You and Me
Each individual has his or her own quirks, a collection of experiences, a way of seeing the world. What happens when that person's inner life collides with that of another? Will they remain inflexible, resulting in broken lives and hearts? Or will they learn from one another until they both change, embracing a greater diversity of ideas and perspectives?
Among other motifs and issues, relationships emerge as central to the three winning stories of the Adult, Young Adult and Teen categories of this year's Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest. Characters of all stripes grapple with their own and others' stubbornness while contemplating the opportunities of the future and the mistakes of the past. The personalities and situations in these stories ask readers to consider how they relate to and treat those closest to them.
The Palo Alto Weekly would like to thank the 115 writers who submitted work to this year's contest; the readers Danielle Truppi and Sharon Levin, who selected the top entries in each category for the judges to consider; the Adult and Young Adult category judges, Tom Parker and Meg Waite Clayton; and the judges for the Teen category, Katy Obringer, Nancy Etchemendy and Caryn Huberman Yacowitz. The Weekly also like to thank the contest co-sponsors, Bell's Books of Palo Alto, Kepler's Books of Menlo Park and Linden Tree Books of Los Altos.
Ian Sears' short story, "Place of Waiting," took first place in the Adult category. To read his story, click here.
Hannah Knowles' short story, "Mistranslations," took first place in the Young Adult category. To read her story, click here.
Deiana Hristov's short story, "Ivan and Natasha," took first place in the Teen category. To read her story, click here.
Ian Sears | "Place of Waiting"
Miguel lay in his cot atop ruffled sheets, his upper body propped up by two pillows. His right leg rested in its cast on the windowsill, his foot pointing straight out to coax the soothing air to seep between the skin and plaster. It was a cloudless day in July and the cool lake breeze gently billowed the ancient curtains of his once-green fishing shack as it drifted in through the window he’d struggled to open earlier that day. Miguel had awoken enveloped in a gelatinous layer of sweat that had seeped out through every pore in his dark skin to form a saline mold of his body. The dusty air had been thick enough to chew on and he’d felt it blanket his throat and lungs as he strained to force open the unyielding window.
Across the lake Miguel could see the old docks of Tocuaro still standing several meters above the sand ten years after the lake had receded beyond their reach. On particularly clear days Miguel could pick out the house he’d grown up in, still half-standing between the skeletons of two olive trees. Miguel’s side of the lake was deeper so it had survived the drought longer than Tocuaro’s, but the wetlands Miguel had built his shack beside hadn’t been wet in years and it was only a matter of time before the lake itself relinquished its last drop. As he watched the dejected handful of boats still left float shiftlessly across the lake, trawling for a catch that might have gone extinct the day before, Miguel wondered where he would go once his leg healed. He had just enough money to move to Pátzcuaro, but that town had seen better days. Who could tell how long it would be until Pátzcuaro became just a name on a map, he thought. He doubted he could make it anywhere beyond Pátzcuaro on his own, but if he convinced Fernando to leave the lake, the both of them might stand a chance. However, Miguel knew this was a pipe dream. No matter how dry the lake became, Fernando would never leave. Even when his wife had threatened to take their five children and move to the city, Fernando told her he had faith in the lake and that he planned to die by it. When she pressed him further, he gave her his blessing and had lived alone ever since.
While Miguel had remained longer than almost anyone, he hadn’t stayed out of any form of loyalty to the lake, but simply because he hadn’t felt the need to leave. He’d never had any family to speak of since his mother died, and his needs were relatively few compared to those who had left. Still, Miguel had been nearing his limit for a while and his fishing accident had been the last straw. Fernando had been the one to untangle Miguel from the net and had driven him to the hospital in Pátzcuaro. He arrived around one to bring Miguel lunch before his siesta. Lunch was canned rice and beans along with one of Fernando’s only catches of the day. Miguel initially refused the fish, but Fernando insisted, placed the dish on Miguel’s nightstand, and sat in a chair by the end of the bed. Miguel reluctantly took a bite of the fish, savoring its white meat. Fernando had always been a better fisherman than him. Miguel hadn’t caught anything in nine days, eleven counting the two days he’d spent in bed. The two men had known each other their entire lives and did not feel the need to speak unless necessary. They watched the lake in silence. Miguel could almost see the opposite shore crawling closer to him and squinted as he tried to decide whether the fishing boats bobbed a little lower with each wave. As Fernando stood up from his chair to leave, Miguel told him he was going to move to Pátzcuaro once his leg healed.
“I know,” Fernando said, “I could tell as soon as I saw you in that net that you were done fishing here. In fact I would not be surprised if you never set foot on a boat again. Am I wrong?”
Miguel shook his head. “You’re not wrong. I think my accident was God’s way of telling me I’ve overstayed my welcome here.”
Fernando sighed. “I don’t have any way of knowing what role your accident played in God’s plan, but I can see that you are determined to leave.” Miguel opened his mouth to speak, but Fernando waved him into silence. “You know I won’t be joining you. Perhaps your accident was a sign that you should leave, or perhaps you have just lost faith in the lake. When the other fisherman tie their boats up at sunset every day, I can hear them from the lake and I can hear them from my shack, cursing and grumbling about how the lake has abandoned them. The lake has abandoned no-one. It is those who have abandoned the lake in their hearts who are unable to catch fish. The lake will return Miguel ... but I’ve seen that look before, and I can tell that nothing I say will convince you. I respect your choice, but like you, I have made up my mind.”
Miguel saw in Fernando’s face the same steely resolve he’d seen even as a child, and even though both men knew Fernando had never taken siestas and had stayed out on the water later when the lake was full of fish, Miguel understood that the lake meant more to Fernando than the number of fish he could catch from it. He thanked Fernando again and Fernando told him that he’d be back again at dusk.
The doctor in Pátzcuaro had told Miguel that his bones would take much longer to heal than it would have in his youth, and if he wasn’t careful they may never heal properly at all. After a few days of lying in bed, however, Miguel had grown restless and began using the crutches he’d received at the hospital to take short walks around the docks. At first his armpits bruised and the effort of hobbling just a couple dozen meters left him exhausted, but soon enough Miguel was able to make his way around the docks with relative ease. Fernando no longer brought Miguel his meals, but the two men kept the habit up and dined together every evening after Fernando had finished for the day. He eventually settled into a routine that he stuck to like clockwork until the day he decided he couldn’t wait for his leg to heal and left for Pátzcuaro.
Miguel had been out by the shoreline hobbling from pier to pier when he saw a lone fisherman Miguel had never seen before docking a canoe. Miguel had trouble making out the man’s features in the dwindling twilight, but as he hobbled closer to the canoe he was surprised to confirm that he had never seen the fisherman before. The man was shorter than Miguel, had long black hair, and even from a distance Miguel could tell he was emaciated. A grey cat moved cautiously along the planks of the pier and in one swift motion, the fisherman grabbed the cat, snapped its neck, and began eating it raw. He tore off one of the cat’s back legs and ate it as he would a chicken’s. Grey tufts of fur stuck to his chin as blood dribbled down from his mouth and soaked his shirt. Miguel hobbled towards the pier as fast as his crutches would allow him, but the man did not seem aware of the injured man making his way across the sand. Suddenly, the cat writhed out of the man’s hands and fell into the water. The man jumped in after it, swimming breaststroke along the widening stream of blood discolouring the water behind the animal. Miguel shouted at the man, but his cries went unheard as the man and cat swam farther and farther out into the lake until the sun set and he could no longer make them out. Deeply unsettled, Miguel returned to his shack and began packing what few possessions he had. Fernando arrived for their evening meal and tried to convince Miguel to wait until his leg healed, but Miguel was insistent on leaving immediately. As he rushed around the room, Miguel raved to Fernando about what he had seen and repeated over and over again that if he stayed any longer, the lake would devour him, but Fernando could hardly comprehend anything Miguel was saying. When Miguel finally slung his bag over his shoulder and hobbled towards the door, Fernando capitulated and told Miguel he’d borrow a car and drive him to Pátzcuaro. Eduard was the only person in the settlement who owned a car. Eduard wasn’t at his shack and it took Fernando almost half an hour to find him. Once he did find him, Eduard’s car was so old that it took another half hour just to get it started. By the time Fernando drove the car to Miguel’s shack, Miguel was gone.
