Feral Children – “lost or abandoned human children raised in extreme social isolation” (Carl Linnaeus 1758)
Genie was locked up by her father to keep her away from what he considered to be the dangers of the outside world. Strapped to a seat 24 hours a day from the age of 2 to 13, Genie missed out on imperative early attachments, turning her into a ‘feral’ child. Unable to speak or walk properly, she was for all purposes an infant trapped in the body of a 13 year old girl. (NOVA: Secret of the Wild Child Documentary)
Genie was an extremely interesting case and was considered a ‘natural experiment’. Researchers from all around the country were eager to study her, Psychologists, Psychiatrists and Linguistics all used her as a human guinea pig for studies into language development.
If participants do not refuse to be involved in studies, then is it okay for experiments to go ahead? When an ambulance is called out to an emergency, they must ask if the patient would like their help. If for any reason no answer is given then this is taken as consent. If Genie didn’t refuse the researchers, then did this make it acceptable? Because Genie was unable to speak, she could not physically express consent. However, verbal communication wasn’t the most important part of her understanding. The APA standards for consent for a participant stress competency for understanding. (Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct). Because Genie was brought up in a situation where she was not exposed to any human language, she did not have the capacity to understand what the researchers were asking her to do. Therefore, she could not be classified as competent by any standard and subsequently should not have been used in the experiment? It is clear that Genie also suffered from extreme psychological harm after the experiments were conducted, such as refusing to open her mouth after being abused and refusing to show any interest in other people (Susan Curtiss, 1971).
Although experiments conducted on Genie offered detail into an exceptional mind, it is unclear how the research benefited society. With it being such a rare case, it is hardly representative of a wider population. However, at the time Genie’s case had the perceived ability to reveal critical insights into language development and linguistics. In the 1970’s research upon this topic was so uncommon, to find Genie was a phenomenon. Genie was a prize, and it was a competition to see who would get to study her. Being a case study, this research was incredibly interesting and in depth, providing detail like no other. However, it is difficult to generalise from individual cases as each one has unique characteristics.
Ultimately, the interests of science were put before the best interests of a child. Today, this case remains famous for its interesting insights into the horrific account of an isolated child. The psychologists involved took advantage of Genie’s under developed mental state and used her for their own gain. These psychologists were later sued by Genie’s mother for outrageous and excessive testing (Russ Rymer, 1994).
1 – Carl Linnaeus 1758
2 – NOVA: Secret of the Wild Child. (Documentary about Genie), March 4, 1997
3 – American Psychological Association Guidelines, Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct. http://www.apa.org/ethics/code/index.aspx
4 – Susan Curtiss, 1977. Researcher of Genie. Psychology AS, The Complete Companion.
5 – Russ Rymer, “Genie, A scientific Tragedy” 1993
Our Creative Minds Imagine writing contests have allowed us to showcase the remarkable work of many young fiction writers over the years. We hope you enjoy reading their stories.
First Place | Second Place | Third Place | Honorable Mention
Contest judge: Diana Rodriguez Wallach
Waking the Dead
by Cole Vandenberg
Brian Terence died in November of 1854 at the age of twenty-three. A few years prior, his wife had given birth to a girl, whom they named Emily. But Death never takes such circumstances into consideration when he works. Brian was lost and mourned, and the world stood lonely without him.
On the day of his burial, the naked trees of the graveyard whined against the grey sky. Winter, it seemed, had her foot in the door. In a few weeks, she would turn the ground to a cold stone that no shovel could penetrate. Today, however, the earth sat ravaged and gaping as Brian was lowered to rest. He was buried with a string that ran above ground to a bell. This was not uncommon. It was very difficult for those who loved the dead to give up hope entirely, as the little silver bells that spotted the graveyard displayed. As long as the bells were present, death’s impermanence remained a possibility.
Hours later, in the dead of night, a man slept by the grave. He sat slumped in his chair, which he had set up beneath one of the trees. His chin nested in the divot of his collarbone and his corduroy jacket was pulled up around his neck, blanketing against the chill that turned his sleep-breaths to ice. He was stationed to listen for a ringing bell that would inform him of a premature burial. He had worked as graveyard watchman for forty years. After twenty he had given up on staying awake. He was not irresponsible, he was merely practical. A ringing bell would call him to duty, and despite his years, he had never heard a ringing bell. That night would be the first.
He blinked, swallowed, and woke moments after Brian Terence did the same six feet below him. The bell had rung once, and the watchman found consciousness just in time to hear the last seconds of its tone die in the wintry air. He looked down at the bell. The string was pulled taut, having snagged on a root. He forced himself to his feet and made his way over to it. His knees popped as he crouched to pull the string free. Upon release, the clapper in the bell sprang to life, splitting the night with its sound. The old man stumbled backward and fell into his chair again. He looked around for his shovel before remembering that twenty years ago it, too, had been abandoned. He climbed upright again and moved himself toward the supply shed on one end of the yard.
He struggled with his keys in the time-rusted padlock. His arthritic fingers quivered in the cold, proving largely uncooperative as well. Apprehension set one knee to bouncing in time with the bell, which continued its ringing in unrelenting desperation. Eventually, the lock clicked open, and the chain to which it was attached snaked to the ground. He pulled out the shovel and moved back toward the grave, cursing at his inability to travel with anything beyond a shuffle.
At the grave, the shovel bounced off the dirt with a low clang. The night had frozen the ground. Driving downward with his heel, he was eventually able to dent the earth. Fatigue ate at him. His anxiety proved to be his only defense against it. Slowly, he made his way downward.
It was monotonous work. Time was marked only by a steady increase in the frenzy of the ringing, and as this progressed, the watchman became more feverish. His movements became quick and sloppy, and he would occasionally knock dirt back into the grave. His nerves jumped and fritzed. The bell did nothing to calm them. Finally, when the stress became too great, the old man reached upward, grabbed the string, and snapped it. The ringing fell to an echo. He paused for a moment and sighed. The tears that had begun to well in his eyes started to ebb. Once calm, he set back to digging.
It was just after the watchman realized that ground level had passed his head that the shovel bounced off the ground for the second time that night. He swept away the remaining dirt and pebbles and gazed at the smooth wood on which he stood. He heard nothing. A light pain in his nose accompanied the downward tug on his mouth and the closing of his throat as the tears began again to press at his eyelids. He pulled open the lid of the coffin. Brian Terence stared back, his hands closed around the severed string. The watchman was too old, too slow, and too late. The dead would remain dead after all. Crippling defeat washed over him, and he fell to his knees and wept. The neat suit of the dead man absorbed his tears.
Even after he had collected himself, he continued to sit silently in the coffin. The stars were out in Brian’s eyes. As a final act, the watchman closed them. Rising to his feet, he closed the coffin lid and began to pull the dirt back into place. His fatigue and the physical strain gave him no breaks now. He moved slowly as ever, guilty and heartbroken. Eventually, he was able to pull himself out of the hole. He gazed down at the grave for a moment before continuing to toss dirt from above. This would be the man’s second burial.
Dawn broke on the horizon as the watchman replaced the last load of earth. He went back to his chair and sat, laying his shovel beside him. An hour later, the people of the town began to stir and an old friend dropped by the graveyard to take the watchman to breakfast.
“You slept well, I trust?” the man asked, with a chuckle.
The bells were silent.
Cole Vandenberg, 17, is a high school junior from Victor, NY. He enjoys playing his guitar, painting and sculpting, and taking walks in the woods. He is thankful for the encouragement of his parents and teachers and for the opportunity to share his work.
Judge’s comments: Along with a very distinctive and mature voice, this story crafts a strong plot that puts its protagonist through a range of emotions. There are some beautiful descriptive details, like: “On the day of his burial, the naked trees of the graveyard whined against the grey sky. Winter, it seemed, had her foot in the door.” The main character’s panic is also vividly described, and the author clearly has a knack for showing and not telling a story. Overall, the story shines for its unique voice, fully developed character arc, and rich sensory details.
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by Freshta Rahmani
I feel the pebbles from the road digging into the soles of my feet through my paper thin shoes. Ota Jan¹ promised that we only had a little more to go, but then again, he also promised me new shoes. I look over at my brother’s feet and wonder if he’s thinking the same thing, but his sheer normalcy tells me how accustomed he’s become to our situation.
The wind picks up and I shield my eyes from the dust that is about to hit my face. The wind persists like a bad cough and I pull my scarf around my face and wrap it the way Modar Jan taught me to when these sorts of things happened.
Ota Jan heard about how Kaka Rahman’s family was visiting and how they were from America. As soon as he found out, he told us to put on our best shoes and clothes and asked us to bring him his black vest, the one that had the forty afghanis in it.
Forty afghanis is not a lot―definitely not enough for a new pair of sandals―but it is enough to bring a small gift to the Americans.
I dream about America whenever we take these kind of trips, letting my mind drift off to a place where I can escape to. Ota Jan was always telling me about how they lived in a land where the grass was green and the skies were pink, but the skyscrapers that they had were shinier than anything Afghanistan’s ever seen. He used to sing a little song about the country to me―something he did only when he was truly happy―as a lullaby.
I love to picture myself there, standing underneath a skyscraper that Ota told me was called the “Empire State Building”, smiling and waving to my reflection in the shiny, shiny metal.
Ota Jan thinks that someone will be able to help us. Him.
He makes us walk several miles each time, trying to convince us that this person will be different. But most of the time, it’s himself who he’s trying to convince.
