Infant Sun

7th Grade
Honorable Mention
Isabella R.

She washes her hands three times, staring at her gloomy reflection in the large bathroom mirror. Her face is so tired: dark half-moons border her grey eyes. Blowing a wisp of hair out of her ashen face, she turns away from the poignant image of the fourteen-year-old girl gazing back at her.

She’s really fidgety and on edge, though she’s been seeing him for over two years now. Squirming uncomfortably in the rigid dark blue leather chair she always sits in, Chelsea O’Bryan adjusts the watch on her left wrist. Dr. Preston studies her with scrutinizing eyes and she shudders, a feeling of unnerving exposure coming over her.
His office is small, but not claustrophobic, with bright light shining through the half-open window. They want you to feel safe so you’ll tell them all your secrets.
She takes in a deep breath and holds it until he starts talking, which isn’t long.
“So, Chelsea, how are we doing today?” He is sitting at the desk opposite her, leaning back in his chair and massaging his temple.
“Fine.” She surprisingly has had a few better days in these past couple weeks.
“Good, good…” Preston nods to himself and, absently shuffling through a messy drawer, pulls out a clipboard. Chelsea notices that he leaves it slightly open and has to sit on her own hands to avoid reaching forward and closing it.
“Is it getting any better?” He asks, trying to sound interested, but Chelsea can hear the indifference in his tone. Of course he avoids using the term; surely they’ve taught him not to in psychology school. They don’t want you to think of it as a psychological problem.

OCD: obsessive-compulsive disorder, common symptoms of which are: anxiety and distracting thoughts, frequently resulting in trepidation, restlessness, lost sleep, repetitive habits or a combination of all of the above.

Chelsea shrugs without saying anything, angry with him for being so prying, though that’s what he’s paid 120 dollars an hour for. But more than anything, she’s angry with herself for not getting better faster, for being stuck in that dam and not being able to drag herself completely out. She keeps getting sucked back in, and soon she’s afraid it will be too late to have any hope of ever entirely relaxing again.
Chelsea walks home pensively.
Two small girls are sitting on a lofty branch of a tall cypress tree, animatedly playing make-believe. They are the queens of their imaginary land and they must slay the evil trees with enormous mossy feet in order to protect the beautiful eagle-winged girl with ram horns that lives in a feather-nest in the Howling Hedge.
Chelsea stares at the small framed photograph between her thumb and index finger, a tight feeling of nostalgia starting in her chest and stealthily slinking up to her neckline making it difficult to swallow. When was the last occasion she’d been that untroubled and relaxed? Been free of the burden of time, unpredictability and responsibility?
Wiping off the trickle of saltwater that was making its way down her cheek, she places the picture back on the mantel where it belongs, reluctantly tearing her gaze from it.

What if it happens again? The fluttering sensation returns that evening, right around dinnertime. It comes nearly every night, and grows into a wild, dark horse that, try as she might, Chelsea can’t seem to put a leash on. Quavering, slippery, bubbling—there is no one word to describe it.
She wishes she could always count on at least a few hours of restful sleep. It’s like trying to perform a flawless recital after years of having stopped playing the piano. She’s simply forgotten how.

Her parents’ light turns out. Now she’s the only one awake, staring out her window into the hollow black night. The sky is so thick and layered, like a drawing in soft charcoal. The morning is bound to come eventually. Chelsea sighs, changing position yet again, I have to sleep, I have to sleep…
Last night had been better than most…
She doesn’t know when she finally falls asleep. All she remembers is turning her pillow over and over, the lamp on her bedside table being on then off, the clock she refuses to look at ticking obnoxiously.
Seconds.
Minutes.
Hours.
She finally dreams…
A young woman crumpled in a sad heap on the floor, a strong smell of cleaning products; polished eggshell-colored tiles seem to go on forever. Shoulders bobbing, her sobs are lost in the endlessness that she unconsciously created.
A radiant sky specked with white tufts; the shade of a majestic oak tree. The woman sits in the breezy shadow next to an open picnic basket handing out sandwiches to the three children eagerly huddled around her. She smiles, accepting of her past, cherishing her present, and eager for the future.
A forked road: the same woman, two possible outcomes.

Chelsea opens the fogged-up window. The chilly air nibbles playfully at her nose and ears: a puppy waiting, excited, for its owner to toss the ball.
A thin sheet of white stretches as far as the eye can see, covering every visible surface, as if during the night someone had come and sprinkled powdered sugar over the sleeping city. Frosty light of the infant sun glints off the scattered crystals of ice and a little bird flutters over the frozen cityscape. Such a small delicate creature. As it becomes a russet fragment in the crisp December sky, Chelsea imagines it free of burdens, obligations, constraints.
The vastness of that cerulean sky: so much space for anything that may come.
Chelsea feels a prick of excitement about the new day and its fresh possibilities. When was the last time I felt this way? She wonders.
It’s a tiny spark, a beginning. The first small flame of a bonfire being lit. Warmth begins to thaw the coating of frost inside her that has thickened, layered, over the months: a barrier to her essence. But now—radiating, lustrous—something starts to take shape.
For the first time in as long as she can remember, Chelsea O’Bryan feels real hope.

Bird Blood Icarus

10th Grade
High School Winner
Tiffany L.

There’s a boy in a town in France whose hollow bones whistle with the passage of wind and whose heart pulsates blood that runs black and thick.

They call him Icarus, after the winged boy in the Greek myth. Purple storm clouds swirl irises beneath translucent eyelids, but it’s the speckled grey wings beneath his shoulder blades that give him his name. Upon his birth, the air was choked with rumors of demons and disgraced fallen angels.

“Bird-boned boy,” they whispered. “Born atop the hill.”
“Bloodlust breath.”
“Razor-edged feathers.”
“Destined to kill.”