Fernando drove around the settlement and halfway to Pátzcuaro and back, but Miguel was nowhere to be seen. Fernando pulled over to a small bar haphazardly placed by the desert road like the skeleton of an ancient whale whose ocean no longer existed. There were only a few tired people in the bar and none of them had seen Miguel. Mexico was playing Argentina on the old CRT television placed up high on a dusty shelf in the corner of the bar, and as Fernando walked back out through the dust to his car, he could still hear the announcer panicking as Argentina scored another goal. After a couple tries the decrepit vehicle shivered as if it had just come back from the dead and Fernando drove back to the nameless fishing settlement that had succeeded Tocuaro. When he returned to his shack, Fernando opened his windows to let the evening breeze rejuvenate his stuffy house and through them watched the sun ripple in the lingering July heat as it burrowed its way beneath the sand.
A week later Fernando caught one of Miguel’s crutches in his net. He hadn’t caught anything since Miguel had disappeared and had initially felt excited at the weight of his net. When he saw the crutch, however, his excitement quickly turned to alarm. Fernando dived into the murky lake, shouting Miguel’s name over and over again. He looked through the opaque water as far as he could see, but after ten minutes of diving saw nothing. The crutch was the only thing Fernando caught that day and it was the last thing he ever caught in the lake. Fernando spent a sleepless night thinking of the crutch and of what Miguel had told him before he vanished and by morning, Fernando decided to leave. He emptied his small lockbox of the little money he hadn’t given to his family when they left him. He spent most of the day packing whatever he could into a large bag he’d once used for his fishing gear and set out on his bicycle for Pátzcuaro that afternoon. It was nearly dark when he rode into town. He booked himself into a cheap motel for a couple nights and asked the desk attendant if he could use the motel’s phone. The desk attendant gave him a perplexed look.
“All the rooms have phones. You don’t have a cell-phone?”
Fernando shook his head.
“You’re a rare one. Well, if you have any problems with the phone in your room, just let me know.” The desk attendant handed Fernando his keys. Fernando thanked him and checked into his room. He tried calling the number his wife had mailed him two weeks after she’d left, but it was out of service. She had left a Pátzcuaro return address on the envelope, but when Fernando biked over to it the next day, he found himself parked at the entrance of a bowling alley. Undeterred, Fernando pored through the motel’s ancient Yellow Pages until he found his sister in law’s number. To Fernando’s relief, the number was still in service. When she answered the phone, she was unhappy to hear from Fernando and refused to tell him where his wife was living. However after Fernando repeatedly pleaded with her to let him see his children, she gave in and told him that his wife was now living with her new husband in Erongarícuaro.
Erongarícuaro was a small, dusty artist’s town up on a hill that was once next to the lake. Fernando passed by more horses than cars as he entered the town, and when the roads turned to cobblestone, they became so uneven that he was forced to walk his bike the rest of the way to his wife’s house. She was waiting for him out on her front step.
“Why are you here Fernando?” He seemed poised to say something, but his wife cut him off. “We lost you to the lake years ago. As far as I’m concerned, you might as well have drowned in it. If you were going to change your mind about leaving, why wait until now?”
Fernando sighed and stared at the tessellated cobblestones as he searched for the words to answer her question.
“Something happened that convinced me to leave. If I had stayed even a day longer, I know that lake would have consumed me,” Fernando said.
Luisa shook her head and smiled sorrowfully at Fernando before staring off over the dried-up lake. After a long silence, she invited Fernando to stay for dinner and meet her husband, but warned him that he was not welcome to stay overnight. Fernando solemnly agreed and that night was reunited with his two daughters and three sons, the youngest of whom failed to recognize him at first. Fernando’s conversation with Luisa’s new husband, Simón, began as a cold, uncomfortable exchange between two men who would perhaps rather they hadn’t met, but within a few minutes Fernando felt a sense of pride and approval towards Luisa’s choice of husband. Simón was a regionally renowned sculptor and potter and was fortunate enough to be able to financially support his adopted family. Fernando found Simón to be an earnest and down-to-earth man, but could tell that Simón, despite his graciousness as a host, would rather not have Fernando in his home. Still, when dinner was over Simón offered to let Fernando stay the night and when Fernando refused, he was only held back from insisting by Luisa.
As he pedaled away from Erongarícuaro, Fernando felt something well up within him like an overburdened reservoir pushing against its fragile dam, and he pulled to the side of the empty dirt road and wept.
About Ian Sears
Not long ago Ian Sears was watching a documentary about the drought in Kazakhstan. A week later he had a startling dream in which a thin, mysterious man eats a cat alive. When he woke up, he scribbled the scene down in his dream journal, something with which he and a friend had been experimenting. The image stuck with him.
"Even if I didn't write it down, I would have been still thinking about that a week later," he said.
That dream, and the documentary, eventually became the spark for Sears' story "Place of Waiting," which took first place in the Adult category of this year's Short Story Contest. Sears said the dream journal entry appears nearly verbatim in the story, which focuses primarily on two men and their relationship with a drying-up lake outside of Pátzcuaro, Mexico.
Having grown up in Australia and California, Sears is no stranger to drought. However, since his own experience was less extreme than what he saw happening in Kazakhstan, he decided to explore how individuals dealt with such harsh conditions. Following the age-old suggestion to "write what you know," he ultimately set his story in Mexico, with which he was more familiar.
Nineteen years old and a Gunn High School graduate, Sears currently studies at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, where he just completed his freshman year and plans to double major in international relations and creative writing. Outside of class, he enjoys writing and making films with friends, including a deliberately corny series about an urban cowboy called "Dos Sunglassos."
For literary inspiration he turns to masters like Franz Kafka, William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez, as well as contemporary authors like Huraki Murakami. He admires Faulkner's ability to write from multiple points of view, which he hopes to experiment with more in a longer project he's working on. While written in third person, "Place of Waiting" also explores this technique in portraying the differing thoughts of friends Miguel and Fernando.
When writing fiction or for his films, Sears often begins with a single image gleaned from his experience or imagination: a cat-eating man, a solitary football player on bleachers, someone digging through a pile of books to find a whole library hidden beneath. From there, he wonders how that image came about and then lets the story take shape spontaneously.
"A lot of the time I'm as excited (to see where the story goes) as hopefully my reader is once it's done," he said. — by Sam Sciolla
A wonderful, haunting story, "Place of Waiting" is richly textured and of the highest caliber. As Tocuaro's life-sustaining lake recedes, so too does Miguel, first in body, then in mind and finally in soul, leaving his compadre Fernando to ponder his last grim catch. — Tom Parker
Rayme Waters | "The Graduate"
I was alone at one of those bars in the Mission that ten years ago was probably a real dive but now displays velvet art on the walls and serves Pabst Blue Ribbon ironically. The bartender was showing so much hardware and ink, it was like getting served by Lisbeth Salander. She wasn’t my type, but underneath the body graffiti she was pretty and honestly I was so far beyond type I had trouble even making eye contact. So I’d sat there for the last hour, taking sips of my beer and obsessively checking the phone hidden in my lap in an attempt not to appear desperate. But I wasn’t fooling anyone. What non-desperate person keeps looking at his own crotch?
I'm an analyst at one of those banks that took a ton of bailout money and then acted like it was the government being the jerks. I got the job because my uncle, a managing director there, passed over more qualified candidates. And I’m living rent-free in the garden apartment of his house in Pacific Heights. I realize I’m the walking embodiment of white male privilege, but I’m trying to be a good person despite my circumstances.
