May 2018



The Cupcake

By: Richard Golden

The Cupcake
February 11, 2017. Afsana would always remember that day, but she didn’t know it yet. She woke up from her short slumber. Five hours and seventeen minutes of slumber - to be exact. Afsana leapt off the pile of pillows, her skin tan and glowing. Her curly locks were bouncing around, flaming with natural highlights. Her bed lay on the crisp cement floor. As Afsana rose from her deep slumber, she began to dance from excitement.
“Afsana! Afsana!” My mama yelled. Before I could join the celebration, I looked at her. She was so beautiful. She had luscious, dark, curly locks which came from her head like streamers at a party. Too bad she had to cover it up with the hijab. I was stolen from my day dream by my mother, who grabbed and hugged me.
“Afsana! Why am I more excited than you?” Mama asked. “It’s your 13th birthday for goodness sake!”
“Mama I know!” I yelled. I then proceeded to jump up and down and dance around with Mama.
“Well Afsana, no time to waste, you’re already going to be late for school.” Mama said. I quickly rushed to my folded uniform and replaced the scratchy night gown I wore with it. I skipped towards the second, and final, room in my humble home.
“Come sit, my sunshine,” Mama said. She’s been calling me that since I can remember. “Because it is your special day, I will give you a cupcake for lunch.”
I changed into school attire, and with cupcake in hand, I was off.
“Well, off to school!” Mama said. I giggled and scurried out of the unstable home.
Most girls don’t go to school here in Pakistan. They stay home, and do housework. But not me. I was accepted into a school for gifted children. I read the rickety sign of my school, “افغان زده کونکي د زده کونکو لپاره,” also known as, “Pakistan Academy for Gifted Students.”
“Afsana! You’re almost late!” Ms. Azita said. She always spoke sternly but with the biggest smile on her face. I’ve always known that I’m her favorite student.
“زه-” I almost spoke Pashto but I caught my tongue. My school is immersed in the English language--the only language we’re allowed to speak. “I know! But it is my birthday!” I explained, wiping the perspiration off my face…I had to run from my house to school. And although it was early February, Pakistan is always unbearably hot.
“Well, happy birthday, and come on! Get inside!” Ms. Azita said. I chuckled and shuffled into the double doors.
What lay behind the double doors, is what my version of Heaven looks like. Although the one room school was small, and didn’t have much, it was all I needed. There was a bookshelf on the wall that was parallel to the doors. It was filled with books ranging from fiction to textbooks. There was a chalkboard at the front of the room. It was dusty and old, but it was perfect for solving hard mathematical equations on. And last, but certainly not least, there were the desks. Only five of them, but they still filled up all of my heart. My desk was in the middle of the room.
It was glowing with eagerness to learn. I practically did flips toward it. I sat down on my chair, it was cold to the touch.
“Okay, class,” Ms. Azita said, starting her morning ritual of explaining to us what we’re going to be doing for the day, “today we will be working on Pythagorean Theorem.”
My eyes lit up and I was bursting at the seams with excitement. Pythagorean Theorem is something I have no knowledge about. I know that there is a book on it in the bookshelf, but I have never read it myself.
Everyone else in the class seemed to be excited as well.
“Glad to see everyone is excited,” Ms. Azita said.
Everyone in the class started murmuring until Ms. Azita interjected, “the more you talk, the less work you get to accomplish.” Everyone quieted down and the only noises left were a few hushes from a kid or two. “Very good,” Ms. Azita chirped, with a smile on her face. You could tell she felt accomplished by how she took control of the situation.
Ms. Azita has only been teaching for a year. This is her second school year. She started the school, and she practically lives here. She’s always staying here late to make lesson plans, but she’s never lonely, because we students stay late too.
The school is located right inside Lahore, Pakistan. It is actually a pretty nice area. Not much goes on near the school. Because my Mama can’t drive, I have to walk. My Mama is now getting worried whenever I walk to school. The Taliban is becoming stronger and stronger, and she doesn't want anything happening to me. There is also a big protest today inside Lahore, and both my Mama and I are worried about what will happen.
12 Hours Later
“Okay, guys,” Ms. Azita announced, “it’s time to go home.” All the students groaned in unison as they packed their bags. I didn’t bring anything to school because mama couldn’t afford it and I didn’t want to have to carry books on the long walk to school and back.
“Bye Ms. Azita!” I said politely as I scampered out the double doors. Although it was 8 at night, it was still fairly light outside. There are no street lamps once you get outside of Lahore, so it’s a good thing it is always still light outside.
“Run!” A voice screamed in the distance. I hurried towards the noise to see what was going on. When I got to the scene all I could see was fire, men covered in turbans, and people lying on the ground. I dropped my little box that contained nothing but my cupcake, the cupcake that my mother gave me. I planned on munching on it on my way home, but I guess that isn’t happening.
I made eye contacts with one of the men. He pulled down his turban and the second I saw his whole face, I realized that we have met once before.
My day dream was abruptly interrupted by Ms. Azita. She picked me up and ran. Before I knew what was happening we turned into a skinny, dark alleyway. I couldn’t see much and before I knew it, I was on the ground and I could only here a loud ring. I turned, what I saw was a sight I know I will never forget.
I looked at Ms. Azita. She was on the stone floor. I saw her mouthing one word to me over and over again, “Run.” I jolted off of the ground and with one last kiss on the forehead, I ran from Ms. Azita.
“I see one!” I heard a voice yell, “Get her!” Without looking I ran, faster than ever before. I didn’t want to run home because they could follow me and then find my mother, so I ran to the one other place I feel safe, school. I knew short cuts throughout the town so as I continued to run; I turned a sharp left into another skinny alleyway. I was sure they wouldn’t catch me but I heard their footsteps running towards me. With another sharp turn I was facing the school. I ran through the double decker doors and quickly barricaded them with all of the desks.
“In there!” A voice yelled. I quickly ran towards the bookshelf and with all my might and I shuffled it towards the doors. They can’t get in now, I said to myself. But I guess I spoke too soon because with one loud thump, the man I recognized was inside the school.
“Get out!” I screamed. The man didn’t even seem startled by my loud tone. He took a step forward and I ducked towards the pile books which fell off of the book shelf. He took another step towards me and I shuffled backwards until I was in the corner.
“Don’t worry, Afsana,” the man said, I was taken aback by his knowledge about me, “I’m not going to hurt you.” He took another step and although he said those kind words, I didn’t trust him so I continued to try and escape. I ran towards the doors but the man stepped in front of me before I could leap outside. He pulled down his turban and I immediately realized who he was.
“Papa?” I asked meekly. He took a step forward so that he could embrace me but I quickly ducked out of the way.
“Please don’t be afraid, my Afsana,” Papa said. He stepped forward to try and embrace me again but I slapped him across the face before he could touch me.
“How dare you?” I asked. “How dare you try and hug me years after you left my family, after you killed all of those people? Tears were streaming down both mine and his faces.
“Afsana, please, I can explain --”
“No, Papa!” I shouted, cutting him off. I ran towards the door one more time, this time Papa didn’t dare to follow me. I sprinted all the way home, tears whisking away with the wind. As I arrived home I saw Mama waiting for me at the door. She seemed upset, as if she knows what just happened. I jumped into her arms and cried as she picked me up and carried me into our humble home.