“No, no, bacha jan, this person will help.” He rambles on, gripping our hands while we cross the street, dodging death amongst the speeding cars. “They will. And when they do, I can finally buy you the new shoes I promised you, and we will have dishes with chicken and lamb and oh! You all will grow tall, and big, and strong―strong enough to beat your old man.” He’d laugh at the end with the kind of laugh that sounds genuine. But I know my father. His laughter is forced, and I think deep down he realizes that there’s no hope for any of us.
I ignore the pebbles, telling myself that we only have a few more minutes to go; soon we’ll see Kaka Rahman’s yellow house at the end of the wide alley, and I’ll see kids racing and playing around and maybe I’ll join them. Maybe, this time, I won’t have to deal with the Americans staring. But it’s useless; everyone stares.
I don’t even have to follow my father’s large footprints anymore; I’ve been to Kaka Rahman’s house so many times that its location is etched into my muscle memory. I make a small prayer in the four seconds I have before we reach the front door, asking for this visit to be the last one. Asking for Father to be helped.
He raps on the door loudly, and I hear a dog barking on the other side. A girl who looks only a couple of years older than me peeks her head out, but I don’t recognize her. She must be one of the Americans, then. An Amreekoiy. She lets us inside when Kaka tells her to shut the door, then leads us past the gates into the space outside the living room. We take our shoes off and I long for a chance to freshen up before I take a step inside.
From a quick eye sweep over myself, I notice that my feet and nails are dusty from all the street-walking. I look down upon my dress and see the tiny tear in the collar and the hole in the sleeve that Mother never had a chance to fix. I try my best to smooth out my scarf and tuck in the few strands of hair that escaped from running, and I walk inside after my father and brother, greeting Kaka Rahman as soon as I enter.
The audible gasp I hear doesn’t take me by surprise—in fact, I relax after I hear it. It assures me that there won’t be any polite ignorance as we had the humility to endure multiple times before. The lady opens the door behind her and calls her kids, telling them something in English. They pile in one by one, four girls in total, and begin to stare as I had predicted.
“How long have you had this?” The lady asks my father while she pulls out a large telephone. She paces around him and winces appropriately at parts of the story.
Her camera zooms in.
He tries to stay still during the recording but I can see his pinky start to twitch as slight perspiration makes his forehead look shiny and his breath hitches when he speaks. I grab his hand to stop the shaking.
He has a mass on his right eye double the size of his fist.
When it’s time to go, my father is nearly in tears and can’t stop thanking the lady who promised to send him to India for surgery. She asked for merely a prayer in return, and my father raises his hands to the sky, pleading God for a special spot in heaven for the woman and her family. We bid everyone goodbye.
Father starts humming on the way home, and suddenly, I no longer feel the pebbles.
Freshta Rahmani is a junior at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South in New Jersey. Her interests include playing volleyball and badminton with her siblings, writing short stories, and cooking traditional dishes with her mother. She hopes to pursue a career in writing.
Judge’s comments: The ambiance and mood set throughout this piece is impressive. The reader is transported to a foreign land through rich descriptive details and strong internal monologue. The author also cleverly includes a twist that elevates the overall plot of the story. Additionally, the opening sentence for the piece draws in the reader: “I feel the pebbles from the road digging into the soles of my feet through my paper thin shoes.” And this imagery is reflected in the story’s final statement to create a satisfying ending: “Father starts humming on the way home, and suddenly, I no longer feel the pebbles.”
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by Jaimie Yue
When art class begins, the cold updraft will blow in through the open door. Sneakered feet shuffle to the storage room with the dying light bulb, water gurgles down the drain. Ethan’s teacher will lumber about. Except it doesn’t begin that way today, because Ethan’s mother asks his teacher in Mandarin when he can start drawing people. High art. Portraits. Ethan pretends not to notice his teacher’s jaw clench.
To have a comprehensive understanding of color was to understand color theory in the context of chemistry and optometry as well as visual art. But to Ethan, the meadow grass in his reference photo is just a plush green. It is the shade woven from children’s quilts and fantasy lands, honeycomb mixed with moss. Ethan mixes the colors listlessly, with his chin propped up on one hand.
He hears his teacher snap at a gaggle of giggling girls to stop talking. Ethan was supposed to work on the horse’s pelt, but his mind is on dou sha bao, red bean buns. Who knew red bean paste was actually ultramarine blue mixed with alizarin crimson and magenta?
The horse is forgotten and Ethan smears the mixture around.
When Mama first heard about Lao Lao’s stroke, four days ago, Ethan hadn’t. It wasn’t until Mama was kneading the dough for red bean buns, just a few hours ago, when she told him. She exhaled “my Mama” and “stroke” in the same breath, and never ceased kneading the dough.
“Is she okay?” Ethan had asked, stupidly, naively. There was only the rhythmic pound of the rolling pin against the dough for a few moments.
“It’s a stroke, Ethan.” Ee-sen. Mama replied, softer now, kneading the dough as if Lao Lao’s life depended on it.
Ethan opened his mouth, closed it, and searched for the words lodged in his throat. But Lao Lao was a fading face, just as Mandarin eluded him. Each character was like a snowflake on his tongue, gone in an instant. He wasn’t worried for Lao Lao, he realized. And all he could say was “I’m sorry”.
“Dui bu qi,” Ethan croaked. “I-it’s really so awful. Dui bu qi. Dui bu qi.”
Because what he couldn’t bear to see was his Mama, gone. Without Lao Lao, what would Mama become? Ethan imagined her smooth eggshell of a face shattering, splintering like glass, and the image fused his jaws shut before he could stammer out a fourth “Dui bu qi.”
If Mama was confused, she didn’t let it show. Instead, she blinked with warm, dry eyes at Ethan.
“Mei guan xi,” was all she said. It’s okay. “Now, can you please roll my sleeves up? My hands have flour on them.”
Ethan wanted to say more. He thought about how his mother’s accented English made Ethan sound like Ee-sen. He thought about the four percent chance of Mama being accepted into college in China after the Cultural Revolution and moving to America, and whether or not it was worth it if he could only mumble again and again, “I’m sorry.”
Maybe he could give this painting to Mama. They could laugh that the horse had accidentally fallen in a vat of red bean paste. He could learn more Mandarin and offer to give Lao Lao a phone call, he could, he could—
It’s not Mama. It’s his art teacher. With sunspots the color of old gravy, bony joints clenched, and spit at the corners of his mouth.
“Get up! Get up!”
The words are like a knife in his ears. Ethan realizes his hand is still curled around the paintbrush.
“Give it,” his teacher snaps. Ethan unfurls his hand. His teacher’s fingernail scrapes Ethan’s open palm, and he resists shuddering. These hands were supposed to be like Ethan’s, made for art, but they felt dead, the skin rotting right off the bone.
His teacher spits that Ethan needs use more color, to stop badgering him about painting people because he clearly wasn’t ready yet even though that wasn’t him, it was his mother.
Gone is the red bean mixture. Ethan’s teacher mixes yellow oxide with cobalt blue, heaping amounts that coat his entire palette.
Suddenly the blue morphs into green. There’s too much green. The bristles give way and Ethan can only watch as his canvas bleeds to death. Greens become reds and entire sections, hours of work, are painted over. Why was the meadow red? Why did the clouds look like waves? His teacher brushes along, colors smear into nothingness, violet becomes gray and the grass looks like linoleum.
“That was for my mother,” Ethan says hoarsely.
“Your mother?” His teacher scoffs. “You think she’d appreciate this?”
Ethan is sweating. He zips his coat up as far as it can go, sweating and shivering, and now his eyes are streaming uncontrollably. He feels a burning sting at the bridge of his nose, which grows until it’s behind his eyes and in the center of his chest.
“1,000 students,” his teacher was muttering. “And 3,000 parents and grandparents. And every time, they have the same complaints! ‘Why isn’t my child improving?’”
Ethan wanted to shout in perfect Mandarin that Mama wasn’t just one in 3,000, but how could he? Art class was just a business, and Ethan was only the wayward student who was too stubborn to buy new paints and didn’t even know enough Mandarin to seem dignified.
The brush handle is warm when his teacher hands it back to him. Ethan gets the gray-green-orange-violet mixture smeared on his thumb.
His teacher stares at the canvas with a rigid frown. He nods.
“There we go. Now you see the highlights and proper colors. Isn’t that better?”
If Mama died tomorrow, Ethan knows he wouldn’t be prepared. But it is this blindness, this immaturity, this complete ignorance to color theory, that allows his throat to finally open. But instead of saying the fourth “dui bu qi”, Ethan raises his head. Locks eyes with his teacher.
And says, “No. I hate it.”
Jaimie Yue, a junior from New Jersey, is editor of her school’s newspaper and literary magazine as well as assistant editor ofThe New Observer, a state-wide, student-run newspaper that showcases Chinese-American student writers and their cultural experiences. Her writing has been published in Teen Ink and Creative Communications, and she is a first reader forPolyphony H.S.
Judge’s comments: This story shines through its elegant symbolism. The clever correlation between the paint colors and the protagonist’s relationship with his family add a layer of depth. The author also crafted strong dialogue that not only moves the plot forward, but showcases the culture the protagonist inhabits. Additionally, there is a strong character arc that is enhanced by the protagonist finding his voice in the final line, when he stands up to his teacher and says: “No, I hate it.”
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by Caylee Weintraub
We swim in circles in the lake, our legs making small waves. The water is cool as it flows between our fingers and for a moment we can imagine what it would be like to have webbed hands, the water filling our empty spaces like a thin skin.