Another you should know is I’m lonely. I worked a lot so that helped, but I was slow making friends and my romantic neediness was an effective female repellent. Download Tinder, you say? I swiped those who swiped me not. In the last few weeks, my loneliness had gotten so overwhelming that if I went for a chunk of time without distraction the feeling that, even if I was surrounded by people, I would be alone for the rest of my life, gnawed away at the little bit of well being I had left.
My aunt and uncle were out of town and the long weekend I’d acted so pumped about Friday afternoon was stretching out like open jaws before me. That’s why I’d broken down and texted John and Fig about meeting up. They weren’t my real friends; they’d considered me uncool in college and we’d stayed in contact only because we’d been the three who came to San Francisco after grad. The few times I’d met up with them, they’d had their inside jokes and I bought more rounds than my share. I’d sworn I wouldn’t hang with them again, but I couldn’t stand another Saturday night alone on my bed streaming Netflix. I mean how sad is it when you watch a movie so much that your favorite scene — the one where everything changes — becomes something you pause to get a snack?
From the back of the room, I heard my name. It didn’t look like Fig or John, but I couldn’t tell. I had misplaced my glasses and contacts irritated my eyes, making them red and watery. Nothing hotter than a desperate loner who looks like he’s been crying.
“Ben,” he said, closer.
It was Wage Slave.
Wage Slave was the mail guy at the bank. Our clients were tech companies, but we still paid someone minimum to push a metal cart office to office. Despite the mailroom being a mythical ingredient of the American dream, Wage Slave didn’t see his job as a path to something bigger. He took long breaks, hung with the bike messengers, smoked for God’s sake. One day he wore a sign around his neck with “Wage Slave” in block print. It was as much a joke as a bitter salvo against capitalism, but HR made him take it off. That happened on one of my days at the office, and although I’d heard his name since, whatever it was hadn’t replaced Wage Slave.
“I thought it was you,” he said taking the empty seat.
“Waiting on friends.” I answered, checking my lap again.
He swigged his beer. “You want to head over to another place?”
He looked around like he was going to tell me something important, leaned forward and whispered “All women.”
I worked at the wet label on my bottle. “No bars are all women, unless they’re women who won’t want to talk to us.”
“This place is different. A sure thing.”
“Not interested in that,” I said, thinking I had never been more interested.
“Nah, not that. They wear signs.”
He was kidding me. He was the sign wearer. I told him as much.
“I got the idea at this place.”
We sat drinking for a minute in silence.
“The sign says what they’d answer if a reasonably attractive guy propositioned them.”
“It’s an app?” I asked.
“No. A sign. String and everything.”
“Why would anyone do that?”
Wage Slave shrugged. “They get in free. Their drinks are free. Most of the guys that go there have money. No sweatpants, you know what I mean? Anyhow, if they lie they’re blacklisted.”
A sign around your neck. I thought about how Ariel, my college girlfriend and constant Take Back the Night marcher, would be outraged, how completely she would lose it at this concept. She’d say it was men who should wear signs. That it was men’s intentions that should be on display. She liked to flip things, which was one reason I liked her.
If I had a sign it might say, “I only look like a tech bro” or “I’m seriously going to get my own place.”
“What have you got to lose?” Wage Slave asked.
Fig and John thought I’d wait no matter how much time they took. But what if I wasn’t here when they arrived? What if I got a spine?
“Let’s go,” I said, covering my tab.
“Bye, Joe,” Lisbeth called from the bar as we walked out. He turned and blew her a kiss, which she caught and pressed against her cheek.
Joe said he could take us, and I said OK, thinking he had a car, but what he had was a moped, one that couldn’t make it up the backside of Franklin Street loaded with two passengers. Twice I had to get off and walk. I thought about heading home, letting Joe go on, but the night was writing its own set of rules and I decided to stick it out. Or maybe I didn’t want to go home so badly I was willing to take humiliation to its end point, who could say?
Our destination was in Pacific Heights. I couldn’t imagine that any of the fern bars I’d passed on the way to get groceries for my aunt could be the place, but Joe seemed sure. And just off Fillmore, I followed him down an alley. A few steps below street level there was a black steel door, The Upfront in faded gold script, a peephole. Joe buzzed.
The room we entered was pitch dark and I realized that I had made a huge mistake. My hand went to my wallet, and I turned to go, but the door had locked behind me.
Joe parted a curtain, and I realized the dark room was just an entryway. Low-lit velvet waited beyond.
A bouncer in a tuxedo working coat check pointed to the sign. Cover: $100 Coat: $50.
I paid cover — I’d been mugged anyhow.
“I’d rather keep mine,” I said about my coat. My phone was in the pocket.
“You can’t,” the bouncer said. “No phones, no photos.” He held out a basket. Joe, who’d already turned over his windbreaker, put his phone in, and got an orange ticket.
“But what if someone needs to get a hold of me?” I asked.
“If you’re here,” the bouncer said, “and you’re interested in something not here, then you’re in the wrong place.”
On the counter I saw the makings of the signs: white poster board strips, strings attached by masking tape, black Sharpies to write. I stretched, trying to peek inside the velvet room. There were a lot of women in there. And they did all seem to be wearing signs. I couldn’t make out any but the one closest to me. A girl, not my type — but as I said, I was way past type — wore one that said, “In the dark I’ll do anything.”
I gave up my phone.
Joe and I ordered whiskey at the zinc bar. I drank it like a shot, ordered another, and turned to survey the place.
Women stood in small, tight circles at the room’s center. Men stood on the periphery, scanning signs. Some guys leaned against the wall, as if the girl they were staring at might come to them. I realized I was at the most expensive junior high dance ever.
In the group of women closest to us, there was a girl. Irish looking. Red hair, scattered freckles. The contrast between her auburn ponytail and her pale skin was something that needed my attention. I wanted to know what color eyes she had. What her voice sounded like. Her name. I wished my second whiskey would come, because I couldn't walk over there without a drink, and if I didn’t get there soon I was sure someone else would.
And then I remembered why I’d come. The way Irish was standing, I couldn’t see what her sign said. But she was wearing one.
I paid for my second drink with my last twenty, nudged Joe and tilted my head toward the group that included Irish. Joe did one slow nod and, with me finally understanding what wingman meant, we made our way over.
I downed the whiskey halfway there, felt emboldened by my buzz and magically the circle of three parted and let us in. Another guy had been hovering and tried to ride our slipstream, but Joe blocked him and started talking to the brunettes that made up the rest of Irish’s trio.
Irish’s sign hung on her chest. I had trained myself for years to not look directly into the sun (“eyes up here, Romeo” Ariel would say) so I looked at Irish’s face instead, what she’d written just outside my periphery. Her eyes were green. Even with the whiskey, I looked away.
Irish, however, didn’t have a problem with eye contact. I could feel her gaze on me like a like a searchlight. Her drink was on the small table beside her, barely touched. She wore a knee-length skirt and a cardigan buttoned up. Her clothes didn’t matter — the curve of her neck where it met her dark blue sweater was about as mind-blowing as I could stand — but the formality of her outfit made it seem like she was here for jury duty or a lunch interview rather than a night out.
Joe was already getting a laugh out of the two other girls. I could easily read the sign of the one facing me. “I’m up for whatever,” it said. But Joe seemed equally interested in the other one. I couldn’t see her face or her sign, but it must have been really good.
I turned my attention back toward Irish, glancing down long enough to read what her answer would be.
“But I Barely Know You,” she’d written in perfect, tiny script.
She saw me read her sign and took a breath, awaiting my verdict.
I extended my hand, a reflex, but it wasn’t reaching for hers, it was reaching for her sign. I wanted to pull it off, get Irish out of here, and take her somewhere fun, with hamburgers or maybe just coffee in case she was vegan. But the part of me that tended to blow it in the clutch hesitated. And I saw a twinge of doubt cross her lips, then her forehead.
The other brunette turned to me, and I saw NO! Written boldly with a smiley face after. Joe, who had to have paid every cent he had made in a week to be here, was telling jokes and NO! and Whatever were laughing so hard they were almost in the snort zone.