Richard Golden is thirteen and lives in New Jersey.



Achieving Excellence

By: Evelyn Hsu

 

Everyone thinks of my neighborhood as a quiet place with the grassy expanse of nearby Rainbow Park and the shiny new schools. Perfectly trimmed cherry blossom trees and flowering bushes grow around every house. The homes are mostly new, some large or small, all painted in a variety of tan colors. Here, the traffic comes from the neighbors going to or from work, or driving kids to school, or picking them up from after-school activities. It is a neighborhood full of practical cars, like Toyotas, Hondas, and Mazdas. It is a neighborhood full of child prodigies: pianists, flutists, Science Olympiad winners, American Invitational Mathematics Examination qualifiers, tennis champions, ballerinas, national golf champions.My adult neighbors work mostly in Silicon Valley, all of them computer hardware or software engineers.

In my neighborhood, people like to walk their dogs after dinner when there is still light. I often see their dogs yanking the leash, forcing the owners to run after them. On holidays, I smell grills roasting hot dogs, steaks, and chicken. At Christmas Time, everyone puts up decorations and flashing lights, attempting to outdo their neighbors. One house had five speakers playing “Jingle Bells” twenty-four seven. Noise in my neighborhood is constant: I often hear the plunk of basketballs, the banging of piano keys, or the screaming of angry babies.

In this town, strange things happen. People drive by my house with twenty cameras on the tops of their cars, each camera pointed in a different direction. What are they doing? Who knows. Google cars drive themselves while their passengers nap. Down the sidewalk, people ride homemade personal transportation systems, the likes of which have never been seen before—half-bicycle-half-motorcycle or half-Segway-half-motorcycle. People stroll by wearing virtual reality glasses, but how do they see where they are going?

This is, after all, Silicon Valley. All of these attributes of my neighborhood are readily observable to anyone.

What people don't observe in my neighborhood is that all the children are miserable.