Yet for some reason, the mayor of a town in France refused to let anyone harm the boy with the lonely stare.

His mother died promptly after his birth, and the identity of his father remained unknown. Still, there was suspicion of the town drunkard. Who else but scum could have given life to such a monster?

Icarus stayed with nuns until he was five years old. Then, despite protests, he was admitted to school. Nobody was sure who pulled what strings to make it happen, but that Fall, Icarus found himself surrounded by wide-eyed kids who only knew to fear. It’s a shame the other kids had predisposed notions, because if one had been willing to ask him to play, things might have been different.

On his first day of school, Icarus’s wings knocked down bookcases, desks, and shrieking students in a domino-like effect. Parents stormed the mayor’s manor. but he remained staunch, despite the suspicion seeping into the eyes of his wife and daughters. Icarus stayed in school where the muscle of his body was ripped to shreds by the howls of kids and parents alike.

And it never occurred to anyone that when Icarus turned away, it wasn’t in defiance but in concurrence—it never occurred to anyone that no child should ever wish for death.

The days have collapsed into years, and Icarus is still in the back of the schoolroom, wings folded as best as he can. To keep from complete desolation, he promises himself that somewhere far away there are people less afraid of change.

Icarus strives for normalcy. He likes Annika, a spindly, freckled girl. He eats his food in scarfing gulps, like every growing boy. He loves to run, but he isn’t allowed to race. Perhaps they fear he will take off. Having wings is bad enough—the thought of him flying is unbearable. They tell him flight is impossible, and so he never bothers to try.

His classmates are beginning to see life in a new way. Icarus has always known things like cowardice and bitterness, but as his classmates begin to discover love, he does as well.

He approaches Annika in the schoolyard. He, like many others, mistakes her quietness for complacency, her pink skirts for frailty. Like everyone else, Icarus doesn’t realize that Annika was dressed that way by her parents. Unlike everyone else, however, if Icarus were to find that Annika liked wrestling and collecting bugs in jars, he wouldn’t scorn her. It might make him like her more.

After lunch, Annika is standing with a group of girls, but she’s staring at the boy’s kickball game. Icarus says the only words he can think to say to her.

“You’re really pretty.”

And the rosary ring on her finger splits his lip open. Her scream echoes and pierces the heart of anyone with a little girl to protect. It’s ironic, that this little girl could protect herself.

The people in a town in France flock to the schoolyard in gross fascination to see how Icarus’s blood runs black and thick. Carnally spurred on by the sight of blood, they chase him with pitchforks and torches how their medieval ancestors once chased after witches. Cries of demon, devil, and death erupt anew. The mayor is too scared to help the boy with fiery lungs.

Icarus races for the first time. For a moment he really feels like he could fly. But then he reaches the safety of the nuns, and he sees that they can’t quite meet his eyes. His heart sinks so quickly he feels foolish for thinking of flight.

That night, Icarus stands alone. The snarling wind slashes at his throat. His ears buzz with the sound of waves crashing in vehemence against cragged rocks below.

The people of a town in France see him from inside their homes but cannot be bothered to leave dinner.

Annika presses her face against her window. She traces the outline of his wings with dragging reluctance. He looks so small, but she notes that he doesn’t look weak. For the first time, she considers that the two aren’t inherently correspondent.

Annika nods doubtfully when her mother tells her she did the right thing. Then she screams for the second time that day as his silhouette falls from the cliff like silk into the night.

Her ring is stained with his black blood. But when the light comes on, the blood only looks red.

They claim they saw him die, even though the night was darker than their rotted souls. Young children are told stories of a monstrous bird boy to scare them into obedience. Icarus becomes like a myth, and the children dare each other to look for his ghost underground in molding, fetid basements, wherever smells like bitter death. They are looking in all the wrong places. If they would just look up once in a while—if only they would look up.

In a town in France there are only two, a political man and a freckled girl, who stand atop the hill of Icarus’s birth to look at the sky. And there he is, flying through everything unsolid, hair electrified and eyes ablaze with the rippling wind beneath his wings.

Some years after Icarus’s departure, the mayor’s wife will give birth to his first legitimate son. The mayor will look to the clouds and promise to do it right this time. His son’s wings will be speckled grey.

© The Leyla Beban Young Authors Foundation 2015. All rights reserved. PO Box 610005, Redwood City, CA 94061 info@bluefire.org (650) 262-3076 Tax ID 46-3489728

Red

7th Grade
Middle School Grand Prize
Ashley X.

The silver moon hung against the dark speckled sky, casting beams of light that illuminated the road. There was something magnetic about it, pulling me in like a tide. I watched the moon slowly float across the sky until it disappeared behind a cloud. I sighed and turned my attention back to my stepmother’s interminable rambling in the driver’s seat next to me.
A foreign ambassador was throwing a three-day party to introduce his son Chad to the city. Tonight would be the second dance, and my step-mother didn’t want me to get in the way of Chad noticing my step sisters Anna and Drizzy first.
What she didn’t know was that I had snuck into the first party last night, determined to disguise myself in a hooded red dress of flowing silk that swished around my ankles as I walked. I could still feel the brilliance of the scintillating crystal chandeliers that had hung from the ceiling reflecting light in a thousand different directions.
“Red, did you hear me?” My stepmother said.
“What?” I said, trying to sound genuinely curious.
Then she continued on, as if she was talking to herself and not to me: “As long as you follow the rules, you might have a chance to marry into a decent family.” Her voice suddenly became sticky sweet like syrup, and she gave me her thin, forced smile.
“Alright.” I stayed focused on the moon. It flickered like a lantern in a dark room.
Then my step-mother’s phone rang. I watched as she answered it, putting a finger to her lips. I heard my stepsister Drizzy’s screeching voice as she sobbed into the phone, though I couldn’t make out what she was saying.
Suddenly, my step-mother hung up and veered onto a long narrow road that led into a forest. As we drove, the trees seemed unnaturally tall, blocking out the moonlight. In the silence, I thought maybe she was thinking of some awful chore for me to do in the pitch-black darkness. I wondered how much she knew about the dance last night, if Drizzy had detected me even beneath my red hood.
The deeper we drove, the darker it got. Every now and then, I’d catch a glimpse of a sliver of pale moonlight that slipped through the trees swaying in the wind. I clung to the light like a lantern, trying to stay calm as a thick fog swirled around the car. I kept my focus on the sliver of moonlight shining through the trees.

