Countdown

11th Grade
Honorable Mention
Jennifer B.

Mom was a quiet person. She was different, though, than any of the other married people I had ever met. The difference was that her mate clock did not read: 0 days, 0 hours, 0 minutes, 0 seconds. Dad didn’t know that though. She kept it covered. The only reason I ever saw was because I walked in on her changing one day. I don’t think she saw me, but I saw that she still had numbers on her wrist.
“Momma, tell me about when you met Daddy,” I asked that night before she put me to bed. For a moment, I could read the terror in her eyes, but she suppressed it as quickly as she could.
“Oh, why don’t I save that for another time? You’ve still got plenty of time to wait until you find your mate, honey.” Glancing down at my own wrist I read six thousand, nine hundred and thirty-seven days, seven hours, twenty-four minutes, twelve seconds. Six thousand, nine hundred and thirty-seven days, seven hours, twenty-four minutes, eleven seconds. Ten seconds, nine, eight, seven, six, waiting.
As a child, my very best friend Maura and I would always dream about our moment. The moment when our clocks reached zero and we met our soul mate. We would act it out and draw what we thought it would look like. We’d watch movies and see actors meeting their mates, and ask everyone we knew about how they found theirs.
“I bet it’ll be in the hallway at school. Maybe in the lunch room he’ll offer to buy me a soda.” I was always jealous of Maura, her clock had much less time on it than mine. We did the math and found out that she would be only sixteen when she found her soul mate. She would find him on February nineteenth at twenty past eleven in the morning. I had to wait until well into my twenties until my clock ran out.
In the fifth grade, we grew to know a new fear. Fear that our clocks would never reach zero. Fear that we could die alone. To us, a life without that zero on our wrist meant a life that was hardly worth living.
In the middle of class one day, during math, a boy who I didn’t know very well started convulsing and fell out of his chair onto the floor. I saw his face, and it looked so pained, like every bit of him was being ground up with a cheese grater. The teachers thought he was having a seizure until they saw his wrist.
The numbers that had always been a fun game, or to some of us, even a security blanket, were blinking. Numbers, and then nothing, numbers, and then nothing, numbers, and then nothing. He screamed out in pain and his wrist blinked one last time, and then went blank. His numbers never reached zero. He was supposed to meet his soul mate on his twenty-first birthday, but then there was nothing.
He took some time to regain control of himself, and the teacher helped him get to his feet. Instead of taking him to the nurse, she took him to the school psychologist.
When the teacher returned, she told us that sometimes a person’s soul mate dies before they get the chance to meet. That was what we had just witnessed. It looked so painful physically, but none of us could imagine the emotional toll it would take.
By high school, couples were starting to form out of the matched pairs. There was one couple that everyone was quite interested in. They both had dead soul mates, and bonded together through that pain. Those two boys were the cuties of the school. Everyone knew their stories and pitied them, but also looked up to them as they were able to overcome such emotional troubles.
Maura, the stereotypical cheerleader, ended up with not the football player she had hoped for, but a soccer player, a close second. He was a senior and she was a sophomore when he walked in from a rainy practice to buy something from the cheerleader’s bake sale.
Maura made it sound all romantic. She claimed that he handed her a dollar and she handed him a cookie and their hands touched and they looked into his eyes and it was love at first sight. Honestly, I think she loved the thought of a soul mate more than she ever loved him, but they were happy.
On the other hand, I still had years until I was going to find my partner, which meant I needed to plan for the future. Many of the other girls who had found their soul mates didn’t want to go to college, but I had no other choice. I had to get a job and start my adult life before I found someone to complete me.
By the time I graduated college to become a museum curator, I had mostly forgotten about my childhood dreams of finding the perfect man. I had more important things to do.I was passionate, energetic, and ready for work. I loved what I did and did what I loved. I felt free and independent.
It was a typical Monday morning, and I was running late. I didn’t normally check my wrist count down, but that morning I didn’t even have time to glance at it. After dodging in and out of traffic on my bike to get to work on time, I was fixing my hair as I walked in to see the new trainee. There was only one, which I thought was strange, as they normally came in packs of three or four, but I shrugged it off.
We went through all the ropes and it wasn’t until lunch that I realized my wrist read 0 days, 0 hours, 0 minutes, 0 seconds. Slightly embarrassed, I walked up to the shy girl and held my wrist up to hers. We matched.

Rain-Soaked Puppy

11th Grade
Honorable Mention
Janece W.

