its huge, black, silver-rimmed eyes gazed unblinking at Aidan’s for what seemed an impossibly long time.

Over the crashing of his heart Caleb heard footsteps.

And just as the owl shifted again and Caleb saw it was sitting on a giant nest, just as Felix and Sharpe stumbled out of the trees from different directions—Sharpe holding binoculars, Felix holding a rifle—Aidan tapped his phone and a camera-flash went off.  

With a rush like a small tornado the midnight owl spread it wings and lunged. But, half-blinded by the light, it rammed into the tree trunk and fell back onto its perch. The lifeguard chair teetered wildly. Caleb held on, but still Aidan slipped, dropped the phone and flashlight, and barely grabbed onto the back of the chair with his fingertips. Sharpe took one step and caught the phone before it hit the ground.

Aidan was screaming. The owl only blinked and spread its wings again. Felix shouted something but it was lost in the wind as the owl launched itself upward once more and descended toward Aidan with its talons outstretched.

“Aidan, jump!” Caleb cried.

A shot rang out.

The midnight owl fell to the forest floor with a crash that shook the trees.

Aidan pulled himself up onto the chair, sobbing. Felix rushed over to the owl, tears streaming silently down his face. Caleb knelt beside him and pulled him against his shoulder and finally whispered, “It’s okay,” though he knew it wasn’t.

“I’ll pay you for the body,” said Sharpe. 

But the owl righted itself. Blood poured from the spot where its left wing joined its body. It staggered on its feet for three or four steps, then turned its face up and seemed to search for its nest. Later, in dreams, Caleb would realize what its eyes looked like at that moment, coal-black with their bright silver rims: they looked like two eclipsed suns.

And suddenly it flapped its wings—once, twice—and lifted off, streaming blood, half-tumbling midair yet climbing higher, one wing beating faster than the other. Everyone only watched as it struggled above the trees, black against the lightening sky, and let out a single low, bone-tingling hoooooooo.

Caleb found then that he had to run. Had to see where the midnight owl would go, though he already knew.

And so he raced back to the house and climbed the steps to the roof, and looked down over the town of Gumbucket as the midnight owl, careening and whirling, flew nearer and nearer to the surface of the ocean until it crumpled into the water and was gone.

*

It took Caleb two days to remember about the nest.

Felix almost cried again when he climbed up the lifeguard chair and found the egg. It was the size of a cantaloupe, purplish-black with white spots.

Sharpe would never know. He had left town the previous day, with enough close-up evidence on Aidan’s phone to make his trip a wild success. The secret of the midnight owl was out, that was for sure. But even with the photos, would anyone believe him? Caleb doubted it.

Besides, Caleb knew that for Felix the hardest thing was not letting go of the secret, but knowing he had killed the owl. He hadn’t meant to; he’d only wanted to stop it from killing Aidan. 

Over the next several days, as the egg was kept warm in a tank lined with blankets, Caleb often wondered what it would feel like to raise the baby of someone you killed. Sometimes Felix talked about handing the egg over to ornithologists at a museum or university, telling them everything, letting them raise the owlet. But then Felix would say, “I know what it eats, though. I know the mother’s behavior. I could raise it better than anyone else. Then set it free when it fledges, let it out over the ocean at night, and maybe it’ll come back here to nest one day.”

Caleb didn’t know if Felix would ever forgive Aidan. Or if Aidan would ever forgive himself. Which was why Caleb spoke to him about it early one morning, as they both sat on the grimy rug in the living room watching the egg.

“It was my fault just as much as yours,” said Caleb.

“Don’t be stupid.”

“I’m not.”

They were quiet for a while.

“It’s going to be hard without you this year,” Aidan said quietly, out of nowhere.

Caleb felt his eyes sting. He wouldn’t admit it, but he wasn’t looking forward to Aidan moving on into high school either, especially now, with their parents’ situation and everything.

“You want to come back here one weekend?” Caleb said instead. “When it hatches?” 

In some strange way, the egg they were watching felt like another grandchild of Felix’s. Their cousin.

“Felix hates me forever,” said Aidan.

“I don’t think so. You can change his mind, if you really try.”  

“We’ll see.”

“Come on, let’s talk to him. Maybe he’ll take us on a walk in the forest.”

“Now?”

Caleb stood up and crossed to the front door. Aidan followed after a moment. Outside, Felix was picking the last of the summer’s tomatoes.

The two of them stepped out. With a gentle shove, Aidan started walking over to Felix. Felix looked up. 

The mist was creeping up the hillside now and already swirling over the garden and the roof. You couldn’t make out the town down below. You couldn’t even see the dirt road. Caleb smiled. It reminded him of nowhere but here. 

Noah Weisz received his M.F.A. in Fiction from the New Writers Project at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a three-time shortlistee for the Bath Children’s Novel Award & a winner of the SCBWI Magazine Merit Award for Fiction. His stories for readers young & old can be found in Highlights, AQUILA, Cosmonauts Avenue, F(r)iction, & elsewhere. Currently, Noah teaches language arts to middle-school students & creative writing to university students at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. You can find him at noahweisz.wordpress.com.

We CAN’T Go Outside! 
Sean McCollum

First-Place, Katherine Paterson Prize, Picture Book

                    For Chuck—
                    who ALWAYS goes outside!

 

SPRING

Tippy-tap. Tappy-tip. Drip! Drop! Drap!That’s the sound the rain made on the roof.

Raz sat at the window watching waves of water falling from the dreary sky. A soggy salamander crawled out of the drain and shook itself off.

“What’s the word, Thunderbird?” Dad asked.

Raz pointed out the window. “I want to play outside, but it’s raining too hard.”

Dad nodded. Then he frowned. Then his shoulders sank and sagged.

“Yes, my son,” he droned. “Damp days are great sinkholes of happiness. But there is no hope. All we can do is mull and mope. Because … 

“We CAN’T go outside!

“We must not pull on our sweaters, or rubber boots, or our crummiest jeans with the holes in the knees.

“We couldn’t slip on our slickers or slap on a cap. Shouldn’t leap out the door and splash—ka-PLOOIE—in a puddle or pool!”

“Or fling my Frisbee?”

“Rainy-day Frisbee-flinging strictly forbidden!

“Because AFTER we go and get terribly, horribly, helplessly wet, we’d have to come inside where it’s cozy and dry.

“We’d towel off our hair and wring out our socks …

“And cook cookies or bake cabbage to lift our saggy spirits.

“And we mustn’t do that. We shouldn’t do that. We COULDN’T do that. We might melt! We might drown! Or worst of the worse, track mud in the house!

“So we CAN’T GO OUTSIDE!”

 

 SUMMMMMER

Whooommmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm … The air conditioner switched on. It had been huffing and humming all day.

Raz sat slumped on the couch. A pair of red sneakers waited like racecars on his feet. He watched from the window as the world get hot and hotter. He watched the daisies droop.

His mom bounced into the room. “What’s new, kangaroo?” she asked.

 “I want to play, but it’s too hot,” Raz said.

Mom nodded and frowned. “Bad luck, Mr. Duck,” she said. “But too much sun and fresh air isn’t good for anyone. So there’s nothing to do but tidy your toys and watch boring TV. Because …

“We CAN’T go outside!

“We can’t dress up in T-shirts and floppy hats.

“We shouldn’t smear on sunscreen, fill up a canteen, or put on cool sunglasses so we don’t have to squint.

“We mustn’t risk sunstroke and race your new shoes to the end of the block.

 “Or sizzle an old egg on the blacktop.”

“Or splash like otters in the sprinkler’s spray!?” asked Raz.

“No waaaaaaaay!

“Because AFTER we ran out and got horrifically hot, we’d have to come back inside where it’s breezy and cool.

“Where we’d soak our fried feet.”

“And treat our burnt brains with freezer pops!” 

“And we mustn’t do that. We shouldn’t do that. We COULDN’T do that. We might roast! We might sweat! We might start to stink!

“So we CAN’T GO OUTSIDE!”

 

FALL

Flittaflitta … flap flap flap. Flittaflitta … That’s the sound the moths made around the porch light.

Raz stood by the screen door. He sighed as the last sliver of sun disappeared from the sky.

“Why the long puss, Erasmus?” Grandpa asked.

Raz shrugged toward the sunset’s last glow. “It’s too dark.”

Grandpa itched his backside and scratched his beard. He clucked his tongue before he spoke. “Yep, another day is done. No more fun or folly to be had. For who knows what dangers lurk …

“Outside! Because we CAN’T go outside!

“We must not light our way with lamps or cover ourselves in coats.

“We can’t—no we couldn’t—slip and trip into the night and listen for owls, or sniff for skunks, or feel which way the wind is blowing.

“We couldn’t, no we shouldn’t, count how many bats zip past …

“Or play flashlight tag?”

“Unfathomable. Or lay on our backs in the prickly grass and find Pegasus, the starry steed. See?”

“Or shine our lights at oogly-googly alien eyes on a far-away planet!”

“Imponderable. Because AFTER we got completely, fearfully frightened, we’d have to escape inside where we’re sound and safe.”

“And eat melted marshmallows on peanut butter crackers!”

“Inedible! While reading about dastardly heroes doing dimwitted deeds!”

“And we mustn’t do that.”

“We shouldn’t do that.”

“We COULDN’T do that!”

“We might yelp!”

“We might yowlp!”

“Then fall over and faint!”

“So we CAN’T GO OUTSIDE!”

 

WINTER

Tinkle, tankle, KLANG, KLANG, tankle, tinkle, KLANG. That’s the sound the wind chimes chimed by the back door.

Raz ambled into the living room. “Good morning, Sport! What’s the weather report?” he asked his little sister.

Zo-Zo pointed at the deep drifts of sparkling snow. “I want to play, but it’s too cold,” she said.