The lake is low this time of year. Our feet touch the sand and we muck up the water till it’s dark green. Our mother is standing at the window, watching us from inside the house. She always worries that we’ll drown. She wouldn’t be able to save us even if we did---she can’t swim. The last time we got her in the lake, she panicked in the deep end. We swam over and she grabbed onto us though we were not strong enough to hold her. We kicked hard trying to keep her head above water but she kept pulling us under, her nails digging into our necks. I wanted so badly to save her, but there was a moment when all three of us were sinking that I thought about letting her go. I thought about prying her arms off from around my neck and swimming as far from her as I could. But before I could make my decision my brother had wrapped his arms around my mother and me and pulled the two of us to shore. We laid there in the mud for hours, with our bodies half in the water. I had looked over to see my brother with his arms still wrapped around our mother, his fingers squeezing her arms so hard he was giving her bruises. He’s always held on to everything too tightly.
Our mother watches us now as we float on our backs through the shallow water. I meet my mother’s eyes, and I know she is thinking of Dad who is sick upstairs because her face gets pale, like a lake drying up.
I wave to my mother but she doesn’t see me. I’m floating on my back, thinking of how small Dad looked in his bed last night, his eyes dark and glossy like two tapioca pearls. His skin was thin and wrinkled, soft like peeled grapes. He did not speak or drink. My mother and my brother and I wetted his mouth with sponges all throughout the night, saliva slipping out of the corners of his lips. He looked around the room, pointing at the walls that had been repainted in different shades of blue. We kept thinking he was asking for more water, but he wasn’t. He’d forgotten the word blue.
My brother and I race each other back and forth across the lake. Our mother is still at the window, rubbing her neck in the place where our father had scratched her the time he thought she was trying to kill him. She’s ashamed of the scars but we like them because we think they look like gills.
For a second, I think I see her smile just before we go underwater. My brother and I wait to see how long we can hold our breath, streams of bubbles floating up around us. Tilapia flee from our kicking feet, and I think of when Dad told us about the time that he and his war buddies had gotten so hungry they had eaten fish that were still alive. My brother and I didn’t believe him when he told us but he promised that it was true. He’d looked at the globe sitting on his desk and searched for the river the fish had been in. He couldn’t find where it was, so he drew it in himself with a blue marker and we were proud to have a father who could make us rivers. Later that same night, he’d waded knee deep into the lake in nothing but his underwear. I could see the marks on his bare back from where his father used to beat him. The scars were long and thin. Above, the moon stuck out like a knuckle. Dad shivered when I took his hand and started to lead him back to the house. He was shaking though it was warm out. But then, he was cold all the time.
When we finally step out of the water, shivering, and dry our faces with old towels, we find our mother asleep in the chair beside our father. She is white and pale, her hair loose all around her, as she kicks her legs and thrashes her arms as she dreams. We don’t need to hear her garbled speech to know she is dreaming about drowning, to know she’s been underwater for some time now.
Caylee Weintraub, a junior at Mariner High School in Florida, lives in between two coconut groves on a barrier island with her dog, cat, and chickens. Last summer, she attended the Sewanee Young Writers’ Conference in Tennessee, and this summer she is honored to be attending the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio. Caylee is overjoyed to be published in Imagine and can’t wait for what the future holds.
Judge’s comments: This story shines for its beautiful sensory details, particularly of the lake and the surrounding nature. The fear of a worried mother described through the naïve eyes of child is nicely shown, especially through a flashback of a recent near-drowning incident that adds a layer of symbolism.
About our judge
Diana Rodriguez Wallach is the author of the Anastasia Phoenix series, a trilogy of young adult spy thrillers; three other young adult novels: Amor and Summer Secrets, Amigas and School Scandals, and Adios to All the Drama; and the YA short-story collection Mirror, Mirror. Currently a blogger for Quirk Books, Diana is also an advisory board member for the Philly Spells Writing Center and a creative writing instructor for CTY. She lives in Philadelphia. Learn more at dianarodriguezwallach.com.
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Contest judge:Thomas Pierce
How Fireflies Were Invented
by Emily Schussheim
I am unspeakably envious of fireflies. Darwin explains that their descent with modification led to the appearance of a trait with differential reproductive advantage, but both he and I can agree that lightning bugs, anglerfish, and bioluminescent bacteria know something we do not. They dipped their abdomens, appendages and pseudopods in some greasy grey oblivion, bubbling like oil in a fryer, only to come out as glowing embers heated by a star’s exhale.
Thus, my superpower would be to glow.
While a large section of my back or entire head would be ideal, I wouldn’t mind just my pinky, my belly button, or a few strands of hair. When a deity’s secondhand smoke streaks the skies in dusk, I’d wriggle my fingers and be able to make shadows dance like flames. If the bulbs in a closet or corner dozed off to tepid gloom, I could make the mirror shards lining strands of hair shimmer warm and yellow. Even alone, holding a blessed thumbnail to my cheek would bathe my face in velvet, honey light.
The class begins a math test feverishly, air a soupy scribble of sweat and pencil lead. Two minutes into the trigonometry, a boy, leaden circles chaining his eyes to impalpable prison balls and disheveled hair matted like squished spaghetti, notices a faint blinking glow from my stomach. It’s not a cellphone, and its radiance’s tambour is a hue cooler, anyway. Beneath my pale pink sweater, the muted luminosity is golden and organic, reminding him of the star-bugs he chased as a child.
The lady at checkout takes my ten-dollar bill, beating open the register and in a fell swish and pinning a piece of strained silver hair behind her ear. She wrings her hands, veins withered and pronounced like sinuous tributaries, and moves to return my change. The bronze of the coins fades to silhouette over a pinky finger shining as if coated in caramelized sun. Shocked and then at peace with the benign light, she lets the friendly fire kiss the backs of her eyes.
A child sits dejected on a park bench, a tear rolling down her face while half of a decapitated ice cream cone oozes into pavement. I slip next to her and give her a glowing thumbs-up, and she can taste chocolate and feel the bugs’ clumsy flutter against her palms. A man dangles his feet off a bridge and over the highway, whose headlight red and white cells flow thin and artificial through clogged traffic capillaries. From behind, I tap his shoulder and a hissing wind blows giddily warm fragments of burning hair into his now alive eyes. International leaders ferment frozen in shadowed debate, the rectangular table now thick and cold as a coffin. My glowing left eyebrow could save the world.
I used to chase fireflies religiously. Summer nights drained the stew-smelling air that sucked and spat oxygen from my chest with a sacred, watery darkness. I’d sneak up on them from behind as if they didn’t know I was coming, as if they hadn’t known for eons that I’d stretch to cup their fragile glow.
If not made for our wonder, fireflies were invented by accident; we can’t understand them and won’t try. It’s impossible to fathom a star produced from gooey larvae gel, or the memory of wonder’s tantalizing shiver produced from floating antennae-ed entities of light. In glass jars with holes poked in their tinfoil lids, the glowing, godly bodies tumbled and crawled. Their bottom halves every so often blinked with a measured, sage-like slothfulness, proof that time goes on forever.
Emily Schussheim is a junior at Staples High School in Westport, CT. She attended the Kenyon Review Young Writers’ Conference this past summer, has been published in Creative Kids magazine, Canvas, and the Chautauqua Literary Journal, and is very excited to attend the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio this summer. Emily is an avid cellist, mathlete, and ukulele-player, and is honored to have her work featured in Imagine!
Judge’s comments: A Darwinian explanation for the bioluminescence of fireflies is in fact an elaborate set-up for the revelation of the narrator’s wished-for superpower. I love the images in this story, which are all so evocative, such as a student sitting through a math test with a glowing belly. I also admire the story’s tone, which manages to land somewhere between silliness and wonderment.
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by Lisa Zou
Eighty-six years mark the wooden calendar while she pours congee to the brim, eyebrows entangled as pungent porridge smoke rises above cracked porcelain bowls. Cracks like the antique spider webs framing the wooden boards in her restaurant. They tally forty-two splintered dishes and they praise my grandmother, a gifted cook, over tectonic plates. French businessmen consumed rice noodles crafted by her crinkled palms, the hands that served soup the morning South Vietnam fell into silent chaos. Even when the foreign man plucked twenty-one plums from her only shrub, she served his empty insides. As each full moon passes, her light leather skin folds itself, each fold counting suns since she last folded my father’s clothes. An invisible Atlas, she pours congee to the brim, as if compensating for the night when she can no longer lift the pan to serve them, him, or me. Each summer, my grandmother knits guilt into my waitress dress and hot privilege lacquers my tongue. I swallow each gated community, each “Made in Vietnam” sticker, one bleached spoonful after the other.
It is July and we play chess on paper with Chinese characters sharpie-etched on origami note cards, fan dancing as his stray hairs float like dandelions. Bobby Fischer rings no bell in my grandfather’s ears, but YeYe plays chess against himself until he can no longer discern the kings from the queens, so he opens the set when the sun rises again. He is the first to sacrifice his knight to keep his measly pawn.
It is August and YeYe adjusts the pawn by its shiny shoulders and remarks that pawns can become queens but knights—well knights—will never stop being knights. That day I learn to castle and keep the queen on her color. I breathe the viscosity in this game of rules.
It is September and the waning crescent above starts to feel like a metaphor I cannot decipher. When it is October, I am the last one standing at the school spelling bee. When the headmistress hands me a tiny plastic card, I travel two spaces from the apartment square to the five-story mall; the glass chess set tastes a few months overripe—I still ingest.