The car stopped abruptly. As my stepmother turned to me, her eyes were wild with rage. “You think I don’t know what you did? You snuck out…” her fingers shook, “and stole from us,” she said. “My silk!”.
She was speaking rapidly, eyes red and bulging.
“Look at you,” she said, lips quivering. “You and your thin black hair and flat face. No curves!” Her hands shook uncontrollably over the steering wheel.
I felt my hands tighten around the edges of the seat like claws. I was surprised by my ebbing rage.
“You’re not even any good at cooking and cleaning,” she went on. “Can’t patch a sock!” She was more hysterical now, tears streaming down her face, her breath ragged.
“You’re just like your father. So stubborn and idealistic. You’re a girl, for goodness sake! Your father actually thought you could make a life for yourself if we saved our money for your college! When that money was for Drizzy and Anna, not you. So I got rid of him,” she said, tears still streaming. “Just like how I’m gonna get rid of you.”
Suddenly I could see my father. How he used to take me to the library as a child, to read together every day, telling me about all the places I could go. I remembered the night my father never came home, and my stepmother had claimed he was on a business trip. I remember every night after that, how I’d stayed up waiting for him, and how heartbroken I was the moment I realized he wasn’t coming back.
I felt my own breath become heavy, something burning inside of my chest, a fire that my obedient side couldn’t contain.
I lunged forward and sank my teeth into my stepmother’s neck.

I don’t remember those last moments in the car, just this blur of knowing my belly had expanded and my teeth had tightened, as if willed by the moon and the force of its hunger. As I ran, I breathed in the scent of my stepmother’s blood and the dampness of the forest.
I bounded across the dusty mountains. The trees rocked back and forth in the wind.
I threw my head up to the sky and howled triumphantly.
I am no one’s property. I am a wolf. Independent, wild, and free.

“That’s the end of the story,” the mother told her daughter, adjusting several blankets around her in her bed of pink covers.
“What?” the child, her eyes glazed with tears. “What about ‘happily ever after’?”
“Nobody knows for sure,” the mother said, stroking her cheek. “We only know that a story is never as simple as we want it to be at first.”
When the girl asked more questions, her mother gave her different possibilities, how Red might have decided to make a home in the wilderness, or had sought out her prince in another universe. But whatever the case, she told her daughter that on the last day of October, when the moon shines the brightest, if she listened closely, she could hear a wolf howling in the distance.
The little girl had smiled as her mother quietly left her room, closing the lights and shutting the door even more softly. She turned over, to look out the window nearest her bed. The silver moon hung against the dark speckled sky, casting beams of light that illuminated the distant horizon. She could almost make out a dark shape hurtling across the mountains.

The Visitors

10th Grade
High School Winner
Sarah F.

I wake up on my grave.

The humid soil is spongy against my bare skin. I breathe in and stand up, gripping the tombstone for support. It must be morning; yes, I am home. I am not used to waking up without the sight of Ana Lucia’s bunk above me in the Afterlife dormitories.
Shuffling toward the cemetery gate, I try to keep my balance. My bones click and shutter in their joints. It’s so early that nobody has arrived here yet. The buildings sing yellow and white, the color of buñuelos smarting golden when Mamá pulls them out of the oven. They haven’t changed at all. There is a woman just across the street whose earrings look familiar.
Speech grips me. “Mamá?”
She scoops a tottering child off the ground. No—not my mother.
Ana Lucía was right. The entrance is hard to adjust to. Nobody sees me when I enter a little restaurant, pass through the counter of a coffee shop, and brew a mug of coffee. It is all the same, as if preserved in a layer of film.
When I enter the first shop I see, I pass through the counter and make myself a mug, carefully avoiding the people. The coffee sluices down my throat, thick and dark. An old woman sits in a table, but other than that, the shop is empty. They’re all out celebrating today. A dove-eyed boy on a chair kicks his feet back and forth, studying a bowl.
You’re just quiet, I reason with myself. They can see you.
Whenever someone walks by, I jerk back to avoid contact.
Ana Lucía says it starts to feel real once you pass through a living one.

*
My family must be out watching the men set the kites loose into the sky. Last year I watched them ripple into the atmosphere as I placed marigolds for my grandmother Carmen. This year, I am the one being welcomed back.
As I head towards the door, no eyes snap to me, no slight shifts from the other people. I spot the little boy sitting by a table, his ears jutting out from a mass of black curls. His eyes snap to mine. I recoil.
For a moment I think he’s staring through me, but his gaze is sharp. “Can you see me?” I ask softly.
He nods.
“How?”
“Why wouldn’t I be able to?” he says, coming over.
“Where are your parents?” I say.
“They’re in the cemetery, helping with the kites,” he says. “Who are you?”
“Itzel.”
“Itzel?” he parrots. A broken tape recorder whirs with nervous energy.
“Yes.”
“Oh—oh, you are here because it’s the Day of the Dead.” The recorder snaps and hums.
I feel the tightness tugging at my lips. “Yes.”
“It’s a small town. My sister says you died in a car crash. My friend Guillermo says you died of malaria.” He stares at me with question marks hovering on his face.
“Hodgkin’s lymphoma,” I tell him. “My white blood cells didn’t do their job.” Even though I can’t feel the cold, air sifts over my head. Chemotherapy scraped the hair away and left it a naked brown bulb.
“Was it quick?” he says. I wonder why he doesn’t ask me Did it hurt. Maybe this boy is dead, too.
I hesitate. “Yes.”
“Do you want me to take you to your house, Itzel?” says Osmin.
I smile. “As long as your parents will still be able to find you.”

