Fiction



False Steps

By: Lauren Baehr

“Can we talk about this another time,” Sam said, not looking up from his computer, “I’ve got work to do.”

“With you, later never comes! It’s always about work isn’t it?”

“Well, considering we still have to pay off our debt, we don’t have the time to take care of a kid.”

“That’s because you’re stubborn! We could figure something out if you put some effort into it!” Rachel was furious, and it showed in every angle in her body; from her tense stance to her snarling expression.

“This conversation is over. Let me get back to work, so we can, you know, pay for the damn house,” Sam growled.

This sort of exchange had become familiar to the ghost since she first awoke. In fact, the sound of shouting was what woke her up from the hardly-conscious status she had fallen into after her death. Well, it was more the emotion behind the shouting than the shouting itself. She could ignore noise, but feelings were what really caught her attention.

Several months after her awareness had returned, she began to get frustrated with the pair of them, Sam and Rachel. In the first few weeks she had been able to float listlessly, a barely formed mass of ectoplasm. Soon enough, though, she had been forced into greater consciousness, and she didn’t particularly like it. Each argument between Rachel and Sam felt like an unpleasant sting of electricity, and since she couldn’t leave her house—the place she lived and died in—simply leaving the source of the problem wasn’t an option.

When Sam and Rachel had first taken possession of the house, the ghost had been nearly drugged into deeper sleep by the wave of positive emotions that they had brought with them. Her house—the ghost’s house—had nearly looked like the haunted house it was when the couple had happened upon it with their agent. After the ghost had died, the near-mansion had been too expensive to attract an abundance of buyers, and as time moved on it had fallen into such a state of disrepair that no one would have wanted to buy it, even if they could afford the expense.

Rather than seeing a timeworn relic, Rachel had seen an opportunity, and together she and Sam had nurtured the house into modern beauty. The ritual of making the house a home had been much different, but no less joyous, than the time long-past when the ghost’s husband had flitted merrily among construction workers, instructing them as to the specifications of his dream home while the ghost had stood back and smiled fondly.

Sam hunched in front of his computer, as his wife stormed out on him for the third time that week. Sam’s shoulders were tight and his mouth was pinched. He was obviously frustrated, but she was a ghost, not a mind reader, so she couldn’t tell what he was thinking that gave him such a look, but she could certainly guess. She suspected the obvious answer: Sam was likely as upset as Rachel, but in his own, quiet way.

The only ones left in the room were Sam and the ghost, which amounted to no company he could actually interact with. The large windows opposite to the door might have at least brightened his face, but when he had set up the room the desk had been placed facing the wall that the door interrupted.

All she could do was watch them, and perhaps throw a small object when she was feeling particularly temperamental. She didn’t factor into the equation at all, she was just an imprint of memory, dulled emotion, and vague inactive consciousness.

Every moment she spent in this house was a moment that more emotion and cognizance and memory was forced into her. Her past was a smeared blur of black and white, like the movies she used to love to watch with her husband.

She saw some of her past life, in him and in her. Occasionally a disjointed memory would surface, fitting over the young couple like a blurry photograph. Watching them brought the memories—the memories that hurt—back into full color, fleshed out with emotion. She remembered her husband laughing, saying “We won’t be young forever,” and “C’mon sweetheart! We’d have the cutest kids.” She remembered not being ready. She remembered his smile fading more, and his hope waning each time she turned him down. She remembered not noticing his encroaching despair until it was too late to take it back, too late to be honest, to say “Maybe I can do this if it’s with you.” She remembered him getting that damn enlistment letter, and —

She couldn’t do anything. She thought if she had skin she would be tearing at it in an attempt to free herself from the feelings crashing down around her head. The ghost felt the desperate need to do something besides ineffectually throw small objects at walls or push papers off desks or spectate. At that point all that really mattered was doing something to change the helpless state she had found herself in, and get rid of the unwelcome emotions and memories that her present state of consciousness was forcing her to confront.

Stomp, stomp, stomp.

The ghost was abruptly snapped out of her downward spiral of thought, her attention pulled to the source of the noise. The tangible, distracting noise. She focused her attention back on the solid plane, and saw Rachel.

Rachel made her way to the stairs, and the ghost was greeted with a flash of inspiration. This may have solved her problem once and for all if she were lucky, she thought with wicked giddiness.

As a ghost, fifty years dead wasn’t particularly powerful or august, but…she could do small things, such as lifting the corner of a plank of wood at the top of a flight of stairs. It was a simple matter to wrap a small part of her power around the wood of the top step just as Rachel reached it. The tip of Rachel’s toes caught on the slightly raised plank and held as the rest of her continued forward. Rachel tipped forward, and a look of terror crossed her face. The ghost didn’t notice, and it was doubtful that she would have cared even if she had.

A sigh, and then screech of a chair being moved across hard floor echoed from the upstairs office; Sam’s response to the commotion. Sam stepped out of his seclusion looking prepared for another shouting match. Then, inevitably, the grisly scene that his wife had become caught his eye. The ensuing “Oh god” was hollow and choked and managed to nicely echo the horror of Rachel’s expression as she fell.

The body at the bottom of the stairs was a striking sight, the ghost thought. One of Rachel’s legs was twisted at an unnatural angle and one of her hands grasped out across the floor from a broken arm, bone shattered under flesh, and the flesh punctured by the calcium shards. Most striking of all was the head; a fresh puddle of red spread from it, akin, in shape, to a halo from a medieval painting.

The ghost found her beautiful in that her fall was cleaner, crisper, than the death of the ghost’s own husband. His was a messy death. His was, as she was told, an explosive death. There wasn’t enough of him left to bring home to bury.

Sam almost fell down the stairs in his rush to reach his wife. He nearly slipped on a swathe of blood that her uncontrolled descent had left behind. Blood coated his foot, but he was too focused on his destination to acknowledge that he was leaving behind bloody footprints.

Fear was thick in the air when Sam finally reached Rachel. He hesitated, pale hands (not at all like the ghost’s husband, his hands were of a healthy shade of tan) hitching to a stop just before he touched her. He snapped out of his pause quickly enough, and his fingers reached for a pulse. The ghost wondered what he would find.

Tears welled up in Sam’s eyes. So she’s dead, the ghost thought. I wonder if she’ll join me in this state, she mused. Then she noticed Sam fumbling at his pants pocket. He pulled out his phone, and he dialed a three digit number with crimson-stained fingers. Hmm. I suppose I won’t get any company after all, the ghost deduced, neutral even as the phone began to ring.

The tears had been tears of relief. It really was a strange turn of events. Not that Rachel was alive; the ghost didn’t have much thought to spare for that one way or the other. The interesting thing was that she had gotten used to the frustrated tears of Rachel, when the woman thought she was alone to let it show. Sam had never let tears fall.

In the end, it didn’t make any difference to her. The life of Rachel Evans hardly mattered to the ghost outside of the immediate irritation that the apparently still breathing women inspired within her.

The paramedics arrived eventually. They made a big, professional fuss, lifting Rachel’s warped, near-corpse body into the ambulance. Sam followed after, twitching in half-aborted motions, wanting to help but not knowing how, tear tracks marking his face. Slowly the house was drained of life, and a straggling emergency responder eventually closed the heavy wooden front door with finality.

The ghost was finally alone. She relaxed her form, and released her mind, slowly and with great satisfaction. She reveled in her ability to once more be able to fade into an indistinct ectoplasmic mist without interference from bothersome, frustrating residents in her haunted house.

 

 

Lauren is a 16-year-old from Maryland.



That Blessed Day

By: Kekoa Quereto

It had come, the day had really come. The day that they had prepared for, that he had fired a thousand bullets in preparation for, the day had really come. And he was not sure he was prepared to meet it.

If we are mark'd to die, we are now
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.

He ran across the field, dodging around both bullets and spells, wondering how he managed to be so terrible at both. He didn’t fire his gun--no, instead he looked down at his sword, his sword given a single, powerful blessing by Those who had Battled Before. They had lost, but had blessed him in hope that he might win. As he headed into the fight against both organic and inorganic, he prayed. Prayed with all of his might that he might somehow win. And all the time it rang in his head, as it had been ringing in his head the day he found out when the enemy would be invading.

By Jove, I am not covetous for gold.
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.

“If I fight for my Friends, then I do fight for my honor!” The blood pounded in his head, but he felt calm this time. So calm. Why? Why would he feel calm now in the heat of battle against these monsters? Because now was the time that the vote of who was to win this last battle—humanity or invaders—would be decided! He would be completely calm, completely ready for whatever happened next.

The war had been going on for almost ninety-nine years—so close to a century now! Why was it that he had to be born a decider, why did he have to be part of the generation to either take it all back or give it all up? Because someone had to fight the glorious battle that could either strip or restore the hope and honor of humanity!

That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.