I heard a delicate sigh come from Irish. And I realized it was an easy sound to hear because the gnaw of loneliness had gone quiet. But what should I do? Attempt some witty comment? Pretend detachment until I found out more?
She reached for her drink. This time, I met her fingers, taking them in mine.
“Wait your turn, dude,” said the guy we’d blocked before. “I saw her first.” He put one drunk arm around Whatever and reached for Irish, tangling her hair in his sweaty paw.
I played with the speed bag at the gym waiting for the treadmill, but had never thrown an actual punch. Joe saved me from finding out what it would be like by knocking the guy to the ground. Before drunk guy could get up and collect his friends, I got lifted from behind, carried out of the club and heaved to the ally. I heard the crack of my phone screen hitting the asphalt and the soft thump of my jacket landing nearby. Joe lay next to me, a trickle of blood coming from his nose. He was quickly surrounded by NO! and Whatever who ministered to him, using tissues from their purses to apply pressure and clean him up.
I was lifting my phone up to check for damage when I heard “Hey.” It was Irish.
“I think you landed on your forehead,” she said, kneeling down beside me in the kind of thick wool coat you needed for summer in San Francisco. “It’s already bruising.”
My head hurt but I didn’t care. “What’s your real name?” I asked.
Joe’s moped cranked live. NO! was on it, getting ready to ride away.
“Wait,” I said, sitting up.
“It’s okay,” NO! said. “I’m riding it to his house.”
Joe nodded. “They’re taking me home,” he said, and despite the bloody nose he did not look unhappy. “See you Tuesday.”
Whatever helped him into a cab. The wind blowing the fog in whipped her long pink cape, it’s satin lining folding in on itself as the door closed like an elaborate sea creature protecting its delicate insides.
I stood and zipped my jacket. Katherine faced me and we both held phones at our sides while we looked at each other. Mine buzzed. Maybe it was Fig and John, maybe it was my aunt reminding me to water her orchid, maybe it was someone on Tinder finally swiping right. Without looking at the screen, I couldn’t know. I put it in my pocket. Katherine did the same with hers.
“Coffee?” I asked.
“Don’t you need to get home? Get some ice?”
“I’m fine,” I told her as we crossed the street toward a cafe. “I’ve never been better.”
Rayme Waters's biography
The concept of the Upfront Bar — an idea I found compelling because it was horrifying, sexist and useful in equal measure — came to me in that strange half awake/half dreaming space right before sleep. I forced myself out of bed and wrote notes — finding my main character and coming up with a full story which I called “The Graduate” over the course of the next few months.
I’ve been writing for about decade and I’ve published a novel, “The Angels’ Share,” and a book of short stories, including one nominated for the Pushcart Prize called “The Island of Misfit Girls.”
I live in the Community Center neighborhood of Palo Alto with my husband and daughter who will be an incoming ninth grader at Paly this fall.
"The Graduate" is a creative peek inside a curious bar in which phones are checked at the door and women wear signs with sayings like "But I barely know you." This voice and the writing are strong and assured in this often funny and ultimately feminist-leaning look at the way we connect. — Meg Waite Clayton
Margaret Young | "Ashes"
We are going to scatter Mother today. Bertie is doing the driving, while I sit beside him reading out the directions. It is strange to think of us together in any context, though we tolerated one another well enough when she was alive, or, at least, gracefully avoided one another. But we’ve not seen one another since the funeral. It’s been a year.
Bertie yanks around the curve. I clench my hands, but know better than to say anything. But there are sirens and Bertie pulls over.
“Just where do you think you’re going,” the cop asks. “You were 20 miles over.”
“My daughter and I are taking my wife to the beach,” Bertie smiles his Realtor smile. The officer looks suspicious, seeing of course, no one but Bertie and me.
“She’s in the trunk,” Bertie says. The officer looks angry--are we joking or kidnappers?
“She’s dead,” I say. “We’re scattering her ashes. Perhaps you’d like to look?”
He’s really upset now, but let’s us go without even a ticket. Another challenger defeated by death. We drive on, though Bertie’s slowed down.
“I’m not your daughter,” I say.
Mother’s death was not unexpected. Nor was Bertie’s reaction to it. To listen to him, the whole world was not enough to contain his grief. Blocking the front doorway, he’d fall into the arms of whichever visitors had come to pay their respects — even the mothers of my friends — or maybe particularly the mothers of my friends. “I loved her so much,” he would sob. I never cried around my stepfather. I never got the chance.
There wasn’t even much to say. I organized things, packed up Mother’s clothes for Good Will and returned to school. I signed documents sent to me by the lawyers. I studied like hell. If I said my mother was dead, I did so conversationally, so that people did not quite catch my meaning. They thought I was joking or that she had died years ago. I did not correct them.
I earned praise for my resilience.
“She’s taking it like a rock,” I overheard one of the mothers say. “Now poor Bertie, he’s just completely broken up over it.”
“Are you sure you’re all right?” my roommate would ask before escaping our room.
I’d learned quickly that that was a question with no right answer. If I said “Yes,” I was seen as cold or “not really dealing with it.” If I said “no.” ... well, I never said “No.” People don’t want to hear you’re miserable unless they enjoy pitying you. No amount of shed tears was going to bring Mother back or substitute Bertie in her place. Certainly, no one wanted to hear that I wanted Bertie dead or, at the very least, out of the way.
“Sometimes a tragedy is needed to bring people together,” one of my more annoying second cousins said, beaming at Bertie and me at the wake. “When I think of the problems you first had—”
“We’re a true family,” Bertie said, squeezing my shoulders. “Emma knows she’s got someone she can count on.”
As usual, I said nothing. Part of me wanted to believe him — I’d been wanting to believe Bertie since I was a kid — but I knew I was being a fool.
Mother died in September. When Thanksgiving came around, Bertie was in England. He told me his grief therapist thought leaving the country around the holidays was a good idea. Christmas found him in Africa. The annoying second cousin invited me to her house in Fresno. I went, the family stray cat. Bertie sent me a necklace in colors I never wear, but his new girlfriend did. Frankly, I was surprised when he invited me to scatter Mother’s ashes with him on the anniversary of her death.
“Why on earth would I want to do something like that?” I’d said.
Bertie had reacted huffily. “I thought it might help you to learn to deal with your grief — to move on.”
It’s not long after that that Bertie tells me that he plans to remarry the new girlfriend. Oh, and he needs to sell the house--my mother’s house, my home — that Lisa wants them to have their own place. I tell him I don’t care because I hate him anyway.
Bertie takes a deep breath — I can tell he’s rehearsed this--and says all the right things, no doubt coached by his grief counselor, or perhaps the new girlfriend. You’ll always have a place with us. No one will ever replace your mother. I’m not trying to replace your mother.
“The hell you aren’t,” I’d said.
I was eight when Bertie came into our lives — young enough to still believe in fairy tales, but old enough to tell life wasn’t one. Since my father had died in Afghanistan, I’d had my mother to myself. My mother thought she was bringing me a new father. Turned out she was bringing competition.
Sometimes I wonder if there’s anything about Bertie I liked. Not the loud laugh, the ruddy face or the pot belly from drinking too much on a regular basis. He played the television too loud, complained that my computer games took too much bandwidth and, after a drinking binge, would eat the leftovers directly out of the fridge. Once I saw him wipe his nose on his sleeve when he thought I wasn’t looking.
But, really, worst of all, he pretended to like me when I knew it was just a way of getting to my mother. He’d pat me on the head, bring me a present and make jokes about how children should be seen and not heard. He made those jokes a lot.
He is uncouth, I told my mother, using a word I’d just learned.
Oh, he’s not so bad, my mother said, laughing. You’ve wiped your own nose on your sleeve a time or two.
I didn’t say anything then, but thought how my refined mother would never let me do what Bertie did, that she’d never say that’s not so bad.