*

As we are walking to the cemetery, Osmin asks, “What’s your Afterlife like?”
“What do you mean?”
“Is it a room, or a house? Is it sleeping forever?”
“You fall asleep and wake up in the afterlife. It’s just like this world, only the canillitas de leche are cheaper and the quilts are softer than the ones that Señora Rita sells in the center plaza.”
“Do you think it’ll be hard going back there after the Day of the Dead passes?”
“I don’t know. But the girls that I share a room with in the afterlife are on their third, fourth cycles, and they say hardly, because death is only a passage,” I say. And I’m not sure if I believe them. My limbs feel loose, disjointed; this is not how being human is supposed to feel.

*

We are here. A few hours—or days—there is no sense of time in the afterlife—have passed since I started my visit to Earth, and already the cemetery bursts with life. Girls dance like slips of ribbons. They are somebody’s daughters. An elderly woman ladles fiambre—meat salad—into plates; she is somebody’s grandmother, somebody’s mother. “Do you see your parents, Itzel?” says Osmin.
We enter the cemetery. Yellow blooms everywhere, tinting the edges of my vision and bursting in spots of gold. The marigolds are everywhere on my grave.
Mamá crouches to place a sugar skull at the base.
“Mamá?” I say softly.
My mother stands up and accepts a chunk of sugar-bread from a plump woman. I reach forward to touch her, but I only pass through. She laughs over a bowl of fiambre and helps another man with his altar. White makeup traces the soft bones in her face.
Osmin lets go of my hand.
I glance at him. “Where are your parents?”
“They can’t be too far. Look.” He grabs my hand and tugs me forward until we reach an area that isn’t so densely packed with people. “That’s us.”
Anita Santiago, 1981-2017. Esteban Santiago, 1979-2017.
Osmin Santiago, 2009-2017.
“How did it happen?” I ask. This is why Osmin can touch me.
“Flight U890 to Tegus, Honduras,” says Osmin. “It’s my first cycle, too.”
“Are your parents here?”
“They’re helping with the kites,” says Osmin. “I’m going to go join them.”
I smile. “I’ll see you in the afterlife.”
He melts into the crowd. In a few minutes, I see the barriletes rising into the sky, bright as stained glass.
When Mamá steps forward to dance, I meet her halfway.

Rimmel Kate Moss 107

10th Grade
Honorable Mention
Hana T.

There’s lipstick on the edge of her water bottle.

It’s a red wound slashed on the white plane of the lip of the bottle. It’s raspberry juice spilled on cream colored marble, it’s fresh cherries on snow, it’s blood matted on ivory feathers, and it’s so so there, like an execution you can’t look away from.

It’s the only thing in the room that hits me. I’ve cleaned out her wardrobe, inhaled the week old perfume on her dirty clothes, packed up the books that she had destroyed with her infatuation. I scrubbed at the stubborn puddle of bluebird nail polish on her dining room table until my arm ached, and I extracted every lost coin from the depths of her stained charcoal couch.

But it’s this goddamn water bottle, this glass container with a white rim and and click top, this cherry red stain. It was her favorite, the one that makes a popping sound when opened and that could always put a smile on her face, the one they wouldn’t let her take into Disneyland and the one that you could always tell was hers by the vermilion colored lipstick splash on the stark white lip.

I stop in the middle of my dishwashing and hold it in my hand, thinking about the way her smile would curve around the glass, the same way it would curl around my own. Thinking about the way she could never drink from it without spilling a waterfall down the caverns of her neckline at least once a day. And that color, oh that dark, sexy red that never failed to grace the curves and the mountains of her full mouth, the color that found its way onto the edges of all of my white shirts. It was the color that she’d always paint her nails when she went home so that her mother didn’t notice she’d been biting her cuticles again, and the lipstick left behind kisses of pigment on her fingers.

She was wearing it the first time I saw her, stretched into a grin over the same red blotch on her coffee cup, her smile a blinding wide beam that dropped ten stories when she tripped over my long legs and her caffeine went flying. Later, she told me about her writing and her dog over a fresh new cup, and I told her jokes about my failed MFA and my empty bank account. She left a sheer tint of crimson on my cheek when she left, and I felt the color shoot fire through my skin and burn me alive.

She told me on our third date, in front her favorite painting at the MOMA, that it was called Rimmel Kate Moss 107, and she never left the house without it. We held hands on the walk back to my apartment and this time, she left the ruby shade smeared across my pillows. The next morning after she left, I went down to Walgreens and enlisted the help of a nineteen year old girl to find out what the hell a Rimmel Kate Moss 107 was, and I bought three tubes.

When I presented the lipstick to her, she laughed and kissed me, and mentioned that none of her boyfriends had ever bought her lipstick before, or even liked it on her lips in the first place. I asked if I was really her boyfriend and she kissed me again.

When I went over to her place, there was an imprint of her mouth on the white stripe that cascaded the bridge of her beagle’s nose. We could always tell whose wine glass was whose, and when I took her to Thanksgiving dinner and she left her trusty red tube in my parent’s bathroom, I had an extra one waiting in the glove compartment of my car.

On Christmas day, she gave me a box wrapped in plain white paper, and the only decoration marring the clean surface was one stamp of her lips, painted Rimmel Kate Moss 107. I told her I loved her for the first time that day, in the middle of an ice rink rimmed by fairy lights. When we went to her boss’s New Year’s party, she wore a deep forest green dress and at midnight, left scarlet on the side of my mouth. In March I held her hair back while she heaved over the toilet, and that week of stomach flu was probably the longest she’d ever gone without wearing lipstick.