The sentences on the newspaper are foreign to YeYe, but he tears out the picture of me in the local newspaper, completes the weekly Sudoku puzzle before the bus brings me home. Some other questions are easier left unsolved.
It is November and eighth grade graduation costs fifty dollars this year and signatures are sought. He scrawls the few letters he knows on the line. I hum the busy tune. Words like overdue rent and green card fee remain ticking bombs.
It is December and checkmate becomes inevitability, like the stillness in the moments before a solar eclipse—the hush following the pawn’s coronation.
No, I was never baptized, never immersed in the holy lake of San Francisco or sprinkled with pure water. I do remember the church ladies knocking at our door, Grandfather answering with his accented thank yous, the blue eyes glancing at me in pity, probing if anyone else lived with me. I do remember the King James Bibles they left, the red pages leaning against the battered yellow translation dictionaries that never learned the nuances of either language.
I do recall the ring of church hymns, the Crossing of the Red Sea, the idea of purity. I tried to explain to Grandfather the distinctions between the beliefs of the Protestants and those of the Baptists, but could not distinguish them myself. I do remember tea and mooncakes in place of cookies and milk. By night, Grandfather retold fables from The Journey to the West. By day, we trekked behind the Buddhist monk and the monkey king to India for the sacred texts.
The tales are only a soundtrack, but through my grandfather’s soothing tone, I forget about the mosquito bites, The Second Coming, and how the boy next door whispered that only churchgoers go to Heaven. I ask Grandfather if he is afraid of dying. He laughs and asks why he should fear death. I say, because the end seems so ominous. I mean, it’s the end.
I do not remember he once cared for three sons and a wife in a cottage a hemisphere away from here. They are in tianshang, a castle in the sky—their own sort of heaven.
Lisa Zou is a high school student in Arizona. Her writing has been recognized by the Poetry Society of UK, the National YoungArts Foundation, Letters About Literature, the NCTE, and the Center for the Gifted’s Torrance Legacy Creativity Awards. In her free time, she enjoys solving calculus problems.
Judge’s comments: This is such a rich story—for its attention to language and detail, for the tension that lurks in every scene, for the relationships at its center. The third section in particular does such a nice job of allowing history to collide with the present, and the last line is absolutely haunting.
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by Eva Lebovitz
“Tashlich (תשליך) is a ritual that many Jews observe during Rosh HaShanah. “Tashlich” means “casting off” in Hebrew and involves symbolically casting off the sins of the previous year by tossing pieces of bread or another food into a body of flowing water. Just as the water carries away the bits of bread, so too are sins symbolically carried away. In this way the participant hopes to start the New Year with a clean slate.”
We go down to the water on a Tuesday, when the sky is a taut-skin smile and the grass is cracked.
“The Boston River is an unwieldy thing,” my older sister reminds me while we walk. “Hanan, don’t grab at the currents. I know you want to, but they’re powerful.”
I don’t want to go through the delicacies of telling her that she gave me this speech back when I was thirteen and that I’ve taught myself how to do tashlich since then, so I just nod quietly and that seems to satiate her.
“Do you have the bread?” she asks and I hold the bag up for her inspection. She nods– it’s met her standards and I can see her shoulders unclench.
“You did a good job,” she says, awkwardly mussing my dark hair. I shrug her off, too busy watching the way the headlights and sunsets dapple the street as we make our way down Fairmount Street. There’s something decidedly urban about city rivers, I think, but I like them anyway. I like peering off gated bridges and even more than that, I like knowing that I have the power to stop myself from falling. There are bridges in Eastern Europe, but they aren’t built like this, built like deconstructed ash.
I wonder what kind of bridges my sister prefers.
I’m still thinking about the interlock of chain fences when a car brushes past us, indelicate.
My sister bites her lip. “So, Dad tells me you’re thinking about Northeastern?”
It’s Tufts, not Northeastern, but I don’t see the point in telling her. I shrug an affirmation instead.
“It’s a good school,” she says. She looks at me, eyes tentative, and holds out her hand for a high-five, adding, “Turns out the Franklin kids really are smart, huh?”
She wants me to, so I high five her. Her hands are cold, and I wonder if she’s getting enough iron. She’s been off finding herself in Kosovo (which isn’t even a real country anyway) for two years, and they don’t have enough iron there. Probably, at least.
Just as the sun slips just below the horizon, we reach the bridge, lined with industrial chain-link fences and highway signs. Something sinks in my stomach, like the Boston River is reaching up and winding itself around my veins. It’s like drowning from the inside out.
The thing about tashlich is I have to acknowledge your sins–this slice of bread for every lie I told, this piece for every unkindness.
I don’t want to think about that.
I’m pretty sure my sister doesn’t either, because when she turns back to me from the precipice of the sidewalk, she seems almost vulnerable. Almost.
“Hanan,” she starts, like there’s something she’s trying to say.
I want to say something.
I want to ask her how she could just up and run away, how she could fly out to the wreck of a barely nation. I want to ask her where she’s been when I had sins to forgive, what it felt like to walk out of our house and not know if she was coming back, where she went for tashlich, why she left me.
But I don’t.
I don’t say anything. I just swallow, hard, and the words tumble back from the tip of my tongue to the pit of my throat and they’re acidic, like vomiting in reverse.
She reaches her hand out to me, palm splayed open and pale to the sky, veins stretched so tightly they might snap.
“Can I have some?” she asks. “To throw away?”
I press a piece of bread into it, and I think I almost touch her skin.
Eva Lebovitz is a 15-year-old writer and student at Newark Academy in New Jersey who possesses a passion for literature, history, music, and human rights. Lebovitz will be attending the Iowa Young Writer’s Workshop this summer and has previously had work recognized by the Scholastic Arts and Writing Awards and the New Jersey Council of English Teachers.
Judge’s comments: Much goes unsaid between the brother and sister at the heart of this story, but the writer does an excellent job of suggesting a much larger shared history. The sister, we learn, has been away for a number of years, and the brother wrestles with feelings of abandonment. The central question here—and an interesting one—is whether the ritual they’re enacting together will allow them, in effect, to start fresh.
 “What Is Tashlich?” About.com Religion & Spirituality. Web. 8 Oct. 2015.
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First Place | Second Place | Third Place
Contest judge: Brittany Cavallaro
by Shayley Martin
My mother died the very day I was born, you know, but her mother was sure still living. That was Maw Maw, the bitterest and shortest old woman you ever saw, and it was her bitterness over the whole thing that kept her alive, I think, like the taste of quinine that stays in your mouth. When I was four years old, a frothing-at-the-mouth stripedy cat slashed Maw Maw’s eye plumb out of working order. Well, the next day, Maw Maw put one of that thing’s peepers out with a red-hot poker. That’s how she was. An eye for an eye, and it stopped at that if you were lucky.
She didn’t raise me like a respectable mommy and a daddy would raise a little girl in South Carolina in the year of our Lord nineteen and twenty two. We lived a ways from the post office and the courthouse and you bet nowhere near the schoolhouse, and my shoe never scraped the floor of any of those places. She didn’t make me go, didn’t even bring up any kind of schooling. I didn’t even wear shoes, or socks for that matter, except when Maw Maw said she smelled string worms about the house. Then I slipped old shoes on for fear that they would crawl up through the bottoms of my feet and set up shop in my intestines.
Maw Maw scared the daylights out of me sometimes, when she was angry. She would scrunch up her good eye and her gone eye would scrunch up too, and she would take off her big floppy hat. But if I could get her working in her precious garden, I was all right. I never saw her more at peace then when she was setting pea vines in a trellis, or some such. That garden was her pet, because of course, cats weren’t much count to her anymore.
I took after the melon vines: no school, no hot baths, no friends but the wind and the rain, no shoes. In that sun-soaked garden I lived my whole childhood: I danced around tiger-colored nasturtiums in highest bloom, I let myself be soaked by the rain, I hid under an oversized squash leaf from Maw Maw and her cherry wood whipping cane.
I remember, there was sunlight-flavored cucumber juice running races down my chin when I saw a girl’s eyes, whole, hearty hazel-colored eyes in my garden, eyes I had never seen before. I had mostly seen Maw Maw, the colored fellow named Apple she dragged in for lifting loads of dirt, and the big fat truant officer with the jolly face who drank too much. And Apple just had one eye anyway. I believe that’s why Maw Maw took a gruff liking to him.
There were two of them, the surest sign of a newcomer in these one-eyed parts.
Two big hazel eyes peering, peering ever so curiously out from among a thick colony of sunflower stems. Attached to a girl about my age, eleven or so, but not dressed like a girl. She wore short, dirty tan-colored pants that revealed stick-skinny legs covered with reddish brown hair, and her shirt was a man’s: a pale sun-bleached blue, long and dotted with fraying holes on the arms, one perfunctory button at the top. Her hair was short and wild, and her face was dirty. I convinced myself it was a scarecrow there staring at me, but Maw Maw didn’t use scarecrows in her precious garden.
“Will you help me?” Just standing there like they were her sunflowers.
“What you mean?”
“My name is Maple, will you help me?”
“Help you with what?”
“You be the judge and the jury, I be the ‘cused.”
My two eyes rambled for Maw Maw in her wrinkly sundress. It was high time for her to come out and smell for string worms. I turned my head for a split second, just to let my two eyes rove for a rescue. But all I could see of Maw Maw was a curl of pipe smoke rising from behind the house like a sleepy ghost.