Raz folded his arms and planted his feet. He glared out the window at the windy winter weather. “We’re better safe in here than sorry out there,” he said. “Better warm inside than shivering misery, because …

“We CAN’T go outside!

“We must not pull on long johns under super slippery snow pants. Or wear six pairs of socks inside our boots.

“We shouldn’t, no we couldn’t, stick our hands in mittens and heads in hats and step into the cold like bold arctic explorers …”

“Making snow angels!”

“Carving out forts.”

“Feeding the birds!”

“Sailing your sled down a hill … over a bump, and into a mountain of puffy white powder!

“Because AFTER we faced the worst weather ever, we’d have to trudge back inside of our awful warm house.

“And take off our stuff so it can thaw for a month.

“And be scolded with cocoa and ginger snaps for risking our noses in the dangerous outdoors.

“And we mustn’t do that. We shouldn’t do that. We COULDN’T do that. Our nostrils will drip! Our toes might drop off! We could freeze into frigid, rigid kid-cicles frozen till spring!

“So we mustn’t go …

“We shouldn’t go …

“We couldn’t go …

“WE CAN’T GO OUTSIDE!”

 

When Sean was a boy, his mom had to set a timer to tell him to put down his book & go outside and play. He has been getting out ever since in the company of family & friends—up mountains, under seas, across deserts, & through the woods. Sean is the author of more than 50 books & lots of magazine articles for kids. Today, he is a digital nomad who has gotten lost in 64 countries—& counting. You can follow where he is & what he’s up to at kidfreelance.com.

Melody for Light 
Katherine Vandermel

Overall Winner, International Young Writers Prize

After Bruce Weigl

 

“I don’t think of all the misery,
but of the beauty that still remains.”
— Anne Frank

 

Or: the white cottage next door,
the one with the boy. The blossom
of the first bomb one winter
morning, a golden veil falling
over the neighbors.

Imagine the first notes
igniting the house. His hair—
blond, ablaze—halo wringing
his neck. Napalm clinging
to his body like jelly, sweet
marmalade on bread. A boy
locked inside a star.

The melody beats relentlessly
as a secret hymn, burning
in the ribcage of his body. It takes
the throat first, then gently, the lids
of his eyes. He is no longer a boy
when the song stops playing.

Katherine Vandermel is a high school student at Bergen County Academies. She thinks of writing as painting: each word imbues the world with coloration. Her work has appeared in Alexandria Quarterly, Apprentice Writer, & Rising Phoenix Review, among others, & has been recognized by Penn State University & the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers. She enjoys listening to music & eating toasted croissants.

dear franny choi 
Esther Kim

Honorable Mention, International Young Writers Prize, Poetry

in the first grade i remember hanging my head low

when my umma introduced herself

 

as yoojin. i remember feeling so grateful

that my name was not korean, for i had shed

 

that name in skins. i’d already known that i shouldn’t

bring bibimbap for lunch, that it would smell bad

 

and look as if my kitchen unpeeled itself. reading

“Choi Jeong Min” was sinking into my past.

 

i grazed on it and let it fill my bedroom, seeing

how i could find myself in your words, how

 

my childhood seeped through the page. i knew

this “paper thin & raceless” you wrote. in there,

 

i see my pigtails and bangs as if i were a doll

of sorts. i never liked dolls, but i played with one

 

in my halmoni’s apartment in seoul. it was

a russian stacking doll, one you’d crack open

 

to find another to find another. i think there were five

in the one i used, and i always felt like the smallest—

 

the last. my american had hidden the korean,

and maybe one day, my korean would

 

disappear. i wished it would. i wished

halmoni didn’t speak korean every day and let me be.

 

i, too, wished i didn’t have “garlic breath” after i ate

her soondubu jjigae. i wished i wasn’t so far away.

 

but now, when i think of college, i wonder what i’ll eat

if not korean food, if not soondubu jjigae

 

by umma’s side. she tells me she won’t miss me,

but then she laughs and feeds me more. in english class,

 

we’re discussing immigration as one aspect of american

literature, yet i do not believe america

 

is as much a home as some think. my parents’ home

is still oceans away. they tell me they hope

 

to go back there, and i wonder why

they came here in the first place. if they go, i will

 

follow. i’ll get lost in their streets and maybe find

my way to the yogurt lady who used to come

 

by the house, her face as banana milk as mine. then,

i wouldn’t forget. when they’d ask me my name,

 

i’d tell them i’m yoonjin, spun from “minor chord”

and “gook name.” and like you, i confess. only years later

 

did i know that halmoni had cancer, that god may give

and god may take. in two years, i hope to go back

 

to her and step inside her apartment, for i know

it’ll seem like home. by then, i may know how to cook jjigae.

 

i’ll welcome others there too with my broken

konglish slipping out of my mouth. i forget

 

when i left my mother tongue, but i think it’s still

there in the stacking doll, folded within the layers of foreign

 

that seemed so smooth. maybe then, i’ll feel

its doll casings like the palms of halmoni,

 

only rougher than the year before. halmoni’s hair spills

out slowly, and she bends to the floor as she steps. i hope

 

she stays long enough for me to say thank you

and hold her hand. then, i will unravel

 

the stacking doll and press a star into halmoni’s hand

so that someday, i may find her. i haven’t

 

seen “the star” yet, but i will if this “factory yard”

lets me go. then, i’ll follow it back.

Esther Kim is a Korean-American writer from Potomac, Maryland. Her poetry has been published or is forthcoming in SOFTBLOW, Lunch Ticket, & Half Mystic, among others. In the summer of 2019, she participated in the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop. A high school junior, she has been recognized by the Library of Congress, the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards as a National Gold Medalist, The Atlantic, & the Poetry Society of the UK.

to hell with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl:
my love letter to Susan Vance 
Sylvia Nicholas-Patterson

Honorable Mention, International Young Writers Prize, Poetry

In your local 7-Eleven,

follow the unearthly scent of cologne.

He’ll be sitting in a freezer box,

 

venting to the frozen dinners

about how he resembles

“dope with venom entailed.”

 

Proceed with caution.

At first, he won’t look at you:

his mind too busy dipping in

 

and out of the room.

But when he finally meets your eyes,

your lungs will collapse.

 

For a moment you’ll want nothing more

than to care for him,

to teach him there is more to life

 

than ink and paper,

that there are galaxies beyond

his god-crafted freckles.

 

He will convince you otherwise,

showing you his collection

of novels and girls with similar traits:

 

same blonde hair, same bruised knees.

He will still call you unique,

forgetting you are made of blood

 

and rhinestones like the rest of them,

that your urge to rebel

outweigh his introspective charm.

 

To this boy, you are simply the

housekeeper of his thoughts,

undeserving of happiness.

 

Rember: you are a poetic beast too,

capable of destroying his impression of “dream girls.”

You could break him if you wanted to—and you want to.

 

But the freezer doors tamper with his vision,

reflecting his archetype through the glass. 

Eventually, he will ask for your name.

 

Curl back your lips (like the monster you are)

and kindly swallow the boy whole, 

before he causes any more damage.

Sylvia is a rising Senior at the Lois Cowles Harrison Center for the Visual & Performing Arts. There, she studies under the Creative Writing department & has published work in the Cantilevers Journal of the Arts, High School Poets Society, the Magnetic Journal, & many more. Her poem “Cold as ICE” earned third place in the Sister Cities Young Artists & Authors Showcase in February 2020. Sylvia also co-operates Inventively, an Instagram account dedicated to showcasing high school poetry, for four years strong.

Zodiac Year of the Lamb 
Grace Wang

Honorable Mention, International Young Writers Prize, Poetry

Mother, in her slight accent,

calls olives “Oliver.”

She loves Oliver, brine

salty in her mouth.

Almost twenty-five years in America

and she cannot differentiate

between a man and a fruit,

but what is the difference, really?

Both are green,

hollow on the inside.

We eat until our cheeks are full

and pretend to be satisfied:

Oliver in our stomachs, something

similar to a stone, but softer,

like a half-dissolved body.

Oliver between our hips,

Mother and I buy red clothing for the winter.

She calls everything beautiful,

mispronounces the word at uneven

intervals, but says it right

when she looks at me, hair braided

into a facsimile of the girl she used to be.

You’re just like me, she says.

Beautiful, like me.

She is wrong, and I never know

how to tell her.

Our lips and our throats match,

but our tongues have no relation.

Her stomach growls.

I pose for her.

Grace Wang is an incoming freshman at Harvard College. Her work has been recognized by the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, Hyphen Magazine, Columbia College Chicago, The Interlochen Review, & the Indiana Repertory Theatre. She is from Columbus, Indiana, but spends all of her summers in China, where she fell in love with storytelling.

July, 1913 
Annie Cao

Honorable Mention, International Young Writers Prize, Poetry

Lately I’ve imagined prettier iterations of
my body turning cold: gleaming pearlescent,
floating quietly towards the shoreline. Kneeled
before a bird’s nest, cheekbones dressed with
blood. One night, I found myself lovelier than
ever, torn to pieces all over the bedroom floor.
Something is flickering in and out of sanctity,
set aquiver beneath this vicious midsummer
stasis. In the dark, the slow burn watering like
mother-of-pearl, and I pale daintily as the days
slip by. My youngest sister says I’ve been talking
in my sleep, that my hair has started to smell like
rosemary and crematoriums. I want to tell her
about the things I’ve seen: animals split open,
smeared empty on pavement; the girls they found
bloodied, halved, laying still against grassland
or riverbed. The truth is, dearest, that I can’t stop
thinking about slaughterhouses: a daughter stumbles
into darkness and re-emerges as slivered lily, red mouth
tilting open towards the skies. In feverish reverie,
I make a fool of girlhood—butcher my sisters,
cut off my hands, muscle the crimson armistice into
something unholy. I leave the wraith empty-handed,
weeping on its knees.