For my birthday we drove to Monterey and she left kisses for the fishes on the glass of the aquarium. We walked down Cannery Row and biked to Pacific Grove and went tidepooling along the Northern California coast.

When fall came back around, her favorite season, I took her to that coffee shop and we sat at the same table, and I bought her a coffee and a tube of Rimmel Kate Moss 107.

On October first, a year and five days after we met, I heard a squeal of tires and a shrieking scream pierce through my bedroom window. I got downstairs just in time to hold her hand and make sure she didn’t die alone.

And now I’ve been tasked with cleaning out her apartment, while the memory of her bloodstained mouth whispering goodbye is still the first thing I wake up to in the morning and the last thing on my mind before I go to bed. This goddamn water bottle, this goddamn lipstick, this goddamn girl was all too much, all too loud for my quiet life, and I just had to go and fall in love with her and break my own heart.

Her beagle sniffs around my ankles and looks up at me, the first time I’ve ever seen him without a rich wine-colored stamp of love on his forehead. I scratch behind his ears before turning back to the sink, switching on the faucet, and washing the lipstick off of the water bottle.

The BIrch

6th Grade
Middle School Grand Prize
Bella H

So many brown leaves. No yellow.

Although it was still the middle of September, summer was fading quickly. I was no longer gazing into summer’s hot sticky mask of lemonade and camping that it usually put on in late July, but was watching the mask’s removal, which revealed the cold, drafty truth that lay behind the eyeholes.

I sat up in the tall paper birch tree out front, gazing over the roof of our short house to the multicolored countryside beyond. The tree had been green and lush several weeks ago, when I could’ve sat amongst the viridian foliage and never been noticed, but now the sturdy branches were cold and almost bare, crisp leaves in warm autumnal shades falling steadily.

While shards of cold wind pierced my skin, I tried not to listen to the racket below in the kitchen. Mom was supposedly doing the dishes, but I knew this was only something to busy her hands while she embarked on another of her tearful daydreaming sessions. Her daily speculations of the war’s casualties, which any day could include my father, were expected.
But there in the tree, I wasn’t thinking of war, or the terrible things Dad could be going through thousands of miles away in Afghanistan. My mind was instead working determinatively to ignore any dismal thoughts, and I turned instead to the only thing that kept me sane during times of sadness: happy memories. Eyes closed and hands encasing one another, I seemed to enter the moment visualized: a happy, silly, wishful time when I was four years old, come home from preschool terrified over something completely ridiculous a classmate had told me about moles.
“Moles are nothing for you to worry about,” Dad had reassured me in a soothing voice as I sobbed a story of mole world domination. “They’re peaceful creatures, and live underground. If they even come up here, it’s at night or in the rain.”
I refused to believe him, and with a sigh he left the room, returning a few minutes later with a shoebox filled with photographs. I looked meekly at the box, and followed Dad outside, where he began to dig a hole next to the paper birch sapling planted on my birthday.
“There,” he said, covering the box’s surface with dirt and patting it down, “Now the moles can know all about us, and won’t hurt us.”
Smiling at the mound of earth, I therefore composed a beautiful, original melody as a peace treaty.

Twinkle, twinkle, little moles
How I wonder where you go
Furry, furry, way down there
Digging, digging, everywhere
Twinkle, twinkle, little moles
Don’t come up and scare me

I opened my eyes, and all memory faded away. The birch tree had grown, and I was fourteen years old, wishing to go back in time. Rain was beginning to pour down about my face, and my hair was plastered to my tear-stained cheeks.

A sudden inspiration removed me from the tree, and my feet were suddenly skidding down the slick wood until I excitedly touched down on the soggy yellow grass. My toes sank into the squelching mud and became clogged with the slimy stuff, but I ignored this and sank to my knees. Mom would be livid to see my dirty dress, but I didn’t care.

Scratching and scrabbling at the ground, I mirthlessly flung handfuls of runny dirt behind me until my fingers touched the smooth surface of a very familiar cardboard box. The digging became frantic, and then I could finally lift it from the ground. It was wet and soft, the lid itself promptly deteriorating in my hands. Mom’s old Polaroid photos were muddy, ripped, and streaked with bleeding color, but it was beautiful, and my heart seemed to overflow with painful wishes. Rifling through the box, I finally uncovered a long forgotten peace letter Dad had written.

Dear Moles,
The humans from above would like to send their respect for your homely, underground community, and should shake your paw in an understanding treaty of peace between us. Shall there be no war between the people of above and the critters of below. We should forever live in harmony, on and within the world to which we have all contributed.

Sincerely,

The Smiths

With a little laugh, I placed the soaked paper back amongst the pictures, and knew what I had to do. Breathing deeply, I began to scoop mud into the box, burying the mementos, and looked to the thin wooden folds of the birch tree, scavenging in the bark until I unearthed a ripped paper packet containing a single seed. When the tree was still small, I had hid the leftovers here so as to not lose them.

I hid the seed in the mud with a shaking hand and set off for the other side of the yard, where a new hole was dug and the box was buried.

I went inside and then, weeks later, something new emerged from the ground in that very spot: the tiny sapling of a paper birch tree. That was also the day that the postman came to the door looking grave. He bore a solemn letter that told of my father’s discovered body in an Afghan field.

I sat near my sapling for hours after that. It was simple. Mom was telling Grandma now. There would be tears. Dad would never come home.
When the sun came out, I smiled down at the growing tree, thinking of happy past and not lonely future. On the day of an ended life, another came to be. That tree grew into one even larger than its fellow across the yard, and remained for a long time. One day I sat on the grass, watching my children clamor in it, plotting an attack on the enemy mole camp across the way. The box and its treasures were long gone by then. The twins dug and dug, but all they found were roots. And another seed.