Fellowship? Brotherhood? Surely cowardice was not something necessary in this war but neither was fellowship or brotherhood. Depending on who you talked to the war was a result of his “brothers,” fellow men and women opening a portal or alien signal. Aliens, Demons, Fellow Men, who was it all against? Who was it all for? What was it all for?

The answer was survival. No matter how much man was torn away from brotherhood, from fellowship, he would never be torn away from Survival. Bashing through those . . . things . . . on the field made him wonder if that was how he did everything; why he bore through the harsh training, the rough civilian life before, making sure that each and every person was cared for, fed, clothed.
And all before the age of twenty, he thought, dropping his gun and feeling his magic draw thin as he attempted to ration it evenly.

He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.

The enemy seemed to be waning, their last wave—was it weaker than normal? Could it be that it was the last of this mysterious invader, that he and his troop of only twenty had managed to accomplish what one hundred years of soldiers had failed to achieve?

He looked down and realized that the flickering of the light meant that his magic was dwindling. There were only a few shells in the artillery, and he and the other troops were armed with only their swords and a collection of rag-tag weapons, like hammers and spears. The men had been free to choose what weapon they wanted for hand-to-hand, and he could see why. It was because when the time came for hand-to-hand, then there was truly no chance at winning. No chance at any kind of survival.

Let the men die carrying whatever weapons they wanted to. After all, it was a special day.

He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say "To-morrow is Saint Crispian."

It seemed to him that he had lived a thousand lifetimes as the enemy rushed near. The cross around his neck dangled, but instead of grasping it he grasped his long, heavy-handed sword to swing at the nearest attacker. A lucky scrape at the organic side of the body—and a piercing screech that nearly made him collapse

Slice, slice, slice again and he found himself shaking as he looked around. Only five left. Five men and women left out of an army of five hundred million. Yes, there were another three hundred back at camp, but for all intents and purposes, five remained of the army.

The last stand.

The last of the three hundred, standing against the invading spartans, attempting to defend a home and an empire that they worried was fading.

But they would stand.

Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words—

He hefted his sword up and looked at the ragtag weapons brought by his compatriots. A woman with a hammer and shield. A man wielding two long daggers, each about a foot in length. Another woman with a long, heavy axe held in both hands, and a man with an oriental katana, holding it back in its sheath.
These four and him, holding onto whatever they could.

This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be rememberèd-

One Hundred Years, and it came down to these men, the five.

He knew that they would be remembered, would be heroes even at some point, but in this world or the next?

“You have done well, you men.” It seemed worthy praise, since they were the last five. The last five fighting a war that had been unevenly matched since the beginning.

The thing marching towards them was all cybernetics, wires and tubes and only a single organic hand visible. He saw the suit, knew it was the general, and giggled a little bit. A single patch of organic skin. A weak spot.

The other four soldiers looked confused at his laughter, as surely this general and these four enemy officers, though they be the last, would be the strongest.

“You have done well, but it all ends right here.”

And then the Five Heroes rushed forwards, him crying the loudest that his hoarse voice could as he took in the desecrated earth.

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;

He slashed blindly at the general, clouded over by not rage, but by fear. Pure fear and adrenaline. The general swiped most of them away with his cybernetic hand, that morphed into a sword mid-swing.

Left, right, parry, swing.

The woman with the hammer and shield on his left hit her target over the head, and the officer went down. She kept beating, however, until its death was clear and her adrenalin slowed. Then she sat down, breathing heavily, and looked at him.

The man with the two knives plunged through steel, wires, and skin alike. The cybernetic warrior came down into the dirt, and he only stabbed once or twice more. Then he sheathed his knives, and sat next to the woman.

A long, double-headed battle axe went cleanly through the shorter enemy officer, a long vertical slice in half. Was the resulting fluid oil, or could it be blood? Would there ever be a way to know? The woman who dealt the blow finished the enemy, face tight and bleak.

The man with the katana jumped back and forth, waiting for the enemy to be just off balance enough. Then a single slash, straight through the officer, who fell to the ground. He released a deep exhale of a breath he didn’t know he was holding. He shook and had to sit down and stop himself.

In the middle, he found the point with his sword, seeing that all others had been taken down.
Three. A slash through the head, barely deeper than a graze but enough to put him off balance.
Two. Cutting off the organic hand, the one place there would be surefire pain—the screech following verifies that it worked.
One. Plunge the sword straight in and drive, drive, DRIVE.

Looking around he has found himself twenty meters from his allies, who are sitting in dazed disbelief. He walks back to them and recites the final piece out loud, looking down at his watch and thinking through what is left.

Each of the men whispers into their watches, recording the time and date of their last battle. One last action report.

Hidetaka, sheathing his katana, manages to smiles as his final nervousness fades.

Nessa’s axe is stuck in the ground and she knows she does not yet have the strength to get it back.

Julian’s knives, sheathed and gleaming, remain still as he goes up to Elouise and comforts her.

And in the middle is him. Colin Dorian Cloud.

He recites, openly and plainly, his voice somehow coming out crystal clear as he looks across the now-barren land:

“And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their dignities cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's Day.”

October 25th, 2199.
The day we finally did it.
St. Crispin’s Day. 

 

Kekoa is a 15-year-old from California.



Of Those Who Know

By: Julia Fowlie

Her fingers combed through her brown bob, tugging and pulling at any loose strands.

The mirror that took up half the bathroom’s wall allowed Sophia clearly to see the clump of hair that was removed, leaving a bald patch in its place.

Still, the routine was no longer shocking. Instead, Sophia stood quietly, her eyes glazed over, staring at the mirror’s reflection. The hair weighed heavily in her hand, laying limp, but she continued to tightly hold onto it.

A radio played faintly in the background, classical music flowing from its speakers. The pitter pattering of feet was approaching and the bathroom door, slightly ajar, suddenly pushed wide open. Her little girl stood in close proximity, her pigtails swinging.

“Mommy, let’s play!”

Sophia looked down at the tiny girl and smiled. She crouched down and stroked Mia’s head with her free hand.

The soft silky locks drew Sophia back to her balding appearence. She furrowed her brows, remembering the new clients scheduled to visit tomorrow afternoon. Her employment was riding on a good first impression.

As always, hiding her condition was a priority and, despite protests from Eric and Mia, Sophia was against drawing attention to herself. She recalled the uncomfortable faces of previous clients upon their discovery of her secret. Unwelcoming questions often followed.

It was her shame, her vulnerability, the reason she felt pitifully weak at times. All those weekly hospital visits, sitting anxiously in the cold, white waiting room. Alone. She could still hear the sound of hair clippers buzzing to life.

“Mommy, please!” Mia whined. She was pulling at Sophia’s hand now, giddy with anticipation. “I wanna play hide and seek!”

“Then we’ll play hide and seek. You go hide first while I count to one hundred.” Like a rubber band, the tiny body flew out of the room, pigtails whipping behind her.

Remaining crouched, Sophia thought of Mia. The tiny girl had forced her way into the heart of their small family and Sophia couldn’t stand the idea of her daughter inheriting the same condition. Mia, whose permanent smile was all she ever wore, need not know the despair and anxiety that Sophia endured. It took her a long time to understand the true meaning of beauty.

“Mommy are you counting?”

The voice echoed in the hallway. Sophia knew the game wouldn’t start without her. Mia was waiting. She needed her mother. That was all it took for Sophia to stand. She walked over to the garbage and tossed the strands of hair that she clutched in her fist. Exhaling slowly, she steals one final glance at the mirror. “Ready or not, here I come.”

 

Julia is a 17-year-old from Burlington, Ontario, Canada.



He Will Be Missed

By: Allison Chen

Tick tock sounded the typewriter. The ticking stopped.

“Mr. Brown was found in the office at 10:52 pm, with a bullet embedded in his skull.”

The writer paused to sip stale coffee from his cracked mug, as he considered the stiff line of words. Glancing at the clock, he flicked the mug back onto the sticky table, hurrying to finish his quota for the Daily News. He hunched over his typewriter to speedily run his fingers across the keys.

“Mr. Brown had a wife and three kids and lived on 360 W Birmingham St.” The words appeared uniformly across the page, like a smooth parade of ink.

The streets became increasingly silent—no longer did the writer hear the constant woosh of racing cars, wheels turning as their occupants rushed to nowhere.

“Mr. Brown was well-loved by all his friends and colleagues.”

The writer tapped his foot impatiently—he wanted to get home to the delicious, home-cooked dinner waiting for him. The clock glowed in red letters, reading 10:47 pm.

He did not know what else to write.

The writer sat in his hard, uncomfortable chair, lounging in warm lethargy, opening and closing his top drawer in repeated, lazy motions.

Open. Close. Open. Close. Open. Close.

“Mr. Brown was a respected editor-in-chief of the Daily News. He will be missed.”

Envied, not respected, thought the writer, chuckling dryly.

The writer glanced at the clock again, now unsure of the glowing red letters, which read 10:50 pm.

Finally breaking the stillness of the room, the door creaked open.