The pocket-knife made a little shadow divit where it rested at the side of her neck, held calmly by her tiny hand. Metal against skin. Just fidget once with a knife in that little crook by your neck bone and
I had never watched anyone die before, so I wasn’t sure if it could really happen. But I wasn’t taking chances.
“Hey, hey, put that down.”
“How come?” Looking earnest, frightened.
“You might die.”
“You don’t know what I done.”
“That don’t mean—” If bad deeds killed you, why, every boll weevil in South Carolina would have gone belly-up years ago.
“I kilt the truant officer.”
Dad-bum. I wondered what Maw Maw would think. I know Apple would start begging the Lord Jesus for forgiveness on the spot.
Well, but even Apple told stories about the officer, his one eye wide. What some white men does to colored fokes drunk? That man do it to white fokes sober.
I don’t know why that one little drop of blood looked so bright and red running down her neck, where the knife just barely moved by accident. Or had she moved it?
“Maple, you got to put that down.”
“Tell me a story,” she said, and I was so flustered that I did. I told her about Maw Maw and Apple, and about my garden, you know, all these things I’ve told you, and as I spoke the moon clambered up into the sky and sat on its perch and the stars came out, and I never noticed when the knife lowered. We were both bone-tired, so we slept between two fig trees.
“You know,” I said to the little bunched-up Maple who wasn’t awake, “you’re safe. Between us all we’ve got five eyes.”
“Six,” said a hazelnut bush with Apple’s deep voice, and here was my family.
Shayley Martin is a ninth grader at Floyd County High School in Virginia. She was honored to place 13th in her fourth appearance in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Shayley likes to write, cook, and learn words of all shapes, sizes, and political affiliations. During the summer, she sells vegetables and eats mostly raspberries.
Judge's comments: This story pulls off the delicate, demanding task of maintaining the protagonist’s dialect throughout without veering into inauthenticity. Smart characterization, interesting dialogue, and a chance meeting in a garden—well done.
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by Madeleine Joung
And they wondered why she couldn’t move, like—like she could be happy that her restaurant was going to be some other woman’s and that she was going to be the third wheel in her own damn marriage. Postpartum, post-baby (Kayla, call her Kayla, not “the baby”), post-restaurant, post-Up Days.
She’d heard what they’d said to Jared—give her attention, but don’t fawn, encourage but don’t force her to touch the baby (she hadn’t, not yet, not even once in all twelve weeks since). Don’t give her a hard time. Don’t yell.
He’d stopped the yelling pretty quickly. But it was like he could only not yell if he wasn’t with her—they didn’t talk much anymore. Sometimes at night, when the small-town roads went even quieter than her, he’d tell her about how the work on the bridge was going, and she wouldn’t say anything, and he would shut up. (But she wished he’d keep talking anyways, wished he would know to keep going for her when she couldn’t.)
Andie was sure she was a runt of a hamster that was tired of running on the pathetically squealing wheel and annoying the hell out of everyone, pushed and pressed too much and too long until all it could do anymore was curl up in the wheel and use it like a hammock or a cradle. She was done with her wheel. She hopped off and curled up in her blankets all day long and watched TV while Jared’s great-aunt, Myrna, watched the baby. She couldn’t stand the shows about the cooking she’d never do, but she watched bitterly, wistfully, willfully. Watching the part at the end where the chef tasted the food made her feel like she’d stuffed her nose and mouth with store-brand cotton balls—everything tasted like nothing.
The wheel rocked back and forth, but forward—and changing the restless ground she lay on—loose orbits, while the baby cried and ate and slept and cried and cried.
She felt like she’d fallen asleep on a float and drifted down to the deep end of the swimming pool, and woken up pushing her feet down and feeling only emptiness. Kayla was her alarm clock now.
Great-Aunt Myrna drove her and Kayla to Charleston every Friday for the shrink appointments. As they drove out of town, they could see the new bridge—longer, pushing infinitesimally slowly off the litter-crusted bank towards the outside, trying to get away from the little town and everyone in it—and she wondered which one of the guys hanging off of the scaffolds was Jared. Wondered if he was actually there like he said, building the bridge that took him farther away as it grew.
Every time, Myrna’s little old sedan rumbled past it, and Andie felt like she could puke, and oh God how would she make it to the hospital, she couldn’t see the end, when could she get home again and get back inside where the sun couldn’t touch her and she could sit again, sit without shaking her leg to the jingle on Myrna’s favorite Christian talk show?
She clutched a plastic bag and stared out the window at the horizon like they always said to do.
After they parked, she always sat with the door open, feeling the stillness of the car, until Myrna said, “It’s late, Andrea.” And then they’d all go inside, Myrna carrying Kayla in the portable car seat and Andie dragging behind.
The elevators had wheelchair-height rails on the sides like the ones in wheelchair accessible bathrooms. She held them while the elevator nauseatingly pushed them upwards to the fourth floor, where the outpatient psychiatry was.
Myrna checked her in at the reception desk. The receptionist was always judging—she always stared hard at the people that twitched or muttered.
“Here to see Dr. Melissa?” the receptionist said. She said it plain, like she was drawing in teachers’ chalk—pale and smooth, not bumpy like the sidewalk kind.
Where Jared was during these appointments, God only knew. Fridays were the days where he had an excuse, always. He said he was working on the bridge, but always came home smelling like beer and smoke and s’mores. Why hadn’t he carried some home? Not that she could taste them, and marshmallows were worse than the cottony taste anyhow.
Andie turned around and watched the swaying doors that led to the long hall with the offices. Please wait to enter, said the doors. They always made her nervous, like a little kid about to get a shot. Dr. Melissa was a doctor, not friendly, who had two kids. And how could she possibly claim to be helpful then? God, any woman who put herself through it twice would never get it, would never be able to help. Her husband was a shrink too, probably never absent, probably great with the kids.
Jared wasn’t great with Kayla, but no one was great with this baby except for Myrna, who would probably be dead in ten years—oh God, what would they do then? She pictured a grave in the town cemetery with no visitors—a ten year old in diapers standing in the kitchen—a finished, perfect bridge that Jared had walked over, away from town for good.
Without Dr. Melissa there, in the waiting room, like she’d imagined doing for twelve weeks, Andie leaned over and reached out a hand to Kayla, who was watching a shell-shocked mutterer, with eyes that were too young to be judgmental—too young to know what a mother was supposed to do for a baby daughter.
She stopped her hand and pulled it back, sweaty and shaking. What was she supposed to do—a head pat, a nose tweak, anything that didn’t involve picking her up?—she settled for touching the thin, babyish hair, but her own fingers felt all stiff. The baby shifted out of her tentative reach, rolled halfway over, and closed her eyes.
Madeleine Joung, a high school junior from Boston, MA, has attended writing workshops around the country and has been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards for fiction. She is also editor-in-chief of her high school’s literary magazine. When not writing, she trains as a classical violinist, enjoys learning music theory, and participates in Model UN.
Judge's comments: The voice in this story carries us through a difficult situation with humor and compassion. This piece moves along at a heady clip, propelling us toward an ending that’s lovely in its uncertainty.
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A Defector and Family's Guide to the Aftermath of Defection from North Korea
by Olivia Dabich
Part 1 (The Commercial)
Are you experiencing the following signs?
- feelings of abandonment
- lack of closure
- getting tortured by your own government
- getting sent to a gulag (and having three generations of your family stay there)
Or are you experiencing:
- some feelings of relief (but mostly guilt)
- trouble adjusting to capitalism, free speech (basically all human rights)
- ghost limb sensation
If you answered “yes” to any of these, chances are that you are a defector or family member of a defector and are experiencing the aftermath of defection from North Korea.
For more information on this condition, please read the following guide.
Part 2 (The Guide)
Generation 1 (North Korea)- When they tell you that your sister has defected, denounce her—wear your best Kim Il Sung lapel pin, the one you bought last “Day of the Shining Star,” and with eyes wide and unbelieving, tell them that you had no idea about the plan, and that she was always the rotten one in the family (though on the inside, you are holding hands with her, thirteen and sixteen caught in the dappled light of perpetual summer). They will take you and your family anyways, but perhaps you will get sent to Camp 14 instead of Camp 18, a better kind of hell.
Generation 1 (America)- You wear guilt like a straitjacket. A week ago, you sat at your family’s dinner table in North Korea, bent, like a perpetual apology. Once, a toothless peasant woman read your lifelines like a pack of tarot cards, telling you that you would live a long life. She did not say anything to your sister right next to you. America is a land of talk shows and therapists, of mending and feeling, of trying to remember and heal, but for you, guilt ticks inside of you like a maddening metronome until all you can see is regret. Perhaps, the best thing to do is to forget.
Generation 2 (gulag, North Korea)- Hunger is the only tattered dress you have ever worn—it does not fit you well. On your fifth birthday, you watched a man get shot, watched him fall to the ground like a ragdoll, and felt nothing. Your mother disappeared with a prison guard and never came back. He came back, however, and stole another woman. Your life can best be explained as a clock, something thought to move forward and change, but really just a circle, a perpetual loop. The best thing to do is survive.
Generation 2 (America)- You will hear about you mother’s past life in the form of a fairytale, an allegory. Your mother is obsessed with the process of baking, of making something whole through a chemical process that cannot be undone. At night, she shakes loose her composed façade and drifts back into her past life in North Korea, crying out the names of ghosts into the implacable darkness. The darkness replies sputtering, with a broken AM radio static. You can never bring back the dead.