Unfinished Business

Stephanie
I open my front door and carefully step inside, trying not to wake anyone. But the floorboards betray me, creaking under my weight. I set my cleaning supplies down, take off my purse, lean my shoulder against the wall, taking off my flats. I lift my head and there stands Robin. I freeze, shoe in hand, leaning against the wall like an injured flamingo. How does he know every time I arrive? I sigh as he shuffles into the kitchen. At least I can buy him anything his heart desires. That was the best part of my childhood. I would give anything to make his childhood as good as mine. Always keeping up with trends, never eating alone, ah, the good old days.

Marcus
I’m lying awake in bed, lost in thought, when a whine from the front door snaps me out of it. She’s back. I would greet her but Robin is probably there, greeting her or getting her food from the fridge. He’s becoming a much better chef, but we should be taking care of him. Instead, Steph tries to do her part and mine, while Robin picks up the rest of my slack. Robin has never had a home cooked meal he didn’t cook, never had friends over, he’s never even slept well since I was paralyzed. I rarely get to talk to them anymore, they’re so busy doing my work. Out the window, my eyes glaze over my incomplete masterpiece. Supposed to be a place for making good memories, now it’ll just sit there insufficient, a constant reminder that I can’t do anything correctly.

Robin

The floorboards creak. I stir in my bed; she’s not fooling anyone. After 5 years you’d think she’d be stealthier. I check the time. 3:56. I roll out of bed, slide into my slippers and shuffle down the hallway. When I reach the living room, Mother freezes, slipping off her shoes. She looks at me, face full of shame and defeat. This no longer fazes me, I wished for her support but it never showed. She sighs as I shuffle into the kitchen to heat up the remnants of dinner.

Stephanie
A snapping noise suddenly rips me from my dreams. I look at Marcus lying to my right, still sleeping. I slide from under the blankets and stand up. I step around the bed dragging my feet, head hanging, rubbing my eyes as I open the door. Robin is in the living room, staring out the sliding glass door.

Maybe if I talk he’ll snap out of it, “What was that noise?”. In a few steps I’m standing next to him, he points to the backyard. I turn to see a power line hanging in the tree. I straighten up. We’re both focused. I hope it won’t hit the tree- but that bit of hope is crushed.

Robin
I accidentally drop the measuring cup. A cracking noise shudders through my bones. Why did the lights go out? I look around in the gloom, and out of the corner of my eye, I see something move in the backyard. I cautiously walk around the sofa, towards the sliding glass doors. A black rope hangs from one of the branches of the tree. It’s flailing around like a fish out of water. I see the end and understand why- it’s a power line.

Mother comes out of the bedroom, rubbing her eyes and dragging her feet “What was that noise?” I don’t know what to say so I just keep staring. When she reaches me I point. She becomes focused on the power line. It doesn’t take long for the inevitable to occur. The tree catches on fire. Mother goes into full panic mode, while trying to hide it.

Neither of us moves. “We have to go get Father, get everyone out, and call someone,” I say, voice trembling. We rush to the bedroom to see if we can perform the nearly impossible task of waking him up.

Marcus
I wake to screams beside me. The warmth of the sun glows through my eyelids. I slowly lift them, careful to let my eyes adjust to the sunlight. Something starts tugging on my right side below the waist, they’re probably moving my leg. It’s been a while since they’ve moved me – usually I slide out of bed myself. Regardless, I don’t want to get up, not after I finally fell asleep. Steph pulls my right arm around her shoulders and wraps her left around my back, so her hand lies on my ribs. I sit up completely, giving up on sleep.

Expecting to be disappointed by the sight of the unfinished tree-house, I look through the window. Instead, the tree is ablaze.

Now, I pay attention to the screams. “Hurry!” the voice comes from Steph, but it doesn’t sound like my wife. She’s never yelled like that.

She and Robin carefully place me in my wheelchair. Why? We’re in a hurry, we don’t have time to be gentle. I lift my legs, placing my feet on the footrests, and before I know it, Robin is pushing me through the darkness while Steph leads the way. Without me they could’ve escaped already.

Robin
Once outside, Mother calls 911. I turn to Father who is staring at the house, devoid of emotion. “Sorry we never finished the tree-house,” I say, staring at the house, trying to see what he sees.

I don’t see anything. “It was supposed to be a place to make memories.” He states flatly, “I’ll never forget this.” He hasn’t broken his gaze from the house, even the wind doesn’t dare touch him. I stare into the empty shell of a home, the fire burning bright behind it. It’s probably experiencing the warmest atmosphere it has felt in 5 years. I close my eyes, feel its heat, smell the smoke, hear the crackling of the wire as it flails.

Our household is going down in flames and I’m powerless against it.