“Hey, you can call it a night. You’ve worked so hard.” Mr. Brown stood at the door with an encouraging smile, his hand still on the silver handle.

The writer raised his arm, drawing the never-used pistol from his top drawer.

The clock read 10:52 pm.

Mr. Brown was found in the office at 10:52 pm, with a bullet embedded in his skull.

 

Allison Chen is a 17 year old student at Hamilton High School.



Lost and Found

By: Jen Cullen

 

As my heavy eyelids slowly open, I immediately look out to identify the scenery around me. After two years of traveling, the landscapes begin to blend together. The brush on the ground tells me I’m in Arizona. No, it’s too flat. Arizona has miles of towering mountains that make you feel tiny in comparison. It must be Utah. No, there’s way too much green. Utah is so red you feel like you could drown in it. It’s New Mexico. New Mexico has seemingly endless roads of nothing that rarely lead to any place of significance, but it still manages to enchant you. If I look hard enough, I can see the peaks of red mountains off in the distance of the open road, surrounded by nothing else but dirt. 

I’m in the passenger seat of a beat up 1962 VW convertible. The cracked, light blue paint makes the car look worn down and cheap, but the driver tells me that he saved up for this car all of high school, working at a local mechanic shop in Jasper, Indiana, where he left as soon as he got the keys. His name is Tom. He has calloused hands and bloodshot eyes that seem to constantly glance at me, even while he’s fixated on the road. Several times I woke up during our ride to find his hand softly resting on my shoulder, immediately sending shivers down my entire body. I am innately aware of how the feeling of a touch could be like sandpaper, and be so cold. I had come to expect that his hand would wander down my arms, as if I were oblivious to his obvious change of intentions. Instead, it stayed put in a place of innocence, of protection. His touch somehow felt warm, and slowly made me feel comfort instead of fear. Out of the many men I had encountered during my travels, Tom was gentler, but just as troubled. I could tell he was running from something that haunted him. Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night to find him looking up at the sky, thinking too much, and too deeply.

 I usually didn’t try too hard to dive deep into the psyche of the people I met on the road. Forming attachments would make it impossible to keep moving on. But still, something about the innocent placement of his hand, or the creases on his forehead, or the way the light shone on his five-o-clock shadow made me nauseous. The good kind of nauseous, like riding on a carousel at the local fair after two cotton candies, but still nauseous. 

The mid morning air is dreadfully hot. During the nights, the air is cold, with the luminous light of the moon being my only solace. Sometimes at night my mind begins to wander to home, a place of comfort and familiarity, but also a place full of questions that seem too big for a small town to answer. When I finally get those answers, then everything will be worth it.

My mother always told me I was a wandering soul, belonging to everyone and no one all at once. Born and raised in Big Sky, Montana, my mother lived the life that was decided for her at birth. She went to school, helped her mother at home, and when she was 18, she was married off to a local man who she was expected to immediately love. She used to tell me that love was a choice. When she decided to love my father, she did it with all her heart. Still, I could tell her mind wandered to other lives she could have lived. My father was a man who was content with a simple life. He held a job as a manager at the local bank and brought home just enough money every day to keep food on the table and his wife in her place. When he was laid off, he blamed my mother. She was too weak, didn’t take care of the home well enough, and didn’t love him well enough. As piercing screams moved through the walls of our home, it started to shrink. My mother told me that whenever I felt scared, I could close my eyes and picture myself in New York City, at the top of the Empire State Building. Simultaneously feeling so big, like a King looking down on his subjects, and so small, like nothing really matters except the view. Thousands of feet above millions of people, just walking by. All with purpose, with direction. All free. 

The day my mother died, March 22, 1970, I packed a bag with two sweaters, a pair of jeans, and some money. One of the sweaters was picked out of a thrift shop so cluttered I felt forced to pick the first thing I saw I didn’t hate. The other was my mom’s, which was already starting to lose the smell of her perfume; instead, it smelled of far too many wears with no washing. The jeans were old Levi’s I got at a department store, the only pair I could ever find that fit both my waist and hips, but they were still slightly too loose on my bony legs. I brought 257 dollars and 53 cents. It was all the money I had saved up, earned from years of chores and any job I could get. I kept it in a box under my bed, waiting for the time when I would need it. I thought it would be enough, but at this point, there are only a few dollars left. I vowed to myself that I would never return to my town. People who never leave home don’t understand what it’s like to be on a constant tour, or what it’s like to be free. 

“Stephanie,” I hear Tom whisper from the driver’s seat of the car. His hair is messy, obviously having not been washed for days, perhaps even weeks. Still, I could tell he was handsome in another life, one where he had a place to call home. The name leaving his mouth feels unfamiliar to me. I gave every man I met on the road a different name and a different story of how I ended up so lost. 

Ed, a truck driver from Nevada met Jasmine, a girl from a wealthy home in California who ran away from her overbearing parents. 

Jonathan and Mary, a couple traveling to Tennessee from Oregon met Alicia, a waitress from Idaho with the hopes of becoming an actress in New York.

But Tom met Stephanie, the girl from a small town in Montana. Me. 

When he asked me my name and story as he picked me up on the side of the interstate outside of Albuquerque, my real name somehow slipped from my lips. His eyes searched mine intently, maybe because I looked so unsure of my story. Maybe he even thought I was lying to him. That I had made up this girl named Stephanie. That I was just trying her on to find someone that fit. I wonder if what he told me about himself was true. 

I glance over at Tom, still awaiting a response from me.

I struggle to let out any sound after so long of silence, but look at him inquisitively. 

“I want to show you something,” he softly replies, eyes searching in the distance.

There’s not much around for Tom to show other than pieces of brush and small animals scurrying around the ground. He puts his key into the ignition, the engine making a loud roaring sound as the car begins to move. The car struggles, almost like it is tired of travelling, but is still being forced along day after day. As we begin to drive, Tom turns on a cassette player that I have never noticed the car has. When classical music blares through the tape, I look at Tom with puzzled eyes as he begins to explain.

“I play the piano. One day I’m going to be like Mozart, or Beethoven, or one of the other greats. I mean, I’ve never had a proper lesson or anything like that, but my grandmother used to have an old piano in her living room. Sometimes I’d sit for hours and just feel it vibrate.” 

As he talks, he fidgets with his hands and looks down into his lap, like his hobby is a secret he has been itching to confess.

 His words surprise me, not because of his ambitions, but because of his appearance. Tom’s shaggy hair and loose, ragged clothing make him look more like the kind of guy who would listen to rock bands, like The Velvet Underground or The Doors, who I would listen to on my record player at home, just quiet enough to not bother my parents, and just loud enough to feel lost in it.

The sound of the piano melody pulsates through the car as Tom determinedly drives down the monotonous road. Suddenly, Tom makes a sharp, jolting turn and comes across a small path that I never would have noticed. There appears to have once been a sign leading people down the path, but it has since been knocked down, now lying down in the brush, battered and neglected. The path is obviously not meant for cars, with constant bumps sending us off of the ripped leather seats and into the air. 

A small grin creeps upon Tom’s face as we pull up to a village. Not a village per se, but a giant formation of red rock houses, that seems like it is from many lifetimes ago. A neighborhood long abandoned. The rocks look worn, but sturdy, like they were built to last. There are about 7 rock houses built on top of each other, with stone stairways leading up to the door of the next home. They’re a rectangular shape, completely plain other than two holes: a window and some sort of door. The holes seem too small for anyone to squeeze through to get to the equally small interior, which is completely empty. The rocks are a muted red, but seem vibrant compared to the far away mountain scape. Driving in the village feels like finding something from long ago that doesn’t quite belong to you, but is impossible to not take for your own. It feels too valuable to be left behind, even if not by the true owner. It seems like the entire world was all here at once, but just happened to be forgotten. As I look around at the full panorama, my mind wanders to what happened to the people who lived here and what made them run away.

“Do you think we could stay?” I ask Tom, immediately feeling a rush of adrenaline.  

His eyes widen with excitement, and no trace of fear. 

“I don’t see why not,” he replies as we walk out of his car and into the village.

I imagine myself living in one of the small rock houses, feeling the past where I rest my head. I imagine Tom living with me, with us only having each other, and maybe a few of his cassette tapes. I imagine never being seen again, until maybe someone stumbles across our little village and wonders how we got so lost. 

I look over at Tom as he turns to look at me. Without any effort of my own, my arms extend as I let out the loudest scream I can muster. Tom smiles wide, not seeming surprised at my random outburst. Without any hesitation, he joins me. As both our screams fill the air, I wonder if we could stay in this moment, screaming forever, until our voices give out, and all there is left is silence. 

 

Jen Cullen is a 17 year old attending Viewpoint School in Calabasas, California.