They wake up at four in the morning and stay awake every night after midnight. From my room on the second floor of my house, I can always see the little desk lamps in their rooms and the other children bent over their desks. Like me, they are always scribbling on pieces of paper or typing away on their computers. How do I know they are not texting their friends? Because we all get As. We don’t want to disappoint our parents. We don’t want to make them mad. From the minute we kids get home from school, we have maybe twenty minutes to look at our phones, grab a bowl of instant noodles, and then the drudgery begins.

For instance, just the other day I studied for a test on the surface area and volume of a twenty-dimensional composite figure. Let me preface that by saying I am only ten years old. This figure is essentially an object with boxes shooting out of it and tunnels running through it. My job was to figure out the surface area of this nonsense. It was killing my brain cells. I kept telling my teacher that we needed to work on inventing solar-powered clothing or tiny wires that can go in our ears to create music and block out other people’s voices. But she didn’t listen and instead rewarded me with twenty-pages of additional math worksheets. She called me “milk gone bad,” whatever that means.

One day, my history teacher Mr. Miller said, “Create three hundred index cards on famous explorers.” I raised my hand and asked, “What if I can’t find three hundred explorers to
write about?” Mr. Miller looked at me with a harsh, icy stare, rolled his eyes, and said, “Get your act together, Beatrice.”

“My name’s Allison,” I replied.

On the way home I thought about getting my act together. I thought about all the ways I could get my act together, like breaking my arm so I wouldn’t have to write. Or breaking my leg so I wouldn’t have to run two miles, do 30 burpees, 40 pushups, and 40 sit-ups everyday in boot camp in school. Even when it’s raining. I thought about packing my bags, emptying my older sister’s piggy bank, and escaping to Hawaii, where I would spend my days training in hula dancing and drinking beverages from a pineapple with an umbrella.

But I keep telling myself that this will all be worth it in the end. That someday I will find purpose in translating Latin passages even though Latin is a dead language. That someday I may find a person on a street corner who is lost and speaks only Latin. That someday I will be forced to recite the states and their capitals or face death. That someday I will know why I had to dissect a baby pig, why I had to learn the Dewey decimal system, the periodic table, and why I should never start a sentence with “Because.” For now, all I know is that the children are miserable.

 

Evelyn Hsu is 12 years old. She lives in San Jose, California.



The Bench in Central Park

By: Anabel Silver

She didn’t look at the photograph as she handed it to the man who would frame it. She didn’t want to. Not here. The man smiled and said that she could return to pick it up tomorrow. The man was handsome. The girl in the photograph would have asked for his number, but the woman standing before the man simply nodded, turned on her heels, and left the store.

The man stared at the photograph. It was a close up of two women on a bench in what looked like Central Park. He wondered why the woman would choose to have it framed. It was not a pretty picture. It was obvious that whoever had been holding the camera had a shaky hand, as everything was blurry. One of the woman in the picture was wearing glasses and there was too much glare so you couldn’t see her eyes. The other woman had red eyes from the camera’s flash. The person taking the picture must have been covering the lens slightly with their finger, because you could see it in the top left-hand corner of the picture. At the same time, there was a certain innocence and beauty to the picture. Both of the women were laughing. They both had long wavy hair that was flowing in the wind, and they looked so free. The man could tell he was looking at pure joy.

He took the photograph to the back of the store to be framed.

The woman pulled her phone out of her purse as she unlocked the door to her apartment. As she set down her keys and took off her jacket, she dialed the only number she had memorized. The contact picture of the number showed up as the phone rang; it was the same picture she gave to man at the frame store, her favorite picture. The woman listened to the voicemail recording, but she did not leave a message. She never had, and there was no reason for her to start today.

The two girls met when they started middle school. They had both been outcasts all of their lives. The woman vividly remembered her soon-to-be best friend approaching her during recess and asking what book she was reading. After showing her the book, her new friend had laughed and pulled the same book out of her backpack. She sat down read it alongside her. In that moment in sixth grade, the woman had known that she was no longer alone.

The picture was taken right after the girls had graduated from college. They had always known that they would get out of the small town they had grown up in. They dreamed of somewhere grand, somewhere amazing. Graduating cum laude from NYU was a dream come true for both of them. The woman knew, with or without the picture, she would always remember that moment.

The woman laid out her outfit for the next day. She brushed her teeth, washed her face, and got into bed, alone in her apartment.