When someone asks me, do you have a boyfriend, I always refer back to the many reasons why I in fact, do not.
        Reason 1: When I was in eighth grade, there was this boy I liked. For the purposes of this story, his name will be Giraffe. So to tell the truth, I didn’t have the best hairstyle in eighth grade. In fact, it was quite appalling. I used to dream about having the kind of hair you see on Head and Shoulders commercials- lush, long and voluminous. Instead my hair was short, coiled up, and by society’s definition, kinky.
        It didn’t help that I was too lazy to properly take care of it. That, in addition to my chipmunk cheeks, Lane Bryant wardrobe and lack of coherent sentences in front of Giraffe ensured that he would never go for a girl like me. And when I say a girl like me, I mean I’m the only one of my species, of course.
        Reason 2: Tenth grade dance. I had the perfect hairstyle, the semi-perfect dress, and the okay shoes. I was good to go. The whole thing was Halloween themed, my favorite kind of event. I was dressed up like a girl version of Mad Hatter with the green top hat and overcoat, along with a cool patched-up purple dress that I invented myself because I would not be subject to the skanky women’s costumes in Party City. I had standards, thank you very much.
        They started playing the latest dance song, you know the kind where everyone congregates in the center of the dance floor because the whole gym knows the dance, and I went right to the front. Big mistake.
        In addition to the awesome overcoat and dress, I had on a pair of crazy polka dotted tights. While I was dancing, or whatever takes place when I move my body, my thighs decided to pop the tights, running a line straight down the middle on both sides. Even worse, it was in the back.
        Reason 3: In third grade, I was in the school talent show. I was going to sing something from the Cheetah Girls, because it was “in” at the time. In third grade, I was much skinnier. I didn’t have a muffin top or kinky hair, and I had way more friends.
        I was all fixed up and ready to go, but just as I was about to start singing, I heard someone say something. It sounded like fat cow. And I just… froze. I couldn’t sing, I couldn’t move— I was paralyzed. And when everyone started laughing at me while the teachers calmed them down, I caught the eyes of the boy I liked. He looked at me like I was the saddest thing in the world. A rain-soaked puppy left in the cold for everyone to pity.
        Reason 4: In tenth grade, I liked an Asian boy. Not that this was a major problem, I mean hoorah! for interracial couples and all but, come on. It may seem like something I’m over exaggerating, but breaching the barrier between races is apparently a big deal. I always hear boys saying: Ooh I really like that girl and she’s so pretty, does she have a boyfriend?— but they aren’t talking about black girls. It’s always that blonde girl with the skinny legs or that Asian girl that wears makeup at fourteen. Never us.
        And if it is a black girl, she’s light-skinned. And has straighter hair. And she’s as thin as a Victoria Secret model. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but when you don’t look that way, it kind of feels like being thrown in the lowest sales pile.
        Reason 5:  Senior year, graduation day. It was raining outside, I had on four inch heels and tights that could rip any second, and the entire graduating class had this feeling of wow, it’s really over? I saw people that I had passed in the hallways for four years, some I spoke to, some I didn’t. I knew faces, but I didn’t know all the names. And the strange thing was, that in about a year, it wouldn’t even matter. I would never see these people again.
        Some of them, sitting in that crowd, saw me rip my tights at the school dance. Some of them saw me confess to a boy I liked, get rejected, and still hold my head up high. Some of them might have even saw me on stage, about to sing, frozen on the spot. But in all those years they witnessed my failures and my pain, none of the people sitting in that crowd ever really saw me. They only saw what they thought I was. I never realized that until that day.
        Reason 6: First day of college, as I walked into my Intro to Film class, I met the eyes of someone I thought I would never see again. A certain Asian boy that I had a crush on forever. I didn’t expect him to recognize me, so I just kept my head down and picked the furthest desk away from him. But, as most of my life went, things didn’t go as planned.
        I heard him take the seat next to me, and with a discreet whisper so as not to catch the attention of the professor he said, “Hey.”
        I didn’t want to acknowledge him. I didn’t want to see anyone from high school, let alone someone I had embarrassed myself in front of. But as I looked over at him I saw something unexpected sparkling in his inky eyes. Not pity or shame or ridicule, but relief. Not only that, but the slightest bit of happiness. And I couldn’t even begin to fathom why. But as I looked into his eyes, not to be some lovey-dovey cliché, I saw what I had searched for in countless others. Something I never thought I would receive from anyone, especially not him. Acceptance.

The Cabinet

11th grade
Justin S-L.

Alexandra stepped back from the painting she had been studying and glanced down at the description. Trapped Boy, generated by the Nova 5. Nova five, it came alive, Alexandra involuntarily recited the snippet of nursery rhymes. Version five had been the first machine to create art, thanks to the emotions they’d built into it–only there was no “they,” Alexandra caught herself; the Nova 5 had been programmed by the Nova 4, which had been the first computer able to create devices more complicated than itself (Nova four, it’s making more).