 



Gram's Cherry Tree

By: Nora Wagner

 

“Every year it will come out again, sweetie. The blossoms may be shy and secretive, but they have a weakness for spring, because they like seeing a warm, cloudless sky, just like us. So don’t despair once the tree is bare, because next year it will be back, lovely, alluring, and delicate. So dry away your wistful tears, and know even though all that’s left is wood, before you know buds will shoot out again.” Gram said, maintaining her steady rock in her favorite chair. Her voice was soft, yet it filled every nook and cranny of the room, brightening the room more than any light. Most people make words sound generic, robotic, and like they are being forced out of their lips. But Gram made it sound like a melody, floating out of her mouth. And that is what brought me out from underneath my blanket every year. That is until March 21, 2003.

+++

I was in the tree at the time, rejoicing in the few months I had with the beautiful, rosy blossoms. I was resting on a moss covered branch. The sun glimmered through the leaves. I felt ecstatic; once Gram returned back from yoga class I would show her the flowers, and we would have a picnic in twilight’s dull, purple glow. Then I heard it. It was a shrill shriek, very out of place with the chirps of birds and rustle of a breeze. Deafening sobs pounded my eardrums. I leaped down from my perch on the tree, and ran inside our dim house across the street. There in the kitchen was my mom, leaning on the counter, tears tracking down her cheeks. She tilted her head upwards, like she was cursing God. This memory will haunt me forever: to see my sleek, composed mom collapse in pain. 

Gram told me that she was fine, that a weak heart was an insignificant matter. She would live to a ripe old age, and not leave me. I learned another appalling fact that day. Gram is a liar.

+++

You can’t walk down to the breakfast table without recalling Gram. Memories of her flicker like slides, one after the next. That she had to pray to God about all her worries, before being able to sleep soundly. That she always slept in flannel nightgowns with angel sleeves. And the memory that strikes me most often: her love for the cherry tree. 

I exhale, staring out the window pane at the durable, broad tree, the tree completely unaware of the horrible deed planned for this afternoon. I dash down the stairs, hoping to escape the poor tree. No luck though. I shake cornflakes into my ceramic bowl, trying not to think of Gram doing the same thing every morning. 

My parents talk about the tree in hushed voices. 

“I don’t know how they can chop the tree down! It’s been there for over a hundred years, it’s like chopping down memorials from the Civil War!” my mother says.

“Children love playing dangerous games on it. Kids will miss swinging on the branches, and teenagers will miss the enclosure that enables them to smoke without interruption, but parents despise the tree. They fear for the safety of their children,” my father says, shaking his head while scanning the newspaper. “Personally, I think that’s ridiculous. They’re cautious about letting them play on the tree, because of the danger of falling from it? Well, if they believe that, then how about getting rid of that bright yellow eyesore, that they call monkey bars. It’s just the same elevation as the tree’s height!”

“But folks have so many spectacular memories! Having picnics under the canopy’s shelter, sitting on the branches and enjoying fireworks on the 4th of July, or just breathing in the fresh scent of the cherry blossoms and knowing that spring has begun.” she says indignantly. “Remember that time we hosted that tea party? And we spent hours baking those almond scones, only to find out that somebody had a deadly allergy to nuts of all kinds?” My mom snorted, embracing the memory with a peaceful look on her face. “It was supposed to be civilized - we were supposed to wear lacy, embroidered dresses, with our napkins in our laps and sipping our tea daintily. But at the end everybody went wild and started swinging like Tarzan? That was one of the best days of my life. I wish it could go back to that.”  

Then they are both silent, and sip their coffee, their minds drifting. Maybe they are thinking of lazy summer days, when we only moved from the tree’s shade to get a glass of iced tea or lemonade. Or maybe they are thinking of when I was a toddler, and we hosted a triumphant birthday party under the tree. Or maybe they are remembering what I am; Gram sitting contentedly at the base of the trunk, beaming up at the sky. 

+++

Almost every night I walked in on Gram kneeling down and praying. Mostly I crept back out of the room, not wanting to disturb Gram. Occasionally I just gazed at Gram in the living room. She always sat in the center of the room, with her head bowed down, ignoring the tottering piles of books, vases of wilted wisteria, and striped antique furniture. Only once did I interrupt her, when I was too little to know that Gram treasured those peaceful minutes.

“Gram, what are you doing?” I remember saying.

She looked up, smiling me in my ratty Hello Kitty pajamas. “I am praying to the Lord, darling, in the hopes that he answers my requests.”

“What are you praying about?”I asked, not realizing that I was intruding on something special.

This time Gram hesitated, and looked me up and down. “I am praying for you, sweetie.” She smiled at me, an understanding smile, not expecting me to realize why she was using up all her alone time to ponder about me, to dwell on my secrets and pray for me to strike a mine of joy. 

“Oh.” I said. I remember wondering, why on earth was she praying for me? I was a well-treated child, with loving parents who spoiled me. Why wasn’t she praying for stray cats, who need to dig into trash cans to find small scraps of food? Why not kids who see, disappointed, that the refrigerator is empty again? Why not people who wander around on the streets, jingling old soup cans, hoping for a few quarters?

She smiled at me again, knowing that I had no idea why she was bending down on her knees praying for plain, boring, me. “Good night, honey.” she whispered and stroked my sloppy curls. 

“Good night Gram.” 

+++

The tree is a miracle. Here for over a hundred years, chestnut streaked with brick red with many branches arching from the tree, and adorned with clusters of light pink blossoms. And now in ten minutes it will all be gone, just like Gram. And just like with Gram they will leave a meaningless keepsake. We’ll be left with a stump, just like we were left with a weathered stone to represent Gram. I’m going to make the rest of my life the best of my life, was engraved on it. Gram would have hated it. She can’t make the rest of her life the best, because she is gone! Just like this tree, that people thought had lingered too long, and that a boutique movie theater would be a great substitute! Incorrect. People were starting to gather around now, delight etched in their faces. They wanted this tree to be gone. They wanted to demolish nature and replace it with a stupid building that would rot kids’ brains.

 And then just like Gram’s melody, words floated out of my mouth.

“Stop. I don’t expect you to listen to a twelve year old, but I want you to consider something before you destroy this tree that has been around before any of you. This tree doesn’t just house sparrows. It holds memories of kids playing tag, of meaningful conversations, of laughter, and tears. And with one chop you are going to dismantle millions of memories.” My courage mounts. “I know a grandmother who would frown down on what you are doing. And this grandmother is giving me the bravery to speak to you all. When I was five, I walked in on my grandmother praying for me. I wondered why, up until now. I am a shy girl. I don’t raise my hand in class. I sit alone at break and watch the popular girls who don’t even consider inviting me to jump rope with them. That’s why my Gram talked to God, to bless me to have the courage to speak right now. So if you won’t save this tree for all the little kids who love playing in it, do it for Gram, a lady who tried her best to make sure that this tree was safe.” I stop, my face flushing. I tune out the applause and the cheers. 

I focus on one voice, coming from above the nine planets and billions of stars. 

You are so brave, darling. I am so proud of you. Her high-pitched melody sings again in my head. I know I’m not imagining it. She is peering down at me. I am so proud of you.

 

Nora Wagner is an 11 year old attending San Francisco Friends School in San Francisco, California.



The Will Allen Experiment

By: Dylan Kaufman
 

“Another swish, Scott. You have to teach me how to do that,” I exclaimed.

“He turned to me and smiled. Only if you help me with geometry. I hate that class.”

Scott and I were playing basketball at the park near our houses. We were neighbors, and best friends. I met Scott in Kindergarten, and our parents say that we have been inseparable ever since. This baffles me, because Scott and I are very different people. Scott is one of the stars of the basketball team at school. He was also what some people would call, a “lady-killer”. The one thing that was bad about Scott was that he had the IQ of a paperclip. The only reason he was passing was because I was helping him. I’m not the most athletic kid out there, but I like to think I make up for it with my brain. I never thought I was smarter than everyone else. I just thought that my entire grade was compiled of complete morons. I was what some people call a “nerd”.

“Are you going to Kimberly’s party?” I asked Scott.

“WIll, I swear, when will you realize that she doesn’t like me?” Scott complained.

“Jeez, Scott, you could have her. All you need is some help from Mr. William Allen.”

Kimberly was Scott’s crush since the fifth grade. She was the prettiest girl in our grade. Scott could never seem to talk to her. For a jock, he lacked confidence. That always surprised me about him.

“If you’re not going tonight, then you should come over. I’m working on something you should see. It’s going to change the world.” I told Scott.

“Fine, but if this one explodes like last time, I’m going to hurt you.” I looked at him and laughed.

“No,” I said, “you’re not.”

 

“Scott, where in the world are you? I have been calling you all night!”

It was 8:30 at night and Scott still had not arrived at my house. I was getting very angry, which did not happen often.

“Jeez, man! I’m walking into your house now. But there’s someone else here…”

Suddenly, the door opened, and I did not believe what I saw.

“Hi, Will!” said Kimberley.

“Uh, hi Kim. Scott, a word please?” Scott walked over to me.

“What’s up?” he said.

“What is she doing here?” I complained.