Annie Cao is a high school writer from Colorado. Her work is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review & The Apprentice Writer, & she has been recognized by the National Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, the Patricia Grodd Poetry Prize, & Ringling College, among others.

I Want a Brand-New Precedent: 
Elizabeth Shorkey

Honorable Mention, International Young Writers Prize, Poetry

                    [After Zoe Leonard]

 

I want a man who is kind for the sake of communism, I want the

neighbor’s dog to pee in rain gutters and storm drains, I want the New

York Times editor to turn into falcon-goat hybrid, I want Jesus to hang

himself from a Seven-11 steeple, I want Corporate to plow a WWI field

and eat the trigger-finger bones they find, I want Leonardo Dicaprio on the

freaking door and Rose in the freaking ocean, I want someone that lies for

fun to make more money than Leo, I want the reincarnation of a woman

who died on the toilet to become Emperor of Italy and Russia respectively,

I want cabinets that bite when you close them, I want all rats to drive

Fords and own auto shops, I want to flick Hawaii into the Mediterranean, I

want it to rain white wine vinegar in the Sahara, I want camels to develop

udders on their humps, I want all toast in the world to be burnt forever, I

want to invert all buildings and baby carriages, I want mermaids with

shark fins and CrossFit biceps to take over publishing for Us Weekly, I

want pop to be stale and all musical notes to fall flat, I want water to be

paint and paint to be oil and oil to be lit on fire and spread around, I want

Nike sneakers for the stubby tails of unfortunate cats, I want every

lightbulb in the world to glow pink and then explode, I want rivers that run

up mountains, I want bananas that are white and purple and not manmade,

I want Allah to indoctrinate emperor penguins, I want joyful neo-Nazis to run

children’s hospitals, I want something to surprise me. 

Elizabeth Shorkey spent her first three years of high school attending Saginaw Arts & Sciences Academy before being accepted to Interlochen Arts Academy for her 2019-2020 senior year. Libby is a writer who has been published in magazines including Still Life & Perspectives Art and Literary Publications, & she has gained recognition for her prose, nonfiction, & poetry by Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, River Junction Poets, the Tom Samet Fiction Competition hosted by Michigan State University, Lake Effect National High School Poetry Competition, Michigan Youth Arts Festival, & the Adroit Mentorship program. This fall, Libby plans to attend Knox College to pursue a degree in creative writing.

Abiogenesis 
Katherine Wong

Honorable Mention, International Young Writers Prize, Fiction

The ground had already baked to a deep, sunburnt orange. Grains of dust lingered in the air, and I stared at the remains of my family’s farm. From the hill, I could see the empty pastures where our livestock used to reside, the rotting barn and house, the brittle grass of the forgotten meadow, and the shriveled trees that used to line the dirt-paved streetways. I closed my eyes and tried to remember what it had looked like before, but the image was a fading ripple in water.

The hill had always been my favorite spot because of the creature that inhabited the area. Its sleek white skin had a hard endurance to it, and the black irises were openings to other worlds. I pressed my eye to it, the rim cold against my seared face. A distant body, Nalara, glowed in the salmon-colored sky. Perth, a little distance away from Nalara, gleamed in a more conservative manner.

Despite being leagues away from the nearest city, light pollution still managed to etch its way into the countryside skies. The world’s ceilings never grew darker than a murky brown. Still, I tried everyday to look for stars in the sky, hoping that our planet was healing at least a little bit.

I laid face up in the dead grass, rigid stems digging into my back. The ground breathed hot air into my ears. I wondered what was going on in the cities, whether everyone was okay or if the melted icecaps had flooded the alleyways, the heatwaves had sucked the moisture out of the once fertile soil, the valued technology had failed to save them. I wondered if the world leaders were listening now, listening to the hunger that swept across the continents, listening to the 301,726 extinct species and their deceased voices that compelled us to follow them.

I said goodbye to the creature on the hill and draped a quilt over her shining body. She whispered goodbye back, her voice soaked with a sweet doldrum.

*

In ancient mythology, Nalara was the goddess of fertility and family. Our ancestors painted her on shrines and conducted elaborate rituals in hopes that she would bless them with a baby. Angered, Nalara could crumble the embryo and make the mother bleed by simply letting the thought cross her mind. And whenever a successful birth occurred, people gathered to sing prayers as an act of gratitude.

Nobody believed in Nalara or the other ancient gods anymore. Her name now donned our neighboring planet, a fiery system with skin like the organs of a volcano. Its charred cysts spat lava, cloaking the world in a dense methane atmosphere. They were the remnants of stars and meteorites, the electrical charges that surged through Nalara’s terra and magnetized its melting mantle.

My fingers stroked the edges of the pages, which were slowly crumbling in part due to the augmenting temperatures. Pen marks from years ago were chasmic in the paper, my muddled observations and sketches filling up every crevice of space. There was something comforting about the handwritten familiarity, something that my extensive online reports couldn’t mimic.

I flipped to one of the pages in the back. Instead of the mathematical equations and diagrams of celestial bodies, there were roughly sketched doodles and scribbled notes. I recognized my brother’s handwriting instantly. His cursive, perpetually slanted to the right, twirled across the page in looping orbits. The drawings were mostly from our family farm: stocky fruit trees and up-close examinations of leaves and flowers; the nearby lake that we used to go swimming in; depictions of animals, domesticated and wild.

My eyes began scanning the scattered messages that he had written.

Miss you, Gemma. I stole your notebook. Hope that city life is treating you well,and you’re making huge discoveries aboutspace.

It’s not the same without you. Mom and Dad are getting older and don’t have asmuch energy. Mostly me taking care of thefarm.

Wish you called us more. They miss you a lot, especiallyMom.

My stomach twisted into knots as I realized where this was going. An anxious lump began to forge in my throat, and no matter how much I swallowed, the feeling of guilt remained on my shoulders.

They’re gone. Mom went a few days ago, and Dad this morning. I’ve left youmessages, but you didn’t respond. Why? They missed you so much. All they ever asked me was whyyou never called, why you never came back tovisit.

I couldn’t hide from the truth anymore. Tears stained the pages, the aged ink bleeding like vines spreading across a wall. The burden of shame grew with every additional breath. My chest heaved in and out in spasming intervals, the notebook convulsing with my trembling hands.

Gemma. The world is dying. In a way, I’m glad Mom and Dad left so they didn’t have to witness this. All the animals have died from either starvation, dehydration, or heat exhaustion. The ground can’t support crops anymore. All I hope is that you’re doing something about this. You were always the sibling who knew what to do. I want to trust you, but I don’t know if I can after you left us. But you can do something. You have power in the government, you’re one of the space agency’s leading scientists. You can save us.

There’s nothing left for me here, and I know that you won’t be coming back. I hope you’re reading this.

My body snapped like a twig, the tectonic plates sliding out from underneath and fracturing the surrounding silence. The past was a silhouette at the door, watching the guilt flood the rotten hallways filled with remnants of another life. I did come back, and I came back to a deserted ghost town, as if the rest of the world had aged generations while I was still the same. The puzzle had already been completed for years, but I refused the truth until now.

My brother’s messages were seared into my mind. I wiped away the tears, my face hardening with reality as I placed the notebook back on the shelf, never to be read again.

*

The wind’s wheezing gasps cut my cheeks as the car sped across the empty highway. The creature, dismantled in the trunk, clanged against the sides every time we hit a bump. City buildings lined the distant horizon, and I pressed on the gas pedal to accelerate. I was an object speeding through time and light, letting the particles pass through my unbounded, massless body.

As I pulled into the city’s borders, traffic packed the streets and a deep, unanimous murmuring from the walkerbys hung in the air. Thick smog slithered through the maze of jagged buildings. Oxygen was thin, and while my trachea shuddered with its deep, slow breaths, my heart rate accelerated.

I stopped in front of a familiar house, now lined with wilted flowers and barred windows. My body heaved itself up the creaking stairway. I knocked on the door, my knuckles rattling the decaying wood.

A man about my age opened the door. Stress and sleep deprivation lined his face through his undereye bags and gaunt facial structure. He had a hollow stare that looked past me as if I were invisible, until something shifted within him and his face lit up with recognition.

“Dr. Kere,” I said, holding my hand out as an act of formality, “Long time no see.”

*

Dr. Kere’s house was dim and small with boxes littered everywhere, stacked on top of each other, some half opened and some fully sealed. He offered me something to eat, but nothing to drink. I sat down on the couch, scabbed with badly-sewn patches and open wounds to its stringy flesh.

“What brings you back to the city, Gemma?” he asked.

I paused, then answered. “I need your help. I need an engineer to help me with this.”

His eyes shifted to the wall behind me. “You’ve come to the wrong person.”

“The world is dying,” I said, “I’ve already mapped out the logistics of it, and where we’ll go, and what we’ll do up there. You just have to help me with designing the ship and we can propose it to the space agency. They have to say yes. It’s our last chance to save us.”

“Go up to where? Space?” Dr. Kere asked. His face twisted into a scowl, and he stood up. “I don’t want to talk to the space agency, or meet them, or even look at them. There’s nothing we can do at this point. Just accept it.” Dr. Kere took a few steps forward and stopped right in front of me. His metallic breath was hot against my face, like the glaring sun’s rays that I felt everyday at the farm. “Do we even deserve to survive?” he continued, “Think about it. We did this to ourselves. I don’t want to partake in a desperate plan to save a few individuals, or plan out some impossible ship. It’s not going to happen.”