Generation 3 (gulag, North Korea)- This is what you know—a barbed wire fence, guards (everywhere), skeletal thin people, and ash. Ash in the clouds, ash in the ground, ash in the eyes of everyone you meet. It was said once that your ancestors lived in the place beyond the fence. And you, a sacrificial lamb, a phoenix, the last generation for and from the ash—survive.
Generation 3 (America)- The best kinds of horror stories are the ones that seem the least real. It was said once that your grandmother defected from North Korea and abandoned her family there. In America, the land of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, this place of barbed wire fences and people with paper-skin stretched over sallow-winged bones seems so distant. Be thankful, and embrace opportunity.
Was it worth it?
Olivia Dabich, 17, lives in Dunn Loring, VA. When she isn't writing, she is busy planning events for the creative writing club, Quills to Keyboards, which she founded last fall at her high school. Recently, she received a National Gold Medal from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards and was awarded second place in the poetry division of the BYU High School Writing Contest. She attended the UVA Young Writers Workshop last summer.
Judge's comments: I appreciated the formal daring of this piece. The author’s decision to tell a story about history and inheritance through short, imagistic vignettes showed us a glimpse into their protagonist’s world, past and present.
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First Place | Second Place | Third Place
Contest judge: Elissa Brent Weissman
Do You Remember
by Cara Maines
The water lapping around your feet as you dipped them into the river and I told you your veins looked like little rivers of their own, with rivulets and branches and those tributaries crossed like thread? The crystalline patterns of sugar that would form on top of the raspberry jam we spread on bread on Sundays that you always said reminded you of snow and I always said reminded me of the thin crust of sugar on top of the jam? The long drive home as we whispered along the words to every Queen song on the CD, and how you took the long route home so we could finish the disk? The smell of cigarettes that pervaded the apartment building until the vampires who lived next to us finally faded into the dusk like their smoke?
(it was blueberry, not raspberry)
The tangled webs we spun? The mattress of sand that engulfed us as we lay in the sun and you didn’t even wear sunscreen but I slathered myself because you like to live life on the edge and I like my life wrapped in a neat little package of yellow WARNING tape? And the little markings you left in the sand as you walked even though you told me you tried not to because you didn’t like to leave signs that you were there, but everyone could tell you were because afterwards your feet were dusted with sand? The wild game of Scrabble that lasted from six o’clock till four in the morning, and the sleep deprived words we ended up concocting through our unrelenting need for caffeine and possibly each other?
(smaradg is a word)
The tear-stained windows which originally let in a steady stream of light and then became clouded, murky, gauzy, finally so opaque glazed with water that we could see nothing through the glass but the faint glow of spring in the distance but only at three o’clock? The tiny bean sprouts you planted that died within two days or maybe three, and how I laughed and you pretended to laugh along? The tens of thousands of times you told me that squirrels run faster in the winter and how I laughed every time and then we watched the squirrel in the backyard but that squirrel was limping so we still don’t know and I told that joke about squirrels not having feelings because they eat our tomatoes?
(they were alfalfa, not bean sprouts)
The way the candy on our tongues abruptly melted from sweet to sour, saccharine and coated with little granules of sugar to a biting lemon? The plans we made, the roads we traipsed, the maps we highlighted and scribbled over and finally used because it is surprisingly difficult to get places without a map, as we eventually learned? The drippy faucet that would trickle and whine late at night and how I eventually would just let it lull me to sleep like the dishwasher that sang you lullabies? The ivy crawling up the fence that you said reminded you of a snake and I said reminded me of a child learning to walk and we always fought over that ivy that ivy that ivy?
The way we felt.
(the way we feel?)
Cara Maines is a sophomore at St. John’s School in Houston, TX, where she is an avid reader, writer, and dancer. She is also editor of her school newspaper, which recently won a Silver Crown award from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association. This summer, Cara will immerse herself in creative writing at the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio.
Judge’s comments: This story paints a vivid picture of two distinct people and the relationship they shared. (Share?) The choice to make every sentence a question is not gimmicky but effective, which is no small feat. The memories are precise, quirky, and authentic; many made me laugh. Of all the wonderful stories I read, this was my winner because its characters and emotion stayed with me long after I finished reading.
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by Leo Lion
This is the story of the man on the other side of the parking lot. I'm talking about the one with the black hat, and the navy blue suit, and the single page of the local newspaper in his hand. You walked by him on your way to the car, remember? You were confused, because you didn't understand why anyone would want to keep that one page of the paper and nothing else. You almost stopped to buy yourself a copy too, just because thinking about the paper made you curious about what you were missing. But you didn't, because the lady with the frizzy hair got the last copy. Instead, you just quickened your pace, and walked toward your car, all the while being observed silently by the man on the other side of the parking lot.
But, to be true, this is not quite the story of the man on the other side of the parking lot. In fact, it is the story of the lady with the frizzy hair, who got the last copy of the newspaper. You know, the one who looked very uncomfortable in those heels she was wearing. She seemed barely able to walk in them, and you were hardly surprised, as they were so very incredibly tall. But she managed to walk well enough to make her way over and buy the last of the newspaper. She seemed anxious, frantic even. With good reason, too. There was tell of a widespread fire uptown, where her cousin lives. She hadn't heard from that particular cousin in some time, so naturally she was worried. Nervously leafing through the pages of the paper, she found herself flipping past an article about the biggest doughnut ever made in her state. The man responsible for this monstrosity of a baked good was a stout, friendly looking gentleman giving a thumbs-up to the camera in the newspaper photograph.
In fact, the enthusiasm of the man in the picture was far from genuine. While he was excited to finally be done with the construction of his glazed sugary giant, he was a tired, sweaty man on a street corner with a colossal doughnut and an excessive amount of people. The most unpleasant of these individuals perhaps being the man who persistently said things the baker could not understand, shouting indefinable phrases into some sort of megaphone. The only thing he could make out was what sounded like the man shouting "Bob, thumbs up! Bob, thumbs up!" over and over. So naturally, trying to appease the wishes of this clamorous gentleman, he made the gesture that ended up making it onto the third page of the local newspaper.
The phrase the man with the megaphone was shouting was, in fact, "bottoms up," in reference to the fact that his buddy on the other side of the street was doing shots with a mysterious man with green body paint all over his face. Needless to say, the megaphone man was not with the camera crew shooting the giant doughnut.
And speaking of individuals who had found themselves among people they were not intended to be with, the man with the green makeup was beginning to suspect that this was not the block party he had been hired for.
Unfortunately, the young lady in charge of said block party was not incredibly efficient in giving directions, which was one of the reasons that there was decidedly a smaller amount of people present than was originally intended. In fact, the guy blowing up that huge bouncy castle had come over to ask if he should even bother blowing it up, not only because no one had come, but also because this was a party with lots of alcohol and primarily aimed at an adult demographic.
The fact of the matter was, the reason the bouncy castle man was starting to negotiate plans for the cancelation of the bouncy castle was not that he didn't think he should blow it up, but that he could not. The man had arrived at the site without his pump, waiting for his associate to get there and deliver a new one. But he was starting to get anxious, and it didn't look like his associate was planning on showing up.
In truth, that associate did not have the pump either, but was waiting to receive it from a person who they had arranged a meeting with the day before. This person cancelled for undisclosed reasons. The associate scheduled to receive the pump days later, as it was still necessary to have one and they had no idea where it had gone.
And so the associate stood, days later, after it was far too late for that block party to gain any traffic. Stood, waiting, with the page of newspaper that held the ad for the pump salesman. He had ripped that page out of a newspaper he found on the ground, and was debating calling the number if the salesman didn't show up within the next few minutes. He glanced briefly at you as you passed by, thinking you might be going to your car to unload said pump and offer it to him, but you did no such thing. Instead, you got into your car and drove off into the musty misty morning, leaving the man on the other side of the parking lot to wait, standing there, awaiting a pump that was many days late, and wondering if ever the story was truly his.
Leo Lion, 14, lives in New York City. He is the artistic director of the Firebird Youth Theater, which is currently in rehearsals for their second off-Broadway production. He is also the organizer of Worldcrafters Writing Workshops for children.
Judge's comments: What a clever approach to storytelling! The plot moves forward and around, exploring character, place, and the ways in which we’re all connected—not to mention the fact that we all have a story. A bit random, perhaps (why a pump for a bouncy castle?), but that adds to the fun.
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by Siqi Liu
When the people with shotguns come into the library, Lucy is drawing cubes.
At first she thinks it is the school bus. There is some distant shouting, laughter, maybe. She presses her pen harder on the flimsy paper. There are cubes everywhere in the margins of her English notebook—some built on top of each other to form pyramids, others grew into mazes that led to nowhere. She likes the orderliness of the drawing, the straight edges and sharp corners. They remind her of the patterns on her grandmother’s quilts.
She hears the sound first. It’s a loud, smoldering bang that leaves a splotch of red on the librarian’s shirt. She recognizes one of the guys. His name is Bob—or Billy, something like that—and he sat behind her in English class sophomore year. Now he is holding a gun.
Another bang, another spot of red. The redness is what shocks her to her feet. Parts of Lucy’s body seem to move itself in raw spasms of fear, completely independent of her mind, which still lingers on the ridiculous cubes. The right angles and straight lines seemed so safe a moment ago. She ducks beneath the table tucked between the crooks of two adjacent bookshelves and feels the hard wood of a chair jutting against her skull.