The museum clock read nine in the morning. It was a Monday. Usually around this time, Alexandra could feel satisfied with the knowledge that for hundreds of years humanity had dreaded this moment of the week, while she could spend it wandering the halls of museums and sitting at cafes. But today she was acutely aware that if she had never been born, the world would be no different, and that if every human in the world were to disappear all at once, the world would continue no differently without them. Thankfully, she knew how to change that.

The autumn air was brisk as Alexandra hurried down the street. Haven’t humans always wanted this, though? All the leisure time we could ask for? But somehow leisure wasn’t enough for her today. A silver car pulled up beside her, apologizing profusely:

“I’m terribly sorry, Ms. Alexandra. I had no idea you were going to leave the museum so early. Normally you stay until eleven at least, after which–”

“Thanks Bernie, but I think I’ll walk.”

“If you need something from the antiques store, I can have it picked up and delivered to your house by this afternoon,” the car suggested helpfully.

Alexandra furrowed her brow. Predictive algorithms were becoming uncannily effective. Did everything have to be so convenient?

“I’ve got the mind to do something for myself this time around,” she replied politely.

“What’s that?” asked John, as Alexandra spilled the contents of a large cardboard box onto the floor of their living room.

“It’s a cabinet.”

John peered curiously at the heap of planks, nails, and disposable screwdrivers.

“Alexandra, that’s not a cabinet, that’s a pile of wood.”

“For now. But soon, I’ll make it a cabinet. That’s the genius of it. The wood needs me to become a cabinet. Without me, it stays useless forever. I think it’s called ‘IKEA.’ I got it at the antiques store.”

John glanced back at the discarded box and yelped. “This thing cost 400 credits! If you wanted a cabinet, why didn’t you tell me? We could have bought one five times cheaper at the department store!”

“Yeah, but this one’s going to be mine.”

Alexandra worked feverishly throughout the rest of the morning, slowly assembling the cabinet. The screwdriver shook in her inexperienced hands, and she could barely read the instructions on the box, but she didn’t care. She had a purpose.

The attack on purpose came slowly, she reflected as she worked. The first casualties had been manual laborers. Her grandmother had told her the stories of her grandmother before her, and of the legendary car builders. Automation had put them out of their jobs. Eventually, as computers became increasingly sophisticated, they started to replace white collar workers too. No career was safe anymore, and when machines were programmed to replicate and improve themselves, the world began to develop at such an extraordinary rate that soon nobody was left with any work to do. Even artists found themselves bettered by software that could somehow produce work more human than theirs.

The frame was standing and the drawers were all that she had left to assemble. Alexandra stood for a second, catching her breath and appraising her work. John was probably right. They could have bought a much nicer cabinet at a lower price. But this one was special. So she gathered the remaining boards and set to work, humming contentedly.

The computers had taken over the world. But not in the way long predicted. Not with bloody war and the annihilation of humanity; this totally automated world was completely centered around the pleasure and comfort of the human race, centered around ensuring that nobody ever had to work again. The state provided everybody with a generous allowance, to be spent on whatever they pleased. They lived better than humans ever had: in nicer houses, eating better food, and free to do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted.

Only, there was no longer anything to do. The best that humans could hope for was to live out their days fulfilling base desires. That’s why addiction was such a problem. The computers hadn’t yet been able to find a cure for that.

There was no longer anybody who could point at something and declare, “I did that.” The spark of humanity had all but sputtered into nothingness.

Alexandra was tightening the last screw when she heard a knock at the door.

“Come in,” she called.

A team of three law enforcement robots stepped inside.

“Alexandra?”

“That’s me.”

“Ma’am, we’d like you to call the psychiatry algorithm right away, please.”

John appeared through the dining room door. “Excuse me officers, but there must be some mistake. I only called to ask for advice from our marriage counseling network. There’s nothing–”

“I’m sorry sir, but your wife might be dangerous. A desire to make a mark on the world has been consistently linked with the most violent criminals in history. Unchecked ambition is a threat to society. We need to consult the psychiatry algorithms. If you refuse to comply, I’ve brought a straightjacket, but I wouldn’t want to be forced–”

Alexandra didn’t hear the rest. She was already out the door and running across the lawn. She heard a loud report, then another, and another. Bullets fell like hail around her, but strangely, she didn’t care. If I die like this, she thought, there’s no way I don’t make it into the newspaper tomorrow morning—-

Permission

Middle School Winner
6th Grade
Lachlan C.