Really, my mother continued. You ought to like Bertie. He likes you.
No, he doesn’t, I said. He’s just faking it.
He’s just not used to children, she said
But I knew she was just making excuses. She refused to see the coldness between us; the way we avoided saying anything directly to one another beyond “Pass the salad, please.” I hated what being around him did to my mother, how she’d laugh loudly, smile, smile, smile and put on too much make-up. She’d rush out when he came by, giving me an air kiss to keep her lipstick from smearing. Bertie would put his arm around her waist and then sometimes slide it down. It made me sick to my stomach.
A year later, when they married, Mother was determined to think Bertie and I had reached a truce instead of quietly engaging in a cold war. We went through the motions. Bertie giving me lavish gifts, introducing me to his business associates as his daughter. I held back from correcting him. Sometimes I even referred to him as . . . well, not very often.
The sky’s a flat grey when we reach the beach, the horizon of the dark water hard to pick out against the sky. As soon as I get out of the car, the wind whips my hair and makes my ears ache, but the pain does not shut out the deep tremolo of the waves crushing the rocks over and over on the shore, pulling the pebbles deeper. Far off, someone walks a dog, but we are, otherwise, alone. I stand, hugging my arms about me to warm myself, but it’s not enough. It’s never been enough.
Bertie comes up beside me, holding the box with my mother’s ashes. He looks at me briefly and then out toward the water. “Well, we better get this over with.” He almost spills the box as we clamber down the rocks to get to the sand, I feel a shard of rage cut through my numbness. We shall scatter no ashes before their time, I think absurdly.
But all of us arrive safely at the water’s edge, the wind is worse here, the sand stings my face. Bertie and I turn to face one another. I can tell, even behind our sunglasses, that we’re both blinking rapidly to keep out the sand. Neither of us is certain how to proceed next. One more thing we never talked about.
“They didn’t cover this in Toastmasters,” Bertie says.
No, of course not, toasts are for gatherings, not separations. We should just get this over with and get on with our lives. But like Bertie, I continue to stand.
Near the horizon, there’s a cloud break, I see sunlight bright a small patch of water. I remember it is summer.
“It was a nice picnic we had here,” Bertie says. And though we had many picnics here--for this was Mother’s favorite place — I know the one he’s talking about. It was just the two of us. Mother was sick, but at the time there was still hope. The odds were still in her favor.
So we were celebrating, maybe. The sun was out, the water an icy, vivid nephrite. Bertie bought cheese, prosciutto and rosemary bread from the farmer’s market. We flew a kite Bertie had gotten as a freebie from a convention. I helped a child built a sand castle.
We hadn’t planned it. Bertie was supposed to be watching football and I was supposed to be packing for college, but we’d gotten the news that my mother’s white blood cell count was close to normal. She was meeting friends and Bertie had come into my room and said, “Let’s hit the beach, just you and me.”
And I’d gone. We had laughed and waited ‘til the sun set. When we got home, Mother was so relieved to see us getting along that she didn’t scold either of us for being late and not calling. Instead, she’d made a spice cake with brandy-flavored frosting. “Just a cake for the family,” she’d said. We both smiled — real smiles — because for that moment it was true.
“Your mother got pretty sick not long after that,” Bertie says, not looking at me.
“And your wife,” I answer.
“You make it sound like she was two different people,” Bertie says. “I guess that’s how you wish it was.”
“Don’t you?” I challenge him.
For once, his glibness fails him. “No,” he says. Then, “Only, sometimes.” He pushes up his sunglasses, trying to hide. “Christ, Emma, can you just cut me a little slack for once?”
He sounds angry, but he also sounds tired. I look at him — are his ears bigger? The ear hairs in them are grey. Repulsive, a part of me thinks. Then another part of me says quietly, he’s getting old — that this isn’t a fair fight after all.
It’s my turn to look away. “Sorry,” I say. We’re both relieved.
“I do love you,” he says and waits for me to say the same in return, but I can’t. I know saying it would make all of this go easier, but it’s just not that easy.
Bertie sighs and then yanks open the box. “There,” he says as if to put an end to something, but what? Mother? Or us?
The ashes have a gravelly heavy quality to them. I wonder if the wind will catch hold of them and get them to the water, or if they will drop into the sand, never making it into the water.
“We need to be closer,” I say. “We need to be in the water.”
He nods. I kick off my shoes and roll up my jeans. Then I take the box of my mother from Bertie so he can do the same. We wade into the frigid surf, so cold that my feet hurt and then go numb. We won’t be able to stand it long.
“Now?” I say.
Bertie nods and I tilt the box away from us, toward the wind, tossing up the ashes in hopes the wind will help scatter them. The ashes waft and fall, some fall straight into the water, but the others . . . the others fall between us and on us. I shut my eyes and mouth tightly willing myself not to inhale — her? No, this is not my mother. This, all of this, has only the slightest connection with her — meaningless remnants. What remains of her is already in myself ... and Bertie.
The last ashes fall more slowly on the water, on Bertie and myself — the two of us survivors of a battle for something that no longer exists. I remove my dusted sunglasses and dip them in the water to clean them. He does the same. We stare at one another, unable to find the words and gestures that would bind the wound between us. Death tears down truisms, easy phrases.
“I really did love her,” he says, but it is to himself. There is a blank look on his face. I wonder if he remembers if I am even there.
My eyes water. Is it my mother or the wind? I look again at Bertie, still lost in himself — this one person, like it or not, who shares my grief. In a moment, he’ll resume his salesman charm, put up his walls, while I put up mine.
“I know,” I say.
He nods to show he’s heard, but does not answer. We turn away then, to turn back to our lives and find our way home.
Margaret Young's biography
“Ashes” is a story I began years ago. Grief can be ugly and angry. I wanted to write a story that got across just how difficult mourning can be. For a long time, though, “Ashes” sat on my various hard drives as it was a story with a lot of emotion, but without a resolution. However, when I looked at it again a few months ago, I was able to see what it needed.
I’ve lived in Palo Alto since obtaining my master’s in print journalism. I’ve worked at newspapers, edited and freelanced. My main work in recent years, however, has been teaching music to young children. I own and run Magpie’s Music. I’m a Bay Area native and grew up in El Cerrito. I did venture east for college where I studied creative writing among many other things at Sarah Lawrence College.
During all of this, I have written fiction, off and on. “Ashes” is a bit unusual for me in that it’s a complete in itself — a captured moment. I tend to think more in novels than in short stories. I am currently looking for an agent for a finished novel and am now working on a young adult book — i.e. a book my teen daughter might like.
In "Ashes" a daughter who has just lost her mother sets off to scatter her ashes, accompanied by the stepfather who has been in her life since she was eight. The result is an emotionally complex and moving story about the complications of family, the walls we build around us, and the way we connect in grief. — Meg Waite Clayton
Hannah Knowles | "Mistranslations"
Six months after I came to America, I sat down to eat in the house of a stranger, at a dinner party whose conversation I couldn’t understand. The stranger’s name was Mark. He was Darryl’s friend from work, and he and his girlfriend Claudia had invited us and two other couples over for the evening.
As a child, I studied English in school (it was a required subject for all students in China), but the rural schools where I lived were dirt-floored and poor, and I got all the way through high school with only broken sentences, pale and unconvincing words. Darryl, American-born, slipped easily from English to Chinese and back, the way you might slip out of jeans and into sweatpants. Both were comfy. Both fit him well.
“What are they talking about?” I whispered to Darryl, who was seated next to me.
“Nothing really,” he said.
“More specific?” I said.
Darryl shrugged. “I The Devil Wears Prada? I don’t think you’d know it.”
I said nothing.
“Sorry if this is weird for you,” he said. “I—” He broke off. From across the table, Mark was speaking to him. “Just try and practice your English,” he whispered before turning away.