I envisioned my brother crying over the corpses of our parents, the parents that I abandoned in an aimless chase for success. I saw him putting the notebook back on our shelf and walking out of our house, where he would first bury them in the brittle dirt, then hike six leagues out to the canyon. His body would decompose in the drained lake at the bottom, leaving the farm to solar radiation and suffocating gases.

I swallowed the resentment and looked at Dr. Kere sourly. “I’ll pay you,” I said, “However much you want.”

Dr. Kere agreed.

*

The hum of distant car engines intertwined with insect chitters resonated in the air. I put my eye up to the creature and adjusted its face to point up to the darkened sky. Alternating between looking at the sky and my paper, I began to sketch part of our solar system. Perth, the innermost planet and closest to the sun, was dense and lifeless. It was miniscule compared to the other planets, its surface dented with craters from invading comets and meteorites. Our planet was second to the sun, originally swept with sapphire oceans and a blissful warmth. We were the only ones known to sustain life. Now, our atmosphere was a burdening weight dragging existence down with it.

“I think I’m done,” Dr. Kere said, stepping back to show me his design. His cursive lettering looked eerily similar to my brother’s messages in the notebook.

I gave him a nod of satisfaction. “Look up,” I said and pointed to a spot in the sky, “That’s where they’ll be.”

He glanced up at the sky but quickly looked away.

*

I walked through the long hallways towards the two large doors, high heels clicking against the marbled floor, my old pantsuit flowing with the glacial air conditioning. Deeply buried memories began resurfacing, one with each step and corner of the space agency’s headquarters, until I arrived. I smoothed the creases on my tucked-in shirt and straightened the blazer before pushing the two doors open.

Familiar faces packed the large room, uniform in their expressions and staring down at my small presence. Dr. Kere, dressed sloppily, followed behind me. I walked up to the podium at the center of the room, all of their faces pointed towards me and waiting impatiently.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the International Space Agency,” I said, my voice quivering with nervousness, “I’m Dr. Gemma Typh. I used to work here as a leading astrophysicist, and some of you might know me. I’ve come here with a plan.”

I laid out a large poster on the table with the sketch of the sun, Perth, our planet, and Nalara. The three planets differed in composition, sequentially getting larger from Perth to Nalara. I drew out the orbits and held the poster up in the air.

“We can send a spaceship into our planet’s orbital, one that can sustain life for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. The individuals will be put into hibernation, set to wake up at a certain time in the future. I’ve calculated that our planet will take approximately nine hundred years to heal, and once the individuals wake up from hibernation, we can send them back down to repopulate. Our species will live, along with our advanced technological knowledge.”

I took out another poster showcasing the spacecraft orbiting our planet in greater detail. “We have the materials to build this and launch it into space. All we need to do is choose the individuals who will go on this spacecraft. We’ve calculated that it can sustain six individuals total: three males, three females. Someone in good health who’s not a known carrier of any disease.”

Talk was already stirring, and the faces were now turned towards each other instead of at me. I stepped off the podium and gestured towards Dr. Kere, who took my place to discuss the spacecraft’s design.

“Hello everyone,” he started, “I’m Dr. Kere, an aerospace engineer who also used to work here. Spacecrafts for hibernation should be preferably smaller in size, which is why we’ve designed this spacecraft to be compact and quick-to-construct, while still being functional. It consists of six hibernation pods that will be shielded against radiation, along with a common room to store essential items like medical care and food rations.” He held up another poster that mapped out the spacecraft’s structure. Dr. Kere cleared his throat and continued. “Now, we must also discuss the practicality of this idea,” he said, “We’ve never successfully put anyone into a long-term hibernation before. We’ve never sent anything into our planet’s orbit before. We’ve never built or launched a spacecraft of this complexity before. This idea is a huge risk and drainage on whatever supplies we have left. Is it worth it?”

My heart sank, the faces’ mutters growing louder until they crescendoed into a profuse uproar. I ran up to the podium and pushed Dr. Kere off, waving my hands frantically in the air to try to get anyone’s attention.

“I know it’s a risky idea! But it could work!” I yelled, but I was drowned by the other shouts fighting to be noticed.

I turned to Dr. Kere and pushed him against the wall, my voice escalating into a vomiting wail. There was no regret on his face, and even as my hand came down on his swollen cheeks repeatedly, he looked unfazed and almost proud of himself.

“Why did you do this?” I asked, still choking on my own tears. “Don’t you want to survive? Save the world?”

“Technology is a curse, and I know that you agree with me. Isn’t that why you left to stay at your farm in the first place?”

I stopped, my hand hovering over his face. For a second, he looked like my brother—how they both had strong opinions and wouldn’t back down about what they believed in.

“Let nature do its course of work,” he continued. “We deserve to die off, and you know it.”

*

Later, I drove back to my farm and discarded all of the plans. I reassembled the creature on the hill, balancing its bulky torso on the tripod and staring into its obsidian eyes. Perth was even fainter than it was before, but Nalara still glowed persistently. I thought of the goddess who would likely be disappointed with what we’d become, her finger compressing the core of our planet and pulping the life out of it. We were the embryo to her, and she made the whole world bleed like the mother with leftover tissue in her inner thighs and a broken fetus.

*

The once dormant volcano erupted, layering the farm in a crust of magma that wasn’t too different from Nalara’s surface. The creature was gone, an artifact to be forgotten like the farm, the city, the world. I was the only swimmer in a sea of fire, the passionate heat radiating off my cadaver, but I felt at peace for the first time.

Life was gone, and for billions of years the universe would be void of it. I thought about how I was wrong, because our planet would most likely never heal from this large of a catastrophe, how we would be erased from history and future generations would never find traces of our existence because it would all be burned to ashes, devoured by the lava, left as food to the fire. I thought about how in billions of years, abiogenesis would permeate in the future oceans, the organic compounds combining to create the first signs of life. Even though the sky was shrouded with storm clouds and strikes of lightning, I looked up to where Nalara was and envisioned her rich oceans, her fertile soil, her rolling hills—just as our planet had been many years ago. She would evolve into civilizations like ours, industrial enterprises that spread like fever, destined to meet an identical fate. Life was a continuous cycle, with the same origins and the same endings.

I closed my eyes and let providence wash over me.

Katherine Wong is a student at Orange County School of the Arts (OCSA) in the Creative Writing Conservatory. She enjoys writing speculative fiction, poetry, & songs. Her work has been recognized in numerous competitions including the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. She also is a writer for the LA Times High School Insider & frequently reviews science fiction entertainment & covers current public health issues. Outside of writing, Katherine plays the piano & runs a community service project called STEM THE ART, which teaches youth a combined curriculum in the sciences & the arts.

The Narcissist’s Cure for Aging 
Sydney Alexander

Honorable Mention, International Young Writers Prize, Fiction

                    “If he but fail to recognize himself, a long life he may have.”
– Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Imagine!

If we think of ourselves divided into separate entities of existence from the time we are born until we draw our last breath, then the stages in which we live are distinguishable by variations of the aging shell. What other ways might the soft slopes of infancy, the angular stretches of adolescence, and the weathered plateaus of old age be so aptly identified?

I thought myself an immortal beauty. Years stretched before me like long roads, unending, yet still I dragged my feet, lingering beside the glittering waters which so appealed to me. I found myself enraptured by the person who met my eyes through the ripples.

In the water the man had skin like sunrise, face lit with marvelous expectation. In godly fashion, his contours bore their own light, casting shadows that squalled for the place at his feet. Like him, I relished the dark envy of others. Young men and maidens fell at my feet; from them I heard my name whispered, a decadent delight, sugar on their disconsolate lips. I felt such inexplicable pleasure when I endeavored to fish their hearts out by the strings. How willingly they were surrendered! I cannot even begin to describe the sensation of a heart in my hands, visceral yearning pumped up from the bowels of the soul. It was delicious.

The road seemed endless. Still I ate up the miles. My beauty was not so permanent as it seemed, and soon the wretched years began their lusty conquer of my appearance. Morphed and mottled, my skin, once sun-soaked and bronze, succumbed to the pull of the devil beneath me. My flesh sank in folds, downward, and I wondered how long I had before my bones would follow.

My hair, once laurel gold, yielded to a slow vanquish of age and waved new gray banners. Dark crumbs grew on my forehead and cheeks as if I had knelt and pressed my face into the ground, then let the morsels of dirt cling to my skin. With time, lines etched my face, tracing it with undulating precision. 

Oh, and this blasted self-envy! It is as though a part of me had gone missing, leaving holes in my heart. The jealousy of others subsided as I aged, but my disdain festered. Once I had taken comfort in my appearance, but change had brought ruin to its handsome certainty. I thought, to age is the slow yet relentless moldering of one’s framework. 

At this time I began to think of a man I heard could give forms immortality, eternal youth. I heard he could carve away years with his hands and his tools, an uncanny magic. In the beginning I had ignored the rumors. Now as an older man, I began to consider more seriously the prospects of finding him. What was his name? I searched my memory, until it came to me. The Sculptor. I hoped he could work the magic I heard he possessed, so that he might return me to my fine form. At last I had realized that youth is divine yet fleeting.

Years passed. I spent each day searching for him. I walked between villages and cities, feeling the hours slipping from me, feeling the days diminishing. Neither doctors nor witches I passed along the way could cure the ailment of aging. I trudged through the sands of time, nearing the Gates. I must have been right upon them when at last I stumbled upon the Sculptor’s shop.

I had been traveling since sunrise. I had no food or water, and my spine wilted as I came upon the midway point between towns, at dusk. Walking felt like wading in mud, and my joints creaked like old hinges. Parched and aching, I searched for respite. By now I had worn blisters into my toes and ground my soles to bone. 

 From a way off, a building appeared. In relief, I stumbled, slowing as I neared. The entrance featured a plain door, upon which a tiny hand had been carved into the wood. Simply, beneath the carving were two words, cast in bronze: The Sculptor. 