Stars On Their Own

It was quiet. I was lying in bed, waiting to fall asleep. The room smelled of crisp air. The stars flickered from my window. It felt as if they were so close to each other, but in reality they had so much distance between them. My whole life I have been fascinated by the stars, these bright, shining giants, beautiful even from millions of miles away. There was something about space that made me feel big even though I was a little speck in space.
The quiet was disrupted by shouts coming from my parent’s bedroom. Loud, angry, hate filled shouts. My head wasn’t asking what was going on, I knew. I wish I didn’t know. I wish this wasn’t routine. The yelling had stopped. Silence filled the room. It wasn’t a good silence. It was a tormenting silence. It was a silence that made everything seem dim. The stars, the moon, the sounds of the crickets, everything peaceful. The silence defined the flaws of the room. Each crack that ran down the wall, the pockets of air folded into the ceiling. The silence stood along, mocking me with it’s lack of response.
I heard feet shuffling down the hall. Mom stood in the doorway with a sleeping bag in her hand. She grabbed the extra blanket and pillow from my bed. She laid out the sleeping bag and stuffed herself inside. There was a sense of sadness coming from her. Her face was tense. Not a single word came out of her mouth. I asked what happened. No response. I asked again.
“Your dad and I got into a fight.”
That was all she said, nothing more. I slipped out of bed and gave mom a hug. I tried to comfort her, make her feel okay, but I wasn’t sure if it was doing anything.
“Where is dad? Why did you guys fight?” I needed more detail to help, but she said nothing more than we got into a fight. It was usual for this happen. Every little thing they do leads to a fight. The T.V. was too loud or one was simply being annoying. I hated it though. It scared me.
The night wasn’t nice anymore. The stars weren’t as bright. There was even more distance between them now. The little speck became smaller and smaller.
I didn’t know how to help my mom. I didn’t know if I could.
“Don’t worry too much. Go to sleep.” said mom.
How could I not worry? I care too much to not worry. I lay back down and tried to sleep. I was on the verge of falling asleep, but I was disturbed once more. This time it was a forceful knock. Mom pulled herself out of the sleeping bag and rushed to the door. I peeked out to see who it was. The police. They weren’t supposed to be here.
I was spying on them through the little crack in the hallway door. One of the policemen yelled for my dad, while the other three were talking to my mom, flustering her with questions. I didn’t know what to do. I heard bits and pieces. Mom said dad was upsetting her and dad said the same about mom. They sounded like children arguing over crayons.
The sound of crying was coming from the living room. I knew mom was hurt. I wanted to make her feel okay, like she wasn’t the only soul on Earth. I wanted to make sure she knew she had me. I heard the cracks in dad’s voice. It occurred to me that mom wasn’t the only one hurt and in need of comfort.
I shot up fast and started to walk towards the living room but mom was blocking the way. I could see all the policemen gathered around my dad lecturing him. I assumed mom’s lecture was over. She took a step in front of me then walked towards my room expecting me to follow. She sat down next to me causing the bed to sink.
“What’s going on? Why are they here?” I asked.
“The neighbors called. They said we were too loud. Dad told them why we were being loud. Now they are asking questions, figuring out what to do.”
She began talking about the imperfections of our family. She grabbed me, hugged me tight and didn’t let go. I knew what she said was true. I saw the imperfections everyday. I felt tears come out of my eyes, then more. The taste of the salty water brought back memories from when I was younger. There were even more fights. I was locked in my room just like I am now, only because they were afraid of too much exposure as a young child. Exposure is to experience something and experience uses not only sight but your hearing. The noise was more than enough for me.
Mom slowly started to let go of me. She somehow made me feel like nothing bad was happening, like my family wasn’t being torn apart. I felt that everything was going to be okay. Not back to normal, because nothing was ever normal.
There was no longer any yelling. The only noise was the booming voices of the policemen. One of the officers was standing in between my parents pushing both of his hands away from himself. It meant they had to stay away from each other. My parents were like stars. They were the stars Sirius and Rigel, 8.674 light years apart. They could seem so close to each other, but they weren’t nearly as close as they looked. They were both bright and fascinating, but in their own ways. They shined on their own. There was no need for the other.
The police were gone. Mom looked heartbroken. Dad did too. They knew that this family was no longer a family. I knew. It was being broken apart. We were stars in its final stage. How could I live with their distance?

The Creaks Above

I sat with my eyes closed in the stillness of my quiet room, with the occasional creak from the shaky moldy pipes above. The creaks were my reminder. A cruel reminder to come back to reality. I’ve tried to ignore the creaks but it seems they only get louder as I try to block them out and pretend that everything is okay. I try to sit and let the bad thoughts sink in as much as they can until they fade away, but those pipes always bring me back, like I’m trapped with no escape. The loud creaks make it almost impossible to drift from reality.
I opened my eyes as I returned from my desperate attempt to escape from my world of pain. I look up at the familiar ceiling, riddled with tape marks of failed attempts to stop the leaks from the pipes, which could still be heard humming and creaking ever so slightly above. The pipes were the only consistent thing about my life. I can’t remember a time where they haven’t been there, always creaking. I’ve lived in the same crappy apartment with the same crappy landlord since I was born. With each day the apartment was falling apart, whether it was the leaky and creaky pipes or the broken water heater. It’s just mom and I now. Ever since her and dad split, I’ve been reminded of the empty promises like repairing the apartment and lost hope, them splitting standing as another example of that. When dad left, mom promised me it was for the best, and things would only get better. I was promised, only to be let down by none other than the person who made the promise. Mom spiraled out of control when dad left. She fell into an endless void of drinking. I thought of it as her way to escape the pain she felt. Like me, she wanted to drift away from reality. Drift away from all the pain inside her.
I heard a loud crash from the other room. Probably from the kitchen, the crash being a bottle or wine glass. I was used to the noise of glass breaking and crashing as I did not flinch or quickly investigate, I felt numb. I lifted myself off of the single, lopsided mattress on the floor. The springs creaked loudly almost drowning out a second shattering of glass from the other room. I walked into the kitchen, looking down at the floor.
Two wine bottles broken in what seemed like a million pieces were spilled all over the floor with my mom in the middle of all the chaos. Mom was knelt on the counter anxiously reaching for the half empty vodka bottle on the counter from nights prior. Her hair was matted and frizzy. She was still dressed in the same faded sweatpants and red Disneyland shirt for the last four days, you could smell the alcohol and sweat off her.
“Hi, honey! Mind giving me a hand?” She said it as if she didn’t just break 2 wine bottles, as if she wasn’t going on yet another drinking spree, as if everything was okay. I looked at the Disneyland shirt dad had gotten her three years ago when we went to Disneyland for my birthday. It was stained all over and the logo was faded. It was another reminder of better times, ruined. It reminded me of her, worn out and dilapidated. It seemed the shirt, my mom, and the apartment shared a common theme. I stood there for a second just looking at her. Looking at that look on her face, that fake smile, hiding the pain.
I snapped out of my trance and grabbed the broom stuffed on the side of the fridge. I pushed the glass aside into the other side of the kitchen. I tried to make a clear walkway. With each movement of the broom, I tried coming up with ideas how drinking helped. It numbs the pain right? It makes her feel better, doesn’t it? I slowly realized as my last strokes were made with the broom to brush the glass away that it wasn’t helping, the shards were too small. They started to bury themselves into the brittle wooden floor. Things were only getting worse just as drinking made things worse for my mom. I so badly wanted things to go back to how they used to be, I didn’t care how my mom got better, I wanted to feel happy, I wanted my mom back. I carefully stepped over the wine stained floor riddled with glass shards buried in the wood flooring, to my mom still stretched out on the counter reaching for the vodka bottle.
“Hey baby, do your mom a favor a grab that bottle right there,” she breathed into my face.
Her breath was dense. I couldn’t let this continue to happen, I couldn’t let her continue to suffer. I acted without thinking, I jumped up, grabbing the bottle from the nearby cabinet and held it close to my chest. I backed up shaking my head, unable to say anything yet. Each step I made sure not to step on the glass. She looked at me strangely and hopped down off the counter. She walked closer to me ignoring the glass shards scattered below her feet. “What are you gonna do with that, Alex?” I almost didn’t react to Alex, she hadn’t called me by my name since dad left, only baby and honey. She had this look of desperation in her eyes.