For a while, I tried to pick out their words and was moderately successful. Please, school, house, excited, many others. Lots of I’s and we’s ... I listened helplessly, trying to gather together the clumsy English phrases I know for such occasions. Happy to meet you, my name is Lian. Delicious! Excuse me, could you pass the plate. My name is Lian.
My name is Lian and I was born in Yunnan Province in a village you haven’t heard of, a village next to a lake that sparkles but is always cold, even in the summer. It’s a place of dirt roads, of houses whose courtyards are filled with great piles of grain feed, of loud but chicken-hearted guard dogs who slink away when you throw a stone. I grew up surrounded by women who were strong as men — a relic of the not-so-long-ago time when my ancestors practiced walking marriages and when family names were passed down from mothers to daughters. As a child, I watched my grandmother carry 4-foot high bundles of firewood on her back while my grandfather played Mah-Jong and, clouded in a haze of pipe smoke, pondered the spirit world.
I met Darryl when I was 22 years old. I was still living with my parents, and I had a job at the local elementary school teaching everything except English. There was another teacher, an old man named Mr. Sung, who did that; sometimes I would look at the chalkboard after Mr. Sung’s lessons, and eventually the letters would resolve into words and primitive sentences — cat, dog, red, my father is a farmer — but at first glance they meant nothing to me. Gibberish.
Early June. I stood alone in my classroom cleaning the chalkboard, my pupils gone outside to play in the summer heat and dust, or to beg candy off of monks, or to trek back to their homes and do their chores before their mothers could call them lazy.
“Hello?” a male voice said.
I turned around from the board to see a young man in a T-shirt and khaki pants standing in the doorway. Stooping, really, because he was too tall for the frame.
“Hi,” I said. The young man peered around the room.
“Are you the teacher?”
“I’m afraid I’m lost,” he said, sheepish. “I can’t find my way home.”
I stared at him. He looked Chinese and spoke Chinese, but his voice had the tinge of a foreigner, like the clueless white tourists who sometimes stopped by our market to happily buy fruit at triple its usual price. I had the feeling that his home was somewhere very far away from here, but I offered to help all the same.
“Where are you going?”
He began to explain. This was only his third day here, he was from America, staying with his Aunt and Uncle while visiting relatives. He had wandered out to see the lake, but now he was trying to get back and he didn’t know which way he came from. His Aunt and Uncle’s house was the one with a mural of child painted on one of the walls — Did that help? he asked me.
“I’ll draw you a map,” I said.
As the teacher I was only allowed two new sticks of chalk per day, so I took up a nub left over from that morning and used it to sketch out the world that I knew. I pointed out landmarks: the distant mountains, on this side, the lake, over here. I drew the roads. I drew the school, and the house with the mural where his Aunt and Uncle lived, then began to trace out his path for him. I realized, as he listened attentively, that I didn’t know his name.
At the end of the summer, I stood with his relatives on the day he left and watched his Uncle’s Jeep roll slowly down the gravel. A single bewildered goat trotted behind the car, until at last it lost interest and bent down to eat some mud.
America. What did I know about America? A big country, a rich country, a fat country. A beautiful country? Maybe, but I grew up in Yunnan, the third-poorest but most breathtaking province in China; was told all my life that nowhere would ever be as lovely as home. And yet — America. Shiny and strange, hamburger grease and the best universities and all of the best TV shows, like Vampire Diaries. As I watched the goat quietly and patiently chew its mud, I wondered whether I would always live in Yunnan, and if so, for how much longer.
Doomed for the next year to an ocean of separation, Darryl and I corresponded in romantic handwritten letters. I found his letters endearing: though his spoken Chinese was fluent, he had had never really learned how to write and used the cramped script of a 10-year-old boy. I marveled that such refined hands could produce such ugly-looking words. I corrected his characters and encouraged him to practice, delighting in the idea that I could teach him things.
The next summer I packed my belongings into a single suitcase and said my farewells. My mother didn’t cry. My sister told me to watch all the American TV shows and tell her which ones were really the best. My father drove me to the airport. And when I landed, tired because the idea of flight made me too nervous for sleep and cold because I had not thought to bring a coat on the plane, Darryl was there waiting for me.
We temporarily gave up trying to find me a job — my English was terrible, and Darryl didn’t have much time to help me look anyway. Darryl knew a Chinese man from Lijiang who owned a gift shop, who said he might have an opening soon and could hire me as his assistant. But the promise dangled indefinitely, and I fell back on the strategy that I had used for the first 22 years of my life: waiting.
I thought of Yunnan often during the day, while Darryl was gone at work. I filled the empty hours with house chores — there was only so much cleaning to be done in an apartment so small, so mostly I cooked. I experimented; I chopped and pickled and salted; I stirred loneliness into the food that Darryl and I ate together each night.
There’s a story that my mother made up for me when I was little, about a young woman named Yi who has left her hometown to work in the Emperor’s kitchens. According to my mother, everything Yi made was beautiful — on the outside her dishes looked simple, like the fare of a peasant, but they tasted like heaven. Everyone asked her, “Yi, what’s your secret?” And no matter how many times they asked she wouldn’t tell them. Finally, one day, the Emperor himself brought Yi before him and, peering down from his seat on the high throne, demanded to know her techniques. The Emperor himself! She couldn’t refuse. So she told him the truth, that her secret ingredient was sorrow. Her heavenly food was laced with tears.
At this point, I would always interrupt my mother. “Ew!”
But my mother wasn’t done. Yi, she said, was satisfied for a while. But as time went on, she felt less and less content with her life at the Emperor’s court. She was far from her family, and the Emperor had decreed that Yi should never marry or have a child, because he feared that the sadness that made her food so delicious would be replaced by joy. Homesick and lonely, she grew old cooking for the court. And a strange thing happened: as Yi aged, the flavor of her food changed. At first it was barely noticeable, but before long it was unmistakable — all her dishes tasted like acorns, acrid and sour. Hearing of the change, some were puzzled. I Shouldn’t the talent of the greatest cook in the land only increase with time? But one bite, and they understood. Everyone wept, because Yi and her food had grown bitter.
I told the story to Darryl one night over dinner. We were at an Italian restaurant, and, as usual, I couldn’t read the menu, so Darryl ordered me spaghetti.
“Isn’t it a good story?” I said.
He nodded but made an odd expression, a wrinkle-grimace. The ending is a bit gloomy, don’t you think? he said.
I frowned, stabbed at my pasta. “It’s sad because it means something.” For a few minutes we didn’t speak, and I imagined us as two fish, mute and strange to each other.
“Do you want to go back home?” Darryl said — sudden, like he was trying to catch me off guard. He reached out, tentatively, to rest his hand on mine.
I felt like crying; how could he be so calm and gentle and kind? Once, a great-aunt of mine, an elderly woman who made Goji berry cures and gave out free love advice to all my younger family members, read Darryl’s and my palms; she said that our hands told opposite stories. Darryl’s fingers were Water, soft and yielding. Mine were short and stubborn. Fire.
That night we lay in bed, our dinner conversation a distant, garlicky memory. The room was drafty, and I could feel the heat of Darryl’s body inches from mine. I felt a sudden ache for Yunnan, for my father boiling hot water on the stove, my mother sitting at the kitchen table rubbing her weathered face, my sister drinking sugar water before bed.
Tears of wonder in the dark.
I sat awake grinning, thinking ahead to the wedding: my return. My father my mother my sister our faces hot with joy they hug Darryl as their son; we overflow. But then I imagined returning home to Yunnan alone. A single ticket, the same luggage I left with, barren greetings. I hated the idea of people guessing at what had happened when I was in America. Poor Lian. It didn’t work out. I hated thinking that they would try to put things together, to understand what had gone wrong and why.
At the dinner party, I listened for simple words, but mostly I watched faces. Mark talked often, his voice and expressions animated as he told elaborate funny stories whose punchlines always got laughs. Now a pinched-looking man I didn’t know was speaking, now Maria and Maria’s husband or boyfriend or whoever he was, now Maria again. Back to Claudia. Dizziness. What if I got up and walked away from the table.