At last, I had found him! Without assistance, the door swung inward, inviting me in. 

Through the doorway I glimpsed a little man. His face looked like a candle, half melted. He was short and sickly thin, with bulging eyes and deft hands. Veins slunk up from his fingers like knotted ivy. Tools hung from a belt on his waist. He appeared to be expecting me, shaking my hand and ushering me into the hall. Bemused, I let him lead me forward. He offered me water and simple foods; bread and old cheese.

On the inside, wine-red walls arched themselves around marvelous figures. Stone women cast their eyes downward to the marbled floors, the folds of their veils honed to such smoothness they seemed to fill the women’s mouths with breath, if only to give the fabric reason to stir. Winding folds of cloth flowed from the arduous forms, illuminating soft skin beneath. Pieta cast her eyes skyward; Moses gazed down the expansive hall. The Elgin marbles viewed me with cool indifference, and my chest ached with chagrin as I hunched in their shadows.

At once I remembered a description of the ways we might be moved by such flagrant depictions of the human form. It was the transmission of energy from immobile persons, entombed in marble, to me, suspended in my rapture. They evoked wondrous sensations; melancholy and virtue as their sinuous forms strained against the confines of stone.

Such feeling had been recorded in their features! Some had their chins lifted, glowing with the light of heavenly ecstasy. Others had their brows creased, shadowing eyes like storms, mouths ruptured in silent screams. 

“Oh!” I wept, “the beauty of these have far surpassed my own.” In the large cavern of the room, my sobs echoed. If possible, the statues seemed to relish my anguish.

“If I may,” the Sculptor interrupted my wailing as he led me past, “imagine a world exists where you might exchange your parts for perfection.”

My eyes and nose dripped in unison. His mouth curved as he continued, “If you were presented the opportunity to pick apart all the wondrous creations of humanity and exchange the parts for your own, would you?”

I asked him what he meant.

“It means you could have their glory.” His eyes glinted. “Or their youth.” 

By then we had reached the end of the grand hall. In earnest, the Sculptor turned and asked if I wished to be young forever. 

“Oh, if I could!” I stole another glance at the stone figures and my breath dissolved; for the first time I had laid eyes on something that surpassed even the aesthetic of my own reflection. It haunted me. My voice cracked; I stifled my sobs. “Please, little man, I would like that more than anything in the world. Make me worthy of the figures in the hall.” 

A smile crept over his face. 

I asked the Sculptor if he knew who I was. He assented and I realized, with delight, that even in the recesses of the world echoing tales of my former beauty had found audience. I asked if he could return me to my youth but he told me he had no image to work from. I told him I had the structure of David, Apollo’s face, and the charm of Cupid. I said I could carry the hard weight of divine artistry as Atlas bore the weight of the world.

At this, the Sculptor clapped gleefully. “What an exciting commission!”

He led me up to a pedestal, carved with flowers boasting ruffled trumpet mouths and creased velvet petals. He motioned me up, then lifted my chin. I saw a stranger in the glass before me, as he rearranged my limbs into a pose.

He commenced his work.

I dared not move, hardly breathe, for fear of breaking form. Reversing the clock seemed an impossibility, but I had just seen the work of this little man and knew he worked miracles. If I had walked these halls earlier, as a young fellow, I would have been the most revered. 

But, I consoled myself, soon the loveliness of my form will far surpass those in the hall.

I felt him slough away the years as trees sifted sunlight in the courtyard, as the weary sun yawned into slumber. He worked, and I was overcome by a strange languor. I slipped into a dreamlike state, feeling weight lift from my shoulders and my body uncurl, like new blooms. It became easier and easier to remain still. He hammered and picked my flesh, carving details, shaping and sharpening angles, tightening skin as if winding paper. He molded my features with gentle hands and gradually my muscles firmed, my skin hardened. Inside I felt my blood slow and my torpid heart, like pearl, cocoon itself in stone. The sensation worked its way outward; the viscera strung from my marbled sides solidified; I felt my lungs close in a few moments of fiery breathlessness, a new stillness settling over my features. I felt the shell overtake my chest, varnishing my arms and legs. 

I felt stone build up from under my lashes, but before my eyes had been entirely coated I cast one last look into the mirror and beheld my new figure. I saw myself renewed, rendered perfectly with an ivory pallor to my skin. 

And by Gods I was gorgeous!

Sydney Alexander currently attends River Hill High School in Clarkesville, Maryland. One of her previous stories received an honorable mention in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. This is her first publication. She plans to study Creative Writing in college after graduating in June 2021.

Theory of Mind 
Onassa Sun

Honorable Mention, International Young Writers Prize, Fiction

Baby sits in the corner, rag doll in hand. Mother begs the man gripping her hair like a leash to please, at least take this to another room, the baby is watching. Baby clutches the doll close. Black yarn is black hair, Mother’s lipstick is blushing cheeks, scrap fabric is blood, bones, and cartilage. A heart is unnecessary.

Words like swift slaps strike Mother’s youthful skin—the pale flower petal swelters like a fresh bee sting. Please, the baby is listening, Mother cries. But her voice buckles before a beast too large for her to fight.

Baby knows not to cry. If it does, the beast might notice it too. Baby shrinks back as the man pitches Mother to the floor in a graceful, savage motion. He leaves.

Shedding tears more bitter than medicine, Mother crawls across the room, her bare stomach kissing the wood laminate flooring as she creeps to the corner. Baby does not recoil. Slowly, Mother gathers Baby in her arms, whispering, “Good girl. You didn’t cry. Only weak children cry, remember?”

Baby and rag doll look up with blank, black eyes. Mother laughs condescendingly. “Ha. I’m such a hypocrite, aren’t I? When you grow up, angel, don’t be like Mother. Mother cries. But don’t worry. In the story I will write for you, you will never need to cry. Ever.”

~~~

Baby sits in the corner, rag doll in hand. Mother leaves to purge herself in fantasies and dreams until she’s restored to a pure, sweet girl of seventeen. At nineteen she’s still beautiful—a fairy from a story—but otherworldly things like her do not belong in reality.

Baby looks at the doll brought to life by Mother’s hands. Patchwork dress like stitched memories and sutures threatening to rupture. Tentatively, Baby cradles doll the way Mother just did. Doll does not smile or laugh or cry. After all, it doesn’t have a heart.

The first and last time Baby cried was when the obstetrician kickstarted its lungs. Staring at the doll, its mouth a straight line even now, tears which never escaped flood into the spaces between.

When Mother returns, Baby is sitting silently in the corner. Rag doll lies in pieces on the floor. Black hair is missing in patches and clumps and the seams have split to reveal a sundry of colored fabrics. Only the dress is still intact.

Mother quietly gathers the remains of the defiled corpse. She smiles. “Don’t worry, angel. Mother will fix it for you. It’s not your fault … it’s not your fault.”

~~~

Child sits in the alley, licking at its wounds. Today’s are not as bad because it finally learned how to fake a cry. Kids are no better than adults, Child decides. They are cruel and derive pleasure from breaking people like toys.

Child inspects the damage to its belly and arms and legs. Most it can hide under clothing and are bruises—not gashes. It should be fine so long as Mother doesn’t look too carefully. As it gets up to leave, warm blood trickles into its right eye and the world is divided into crimson and black.

Unfazed, Child raises its hand to probe its forehead. A laceration about two inches by one yawns in a gentle slope across its skin. Irritation swims up to its face for a breath before retreating back into the depths. Calmly, Child walks toward the ocean, one eye burning red.

The beach is deserted when Child walks into the sea. Chilling water breaks its course against the glowing, discolored skin. With an inhale, Child submerges itself underwater. Salt and water and life confront blood and sweat and bacteria. Child closes its eyes and allows the sea to wash the ache away.

When Child opens its eyes it is lying on the sand, waves surging up to its shoulders before changing their mind and retiring. So the ocean has rejected it too. Child gets up and makes its way back home.

~~~

Child sits behind the house, waiting for clothes to dry. A pitiful excuse for a beast approaches and sits mewing at its feet. Silently, Child watches its new companion. The cat is not young, nor is it old. Rather, it is a timeless shadow, patiently waiting to be delivered into the darkness. Child reaches out to stroke the fur matted with sewage and landfill only for the cat to incise four bloody lines onto its hand.

A malicious rose blooms in Child’s empty eyes. This, it can not hide from Mother. In a single graceful motion Child rises and drives its foot into the soft underbelly of the cat, sending it crashing against the concrete wall before it falls limp on the withering blades of grass.

Child wishes the sea took it away when it had the chance. The sinister rose is washed away by Child’s lucid tears and Child cries for the first time since the obstetrician kickstarted its lungs. It is the horrible realization that it really happened—nothing can restore the warmth to the soft little body—the metamorphosis which transforms victims into monsters.

Through tears, Child realizes the cat is not yet dead. Even as its soul is swallowed up by the night, it struggles toward the bush it first emerged from to accompany Child. It falls still before it arrives. Trembling, Child staggers to the bush. There must be something there. Something which can stop this torrent of unsuppressed pain.

In the bush, Child finds its forgiveness. Sleeping peacefully in a small hollow are three tiny kittens. Child gently lifts them into the cradle of its left arm, one by one, and wordlessly walks into the house. When Mother sees Child, she does not question the wound or the bruises or the scratches. Instead, she takes a kitten in her hands and says, “He is coming back soon. We should hide them while we can.”

~~~

Girl sits on a bench, watching the world go by. Neither the man nor her oppressors come to this side of town. She closes her eyes. A little boy relates the day’s events to his parents as they walk home from school, a group of girls whisper excitedly about the cute boy sitting over there, a couple shares a silence only they can partake in.