Bang. The impact rams her backwards into a stack of books.
It is a boy she doesn’t know. There is a momentary tangling of limbs, quickened breaths as they scramble to fit in the claustrophobic space. He immediately curls into a ball beside her—a fellow refugee under the table. Their eyes lock, and that is when she remembers physics.
In a free space vacuum, electromagnetic radiation travels faster than bullets. Lucy could tell the boy that they are in a vacuum, where no matter exists aside from fear. Time is abstract where clocks do not exist; seconds are only relative to the limited number of heartbeats.
They meet in physics class instead of the library. He makes some off-handed comment about the cubes she doodles in the margins of her notes, and she retorts that geometry is her favorite subject. He quickly learns, however, that she is really no good at geometry—or physics, for that matter. When she asks him to tutor her on a crispy November afternoon, they wind up kissing under the dim yellow lighting of her kitchen. After dozens of movie dates and awkward dinners with both of their parents, they finally become “an item.” It turns out that even they cannot escape the horrid stereotypes of teenage romance.
Outside the vacuum, two students have died in the past sixty seconds. But inside the timeless space, they turn sixteen within a month of one another. That weekend, since they are feeling particularly adventurous, they decide to go skating on a secluded lake where the town dump used to be. She falls through the ice and yells that she doesn’t know how to swim. After he drags her to shore, they huddle in the backseat of his secondhand SUV. That is when they say “I love you” to each other for the first time. Well, she says it first.
Because of their failed ice skating date, they both catch pneumonia and miss a week of school. They have nothing to do during those days except talk on the phone. The problem comes at the end of the month, when her mother asks her how in the hell did her phone bill rack up 67 hours.
Although only minutes have passed in the chaotic world outside, their relationship continues through the summer in the haven of their vacuum. He takes a job at Papa John’s, and she starts working at a thrift store downtown. They use up large portions of their money each weekend buying old music records (he is into eighties’ rock, she prefers boy bands of the nineties) or ice cream at the mall (she likes caramel, he likes chocolate mint). It is a summer filled with cicadas.
They end up in the same biology class when school starts again. He grows to love watching her draw cubes in the margins of her notes. When she cuts her hand on the scalpel they are using to dissect their fetal pig, a drop of blood stains the cubes red.
Outside, there is more than one drop of blood. Inside, it is already October again.
Let’s go apple-picking on our anniversary, he says to her one day as they drive home.
Ditching class has never occurred to Lucy before, but he manages to convince her, partly because they have a hard biology test that day, but mostly because she likes spending time with him too much.
The sky is a glass sheet on their anniversary. She holds his hand as she tosses apples into the basket. With each step, their sneakers produce a satisfying crunch on the bed of dried leaves. Just a little longer, she thinks, giving his hand a sudden squeeze. Let me stay in this moment just a little longer.
Her mother calls as they get ready to pay for their basket.
She probably found out we ditched, Lucy says in dismay.
It’s okay. I’ll back you up.
That is how they find out. She stumbles into his arms, and they stand with their basket of apples, holding each other.
Oh my god, oh my—
I’m so glad we ditched—
—it was your idea—
Good thing we did it together—
—if we had stayed, if we were—
Shhh. It’s okay.
I hope Mary Beth didn’t get shot, or Tyler, what if—what if Emily, or—
Shhh. It’s okay. We’re okay.
And he is right. They leave the orchard, shaken and crying. Safe.
But on that October day, there are no apples, hooky, or memories of pneumonia. There is only a fast-approaching boy with a gun. It only takes two bullets. They are only two strangers.
Siqi Liu is a junior at Naperville Central High School in Illinois. She is editor of her school’s literary magazine, a journalist for The Mash, and a national reader for Polyphony H.S. Aside from writing, she enjoys coordinating activities for ACEnglish, a volunteer program she founded to help local immigrants learn English. Her favorite writers include Ernest Hemingway, Jane Austen, and Sharon Olds.
Judge's comments: The author tackles two big concepts at once, then deftly brings them both together. The story of what-could-have-been admittedly gets trapped in the “stereotypes of teenage romance,” but it’s overcome by the stark reality of the story-that-is. “Vacuum” starts and ends with bang, and the middle is just as powerful and moving.
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First Place |Second Place | Third Place | Honorable Mention
Contest judge: Ben H. Winters
Paper Cranes for Japan
by Hannah Knowles
In the fifteen minutes before homeroom ends, you and Liz sit cramped and cross legged on the carpet, folding paper cranes. Hundreds of the birds lie on their sides all around you. They remind you of flowers strewn across the pavement, after a wedding has passed through.
Two days ago, everyone heard on the television about Japan—and you saw the pictures, of smoke pouring out of a power plant and clogging up the sky, of a home swallowed up and regurgitated onto the beach as a dollhouse in its pieces. You remembered the times when your parents used to drive out to the coast so you could see the ocean, and how you and your mother would scour sand because it was a graveyard, filled with glass and the corpses of jellyfish, with wood bleached so white you thought it was bones.
“No Americans dead,” they said on TV. The next day at school, Mr. Anderson announced in homeroom that you were supposed to make paper cranes for the class to send in, and then an organization would donate two dollars to Japan for each bird. When first period starts, you fold one more crane and take it home, where you hang it on a white string above your bed.
At night you watch it spin in circles, slowly turning to face you.
* * *
You are cynical about the divorce. When Liz asks you if you are okay about it, you say something along the lines of, “Fifty percent of the marriages in this country get divorced, and your parents are still together, so I guess it makes sense.”
You wish you could take it back. Hesitantly, Liz says: “Let me know if you need anything, okay?”
“Okay,” you say. That evening, you lie on top of the covers on your bed and mouth the word you forgot to say. Thanks.
* * *
What gets you most about the whole thing, about the divorce, was how, when your mom told you over breakfast one morning what was going on, she said they had actually waited to tell you. You looked to your dad. Your dad, sitting across the table right next to your mom—like a team, you thought numbly—was nodding.
And while your mom went on about how most things are going to stay the same, all you could do was wonder how long it had been since they decided. You watched your mom’s hands as they twisted back and forth and into each other. You wanted to reach out for the hands and grab them hard and hold them still—but it was like in that dream everyone has, the reoccurring one where you can’t seem to move.
* * *
At three in the morning your dad pokes his head around your door. You look up at him and say what you always say: I couldn’t sleep.
“It’s hot in here,” he says. “How about I turn on the fan?” And you say no thanks, but after he leaves and closes the door, you get up and flip it on. The fan beats overhead at a steady rhythm, churning shadows on the floor.
Suddenly, you remember something. It comes to you as an epiphany, although you can’t place why: Physics class. Period 3. Your science teacher pointed to one of his posters, the cheesy one proclaiming that “Our Great Big Universe Came in with a Bang.” Striding up to the whiteboard with something like excitement, he told the class how some of the stars were so far away from Earth that it took millions, maybe billions of years for their light to even reach us. And he went on to explain in hushed tones what all this meant: the universe was so vast that by the time we actually watched the stars die, they had already fizzled out centuries ago. For years without our knowledge, they were really just lumps, frozen and dark and lonely and cold.
* * *
Your grandmother’s funeral is tomorrow. It takes everyone by surprise—puts a halt to all the talk about the divorce. In the wake of your grandmother’s death, everything is strangely normal. How messed up is that, you think to yourself with a vicious sort of relish.
Flowers and notes of condolence keep accumulating on your kitchen table. Most of them are for the whole family, but some are addressed specifically to your dad. No one seems to know that the day before your grandmother died, your dad started moving into his new address. Your mom has to shift everything to one side of the kitchen table so that the two of you can eat dinner, and even then, the lilies have to be thrown out because the sickly yellow pollen makes everybody sneeze. Your mother sniffs a bit at the mess, the way she sometimes sniffs at certain offending houses in the neighborhood with dried out front lawns and paint that’s started to peel off in strips under the sun.
It is awfully hot outside at the funeral, even though it’s morning and the grass is still wet. There are rows of white plastic chairs assembled out on the lawn, and you sit down to find that the plastic is slick with dew; a wet patch slowly spreads up the back of your cotton dress. You try focusing on your few vague memories of your grandmother, of how nice she had been to you, of how once when you were nine and visiting her house, you stayed up late playing Go Fish with her while your parents went out to the movies. But you keep returning to different moments, different things: to Liz, to physics class, to the paper crane hanging in your bedroom. You are thinking about all this, and all of a sudden you wish you could say something to the people in Japan from the television. You wish you could say something— something like, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I am so, so, sorry. That’s what you would have said.
Hannah Knowles is a sophomore at Castilleja School in Palo Alto, where she is an editor for her school newspaper, a member of the debate team, and a leader of her school’s Music for the Community club. When not writing, she enjoys playing piano, painting, spending time with her corgi, and rereading the Harry Potter series endlessly. She has dabbled a bit in poetry but recently has begun writing more short stories.