“Will, you won’t believe it. I took your advice and asked her out, and she said yes! I was so happy and I couldn’t breathe and I thought I was having a heart attack and-”

“Breathe, Scott,” I interrupted, “ breathe.”

After taking a deep breath, he continued.

“I was taking her back to my house when you called me the twenty-second time. She asked who it was, so I told her. She was ecstatic. Apparently, she is a science geek, like you.”

I looked back at her. She didn’t look like a science geek, but no one relatively popular was a geek I was aware of, so I guess I was excited.

“Fine,” I said after mulling it over, “she can stay.”

“So,” Scott began, “what is it?”

“It’s an atomic particle acceleration gene advancement and molecular endocrinology device!” I exclaimed. They both looked at me with extreme confusion.

“Oh, umm, APAGAME for short. It basically has the capability to change the DNA in teenagers into something else.”

“What do you mean, “else”?” asked Kimberley.

“I’ll tell you when I figure it out.”

“Let’s try it!” suggested Scott.

“Are you insane? It could kill us. The radiation itself could turn you into the Hulk!” I proclaimed.

“Seriously? Awesome! How does it work?” he asked. I sighed.

“Well, you put your thumb here. The plate it’s on examines your thumbprint and scans your molecular data. This chamber up here contains protons, neutrons and electrons that, if in the correct order, could be inserted into you and change your DNA.”

“Wow!” Scott exclaimed. “Can we try?”

“I guess… but it’s risky, like I said.”

“I’m in,” said Kimberly, “maybe it will work?”

“C’mon, Will. Please…?” begged Scott.

“Fine. Kimberly, put your thumb here. Scott, here. Me, there. Let me turn it on and… alright , it’s on. So… let’s just try changing all our hair to blonde. Ok, here we go!”

I ran to where I was supposed to go.

“Ok, guys, here we go!”

The machine roared to life. Buttons began to glow. Things were whirring and buzzing all over the place. It was working. I looked at Kimberly and saw her dark black hair began to turn blonde.

“It’s working!” I shouted. “It’s working!”

“Will, where are your parents?” Scott asked.

“Out to dinner!” I yelled.

“Ouch!” yelled Kimberly! “It’s starting to hurt!”

“Yeah, me too!” said Scott.

I realized that my thumb was hurting too. The lights were very bright. The machine was getting too loud. I looked to my right to check the radiation levels. They were too high. WAY too high.

“Oh, no! There’s too much radiation!” I shouted.

Then there was a flash of light, and everything went dark.

 

“I think he’s waking up.”

“Oh, there he is. How do you feel Will?”

“What?” I opened my eyes and saw my parents. I looked around. I was not in my room anymore. I was in a weird place. I finally realized that I was in a hospital.

“What happened?” I asked.

“One of your experiments exploded,” my dad told me, “one of the neighbors saw it and called 911.”

“Where are Scott and Kimberley?”

“Scott and KImberly are fine. They didn’t black out like you, in fact, they didn’t have many injuries besides some cuts. The only neat thing that happened to all of you is that your hair turned blonde.”

It worked! I thought to myself. It actually worked!

“How long was I out?” I asked them.

“About 3 days.” my mother responded.

“3 days?!” I shouted. “I have to get to school!”

I hopped out of bed. Luckily, my parents had brought me my clothes and my backpack.

“You can’t leave, Will! You just woke up!” They told me.

“I feel fine!” I said back. “I’ll text you after school!”

I raced out of the hospital. I ran down the stairs and out the door. When I stepped outside, I knew exactly where I was. School was 5 miles away and it started in two minutes. So, I ran. I wasn’t running fast enough. I kept going. Faster, faster, faster. Until it happened. I felt a burst of speed, and I took off. I was running at least 100 miles per hour. I saw blue lightning around me. Everything went by so quick. I looked at my feet, and they were blurry. I couldn’t see them because of how fast I was moving. Suddenly, my feet left the ground. I was still moving as fast as I was when they were on the floor. I was flying.  I got to school in at most twenty seconds. I tried to stop, but landed in a bush on accident. I stood up, wiped off the dirt, and went through the back entrance. Luckily, no one saw me.

I mulled over what had just happened. I knew something had happened to me during the explosion. The protons and electrons probably compounded with my cell neutrons, then the radiation binded them together through dehydration synthesis. The excess water was then exposed to the radiation, mutated, and then inserted into my genetic code. This must have caused me to develop extraordinary abilities, or ‘superpowers’. Basically, I was exposed to radiation.

I needed to find Kimberly and Scott to see if they were like me. I went to Scott’s locker.

“Scott!” I yelled across the hallway. He looked at me and smiled.

“Will! You’re awake! Listen, we have to talk, something weird is happening to me and Kimberly. I think we have-

“Superpowers, I know. Let’s meet after school and talk about it.”

After school, I met up with them in the cafeteria.

“So, Kimberly, what are your symptoms?”

“Well,” she began, “ I was making a sandwich when I cut myself by accident. I reached for the band-aids in my cabinet. but they flew into my hand first.!”

“Telekinesis! Very nice. How about you, Scott?”

“Well, I was playing basketball outside, I shot the ball, and it sailed over a few blocks and landed in the lake. I jumped up to stomp on the ground, and I flew 50 feet in the air.”

“Wow, enhanced strength. Very nice.”

“How about you, Will? What do you have?” asked Kimberly.

“I was running to school from the hospital this morning when I saw flashes of lightning behind me. I must have been moving very fast, and then, my feet left the ground. I think I can fly.”

“Lucky…” said Scott. “So what should we do first? Rob a bank? Steal a car?”

“What? No, we don’t use our powers, ever. Only if we need to, ok?” I told them.

“Will, you have superpowers. We have superpowers. Don’t you want to be kings? We could rule the entire world.” he said.

“No. Scott. That’s terrible.”

“Yeah, right, like you’re so perfect. Call me when you come to your senses. You coming, Kim?”

Kim looked up at him but didn’t move. He scowled and slapped her in the face. She flew a couple feet back.

“Kim!” I shouted. I ran to her. “Are you alright?”

“Yeah… yeah, I’m fine.” she told me. I looked up at Scott.

“Scott! Come over here now!” I shouted. Scott came over. His face was grave. I knew that he regretted what he had done. Kimberly didn’t. She slapped him.

“What is wrong with you?” she hollered. “We have the chance to be part of something bigger than us, and you want to rule the world instead of helping people? Shame on you!”

“Kim,” I said to her, “Scott has always been like this. He’ll be fine. In his heart, he wants to do the right thing.”

Suddenly, I heard a noise. Sirens. Screaming. Gunshots. I knew what I heard was not close to me, but was in the city.

“Scott! There is trouble in the city. I need you to carry Kim and jump to downtown. I’ll meet you there.” He nodded.

I ran as fast as I could. I felt the wind on my face, the energy around me. I ran until what I heard was right next to me. I looked up, and saw a bank. There were many police officers surrounding it, and S.W.A.T. teams were arriving. It occurred to me that the bank was being robbed.

“Hey, get out of here, kid!” the police chief screamed at me. “There is a man in there with 20 hostages and a bomb strapped to his chest!”

“Really?” I asked. I quickly ran inside the building, grabbed each hostage one at a time, and ran out. The look on the chief’s face was priceless.

“How...how’d you do that?” he asked me in complete awe.

“Well, I like to sprint sometimes, run a couple of laps, you know. The usual stuff.”

“Thanks for helping out with the hostages, but there is still a man inside with a bomb strapped to him.” The chief was worried, I could tell. He had some kind of look on his face.

Finally, Scott and Kim showed up.

“Ok, guys. Here’s the plan: Kim, you rip off a wall of the bank with your telekinesis. I’m going to run in, take off his bomb-thing, and get out. Scott, you go in after me and hold him. Ready? Break!”

We executed the plan perfectly. It seemed like we had done it a million times. When the police had the bomber, the journalists came rushing towards us.

“Who are you?” One of them asked.

“For now, we’re not sure,” I said, “all you need to know is that we are here to help.”