Girl opens her eyes to see an old woman lugging a portmanteau across the street—the vintage kind with metal latches and leather straps. Leaving her comfortable spot in the sun, Girl jogs over and takes the suitcase, dropping it off at the end of the street before helping the woman across.

When the old woman thanks her, Girl simply nods. She’s still not used to speaking. No words are exchanged as they walk to the woman’s house, though it is not uncomfortable. When they arrive, the woman thanks her again and Girl walks home to tell the cats about this encounter.

The next day, Girl sees the old woman lugging a portmanteau across the street again—the same one. Again, she jogs over to help and they walk in silence to the woman’s house. This continues for a week until the old woman invites her in on Sunday. Since refusing politely would require speaking, Girl nods and hoists the suitcase up the front steps.

In the house, the old woman asks if Girl ever wondered what was inside the suitcase she helped carry every day. Girl nods even though she never did. Growing up she learned it was better not to question some things. The old woman lifts the latches and opens it up like a book. Girl looks in.

~~~

Girl sits on the floor, staring at the contents. Inside the portmanteau is a human life. The first toy loved until it fell into pieces, the first trophy for piano after years of pain, the first picture with a boy, the first playlist for heartbreak, the first letter which would take her to a place far away—all of this Girl soaks up until there are no more empty spaces.

“My granddaughter,” the old woman says. “She’s heading off to college next week and was going to throw all this away. Of course, I wasn’t about to let that happen. She probably thinks I’m a crazy old lady, carrying this home myself, but she doesn’t know I’ve had help.”

The old woman smiles tenderly at Girl—the kind of smile which is even now vanishing from Mother’s lovely face. “But then again, maybe I am crazy for thinking she could understand. It takes being old to realize memories are all you’ve really got.”

Girl stares unabashedly into the old woman’s eyes the way she stares into the sea. Like there is something at the bottom which she can not even begin to fathom. And there probably is. “So, child,” she says, leaning back into her armchair, “Is there anything you would like to tell me?”

Everything.

~~~

Daughter sits with Mother, drinking tea in the lady’s house. “Ciel,” the old woman says, and Mother looks up. “Your daughter tells me your husband is often drunk, is that correct?” A cold severity penetrates her face and voice.

Daughter fidgets with the handle of the china teacup, wondering if it was good idea to bring Mother here. She nods softly, but not meekly, and the old woman’s features soften. “I see.” The silence expands to fill the gaps with its somber tones. “If you don’t mind, Ciel, I have a request for your daughter.” Mother nods again, squeezing the hand interlaced tightly with hers. Smiling, the old woman turns to Daughter and says, “I would like you to call me grandmother.”

Daughter blinks in confusion. When she turns to Mother for help she receives nothing but an encouraging smile: it is her decision to make. Turning back, she says, “I appreciate your kindness, but what about your—”

“You are more of a granddaughter to me than that spoiled girl ever was. She has everything except the time to send her crazy old grandmother and her suitcase of memories to her home a mile away. Everything you helped me carry here—it is yours now.” The old woman pauses and smiles sympathetically at the bewildered girl. “You will not be replacing my granddaughter by calling me grandmother. I am not doing this out of pity either. Pity is a vile and useless emotion. No … I’m doing this because I wouldn’t be able to rest well knowing I let a jewel like you stayed buried in the rock. You need love, child, and from more people than one.”

Daughter closes her eyes to keep the precious warmth from flowing out so tears flow out instead. “Thank you … grandmother.”

~~~

Daughter sits on the sidewalk, watching as the man is taken away. Grandmother’s son is the Chief of Police and the dogs found a hidden cellar. Only Clover—the kitten which grew up to look most like its mother—is left now. Her two brothers disappeared one day and never looked back. Watching her previous life unravel before her eyes, Daughter puzzles over the weight in her heart where there should be liberation. “I would have done this sooner if we had a safe place to go to,” Mother says, suddenly at Daughter’s side like a fairy from a story.

Daughter nods. They sit on the sidewalk in silence even after the the police cars drive away; it’s only them on the small, deserted street. Mother waits patiently for thoughts and feelings to solidify into words. Finally, Daughter says, “I’ve always wondered what it would feel like to finally be free from him. How happy we would be, how everything would suddenly be right again. But even now that he’s gone for good, I can still feel this heavy chain surrounding my heart.”

She pauses, digging her fingernails into her knees. “And I think I’m scared that, if I try to take it off, there won’t be anything underneath it anymore. That, without the chain, I am nothing. That man … he is my father. He is a part of me! So many times I’ve felt I was becoming like him, and, the more that I think about it, I probably already am him. I’ve killed a living thing before, Mother! What if I’m even worse than that man?”

Mother’s hand slices through the air and lands hard on Daughter’s cheek. Too stunned to move, she doesn’t resist when Mother brings her into a tight embrace. And for the first time, Mother’s voice rings strong and clear in Daughter’s ears as she says, “You are not your father, nor are you me. You are not the children who bullied you, nor are you your past. You are the person you are now, in this moment. Those chains on your heart—they are real. I would be lying if I said they weren’t. Those chains are all of the times you suffered quietly and didn’t say a word. But you don’t need to do that anymore. Perhaps it’s not such a bad thing if there is nothing underneath. Now, you can build a new life. With Grandma and Clover and I. You can cry now, angel. You can cry.”

So she did.

~~~

Angel sits on the pier, inhaling the ocean. The sun’s glow clings to the horizon though its heart has long retreated. She runs her hand across the wood, rough from erosion and wind and sand. Grandmother is asleep at home and Mother should be eating the food she saved for her on the dining table. Warmth which never manifested floods into the spaces between.

Angel closes her eyes against the brisk ocean breeze. It’s not so cold when she knows there’s a home waiting for her. Carefully, Angel returns her dangling legs to the tenuous solidity of the boardwalk. Mother will be worried if she doesn’t head back soon.

Before she leaves, Angel takes a long look at the deserted beach. It looks different after dark. Here, she used to become a grain of sand washed in with the tide. Infinitely small. Infinitely surrounded. Infinitely senseless. Just a little girl in a small town in a big country in a large world in a vast galaxy in a universe full of galaxies. No one could ever find her.

But now, Angel is the center of her own little universe. A universe with Mother and Grandma and Clover. A universe where the only star she revolves around is red and pulses in the left side of her chest.

Angel smiles and walks away from the shadows of the waves.

Onassa Sun currently attends Arcadia High School & is an avid member of the creative writing community. As a writer, she strives to capture the human experience with her stories & is fascinated by how writing can touch the hearts of people she might never even meet. During her free time, she enjoys reading, doing yoga, & spending quality time with her mother.

Scheduled Epiphany 
Samantha Haviland

Honorable Mention, International Young Writers Prize, Nonfiction

Disclaimer: As I write this essay, attempting to embody rebellion and denounce society, I must also recognize that by writing this essay I am only fulfilling my predetermined role in societythis is a scheduled epiphany.

 

I am a high school sophomore Student: 512222080

Statistics from 7:45 to 8:30, Homeroom from 8:33 to 8:45, Chemistry from 8:47 to 9:30, Honors 9 English from 9:33 to 10:15, Spanish II from 10:17 to 11, Health from 11 to 11:45, lunch from 11:47 to 12:30, Geometry from 12:33to 1:15, band from 1:17 to 2:00, Creative Writing from 2:03 to 2:45. At 3:15 organized sports begin. Run, jump, and dribble for two and a half hours, then go home.

5:45, homework at the kitchen counter.
6:30, dinner.
7:00, study, with an emphasis on history, you have a test tomorrow. 9:00, pretend to go to sleep, really watch Netflix on your phone. 12:00, turn down your brightness, continue to watch Netflix.
2:00, click yes when Netflix asks you if you’re still watching.
2:03, turn your phone off and stare blankly up at your ceiling.

2:05, epiphany.

Everything is set up for us no matter which category we fall into, nerd, jock, nobody. The paths we will take are already predestined—nothing can change them.

Some of us believe we can change our path I believe this is a preprogrammed notion embedded in our brains—it alludes us to the idea of change when all you can really do is continue on your path as the scenery changes, climbing steps where steps are in place and falling when the almighty force that is fate pushes you down.

40. People who accept the beliefs stated in this passage believe in

  1. Polytheism
  2. Monotheism
  3. emperor worship
  4. papal authority

Who decided we would raise our hands in class? Who decided the youth were not allowed to go to the bathroom without permission from an authority figure?

In third grade, a boy in my class decided it was best to just piss his pants then wait for the three kids in front of him to go. At the time I was disgusted. Now I just shrug.

Would a caveman have waited?

11. Which idea of Babylonian society does this portion of the Hammurabi code of law reflect?

  1. All men were equal under the law.
  2. Fines were preferable to corporal punishment.
  3. Divisions existed between social classes.
  4. Violence was always punished with violence.

All our classes, but above all history, teach us to live in accordance with the past. If mistakes were made we must correct them, if something “worked” we continue with it, we keep it, we preserve it. History labels all the events that have ever happened as good or bad, it sorts through the laws of ancient civilizations and throws out the ones that don’t make sense.

We are given a selective view of our parent’s world and taught to live in it, taught to replicate the supposedly perfect society that came before us. We are taught to imitate not to be. They sort us into groups and give us different parts and roles like this is some kind of school play that’s already been written, already been performed a dozen times before– we are just another reiteration of the same thing. Much like this.

Couldn’t we write our own play, choose our own roles?

26. Which of the following was an effect of the turning point identified in this diagram?

a.

b.

c.

d. NONE OF THE ABOVE

They give us a map of the world everything already circled and marked and outlined, places to avoid, places to go, how to get there. The borders already drawn, enemies already made.