It scared me.
It was as if she was a lioness, closing in on her prey. “C’mon and give it to mom now,” she said with a subtle edge to her voice. The crunching of glass shards on her feet made it all the more scarier. As I backed up more and more I tripped over the broom I had left lying on the ground. I fell back, the vodka bottle falling with me.

The Dress

I found your dress today. Your favorite dress. The baby blue one with big white polka dots. The scent of your floral perfume still lingers. I don’t understand why you liked it so much, there’s nothing special or unique about it. I personally never liked it that much, but I was never going to say that to you because your love for that dress was unbreakable. I still don’t like that dress, but that’s mostly because that dress has one horrible memory that still haunts me, and will always haunt me. You came home in a panic looking for that dress. You looked through your closet, my closet, the laundry room, the garage, pretty much every inch of the house. Our loud bickering filled the house as you repeatedly accused me of stealing it. I tried to convince you that I didn’t have it but you didn’t believe me. I kept on saying that you must’ve left it somewhere, but that just made you more furious. All of the unnecessary topics that we both brought up caused tears to emerge from both of us and even more yelling and accusations. This back and forth yelling continued for thirty minutes until you gave up looking for it. You stomped out of your room and down the stairs as you made your way to the door. The front door was slammed shut on your way out. I peeked out of the window to see where you were going and I saw you angrily walking towards your car. You slammed your car door shut, quickly started the engine, and sped away.
I regret not going after you right when you left the house. Maybe then I could’ve talked to you and calm you down. We could always easily calm each other down no matter how mad we were, but another thing we easily did was get into small, unnecessary fights. We would get into fights about who gets to ride in the front seat or about which one of us gets to open the first gift on Christmas. I have a vivid memory of one of the fights we had when I was little. It is almost exactly like the fight about your dress. I had lost my teddy bear that I loved so much. I never went anywhere without it. I couldn’t sleep without it and I would even take baths with it next to me. I was home one day playing with my dolls in my room when I realized that the teddy bear had gone missing. I immediately burst into a fit. I was screaming and crying asking mom where it was, as she calmly held me in her arms trying to put my mind at ease. Then I remember the idea of you stealing it coming to my mind. I cried my way to your room and opened your door without hesitation, and there you were peacefully lying on your bed listening to music. I was yelling at you asking you over and over where you put my bear, and you simply answered with “I don’t know” and attitude every time. The attitude only made my tantrum even worse so I ran to my room and cried. That whole month was miserable for me but after that I basically forgot all about my lost teddy bear. And I still haven’t found that bear to this day.
Your room is still filled with all of your things. Nothing there has changed. The bed is in the same place, the duvet is the same, the shelves haven’t been touched, and the closet still has your clothes. But in every other room of the house it feels like a different place. The kitchen has been remodeled and now the fridge, what used to be the best part of the kitchen with all of our magnets and pictures filling the surface, is plain, boring stainless steel. The living room has different furniture and the rug is now dull and boring with different shades of grey instead of the rug that used to be there with the beautiful mosaic of all the astonishing colors. All of the bathrooms have also been remodeled and have been changed from being bright and cheery to dull and depressing. It’s like when you left everything changed. Not only did the house change, but the whole town changed. People around town are like the house. They have changed from joyful and lively people to colorless and boring people. It’s almost like they have become soulless. Their daily agendas have become repetitive and lifeless. Every one of them used to say how they never wanted their lives to end up like that, but here they are today. They get up, eat, work, and then sleep in a never ending cycle.
Without you here the way people act around me has dramatically changed. People at my school who treated me horribly before now treat me like I’m some fragile child who will break from one small insult. Most of my friends changed and they treat me the same way the others do, like a child. They are always asking how I am and telling me to talk to them, but I always answer with a no. I don’t need to talk, and especially not with them. I thought I could trust them, I thought they were real friends, but it turns out I only have one real friend. My real, trustworthy, and amazing friend, Delaney, is the only person I have since you’re gone. She was part of the group with my other friends, but I always had a strong and real connection with her. She has supported me in unimaginable ways and I am eternally grateful.
I miss you. I miss seeing your big blue eyes. I miss hearing your soft, angelic voice. I miss the smell of your cooking every night. Somehow most of all I miss seeing you in that baby blue dress with big white polka dots.