 



Unworn

By: Ginevra Davis
Unworn 
 
My new dress is white with roses. It was made just for me, stitched precisely to the lines 
of my body. Each rose is hand painted with pink fabric paint, no fewer than five crystals 
painstakingly glued to each embroidered petal. White satin ribbons criss­cross the open back. 
Most figure skating dresses are polyester blend, but mine is pure silk, airy and fragile. The skirt 
ripples around my hips when I spin on the ice; crystal roses catching light with each turn and 
change of edge. Right now, the dress hangs outside my closet door, waiting for me. 
 Sometimes, I hate that dress. 
I am four years old, more snowsuit than child. My ankles wobble in dirty tan rental skates 
as I shuffle around the tiny outdoor rink. The other kids lean on stacks of plastic crates to keep 
themselves upright, but I refuse the crutch. I will skate on my own shaking ankles, and someday I 
will dance on ice like the skaters who smile through my television set. I push my blades against 
the ice harder and harder until velocity forces me down to my knees. I skate backwards and 
forwards, on two feet, then gliding on one. Later, I beg my parents for lessons, then a coach. I 
get real white figure skates with clean laces and two crystals on each toe. I am in love.  
Like all serious figure skaters, I have a dressmaker. My dressmaker’s studio is a shrine to 
the creative process — bolts of rich fabrics stacked high in the corners, uncapped tubes of 
crystals spilling onto tables stained with fabric paint. I know what I want, a white dress with pink 
roses and ribbons lacing up the back. I tell her my vision, and together we sit hunched over a 
sewing table with a piece of paper and a pencil, planning and erasing, saying this goes here and 
that goes there and, “Oh, wouldn’t these look lovely with pink crystals.” Each creative whimsy is 
11701134 
etched onto the page until my dream has been realized. Afterwards, I clutch the sketch, smudging 
my fingers as I trace over the graphite roses and ribbons.  
I am nine years old and I am ecstatic. I have landed a double jump for the first time, the 
youngest at my rink to do so. My coach gives me a hug and an approving smile, and my parents 
buy me a T­shirt that says “I landed my axel!” from the local skating store. This new jump 
makes me competitive, a “real skater” instead of a kid who goes to the rink sometimes. Two 
months later I will wave goodbye to my old coach and make the long drive to the storied Skating 
Club of Boston.  The old coach is replaced with four fancy new ones: one for jumps, one for 
spins, one for choreography, and one to manage the other three coaches. I skate everyday, I 
skate until my legs ache and my feet chafe and the tips of my fingers turn purple in the cold.  
It takes months to sew a skating dress, to take a roll of fabric and shape it into art. It is 
painstaking, exacting work, a skill so rare that most coaches have a single dressmaker deemed 
competent enough to create costumes for their skaters. Each piece of my dress is cut to my 
measurements, 18.9 inches from knee to hip, 24.6 inches around the waist, then threaded 
together with tiny white stitches. My dressmaker cuts the bodice from lycra before lining it with 
silk, then sews more silken fabric onto my hips to create a delicate skirt. The silk is expensive, 
but we use it anyway. You work so hard, my parents say. You deserve this. The uncut silk is soft 
as I hold it up to my body, and I wonder if I could ever be sad wearing something this beautiful. 
I am thirteen years old, long and bendy. I am a beautiful spinner. I can grab the tip of my 
left blade with my opposite hand as I spin, then straighten my knees until my legs are extended in 
a full split, my back arched at an impossible angle. I spin like this at the beginning of each of my 
routines, soaking in the jealous stares from my rivals, the high marks from judges.  Other 
 
 
 
Unworn 
 
My new dress is white with roses. It was made just for me, stitched precisely to the lines 
of my body. Each rose is hand painted with pink fabric paint, no fewer than five crystals 
painstakingly glued to each embroidered petal. White satin ribbons criss­cross the open back. 
Most figure skating dresses are polyester blend, but mine is pure silk, airy and fragile. The skirt 
ripples around my hips when I spin on the ice; crystal roses catching light with each turn and 
change of edge. Right now, the dress hangs outside my closet door, waiting for me. 
 Sometimes, I hate that dress. 
I am four years old, more snowsuit than child. My ankles wobble in dirty tan rental skates 
as I shuffle around the tiny outdoor rink. The other kids lean on stacks of plastic crates to keep 
themselves upright, but I refuse the crutch. I will skate on my own shaking ankles, and someday I 
will dance on ice like the skaters who smile through my television set. I push my blades against 
the ice harder and harder until velocity forces me down to my knees. I skate backwards and 
forwards, on two feet, then gliding on one. Later, I beg my parents for lessons, then a coach. I 
get real white figure skates with clean laces and two crystals on each toe. I am in love.  
Like all serious figure skaters, I have a dressmaker. My dressmaker’s studio is a shrine to 
the creative process — bolts of rich fabrics stacked high in the corners, uncapped tubes of 
crystals spilling onto tables stained with fabric paint. I know what I want, a white dress with pink 
roses and ribbons lacing up the back. I tell her my vision, and together we sit hunched over a 
sewing table with a piece of paper and a pencil, planning and erasing, saying this goes here and 
that goes there and, “Oh, wouldn’t these look lovely with pink crystals.” Each creative whimsy is 
11701134 
etched onto the page until my dream has been realized. Afterwards, I clutch the sketch, smudging 
my fingers as I trace over the graphite roses and ribbons.  
I am nine years old and I am ecstatic. I have landed a double jump for the first time, the 
youngest at my rink to do so. My coach gives me a hug and an approving smile, and my parents 
buy me a T­shirt that says “I landed my axel!” from the local skating store. This new jump 
makes me competitive, a “real skater” instead of a kid who goes to the rink sometimes. Two 
months later I will wave goodbye to my old coach and make the long drive to the storied Skating 
Club of Boston.  The old coach is replaced with four fancy new ones: one for jumps, one for 
spins, one for choreography, and one to manage the other three coaches. I skate everyday, I 
skate until my legs ache and my feet chafe and the tips of my fingers turn purple in the cold.  
It takes months to sew a skating dress, to take a roll of fabric and shape it into art. It is 
painstaking, exacting work, a skill so rare that most coaches have a single dressmaker deemed 
competent enough to create costumes for their skaters. Each piece of my dress is cut to my 
measurements, 18.9 inches from knee to hip, 24.6 inches around the waist, then threaded 
together with tiny white stitches. My dressmaker cuts the bodice from lycra before lining it with 
silk, then sews more silken fabric onto my hips to create a delicate skirt. The silk is expensive, 
but we use it anyway. You work so hard, my parents say. You deserve this. The uncut silk is soft 
as I hold it up to my body, and I wonder if I could ever be sad wearing something this beautiful. 
I am thirteen years old, long and bendy. I am a beautiful spinner. I can grab the tip of my 
left blade with my opposite hand as I spin, then straighten my knees until my legs are extended in 
a full split, my back arched at an impossible angle. I spin like this at the beginning of each of my 
routines, soaking in the jealous stares from my rivals, the high marks from judges.  Other 
 

Unworn

 

     My new dress is white with roses. It was made just for me, stitched precisely to the lines of my body. Each rose is hand painted with pink fabric paint, no fewer than five crystals painstakingly glued to each embroidered petal. White satin ribbons criss-cross the open back. Most figure skating dresses are polyester blend, but mine is pure silk, airy and fragile. The skirt ripples around my hips when I spin on the ice; crystal roses catching light with each turn and change of edge. Right now, the dress hangs outside my closet door, waiting for me.

     Sometimes, I hate that dress.

     I am four years old, more snowsuit than child. My ankles wobble in dirty tan rental skates as I shuffle around the tiny outdoor rink. The other kids lean on stacks of plastic crates to keep themselves upright, but I refuse the crutch. I will skate on my own shaking ankles, and someday I will dance on ice like the skaters who smile through my television set. I push my blades against the ice harder and harder until velocity forces me down to my knees. I skate backwards and forwards, on two feet, then gliding on one. Later, I beg my parents for lessons, then a coach. I get real white figure skates with clean laces and two crystals on each toe. I am in love.

     Like all serious figure skaters, I have a dressmaker. My dressmaker’s studio is a shrine to the creative process — bolts of rich fabrics stacked high in the corners, uncapped tubes of crystals spilling onto tables stained with fabric paint. I know what I want, a white dress with pink roses and ribbons lacing up the back. I tell her my vision, and together we sit hunched over a sewing table with a piece of paper and a pencil, planning and erasing, saying this goes here and that goes there and, “Oh, wouldn’t these look lovely with pink crystals.” Each creative whimsy is etched onto the page until my dream has been realized. Afterwards, I clutch the sketch, smudging my fingers as I trace over the graphite roses and ribbons.

     I am nine years old and I am ecstatic. I have landed a double jump for the first time, the youngest at my rink to do so. My coach gives me a hug and an approving smile, and my parents buy me a T-shirt that says “I landed my axel!” from the local skating store. This new jump makes me competitive, a “real skater” instead of a kid who goes to the rink sometimes. Two months later I will wave goodbye to my old coach and make the long drive to the storied Skating Club of Boston. The old coach is replaced with four fancy new ones: one for jumps, one for spins, one for choreography, and one to manage the other three coaches. I skate everyday, I skate until my legs ache and my feet chafe and the tips of my fingers turn purple in the cold.

     It takes months to sew a skating dress, to take a roll of fabric and shape it into art. It is painstaking, exacting work, a skill so rare that most coaches have a single dressmaker deemed competent enough to create costumes for their skaters. Each piece of my dress is cut to my measurements, 18.9 inches from knee to hip, 24.6 inches around the waist, then threaded together with tiny white stitches. My dressmaker cuts the bodice from lycra before lining it with silk, then sews more silken fabric onto my hips to create a delicate skirt. The silk is expensive, but we use it anyway. You work so hard, my parents say. You deserve this. The uncut silk is soft as I hold it up to my body, and I wonder if I could ever be sad wearing something this beautiful.