But how many of us actually know why the great wars started?

2. ​Which of the following was not a cause of WWI?

  1. FATE
  2. THE MAN ON THE MOON WHO CONTROLS US WITH HIS MAGIC MOONPOWERS
  3. THEM
  4. US

Why can’t the rules and customs of the old dissipate and eventually disappear?

3. Which of the following brought the Byzantine Empire to an end?

  1. The capture of Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire
  2. Emperor Justinian’s attempt to reconquer the Mediterranean basin
  3. The extensive loss of territory to an expanding Persian Empire
  4. THEM

In a way, all of society is a teacher, scolding you for every “wrong doing.” Your teachers tell you how to act(wait until called upon to speak, please, Miss Haviland), your parents tell you how to act (elbows off the table Samantha), tv tells you how to act (a guy, in a dress, what a r*tard), that random annoying guy on the street tells you how to act (smile darling).

But how do we know this is how we should really act?

24. These rules are designed to help historians determine the

  1. reliability of US
  2. popularity of US
  3. differences in US
  4. laws of US

School is a form of protective software, there to reinforce the rigid structure around us. Rules on top of rules, layers on top of layers.

33. The illustration represents a society based on

a. social class

b. accumulated wealth

c. educational achievement

d. THE GROUNDHOG PEOPLE THAT LIVE BELOW OUR FEET, CONTROLLING OUR
MOVEMENTS VIA TELEPATHY

Do you ever think about what it would’ve been like to enter the world without a tool kit, without teachers, without language, without a history, without any references at all? To live in a world without context.

You wouldn’t know the story of Adam or Eve or even the basic history of your country. What would it be like if we were never taught about the atrocities of humanity, if we were never taught about the rise and fall of ancient empires, the assassinations of presidents? What if we were just released into the world, like turtles running from the beach, with nothing to guide us towards the sea but the big bright light in the sky? To rely solely on animal instincts, to only have what your born with.

You see an apple and you eat it. You see water and you attempt to walk on it. You see a spider and you do not crush it. You learn apples are edible, water is not solid and still have no opinion on spiders. You experience the world for the first time, no preconceived notions of what should be there and what shouldn’t be there. Society doesn’t deposit knowledge into your brains that may or may not stay, instead, you begin a trial and error process that inspires real tangible boundaries into your mind.

You are the creator of the dos and don’ts.

39. Which of the following was an effect of the events presented in the timeline?

  1. US
  2. THEM
  3. THE CORRECTLY PREDICTED END OF WORLD DATE 12/12/12
  4. The Mongols conquered China and established the Yuan Dynasty.

I want you to think about an empty world, no one there to tell you what to do, to analyze your actions and what’s wrong, no rules, no symbols, no associations. Or at least, not yet.

Just think.

What it would be like to see clothes and not know what they’re for, to look at your naked body and not know it should be covered.

Imagine finding a gun, a relic of the past from ancient cities long ago, and not thinking about how many people it had killed.

What would it be like not knowing?

6. Which innovation most contributed to the development of the civilizations depicted in the map?

  1. SPACE
  2. DIRECTION
  3. TIME
  4. THE DIGITAL CLOCK

All of a sudden nothing would exist but us. The abstract ideas of the universe would be gone.

Love, hate, philosophy, the big bang, time itself would seem like a completely separate entity. There’d be no concepts.

Just people, unburdened with knowledge, living an ignorant, blissful life. Unaware of pain and suffering, of death.

They walk bare on the beaches, through the forests, they give in to their desires and don’t hold out hope for tomorrow. They don’t wait. There are no long games. There are no games at all. People are blunt and straightforward with each other.

They don’t walk by each other in the halls and wave, then spend ten minutes thinking about how they waved, the way they held their hand, how long their hand stayed suspended in air or if they should have waved at all. A wave just means a wave, a hello, a greeting.

They are settled and satisfied, while current-day humanity is a bomb. A buzzing anxious, motion-sensitive land mine, just waiting to be stepped on wrong. We live our lives waiting, waiting for happiness, waiting for death. But they live their lives as animals, wandering and eating and procreating, and making rules as they go. They don’t wait to be happy.

Why do we wait?

9. Which title best completes this diagram?

  1. Elements of US
  2. Features of US
  3. Basic Components of US
  4. Human Life 50,000 Years BEFORE US

We are given this programing and we’re set to work, sometimes we glitch, sometimes we break, sometimes we are given updates.

But what if we were rebooted?

What if we were seeing everything for the first time, hard drives wiped.

36. What is the primary theme of this passage?

a. US

b. THEM

c. THE VOICES I HEAR IN MY HEAD

d. social mobility

After completing the Multiple Choice Questions please begin work on the DBQ (document-based essay),

it is worth 25% of your grade.

“In the period [OF US], people and states around the world [HAVE REJECTED THE IDEA OF THEM AS WELL AS THE CURRENT] order. [DO YOU?]”
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Samantha Haviland is a 16-year-old writer from Westchester, New York, & has just finished her sophomore year of high school at Interlochen Arts Academy.

The White Man 
Anya Shukla

Honorable Mention, International Young Writers Prize, Nonfiction

“A boy salutes as he has learned in the school, and cries umfundisi. He waits for no response, but turns away and gives the queer tremulous call, to no person at all, but to the air. He turns away and makes the first slow steps of a dance, for no person at all, but for himself” (Paton 257).

You used to be special, back when you were younger. You used to be important. Back then, the world was ​your world—you worked solely for yourself; you wanted for yourself. You existed for yourself. And then the white man, spitting words of disgust, cornered you. You leaned your elbows on the scratched-up desk in the science lab as he told you that your fine, black body hair, luminescent against your olive skin, made you look ugly. In English class, you stared at the light reflecting off of garish pink posters—​Be Kind!—​ when he told you that you were less than. He told you that you were unnecessary, useless. Unwanted. He told you that this world wasn’t yours, that you didn’t belong.

Stop caring about yourself. Stop holding on to your existence; it doesn’t belong to you, anyway. Focus only on the actions that please others; work to please him. Walk in his shadow when he enters the room. Muzzle yourself. Bleach your skin. Remind yourself that you don’t matter. Pick away at your finely tuned identity. Let it erode; let it burst, burnt and hollow; let it lose all its depth, its clarity. Let you exist just to serve him.

You are nothing but a mat for him to walk over. You are nothing but a mat. You are nothing.

 

“A white man’s dog, that is what they called him and his kind. Well, that was the way his life had been lived, that was the way he would die” (Paton 303).

You remember the moment when you first felt uncomfortable in your skin, when you realized that you were unworthy, don’t you? You remember the discomfort you felt when someone made a racist comment: the glances in your direction, the ​Did she hear I don’t know I hope not.​ When he made fun of your “accent.” When he asked if you would be deported. When he.

You can’t help but worry the wounds, can’t help but run your hands over the faded memories. The barely audible sorry;​ the eyes that looked at the ceiling, the carpet, the wall, anywhere but your face. The mask you wore to hide your emotions. The stalwart gaze straight ahead. The rapid blinking of the eyes. The clench of the jaw. Your collapsed sternum, your paused breath, your caved-in thoughts.

Remember that it is a thousand times harder not to say anything, to sit there and take it, than it is to apologize. It is not easy to stay quiet; to go home and curl up on the couch under a green blanket; to watch TV, passively consuming Baljeet and Apu, enveloping yourself in harsh accents and discordant caricatures. It is not easy to stay silent when your mother says that boys will fall in love with you because you look “exotic,” because of your doe-like eyes and olive skin, a shade lighter than your sister’s. Remember that; take solace in that; let the thought of your strength ease your pain.

 

“Umfundisi, it was the white man who gave us so little land, it was the white man who took us away from the land to go to work. And we were ignorant also. It is all these things together that have made this valley desolate” (Paton 302).

It’s in the system, they say? No. Racism ​is​ the system. It’s entrenched in us, ingrained in babies at six months, still a central part of lives at sixty years. It’s what’s in the education, or, rather, what’s not in the education: it’s the omission of history, the erasure of the non-white perspective. You stared at the peach-pale canvases at the Seattle Art Museum, noted the lack of people of color in Renaissance artwork. You cried when you watched a Hollywood movie that featured a South Asian character. You saw ​Hidden Figures​, raged against the addition of a white man in a movie about African American women, a white man that was never part of the story, because, as the movie’s director said, “there needs to be white people who do the right thing” (Thomas). Because we need to be obligated to our white saviors. Because they came to help us, they came to lift us from the darkness, they came to pray for our salvation in the blurry twilight. Because we need to be saved by the very people who destroyed us in the first place.

 

“They are silent in the room, but for all that a white man calls out in a loud voice for silence” (Paton 236).

And when you try to create change, when you try to educate, host diversity trainings at work, hold conversations with your peers, you’re met with hostility, aren’t you? You’re met with fear, a disconnect from reality, a tide of empty words: ​It’s all discrimination against the white man, anyway. There are no jobs for the white man, anyway. Anyway, I’m being held up as a scapegoat; I’m being treated unfairly. It stresses me out when you bring up my comments about race; do you want me to have a heart attack? My neighbors are Asian, so I can’t be racist. My friend is black, so I can’t be racist. My daughter is mixed race, so I can’t be racist. It’s not my fault: my great-great-great-great-grandfather created the system, not me. I can’t possibly be racist.

It’s all just white fragility, anyway.

 

“There are many sides to this difficult problem. And people persist in discussing soil-erosion, and tribal decay, and lack of schools, and crime, as though they were all part of the matter. If you think long enough about it, you will be brought to consider republics, and bilingualism, and immigration, and Palestine, and God knows what. So in a way it is best not to think about it at all” (Paton 224).