Judge's comments: A true beginning-middle-and-end short story in two pages, weaving personal and public tragedy. Sad and smart and lovely.
by Noah Kim
There is an abolitionist sitting at a rutted, wooden desk, a desk far too small for him, a desk so small that he (the abolitionist) is forced to write with both his elbows hanging over the sides. This abolitionist, who is looking drained of flesh with dehydrated lips and a tragic countenance shaded in frustration, is tired. This abolitionist, whose magazine The Liberator has “been burned more than any other periodical in existence today” according to the Virginia Gazette, this slightly unwell man, this abolitionist whose writings have directly inspired no less than three separate slave rebellions (each of which resulted in no small amount of deaths), scratches his almost bald head with nails that he hasn’t cut in over two months, ragged nails that make red fault lines across his watery skin as he scratches, and sits back in his chair, imbibing tepid water as he does so, his eyes half shut. This abolitionist, this feeble, girlish virgin, whose eccentricities have sparked more than a little speculative rumor, this tired yet still zealous man “more despised than any other firebrand in existence today” according to the Virginia Gazette, sits back and removes his spectacles and polishes them on his right shirt sleeve. This “not right” abolitionist, whose numerous eccentricities include both eating potatoes and only potatoes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and lighting fires, roaring fires, in his home during the hottest days of the year for the supposed purpose of “showing the Devil that his fire is not the hottest,” closes—or perhaps more accurately just briefly rests—his bespectacled eyes, dragging a heavy pen over the parchment before him as he does so, making insignificant doodles and curlicues with the very same pen that has sparked riots and rebellions and assassination attempts, the very same pen that has quote-unquote brought a nation to its knees. The abolitionist, whose scholarly face, slightly burnt from prior overexposure to heat, seems more like that of a librarian or a sort of mild-mannered sales clerk, who weighs less than 100 lbs., tilts his head slightly to the left and breathes out fiercely, breathes out in an exhausted yet vehement “huhhhh” that startles the dog, a brown and white cocker spaniel, curled up in a ball on his (the abolitionist’s) carpet awake. This pale, eccentric, thin, ridiculously unhealthy abolitionist, whose skin looks watery primarily because of a severe underexposure to protein (and overexposure to starch), who has ticked off tens of thousands of rich and powerful men, this deeply compassionate (yet obviously rather touched) man raised by his loving mother on scraps deemed unfit for the hunting dogs that those very same rich men held in such high regard, opens his eyes once more, takes a solitary potato slice from the plate to his right, places it (the potato slice) tentatively into his mouth, and continues to write, chewing softly as he does so.
This radically empathetic contrarian, acclaimed by an ever-decreasing number of like-minded men, all of whom he (the abolitionist) despises and frequently labels “weak” or “apologist,” men that he tries purposely to enrage, has never wanted any companions, any friends. This abolitionist, whose consistent and unrelenting criticism of both friend and foe forces neutrals to become apologists, apologists to become radicals, and radicals to become martyrs, who has been described on six distinct occasions by the Virginia Gazette as the “angriest half-breed in America,” shifts his weight to the right and then rubs his shoulder, which is feeling hot, feverish, and sore, like a piece of hot iron placed against rather than a part of his body. This abolitionist, whose very most famous article caused vicious riots nationwide, riots during which scores of men (both black and white) beat one another into bloody pieces of meat. Whose very most famous article featured his very most oft quoted line. This abolitionist, whose very most oft quoted line made it absolutely clear that he was in earnest, that he would not equivocate, that he would not excuse, that he would not retreat a single inch, and that he would be heard, whose very most oft quoted line was, essentially, an oath, a sort of vow that he (the abolitionist) would not cease to continue writing lines that would themselves be likewise oft quoted.
This tough, tough half-breed, this abolitionist, who has survived no less than three separate assassination attempts, who has been dragged by violent and feral men through Philadelphia no less than three discrete times at the end of a rope. This abolitionist, who has ten times more enemies than he has friends, who can “make his way about the country solely by the light of his burning effigies,” has watched and suffered and bled more than any other for a cause that does not directly affect him in any way, shape, or form. This abolitionist, who was, only two years ago, kidnapped by three bearded rednecks while traveling through the hills of Virginia and tortured, brutally, who is missing four fingernails on his left hand because of their having been torn off by the rednecks, this abolitionist, who has been stabbed thrice in total (twice in the abdomen and once in the chest), is still alive.
And so, he looks out into the dark, out over the ocean, the abolitionist, towards Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill and Pennsylvania and Philadelphia and sees the American flag being raised high. And sees the ocean rise up and fade out. And then eats another potato slice and wipes his mouth again and closes his eyes again and dreams and imagines himself floating high up above the clouds, born aloft by winged brown and white cocker spaniels, and sees the dank yet seamless sea spread out proudly beneath him, crisscrossed by dark-colored whales that tell him that all will be well as they draw their vast and loving figures closer to the quiet and distant shore. And smiles, fiercely.
Noah Kim is a junior at Polytechnic School in Pasadena, CA. He has attended writing programs at the University of Iowa and Kenyon College and is the editor of his school newspaper. Kim enjoys fiddling upon the classical guitar and is an avid, voracious fan of the writers Cormac McCarthy, David Foster Wallace, and Denis Johnson. In his free time, he enjoys re-watching, analyzing, and rhapsodizing about the HBO television program The Wire. He also finds writing to be very enjoyable.
Judge's comments: Formally daring and full of telling details, this physical and emotional portrait of Garrison artfully demonstrates how heroes do not always come in heroic packages.
Burnt Coffee, Cigarette Fumes, and Stories
by Cara Maines
We are both here, the old man and I, as we have been every Friday night for the past six months or so. Opposite corners of the café, a dotted diagonal apart. He sits, alone, with his cigarette and his burnt coffee, by the counter with the cream and sugar and coffee stirrers. Slowly, he reveals a fountain pen, which he brandishes above his pages.
I sit, alone, with my laptop and my mug of green tea, in the corner by the window, peering out at the street. I submerge my tea bag into the water, bobbing it, listening to the sounds of the café: the clank of metal spoons against porcelain, the feeble bubbling of espresso in the far back of the kitchen. There is an aria drifting from the kitchen, too faint and distant for me to understand.
It is an odd way to spend a Friday night, in this desolate café. Sometimes I go see a movie by myself first, or check a book out of the library. Then I come and sit here, alone but for the old man in the corner and the pale girl at the counter.
Sometimes I look over at the man, and rarely—very rarely—we make eye contact. It is brief, and nervous, and we both immediately look away. I run my hands through my auburn-streaked hair, settling them on my keyboard.
I glance at the counter girl with skin like glass. She’s a ghost, really, whisking her moonbeam hair into a chignon. She peers toward the croissants, checks something on the cash register, and pulls out a bottle of blood-red nail polish, streaking it across her half-moon nails.
The owner, a frail Vietnamese woman, emerges from the kitchen wearing a patched floral apron. The counter girl tries to cover her nail polish, but the owner notices, batting the girl on the shoulder, muttering something in French. The owner exits the café to smoke outside.
I peer out the window, watching the woman puff wisps of smoke into the air. It is late, but the city around her is pulsating with its relentless energy. Streetlamps, illuminated skyscrapers, and Christmas lights are substitutes for stars.
A girl in a skirt too short and heels too high clambers through the streets, clasping her sequined purse while a trio of older men gambles and stares at her from the curb. A middle-aged couple traces their way along the sidewalk. A boy in sweatpants clutches a bouquet of wilting violets.
I glance away from the window to the man in the corner, locking eyes with him. He stammers to his feet. Weaving between the tables and chairs, he emerges next to my table.
“Good evening,” he begins.
“You come here a lot, don’t you?” he asks.
“About as much as you,” I say, smiling a bit.
“Do you know this music?” he suddenly asks.
“Well,” I respond, “I can’t really hear it.”
“It’s from Tosca. It’s called Vissi d’Arte.”
“Do you know it?” I ask.
He seems entranced, lost in his own world. “Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore, non feci mai male ad anima viva. I lived for my art, I lived for love, I never did harm to a living soul. Sung in a plea to God, a cry for help. It’s heartbreaking, passionate, breathtaking, desperate.”
“You like opera, then?” I ask.
“I’m a composer.”
“I’m a writer,” I say.
“You and I,” he says “We’re really very similar. I’ve seen the way you observe people on the street. We’re artists. We live for art, we live for love. We use notes and words to tell stories and share our experiences. We find beautiful, or terrifying, or tragic ways to tell the truth, to make people think, to leave our legacies. We create worlds.”
“I’ve never really thought about that before,” I tell him, slightly disconcerted.
“Well,” he says, “consider it,” before stepping between tables and out the door.
Silently, I close my laptop.
* * *
The next Friday when I go to the café, he is not there. Nor the Friday after that, nor after that; months later, I still have not seen him.
Tonight, I sit at the table by the counter instead of by the window. The same aria is playing.
Surrounded by the scent of my tea mixed with the dingy cigarette fumes and the stale brioche, I consider the composer. He is gone now, and I doubt I’ll ever see him again, but his cryptic messages about stories and art resonate with me, inadvertently slipping into ordinary thoughts.
We use notes and words to tell stories and share our experiences. We find beautiful, or terrifying, or tragic ways to tell the truth, to make people think, to leave our legacies. We create worlds…
I am struck by this idea of stories. It’s not his grandiose proposal about art that makes me think. Our interaction itself leads me to a simpler conclusion, but an enormous one all the same. I realize the magnitude of the stories each of us carry. The truths we grapple with. The lives we hold in our hearts, the secrets clutched in our palms. The hundreds of thousands of stories we each hold, burdens and blessings alike.
It occurs to me that the very fact that the man chose to share something so deeply personal with me means that he thought me worthy of sharing a piece of his heart. And I consider that just as important as the thousands of stories we each carry are if, how, and when we choose to share them, as he did. Through deep, heavy conversations, subtle proposals and even our miniscule interactions, we keep each other alive and feeling like we matter.