     I am thirteen years old, long and bendy. I am a beautiful spinner. I can grab the tip of my left blade with my opposite hand as I spin, then straighten my knees until my legs are extended in a full split, my back arched at an impossible angle. I spin like this at the beginning of each of my routines, soaking in the jealous stares from my rivals, the high marks from judges. Other coaches come up to me after competitions, saying, “I wish my students could spin like that.” I spin like this every day, tip my head back and spin around and around until I get so dizzy that everything goes black and stars dance across my eyes.

     My favorite part of my new dress is the ribbons lacing up my back. The lacing starts just under my shoulder blades, ending in a small bow at the nape of my spine. There is just something so romantic about a corset back. I took the idea from a book called The Bronze Horseman, an epic novel with the pretense of Tolstoy and the substance of Cinderella. A Red Army soldier comes home to Russia. He sees a peasant girl in a white dress with ribbons lacing up the back and falls madly in love. It is a silly book, but reading it, all I wanted was to love something as much as those characters loved each other.

     I am fifteen and my back hurts. It hurts when I jump, when I walk, when I sit at my desk in school. This is bad, this is wrong, I want to scream. I’m a teenager and my bones ache like I am already worn. When I grab my leg to spin I feel vertebrae rub and crunch, a dull knife sawing at my spine. I stop spinning.

     “Not today,” I tell my coaches. “Tomorrow, I’ll be better.” But tomorrow comes and it hurts to get out of bed. So I stop skating. The doctors tell me what I already know: my back is broken. I am broken.

     My back brace is white plastic. It squeezes my ribs and pinches my waist, it encases me day and night. If you hit the plastic hard enough through my clothes, I sound hollow.

     The most expensive part of a skating dress is the crystals. They are costly in themselves, but one mostly pays for the labor of applying them. Thousands of these tiny jewels must be glued onto the dress by hand, arranged in intricate patterns in order to reflect light and dazzle the judges. My dress has 1,300 stones: clear crystal for the bodice, matte opal for the ribbons, and three different shades of pink for the roses. I pick them out myself, holding each sample up to the fluorescent lights in my dressmaker’s studio, squinting as I try to discern the difference between a 6.2 mm Indian Pink and 4.0 mm Vintage Rose.

     I am sixteen and miserable. I am back on the ice, but after being of for months, my knees ache and my hips pull and my weakened ankles wobble like I am four years old again. I must skate slowly now. I must jump close to the ground. The brace is gone, but the knife in my back still saws with each landing. I watch the younger kids land their double jumps for the first time, hopping up and down on their toepicks and shouting “I did it!” with each twirl and trick. I watch my old rivals land triple jumps, watch them fly of for the National Championships and come home with new hardware. My back will bend no more, every stab of pain a firm reminder that I am not what I once was.

     I try on my new dress and wonder how such tiny crystals could become so heavy. They weigh on my chest, although the silk skirt lifts effortlessly when I twirl in front of the mirror. I admire the perfect stitches, the painted roses, the corset back, the hundreds of crystals glittering on every open inch of fabric. It is the most beautiful dress I have ever seen, and yet at the same time, I hate it. I hate that I made this beautiful, expensive, useless thing. I hate that I still feel hollow when I put it on.

     I am seventeen and tired. I am tired of skating, tired of pain, tired of feeling worn down. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to hang up my skates, to give in to my body and quit. But then I remember the little girl who wanted nothing more than to dance on the ice, who skated every day until her hands turned purple in the cold. I owe it to her to keep trying, to do the thing she loved as long as I physically can. So I decide to keep going, even though every practice is punctuated by pain in some part of my body. I get new music, a new routine ... all I need is a dress. I imagine a white dress with pink roses and ribbons lacing up the back, a dress so beautiful that simply putting it on will make me fall in love.

     Today I am competing. My new dress hangs outside my closet door. A bottle of little white pills sits on my dresser, painkillers that will allow me to perform an approximation of my old spins. I do not compete to win a medal, I compete because it is what I have always done. Because I have endured so much to be able skate. And it would be such a shame for that beautiful dress, with its white ribbons softly lacing up my back, to sit in my bedroom unworn.

 

Ginevra Davis is a 17 year old attending Concord Carlisle High School in Concord, Massachusetts.

 



Hush Little Baby

By: Lena Hartsough

Hush little baby, don’t say a word,

Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird.

 

And if that mockingbird don’t sing,

Mama’s gonna buy you a diamond ring.

 

And if that diamond ring don’t shine,

Mama’s gonna buy you a jug of wine.

 

And if that jug of wine turns sour,

Mama’s gonna buy you a bag of flour.

 

And if that bag of flour gets spilled,

Mama’s gonna buy you a board that’s drilled.

 

And if that board that’s drilled gets broke,

Mama’s gonna buy you a billy goat.

 

And if that billy goat turns mean,

Mama’s gonna buy you something green.

 

And if that something green turns brown,

You’ll still be the sweetest little baby in town.
 

I lay awake in the dark, staring at the cracked ceiling and trying to ignore the terrifying sounds coming from down the hall. I had been hearing them for the past seven years of my life, but I still found myself shuddering. I sat up, careful not to wake Lisa and Kari, who were on either side of me. Their closeness felt suffocating. I crawled to the edge of the bed, stood up, and walked over to the window. I stared out the tiny rectangle of thick glass at the glowing moon. For the millionth time, I wondered what went on in Mother’s room every night that caused such screams.

A pitter-patter of tiny footsteps made me whirl around, my nightgown swirling. I relaxed as I saw it was only Leo, the youngest inhabitant of our prison-like room. I smiled at the small six-year-old boy, and he grinned back. He held his arms up to me, and pointed at the window. I scooped him up and held him so he could see the moon. He tilted his head against my shoulder. We stood there for quite some time, until he yawned, and I carried him back to the bed he shared with the other six boys. I tucked him in, and he signed, Good night, Sara, before closing his eyes to sleep. I returned to the window, pulling a chair over. I watched the moon and stars as they cycled across the sky.

Shaking woke me. Lola’s face was inches from mine when I opened my eyes. I made a face at her, and she giggled noiselessly. I could see the stump where her tongue used to be. You fell asleep at the window again, Sara, she signed.

I shrugged, and signed back, You know it happens almost every night.

She nodded in agreement. I sat up fully, rubbing my cheek where it had pressed into the hard wall, and looked around the room. Everyone was waking up, stretching and yawning. I shivered, partly from the deep chill of the room and partly from the sight of all those tongueless mouths. Fourteen children, none of whom did anything to deserve this, were now trapped in a room and mute. Why? What did Mother do in her room with the samples of blood she took from each of us every day? Was there something special about us, or did she just pick us off the streets? And why did we need to be mutilated? I shook my head; thinking like that could be dangerous. I could get in trouble with Mother if she found out I was questioning her.

Speak of the devil.

The door slammed open and Mother flounced in, carrying a heavily-laden tray with our breakfasts on it. “Good morning, children!” she sang, starting to pass out our food. When she reached me, she set my plate of toast, eggs, and bacon in my lap, and pinched my cheek. “Were we sleeping by the window again, Sara?”

I nodded. I love the moon, I signed, and Mother nodded in agreement.

“It was beautiful last night!” she exclaimed, before moving on to pass Lola her breakfast. Once she had given us all food, she took out the little box with fourteen syringes in it, and asked us to line up. We obeyed, and she took exactly five milliliters of blood from each of us. Then she gave us small band-aids and left, without saying a word.

We weren’t surprised by the strange order; Mother always told us to have fun. We didn’t understand how we could have fun in a small room with no furnishings but the beds, two chairs, and a large stack of books, but we made the most of it. We played acting games and charades, we poured over new sign language books, we read the other books Mother allowed us over and over again. I can’t say it was a terrible life, but it was a boring one, and one full of confusion and slight fear. We were always afraid that if we managed to somehow make a noise we would get punished. We had all witnessed her anger; the first day Leo was with us he had started crying and tried to run when Mother tried to take his blood. She had lost her temper and screamed at us all for forty-five minutes. We had ended that breakfast with bruises and a greater fear of the unknown woman who told us to call her “Mother”.

She was beautiful, I mused as we ate our breakfast. There was never a hair out of place, and she had icy blue eyes. She was tall and poised, and she was even kind to us most of the time. But there was the slight madness in her eyes, no matter how sane Mother seemed. We knew she left the house during the day, and came back to her room at night. But we had no idea what she was doing.

Distracted as I was, I didn’t notice Shawn’s signs until Leo tugged on my sleeve. I glanced up in time to catch him sign pretending to be nice all the time. He seemed disgusted. I turned to Leo with a look that said, what’s happening? He shrugged, seeming just as confused as me, but he signed, Shawn thinks it’s stupid that Mother pretends all the time.