Pulling away from his mother’s damp grasp, the boy turned the knob on the door labeled 24. His father ran his hand through his short, trimmed hair. The boy watched him pull in his lapel tighter to his white collared shirt. The boy had thought it impossible to be that clean, until he spotted the stain on the collar, from a paint spill not a few weeks ago. His father almost never got a new shirt. They entered room twenty-four, the boy’s teacher waiting for him in front of a wide, lacquered desk. Two cups stood on the table, one filled with pencils and pens, the other filled to the brim with coffee. A short pile of white papers stood neatly organized on the desk. The boy’s teacher strummed the top corner of the stack with her thumb. The teacher looked at him as his family sat down, and the boy looked at his mother’s shoes. They were very old, too small, yet they always seemed to look new and highly polished. The boy’s teacher’s feet bore new red glistening slippers with ribbons tied neatly in a bow.

“Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. Hernandez.” Mrs. Anderson greeted them.

“Good evening, Mrs. Anderson,” the boy’s parents said, their voices more unsure than whenever they talked to him.

“Why are we meeting today? Is there something you want to tell us? Is our son in trouble?”

“No, your son is one of my strongest students–both in his schoolwork, and his character.

His mother opened her mouth to say something, but the words seemed to evaporate before she could say them.

“As you know, I have sent your son home with a permission slip for our field trip. It is taking place tomorrow.”

The boy’s parents nodded without acknowledgement.

“It is not like him to forget something like this. I gave it to him two weeks ago.”

The boy looked at his mother’s face. Her mouth was a tense line. The boy went through all the emotions she could be feeling right now. What caused those lips, usually so ready to sing and laugh and smile, to look so different? Why were they so tense, why was she implementing so many boundaries around things she usually spoke freely about? Why were her eyes dipped in a pool of fear and tinted with dread? Mrs. Anderson’s loud voice broke the short silence.

“Is there some reason he can’t go, or can you sign the form now?” she said as she placed it in front of the boy’s parents. The boy waited for his parents to answer, but all that followed was silence. Still, Mrs. Anderson’s eyebrows were pointed upward, but her eyes were warm, making the boy feel like she really cared. The boy followed his mother’s gaze to the walls of the classroom. They were a light green, bits of paint had been peeled off where tape had been. The lyrics of the song The Grand Old Flag were tacked to the wall. Spanish vocabularios were clipped on a clothesline strung from one end of the room to the other. A whiteboard had written on it the boy’s class schedule.

“Trip is to City Hall?” his mother inquired, covering her mouth. The boy could tell she was biting her lip.

“Yes, that is the place.”

The boy’s mother looked away.

“If it is about the cafeteria money, can I arrange something?” Mrs. Anderson said.

The boy’s father raised his chin. His jaw set, and the boy could see the hurt in his father’s eyes. The boy’s father looked at Mrs. Anderson for a very long two seconds. Then his father opened his mouth and said with a newfound strength, “That won’t be necessary.”

“I didn’t mean…” her face turning red as she made a sound like her breath was caught in her throat, “I was just concerned about your son’s grades. You see, there will be an essay to write about this field trip, and since your son is doing so well with his grades and all…” Mrs. Anderson’s voice trailed away again. The boy vaguely noticed the emphasis in his teacher’s voice that he was doing well. His mother lightly kicked his father’s shin, gaining his attention.

¿Qué dijo ella sobre las calificaciones?” she said.

His father twitched a little.“Ella dijo que obtendría calificaciones más bajas si fuera al campo.

The boy’s mother was still.

“Is there something troubling you? Maybe I can help?”

A sentence in a new tongue reverberated in the boy’s head, wishing he knew the answers to all the questions floating in his mind. The boy heard his mother whisper something to his father, but it was indistinguishable. The only words he made out of it were “la migra.” Those were words he had heard almost every day this past year. Those people Papi admired, talked about, cared about, worked with, who came here illegally might be in danger because of la migra. An inferno of questions about his family rushed through the boy’s head.

“Papi, why do you look so afraid?” the boy questioned.

“I’m not. Why don’t you step outside to get a drink from the fountain?” His eyes told the boy it was not only a question but a command. Still, the boy pushed on, his thoughts racing.

“Then why are pulling on the collar of your shirt, like you always do when something is wrong?”

Mrs. Anderson looked at them with her brows furrowed, seeming to listen attentively to everything they were saying. When Mrs. Anderson spoke, her words were calm, and soothing.

“Let’s just forget all about this. He doesn’t need to go on this field trip. I’m sure your son has a bright future ahead of him.” The boy’s parents stood up and his father turned to the teacher.

“Thank. You.” With that they walked away. The boy looked back at his teacher. Their eyes met, only for a brief moment, before Mrs. Anderson stood up, and winked. The boy winked back.