All of a sudden, I realized Darryl was speaking and heard the word “China.” Someone else spoke, I looked up, and the entire table’s eyes were upon me.
I turned to Darryl. My face warm.
“They want to know how you like it here,” he said.
Oh. “Your house is very nice,” I said, using a phrase I remembered practicing many years ago in school. But it came out more like a question. Your house is very nice?
They laughed, and I realized I had said something funny. “No,” Darryl said, shaking his head, “What they mean is how do you like it I here?” He spread his arms wide. “Here, in the U.S.”
“I like it,” I said slowly. “But I think it is — difficult.” I let the last part hang, paused to collect myself, then all of a sudden decided to be bold.
The problem was, I didn’t have the words. “I don’t know how to say it,” I said quietly to Darryl in Chinese.
“What do you want to tell them?” he asked.
For a few seconds, I did not speak.
“A lot of the time,” I told him, “I wish I had never left.”
He stared at me. I had hurt him. I felt powerful, my face burning.
The other people at the table were watching, waiting for Darryl to translate. He cleared his throat, and I heard him say, “She something something something.” A few people nodded, the conversation moved on, and I tried to read in their faces clues to what Darryl had told them. Maybe, I thought, he really had said what I told him. Maybe I was being silly. But I couldn’t tell with certainty, and for a moment I saw my future stretching out and out, long and terrifying and blazing with sadness or happiness or both and impossible for me, Lian from a village you haven’t heard of, to ever know.
About Hannah Knowles
The idea for the story "Mistranslations," this year's winner in the Young Adult category, first germinated in Hannah Knowles' mind during a trip to China with other Castilleja School classmates her junior year. Even after having studied Mandarin for years, she found her ability to communicate woefully lacking — even more so in the Yunnan province, whose dialect differs significantly and where she stayed with a Chinese family for more than a week.
Notwithstanding the language barrier, she greatly enjoyed her stay and was struck by both the rural beauty of the area
— a shimmering lake, mud-eating goats and "chicken-hearted guard dogs" are some images from her story — and the hospitality of its residents, who generously served a spread of dishes that were wholly new to her.
Hoping to capture her own difficulties in communicating, as well as some of her observations in Yunnan, she conceived of a protagonist, Lian, who deals with the reverse linguistic challenge when she moves to the United States to be with an American man, Darryl. Knowles said she flipped things around so as to challenge herself to create new situations and embody new characters, she explained.
"If I was writing about an American going to China, it would end up being my own experience," she said.
The story explores Lian's feelings of isolation and powerlessness in America as she tries to forge a new life in America with Darryl. Recently, Knowles returned to the story to polish it before submitting to the Weekly's Short Story Contest. Originally at 14 pages, she ended up having to shorten the story significantly, which she hopes made the story stronger overall.
Knowles, a San Jose resident who also won in the Young Adult category last year for her story "Botany for Beginners," just graduated from Castilleja, but she won't be going far, as she will start her undergraduate career at Stanford University in the fall. Though she plans to dabble in other academic subjects, she expects that she will probably study English and literature at some point.
"I would love to just keep reading and writing in college," she said. "So I have a feeling that's what I'll end up doing." — by Sam Sciolla
Judge's comments ...
"Mistranslations" is the touching story of a young woman between worlds and the words that keep her in a limbo of language, culture and tradition. Adrift, Lian fears she will never be able to realize the promise of her new life, even as her old one recedes into the past. — Tom Parker
Caroline Bailey | "Time of the Angels"
The day I turned sixteen, Mama came into my room wielding an iron and a kitchen knife as the sun rose over the horizon. “Zara?” she said softly. “It’s time to wake up.”
In truth, I’d been awake for nearly an hour, with nerves churning my stomach into a pit of foam. It was the day I would learn how to cut my own wings — tradition called for this lesson on an Angel’s sixteenth birthday, when we are supposed to become independent.
“Morning, Mama,” I replied, feigning calm as I rolled into a sitting position. Out of the hole in my open-backed nightgown grew two wing stubs nearly a foot in length. This was unusually long, which made me uncomfortable — wings grow especially fast when they sense something is wrong. I pretended to ignore this as well.
Mama saw through my nonchalant façade. “Don’t be nervous,” she said as she plugged the iron into the wall. Her voice held the same authoritative tone as it had when I was little, fleeing from her as she tried to snip my wings. “It’s not going to hurt anymore than it ever has.”
“Unless I mess it up,” I mumbled.
Mama gave me a stern look. “Don’t be dramatic, Zara.” She waved her hand in front of the iron. “Good. It’s getting hot."
I wasn’t really afraid of burning myself, or even of slicing down too low. Physical pain is not so acute for Angels as for humans. My fear was of a sensation that always occurred just after Mama sliced my wings off, and they began to dissolve into the morning air. It felt a bit like the drop in your stomach when you realize you’ve forgotten something important, only lower and deeper, as if a part of my soul had been split apart and spirited away while the rest of my body sunk further into the Earth.
For some strange reason, today I was worried where that part of my soul would go. Now that I was responsible for the knife, would I be responsible for the piece of myself it cut away?
I cleared my thoughts. Mama was right, I was too dramatic. I gestured towards the iron. “Show me,” I commanded my mother.
She placed the iron in my left hand, showing me how to hold it at a good angle. “Always be careful with heat,” she told me. “Too close, and your wings will melt. Too far away, and they’ll be so stiff the knife won’t cut through.”
I did as she instructed, then picked up the kitchen knife in my right hand. Starting on my left shoulder blade, I sliced across my back. The wing stubs each fell onto the bedspread behind me. My soul quivered anxiously. Nothing out of the ordinary occurred. Slowly, the wings faded away into the air, like sugar in water. Some lighter part of my soul floated off with them, allowing the rest of me to settle into the Earth, to become caked in reality.
“Excellent.” Mama flashed a tight smile, retrieving the iron and knife. “Now, get ready for work. I’m leaving -- you can come whenever you’re ready.”
“Yeah. Of course.” Once she’s out the door, I go into our shared bathroom and examine my back. The waxy outlines of wings remain, but they’re easily covered up with a T-shirt. Not that it matters, anyway. No one will see me today.
We don’t know exactly why cutting Angels’ wings ties us to the Earth. It’s accepted that losing our wings allows us to walk invisible among humans and shields our homes from their sight. My mother and I live in a small, forgotten house, in a town where nobody knows we exist. It’s better this way, for Guardian Angels. Our role — you could even call it our profession — is simple enough on the surface: protect the humans, from nature, from one another, from themselves. Invisibility makes that task infinitely easier. You wouldn’t believe how adverse the human race is to the protection of their own souls.
My mother and I focused most of our attention on a school haunted by train tracks that ran along the south side of its campus. Every morning at eight o’clock, the distant thunder of approaching mechanization echoed past the football field and into the PE locker rooms, reverberated from Foreign Language to English to Math, and rang down the hollowed hall of the Performing Arts Complex.
I waited outside a Spanish classroom that day as the train passed, among a group of students crossing their arms against the cold. The December air layered itself into thick shades of frigidity, freezing the students into a breathless pause. Throughout the school, a similar hesitation occurred in students and teachers alike. It was a dreadful anticipation that no one dared give voice too, because words wield too much tipping power in the delicate balance of the human psyche.
How many young people had stood on those tracks in the dead of night, waiting for the brute power of machinery to snuff out their lives like candle flames? I had lost count. There were too many blurred lines and stacked years and besides, who would want to remember a figure that grim anyway?
Today, blessedly, the train moved onwards, its pathway unhindered by fallen objects, until its steel cries faded off into the distance. A sigh of relief settled over the school, and the day resumed.
What was it Mama and I did here? We watched. We waited. We tried to prevent disaster before it struck.
The Spanish teacher opened the door with a sweep of warm air, and students filed indoors. Five minutes later, class began. Uninterested in mastery of the Spanish language, I scanned the classroom for anything out of the ordinary.