I frowned, and returned my attention to the conversation that Shawn had started. He was a rather hot-headed boy of nine, but even he wouldn’t be stupid enough to mention that in front of Mother. Lisa was disagreeing with Shawn.

She is not pretending, Lisa signed. She wouldn’t lie to us. She’s nice!

Shawn sneered. You think she is nice even when you see what happens when we disobey her? Are you crazy?

Everyone started signing at once, and I waved my arms through the air. When they had stopped, I signed, Everyone calm down. We may not know what Mother does, but we know that she is probably insane. I don’t really think there is anything we can do, so we should stop thinking about it and just live like we have been.

Rich shook his head. You think you are the best and always in charge just because you’re the oldest, Sara, he signed. I’m only a year younger, and I say we should find a way to escape.

I clenched my teeth and leaned back into the worn back of my chair as the flurry of angry signs started again. Arguments like these happened at least once a month. A few times, some of the kids had been convinced that we should try to escape, but they always chickened out at the last second. I had learned to just wait them out.

All of a sudden, Leo and Caroline started tugging hard on my sleeves. I stared at them, confused, to find them pointing at our tiny window. I followed their intent gazes and saw a small bird pecking at the glass. I waved my arms for a second time, and when I had their attention, pointed in the same direction as our youngest two. Everyone crowded around, and I sucked in a breath, worried that they’d scare the creature away. The bird only cocked its head at us, however, and chirped. At least, I think it chirped. I couldn’t hear it through the glass.

Evan jumped up and down, then ran to our small bookshelf and pulled out our big book of avian species. He flipped through it, then ran back to us. He pointed at a page, and I raised an eyebrow. A mockingbird, I signed to the rest.

Dylan opened his mouth and laughed in our silent way. How ironic, he signed.

Barbara frowned. It’s mocking us, she signed.

I guess that is its job, Iona mused. To mock people.

Evan shook his head, setting down the heavy book so he could sign. It is called a mockingbird because it can mock, or imitate, some birds, insects, and amphibians.

Nerd, Philip signed, ruffling Evan’s hair fondly. Evan slapped his hand away in mock anger.

It’s pretty, Caroline signed, eyes fixed on the creature.

We all nodded, but I couldn’t help but remember the line from the lullaby Mother sang us every night. Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird. What would come next? A diamond ring? I grinned at the thought.

After that, the mockingbird came back every day and pecked at our window. Freddy came up with a sign name for the bird, combining the signs for free and bird. We talked about it often, us older ones wondering why it kept coming back when we couldn’t feed it or do anything else for it.

One night, I went over to the window as I had the day before we first saw the mockingbird, to look at the moon. I watched the bright, white light until I began to drift off, but was snapped back to wakefulness by the now familiar tapping. I was confused. Mockingbirds aren't nocturnal. But I peered out the window into the dark night anyway, and sure enough, saw the small, pale brown shape staring at me with a little black eye that reflected the moon. Why are you here, Freebird? I signed, not caring that it was a dumb animal that couldn’t understand me. You are diurnal.

It stared at me, and jabbed at the window. Doesn’t that hurt? I asked.

It didn’t answer. I shrugged, and laid my head back down on my arms. We examined each other, the bird still pecking away, then a loud screech from Mother’s room startled it, and it hopped backwards. It looked at me in a way that seemed almost reproachful. It spread its wings and took off, spiraling off in a slow, teasing flight, up towards the crescent moon.

It’s not fair, I thought. If I could still speak, I would be whining. Why can’t we fly? Why can’t we soar up towards the moon and freedom just like the mockingbird? It’s not fair. None of us deserve this.

I went to sleep with tears on my face that night.

“—You’ll still be the sweetest little baby in town,” Mother cooed, gently covering Leo and the other boys with their blanket. The younger children had already fallen asleep. Mother pressed a moist kiss to Leo’s forehead, and tiptoed out of the room. I watched her, heard the door shut, and closed my eyes. 3…2…1… The screaming from Mother’s room started. I sighed.

Freebird had been visiting for nearly a month. It had always been able to leave just in the nick of time before Mother came in, and it now came almost every night as well as the day, knowing it wouldn’t be heard by Mother over the sounds. Several hours into the night, it would show up by our window and start its relentless tapping. Tonight was no different, except the taps seemed more urgent.

I got out of bed and crept over to the window, staring at the small bird. It paused for a moment, and fluttered into the air, flying in frantic circles. I stared at it. Had all the knocking finally made it go mad?

Then I froze. Silence had fallen. There were no screams from Mother’s room. Leo sat up, staring at me with wide eyes. The quiet had woken him. The others began stirring as well. Accustomed as we were to the noise, we could not sleep without it. Freebird began beating its wings against the glass, and I started to shake. Footsteps pounded down the hallway, and the door slammed open. Mother stormed in. This was not the Mother that sang “Hush Little Baby” to us. This was the Mother that punished us, the Mother whose insanity shone out through her eyes with nothing to block it.

“Come on, children,” she said in a crazed, reedy voice. “We’re going on a little field trip!” She giggled. When none of us moved, her smile faded. “Now!”

I stood up, taking one last glance at Freebird. It was beside itself. The rest followed me, clambering out of bed. We stood in front of Mother, who lead us out of the room and down the hallway. The door was open. We all knew what it was. Mother’s room. She took my hand and tugged me inside. The others followed.

 

Lena Viola Hartsough is fourteen years old. She lives in San Francisco.



Gone

By: Malia Spencer

The tree’s branches clawed at the sky, it’s roots old and twisted. The child wept in painful silence. Tears flowed down her cheeks and off her chin, leaving her skin red and mottled. Lyla raised her head to explore the forest canopy as if in search of answers.

She whispered to the sky, so quietly it was only meant to be a secret to the wind. “I wish he’d just go away forever, he ruined everything.” As the words toppled out of her mouth, she sagged against the tree and her eyelids dragged her into a heavy sleep.

The morning radio cracked through the haze and Lyla awoke, her memories groggy and her skin sticky from the tears that had spritzed her face the night before. Streaks of sunlight poured through the blinds and danced on her bed sheets.

She couldn’t remember getting into her bed, or even out from under the tree; it all seemed like a dream when she thought about it. Then she heard the door creak open and her mother’s gentle voice, which pulled her into reality.

“Lyla, please come to the table.” With each word, her mother’s voice shook, and then she hurried from the doorway.

Lyla swung her feet out of bed and stumbled down the hallway. She stopped at Conner’s door, poking her head through the tiny crack to get a glimpse at her older brother. His bed was neatly made and he wasn’t inside, so she lazily moved one tiny foot over the other sliding into the kitchen.

At the table, her mother looked like a storm, her ash hair pulled into a bun. Her face was fresh red from crying and her hands shook as she clutched her black mug of coffee.

Lyla’s father was something new altogether. The man who would twirl Lyla around the kitchen was now a stranger, his playful light snuffed out.

“Mom? Dad?” Lyla spoke quietly, yet her parents still seemed to flinch from her words.

“He’s gone, Lyla.” Her mother’s lips barely moved. Although her voice was quiet, the remark hit Lyla like a tsunami and she swiveled her head in panic, searching for Conner.

“Gone?” The question escaped her lips like a gasp, before tears burst from her eyes and the breath rushed from her lungs. Lyla looked from her mother to father, but neither of them spoke. They just sat there, completely paralyzed by their grief.

Shaking her head, Lyla rose to her feet. Just as her mother’s eyes awoke and she threw a hand out for her daughter, Lyla tore away through the front door, the nip of autumn biting her cheeks. She launched herself out of her comfortable home and into to the wild.

Lyla ran down the dirt driveway, up the hill, and into the skeletal trees of the forest. Her feet smacked against the cool leaves that matted the ground, snapping twigs and crushing pinecones. The wind blew against her nightgown and the cold climbed up her body, but she refused to stop. Branches clawed at patches of her black hair, and the birds squawked in fury. As she propelled herself through the forest, her mind went blank and she could feel her face transforming like her parents’ had.

“Conner! Conner!” Lyla screamed with raw intensity. It charged the air as she reached the old oak. “You stupid thing! You stupid thing, give him back! I didn’t mean it, I want him back!” Lyla pounded her runty fists against the tree until her knuckles sprouted with blood. She raked the tree with child’s claws and continued its beating. She was relentless and her body went numb as she savagely attacked the tree.

Now she couldn’t believe their silly little fight that had caused her to cry herself to sleep. She couldn’t believe any of it. It was all her fault. She had wished him gone. She had done this.

Lyla remembered Conner’s voice and his many, many warnings. At the time, the warnings were confused with wishes. “The tree will give you everything you ever could want, Ly.” Now she understood, and her body shook feverishly with the awakening of the memory.

A cry seeped into her voice. “I’d do anything to have you back,” she whispered, a promise to the wind again. A pearly tear tumbled down her cheek.

As the air grew colder, so did her heart.

 

Malia Spencer is fifteen years old. She lives in Arvada, Colorado.

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