The woman dreamt of her friend that night. They were back in Central Park, where the picture was taken. They were running around and giggling, but soon the woman couldn’t tell where she was. The streets were getting more and more crowded, and it seemed as if they were getting smaller as well. The woman was having trouble breathing. She turned around and her friend had disappeared. She was pushing through the crowd for what felt like hours trying to find her, but her friend was gone, so she went back to the bench where the picture was taken and sat down, alone.

The woman woke up shaking, but she was unsurprised by the dream. It was not like this was the first time she had this dream.

The woman rolled out of bed. She wasn’t expecting to sleep well anyway. She put on the outfit that she had laid out the night before. She knew that it didn’t really match the occasion, but she didn’t care. She made a cup of coffee. She drank. The woman felt numb.

She gathered her things and left the apartment to pick up the frame. When she arrived, there was a different man at the front of the shop than the one who had been there the day before. As he handed her the framed picture, he looked at her critically. It seemed almost as if he were judging her picture because the quality was poor, but he didn’t understand. The quality of the picture didn’t matter. What mattered was the quality of the moment. The woman didn’t care that the picture was blurry or that you couldn’t really see her eyes or her friend’s eyes. She didn’t care that part of the picture was covered by the finger of the stranger in Central Park they had asked to take the picture. Her friend hadn’t cared about those things either because the moment was perfect. The woman took the framed picture and left the shop.

The woman didn’t walk or hail a cab or do anything for several minutes once she was on the sidewalk. She couldn’t believe where she was about to go. She took a few deep breaths, called her memorized number, and waited for it to go to voicemail.

“Hi, you’ve reached Charlotte’s phone. Thanks for calling. I’m sorry I’ve missed your call, but I’ll get back to you as soon as I can. Have a great day.”

The woman felt relaxed the second she heard her friend’s voice. She loved how her personality came through even in her voicemail. She was glad that it did, because it was all of her friend that the woman had left.

The woman hailed a cab.

Everyone at the venue was in black. The woman was not. She felt out of place, but her friend would not have wanted anyone to wear black. No one listened when the woman said this.

She placed the framed picture in the lobby next to all of the other pictures of her friend. None of these pictures were blurry. None of them had glasses with glare or red eyes or fingers covering parts of the picture. All of the pictures were quality pictures, but none of the pictures were quality moments. Still, the woman felt ashamed of her picture and of her colorful outfit. She could feel people noticing and silently judging her.

She knew that this was not what her friend would have wanted. Not at all. She doubted that her friend even knew all the people in the room. Most of them were probably friends of friends of friends. Friends of friends who didn’t understand. They didn’t have a right to come in their black, somber outfits, with their flat, emotionless “quality” pictures and judge her for her grief. They didn’t have a right to come in and judge her for doing what her friend, her best friend, would have wanted. The woman knew that none of this was right. She left. The woman didn’t know exactly where she was going. She ended up finding herself at that bench in Central Park, but this time her dream had come true.

She was all alone.

Anabel is age 16 and lives in Pennsylvania.
 



Solitude

By: Victoria Tan

Anne-Marie loves to draw. After her mother left, her father would draw for hours in front of her. But that was before.

Now, Anne-Marie draws every day. She’ll use anything--charcoal, pencil, ink, chalk. But charcoal is her favorite and her body is her canvas.

Starting every morning, she draws directly on her skin; and before sunset, she passes out with a pencil in her hand. When she draws, she’s transported into another dimension that deadens her worries in a way that her doctor’s prescriptions cannot. Anne-Marie can’t afford to see the doctor anymore, anyway. But it doesn’t matter. As long as she can draw, she knows she’ll be all right. Almost happy.

~

On Tuesday, Anne-Marie travels to the local market to buy more charcoal. The stall is tucked away at the end of the street. Most people would miss it but Anne-Marie knows exactly where it is. Stopping by every couple of days, she’s a frequent customer. Exchanges are quick. She’s anxious to get home and draw.

She rushes up the cracked, concrete stairs of her building to her room. Stepping over the broken glass and crevices in the ground, she arrives at her door. There’s a wrinkled note posted on it. “EVICTION NOTICE,” it reads. Anne-Marie stares at it, tilts her head to the left, purses her chapped lips and tears it down to bring into her room to draw with.

After wiggling the door open and stepping into the dreary space, she immediately sinks down onto her tattered mattress and begins to draw. The voices join her, as they always do, and Anne-Marie begins to see vibrant colors wisp through the air in flashes. Bursts of light erupt with pings and crackles. A feeling of relaxation envelops her toes and travels up her legs, past her sides and her arms and up, up, up, until she feels her eyes begin to flutter close.

“Stop banging and scratching on the walls or I’ll call the police! I’m not joking this time!” she hears in the distance.