And therein lies the problem: everything is the problem. One that the white man can’t be bothered to solve. And so he forgets about our existence. He leaves us with a lack of representation; with colorism, the idea that lighter is better, the tingle of bleach on skin; with the echoes of dirt-stained taunts and slurs; with dust-covered hope, the belief that change will come.

He erases our identity. He takes away our perception of ourselves. There is no “I,” there is no “me.” There is only “you,” the “hey, you over there,​” there is only “them versus us.” There is only the white man versus everyone else. We’re all waiting for him to change his mind, for him to figure out that we’re not the issue. He is.

 

“Then she sat down at his table, and put her head on it, and was silent, with patient suffering of black women, with the suffering of oxen, with the suffering of any that are mute” (Paton 40).

The white man gave you an obligation, didn’t he? To stand by when you see bigotry, to feign indifference when you hear biased comments, to walk away when you sense an argument brewing. When you see racism at a group interview, old white woman versus young black woman, sharp words against deferential murmurs, you don’t step in—you can’t step in—because then neither of you would get the position; both of the people of color would lose. Instead, you leave them be; you escape from the stuffy office building into the smooth, open air of the city. In the car, you explode, talking to your mother about the injustice you see, the discrimination. Spent, you fall silent, slumped against the smooth leather of the passenger seat.

You take the job. You remember that young black woman when you work in your cubicle; you look around, just in case you can spot her. You never do. Because we’re playing chess, remember? And the people in power have captured all the pieces and we’re one move away from checkmate and there’s nothing more we can do but count down the clock, stare down the hours, hope to God they get tired of watching us suffer.

 

“God have mercy upon us. Christ have mercy upon us. White man have mercy upon us” (Paton 89).

Yes, white man have mercy upon us. White man be merciful towards us. White man forgive us. Follow us into stores. Fight against us. White man, call the police when we sell bottled water. White man, pull us aside during airport security. White man, scream, “Go back to your own country!” Refuse us service, white man, refuse us jobs, refuse us hope, refuse us liberty. White man, shoot our fathers. White man, rape our mothers. White man, take away our children. Protect us from our enemies, white man, protect us from our enemies. Protect us from your words, from your hate and discrimination. Protect us from the people you have turned us into, protect us from the silent oxen, the ones who stand mute. White man, protect us from ourselves.

For without you we are nothing.

 

“Call and dance, Innocence, call and dance while you may. For this is a prelude, it is only a beginning. Strange things will be woven into it, by men you have never heard of, in places you have never seen. It is life you are going into, you are not afraid because you do not know. Call and dance, call and dance. Now, while you still may” (Paton 259).
 
 
 

This essay was first published by Scholastic as part of their Art & Writing Awards.

 

Works Cited

Paton, Alan. Cry, the Beloved Country. New York, Simon & Schuster, 2004.

Thomas, Dexter. “Oscar-nominated Hidden Figures was whitewashed—but it didn’t have to be.” ​Vice News​, 25 Jan. 2017,www.vice.com/en_us/article/d3xmja/oscar-nominated-hidden-figures-was-whitewashed-but-it-didnt-have-to-be​. Accessed 3 Dec. 2019.

Anya Shukla attends Lakeside School in Seattle, WA. Her writing often deals with issues of race and identity, & her work has been recognized by The New York Times & the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, among others. Outside of school, she co-founded and writes for The Colorization Collective, an organization that aims to support teen artists of color.

There is a name for our present tense 
Duy Quang Mai

Honorable Mention, International Young Writers Prize, Nonfiction

                    —after Ocean Vuong

 

1981’s April. Sweats pearled the shades of dawn. Sunlight inked into your clothes. How everything stilled in the carving heat. You both were young and had numbered days to count. You both worked as factory laborers while in university. Life was a few chapters behind then.

Beginning years whittled down to four hands, coated with coal. All you had, were stories—ma and pa.

///

13 years old. I always noticed my grandparents’ hair, how it started to bud milkflowers. Before them, were years of drowning, and then anchoring the war. I know the war. It still clutches their breath on some quiet days. But they found each other, to edit their leftover mid-sentences.

Maybe that 1945’s hunger connected the young couple. I didn’t really know, had never asked. What I know certainly, that their youths saturated to an amber light—at least, together.

You both said, history is always a living question, always a large body overshadowing the existence of the now.

You both said, we probably wouldn’t know what warmth is, now, if it weren’t for them.

Your voices thinned into air,

‘Postwar Vietnam was our home. But its roof was holed. Some wounds to thread. We were this country’s needs, us, your father and me. And others also. We were once the future—of some dust-smeared decades.’

0 am. I miss you both. I miss my supposed language. I thought it was singing under this foreign sky. Your syllables sink like a snowfield. I still hear them thaw a sphere apart.

3 am. I remember being told, in the quietest of nights, dreams are all about how we’re living our afterlives. All the wishful things. Then I wake, my mouth untamed, only to search for the spilled traces of last sleep.

Sometimes, I thought the sky started snowing. Though summer sky seared singed. Pa, you once told me, our bodies sometimes thirsted for something, unseen, to hold onto. But I say what you tried to describe were memories. Maybe yes, our bodies desire the pasts’ residue and constantly look back to gather such remnants. Our bodies turn around to settle a history unfinished, by hammering conclusions into each gone chapter. After that, they move on. Isn’t this similar to how you once said goodbye to your country, pa?

You unclutched my hand. Your index finger traced an ampersand onto my right palm. The motion like gravity, soft and felt. I eyed that movement, as if it cradled a small moon inside. Our lives usually begin with an ‘and.’ That’s how you start, you carry you push forward with your present tense.

So I puffed. My stomach, a swell of conjunction, of ands, waiting for a day to release.

///

The other day, I went to the fast-food shop near my dorm. The chips there, I ate at least once a fortnight. Now, peking duck. It came out—smudged in the brown of noon. How I tasted sweetness in places, far from your country. The nation that I dreamt about, often, my makeshift shelter. Maybe home is where we can make it. The restaurant’s owners are Chinese immigrants. Their stories packed in this dish. And here, now, I was chewing it. Every throat-choked bite, a written paragraph.

Then I gasped. My tongue still pinked with each swallow. Ma, I now learned, we live just to fall into each other. We live, to read through each page of days.

Spring. 6 March 2002, at about 7:15 am, under the sterile white ceiling. I saw earth for the first time.

Childhood in summer haste. It tasted the sweetest then. Ma and pa, you sang me songs. I still remember, still hang them near my ribs. So I could understand the art of retouching memories and be reminded of what I’ve got. I could try to pass on our oral folksongs. Do you remember ma, the traditional ones? The tunes of history, you told me, often, how they echoed through the narrow alleyways of your childhood. The hawkers sang such songs, as a way to sell traditional Vietnamese food, as if they tried to press survival into language and stories. How they always carried on the sinews, the blood of your nation.

We’re here now, in Australia, living. I remember our past ruins each time mornings stretch like ornate wounds on my room’s ceiling. I stitch them to my hands. How wounds can teach me things. They tell our stories in places we’ve crossed, even oceans apart. So I tell them, these people, your and my stories. So I write the clouds into sentences. My body here—the one I’ve inherited from you—means a thing, to the culture of this. I suppose we’re blending like acrylic and growing together, people. We are.

///

Some early autumns, I peek-a-booed your thin palms. Nothing inside. Nothing but your skin. The way it creased draughts. Ma, what’re they? You didn’t answer, but instead, after straightening your back, you reached for the cardboard box on top of our wardrobe. Inside, those photographs blurred with 80s, tainted smiles. You both, front of the factory. Sepia-toned hands bound to knots. Our growth was here. The nose-burnt coal, our days, sewed me and your father, together.

Funny. How you both could still be happy, when your bodies were rusting to dirt. Here, is all we’ve got, so use your own paragraphs to reach here, son.

 

 

Back in your times, the TV didn’t seem to reach wide enough. No phones to make up for the distance.

But I know surely in each decade, there is always a black hole, swelling. Problems spiral to chaos. Chaos sees through the need of order. Yet, we always pass through the hours. Yet, New Year Eves, still have our night sky syntaxed with fireworks.

Maybe we live softer now, meatier even. To understand that we only have each other to hold. So hold we do, skin-to-skin.

And yes—ma—pa. I’ve been writing this letter to tell you about the years. That they still arrive, still flood hearts and their chambers. Unscathed hours ahead to narrate my stories. How I have translated this new sky into my own meanings. My mouth, the shape of a comma. So carry on, love these seasons. They have taught me to leave my narrative behind for others. People, we’re all people. We’re all growing by connecting, by being.

These are our hands, so use them to hold, everything blood-warm, everything skin. I learnt to cup them into a lighthouse, to map the way now, ma and pa.

After all, I grow.

///

Ma and pa, I get it now. You gave me your ampersand. I’ve been trying to carve it down, onto somewhere—possibly my room. But I don’t know anymore.

I want to learn the shape of it, by heart. So I can write myself into this generation. A passage, a few sentences, or even just a letter. Then I have adulted, because I have left my story here.

This is growth itself, knowing my ampersand has stopped wintering, but rather inking so deeply and curling onto the palms of my friends, my future partner or even my dogs. We all grow now, from others’ writing and our own, into essays. They all start with an ampersand, an ‘and’ and the continuing chapters.

I will tell it, the world. I promise.

I will.

Duy Quang Mai is from Hanoi, Vietnam, but is currently studying in Sydney, Australia. His poetry has been published in Overland, The Lifted Brow, Cordite Poetry Review, Red Room Poetry, & others. HOMEWARD & JOURNALS TO are two of his chapbooks (Story Factory, 2018-19). His poetry has been recognized by John Marsden & Hachette Australia Prize, Foyle Young Poets, & Bowseat’s Ocean Awareness Contest.