The world starts to fade and blur, beginning around the edges, until Anne-Marie falls into a deep sleep with an untroubled expression on her face.

~

Rifling through her room another day, Anne-Marie notices that her supply of charcoal is beginning to dwindle. She quickly tucks the remnants back into the burrowed-out hiding spot in the wall underneath the window, grabs all the crumpled bills from her kitchen drawer, and heads down to the market.

They don’t have charcoal that day. All the vendor offers her is pastels. It isn’t ideal but it will get her through the night. She buys everything he has. She will be fine.

Rushing back to her apartment, Anne-Marie takes the stairs up two at a time and fumbles with her keys for a minute before swinging the door open. She doesn’t even bother to take down the notice posted on her door. It has been there for over a week.

She hastily plops down on the hardwood floor and begins to draw. Once again, the sensations take over and she lays there with a twinkle in her eye until she passes out. She had sold her mattress days ago to pay for drawing materials, but it was a small thing to her.

~

A sense of dread wafts through Anne-Marie when the sun’s rays pry her eyes open the next morning. She knows she only has enough money for one more market run. This would be it. It would be over soon. No more drawing. She doesn’t know what will come next, and she forces those thoughts out of her head.

Stumbling onto the cracked pavement, Anne-Marie searches frantically for the familiar man she relies on to numb her suffering. He is nowhere to be found. Panic begins to submerge her.

She staggers aimlessly around the city looking for the man. Time passes quickly until the sky is dark and stars peek out of the gloom. The voices that follow her get louder and make her head pound. She has picked the skin off her fingers until blood covers the tips. Anne-Marie hobbles around for hours until her head aches and her frail body is quivering. Even though it is the middle of summer, the breeze is icy as it nips at her red nose and peeling lips. She feels as though someone is banging on a large drum next to her ears and she winces as the piercing wail of sirens passes by. She is cold, so very cold. At yet another street corner, somewhere, she finds him, at last.

When he sees the desperation and weariness in her eyes, he smirks, baring his yellow, chipped teeth at her. “I knew you crazies would find me eventually,” he rasps.

Anne-Marie purchases her drawing materials eagerly. Relief floods her body, but at the same time, her pain increases tenfold. The urge to draw intensifies until her vision is swimming and her hands shake uncontrollably.

The journey back to her room passes in a blur. Night has fallen and the fluorescent street lights flicker on. She doesn’t know how she managed to find her way back so quickly but thinks little of it. There are more pressing issues at hand. She kneels on the floor and begins doing her favorite thing--the only thing she knows how to do without messing up. This night, Anne-Marie draws longer than she has ever done before, longer than she knew she could. She just keeps going, and going, and going until the room spins around her and the stench of her own clothes goes away. Her aching body refuses to hold her up anymore and she leans against the wall for support until it all hits.

Anne-Marie breathes shakily in and out and groans aloud as pleasure invades her body.

Then, the chaos of nightlife in the city fades away into nothingness. The world goes blank.

She doesn’t wake up the next morning. Anne-Marie never wakes up again.

Her body is found a month later.

~

“Approximate time of death: 3:00 a.m., August 19th. Cause of death: drug overdose.” The medical examiner droned on like in any other report. “Anne-Marie Winters, one MIA mother and a deceased father who also died from an overdose--practically an orphan.”

The cleaners moved swiftly to rid the apartment of needles and rolled-up flyers scattered all over the floor. They finished after 10 minutes. After all, there wasn’t really much to clean up. The room was ready to be rented out again later that same day. It was just another overdose case in the part of town where people had multiple sets of locks on their doors and slept with one eye open at night. It was far too common.

~

The vendor didn’t even notice Anne-Marie’s absence. Why would he? He has plenty of other junkies to sell to and an endless stream of new customers. She means nothing to him.

The neighbors did notice the psychotic girl’s absence. They notice that the clanging and clawing and screaming has stopped, but they assume that she has either been arrested or finally kicked out onto the streets. They will use Anne-Marie as a cautionary example for their own daughter, but she won’t listen to them. Her life will end the same way as Anne-Marie’s did. Other than that, Anne-Marie means nothing to them.

As for her mother, the day Anne-Marie met her end will simply be another Tuesday. Anne-Marie is merely another reckless teenager to her. Anne-Marie means nothing to her.

~

Anne-Marie’s spirit is finally free. Though her exit was quiet, the outcome is exuberant. She’s refreshed like a phoenix reborn from its ashes. She forgives her parents. She forgives all the people who did her wrong. But most of all, she’s learning to forgive herself. For the first time in her life, Anne-Marie is happy. Radiant. Carefree.

 

Victoria Tan is a 17-year-old from Minnesota.