Humans are different from Angels in three ways. The easiest to understand is our wings. The next is our invisibility. The third difference is more complex. It is best defined as the ability to see humans not as they are, but as they view themselves to be. Which is, arguably, a far more accurate depiction of the human psyche.
Nearly all humans distort their image in some way, at some time -- usually small things like miscalculating their weight or the size of their pimples. But these perceptions come and go, and most people do not fret about their self-image so consistently that their perceptions turn an Angel’s vision into a kaleidoscope of pictures and problems.
What Guardian Angels look for are the people whose altered perception of themselves is both exaggerated and frequent. Teenage girls who gain fifty pounds every time they eat a meal. People who scream constantly at the top of their lungs or walk around nude while no one seems to notice. Men who fantasize about beating their wives every time something upsets them.
I circled the classroom. The students were talking amongst themselves, at the instruction of the teacher. One girl, in the second row from the back, was talking into empty air.
I walked over, curious, and found a backpack on the floor with no apparent owner. For a moment, I wondered if I’d stumbled upon another Angel — but Angels can see one another just fine.
I watched the empty chair for the rest of class, and never once did the invisible student’s illusion flicker. I had never encountered a human so utterly bent on not existing. At one point, however, she signed a quiz sheet, and I got a name: Sofia Chen.
By the time class ended, I’d decided to follow her. But as the bell rang, Sofia picked up her backpack, causing the blue satchel to vanish with her. The students filed out of the door, and Sofia Chen was gone, swallowed up by the torrent of humanity.
I didn’t find Sofia again until a week later, while circumnavigating an art class. A paintbrush floated in midair, gently caressing a canvas with strokes of color.
My invisible girl. It had to be.
I walked over to get a better look, and felt chills run down my spine as I thought I saw my own reflection in the oil paints. But closer observation quieted my uneasiness. The winged girl in the picture had darker hair and smaller eyes. It was not unusual, also, for a human to draw an Angel--assorted sightings throughout the years, of Guardians who neglected to trim their wings, have ingrained our image deep within the human conscious.
I sat down behind Sofia, determined not to lose her again. I noticed that her cloak of invisibility did not extend to the faint shadow she cast, and decided I would follow that.
The class period stretched on for another hour, while I watched Sofia’s painting come to life. It was odd, I thought, that a girl who yearned so desperately to go unseen would enjoy painting in colors that vivid and painful and bold. It seemed that the urge to create something more bright and enduring than one’s own fragile self transcended even the deepest insecurities.
The bell rang, setting Sofia in motion. She washed off her brush in muddy water and handed in the painted angel, evidently finished, to her teacher for grading. After swinging her backpack up onto her shoulders, where it began to vanish just like the rest of her, she headed for the door. Eyes trained on her shadow, I followed.
Sofia Chen lived a long way from school, for a girl who walked all the way home. She crossed the tracks about a mile down from the school’s southernmost corner, just as the sky was darkening and I began to worry about losing her shadow in the cover of night. As disconcerting as this was, I snuck a nervous glance out at the tracks as we crossed, but was greeted by only empty steel and fading sky. I turned my attention back to Sofia.
We reached her house just as I was beginning to lose her in the darkness, her front door opening and closing behind her. I did not go inside, not wanting to risk spooking Sofia by shutting the door behind me, and instead waited by the kitchen window. Alone in her house, I watched Sofia Chen begin to appear, piece by piece, as she poured over her homework. Time ticked forward. From where I stood I could see only her curtain of black hair, catching a glance of her profile a few times when a car drove past and Sofia turned to look anxiously at the door. Eventually, however, she gave up on whatever savior she was waiting for, and left the room.
I found her bedroom window eventually, after losing her in the depths of the house. She fell asleep quickly, as the hour was late, and I was just turning to go when a car rumbled into the driveway. Sofia’s mother, a tired woman in a tired suit, walked through their front door. I watched her go to Sofia’s room, pull the blankets more tightly around her, and kiss the girl goodnight. But it didn’t matter. Her daughter was too far slunk down into oblivion to notice.
That night I would apologize to my mother for getting home so late. I would try to explain what I had seen, what I was doing. But Mama cut me off with a blank look.
“You don’t have to explain yourself, Zara,” she said. “We’re Angels. This is what we do.”
I nodded curtly. “Right,” I muttered. “Goodnight, Mama.”
Already turned back to the newspaper she had been reading, my mother didn’t respond.
Three weeks would pass. Some days I followed Sofia, but often I didn’t. An invisible girl is hard to pin down.
The fateful night occurred several days past Christmas, in early January. I woke up in a cold sweat, groping for blankets and desperate to get warm. I realized a pair of fully grown wings had sprouted from my back.
I sat for a moment, mesmerized. I knew this sort of thing could happen to Angels, in emergencies, but I had never considered it happening to me. Finally, a thought jerked me from my spellbound state. Sofia.
I ran for the door, tripping past my mother’s bedroom door and falling into the night air. My wings felt clumsy and heavy, more of a burden than an assistance. I made my way towards Sofia’s house, running in the general direction of the train tracks to guide me there. Off in the distance, I heard the sound of an approaching train, and I turned my head out to the tracks. A streetlamp illuminated a place about thirty yards from where I stood. In its yellow pool of light, a disembodied shadow was waiting.
I started to sprint.
Vaguely, I heard a shout, and looked up to find a policeman running in the same direction I was, only from the other side of the tracks. But he was too far away.
The train neared. It shielded me from the policeman, but not from Sofia, who must have seen us both. Her invisibility flickered. She took a step towards the train, towards me.
Meanwhile, I was running. I was flying. My wings stretched out behind me as I catapulted into Sofia, seconds ahead of the oncoming train.
Sofia fell to the ground. The policeman was almost there, and I turned to run.
I didn’t notice I’d been hit until I saw my feet beginning to dissolve.
I fell to my knees, but they didn’t exist anymore, and I landed on my face in the gravel. I flipped over, watching as my body began to erase itself, thinning into the air just like my wings when Mama clipped them each morning.
I was dying.
Somewhere in front of me, I heard the tones of the police officer talking. Sofia said nothing.
In a moment of selfishness that is allowed to the dying, I hoped she saw me save her. I hoped one day, she would admit to someone a girl with wings shoved her out of certain death.
I hoped she recovered.
I hoped she wouldn’t recover so well she’d mind if they called her crazy for believing her Guardian Angel saved her life.
I hoped until nothingness washed over me.
Caroline Bailey's biography
I live in Palo Alto, and just finished my junior year at Palo Alto High School. Some of my favorite things in life (in no particular order) are poetry, history, chocolate, novels and dance.
It is likely clear to readers from the Palo Alto area that I wrote this story as a response to the recent suicide cluster in my school district. “Time of the Angels” is about invisible heroism, and a kind of quiet superpower — the ability to see the thoughts and feelings of others — which I have often wished I had. Thank you very much for reading my work, and I hope you enjoy it.
In "Time of the Angels" — one of the most creative and playful submissions we received — a young guardian angel learns to clip her own wings, literally, in order to tie herself to earth and those who need her here. I loved this story for the charm of its narrator and the thoughtful exploration of the pressures young adults face. There is a little magic here, in so many ways. — Meg Waite Clayton
Zarin Mohsenin | "A Distinct Shade of Blue"
I look at the stranger who stares avidly back at me. It is clearly a girl in her late teens, possibly eighteen or nineteen. I smile awkwardly at her, and she repeats the expression. Her wide, bottle green eyes crinkle slightly at the corners when she smiles. The stranger then lifts her hand to push back a lock of waist length, curly brown hair from her eyes. At that precise moment I do the exact movement. Tugging on a lock of my own hair, I have a spark of realization and see for the first time the gilted, metal frame surrounding the stranger. I recognize the young girl in the mirror finally ... it is me.
"Of course," I whisper. I try to avoid looking in mirrors as much as possible. It only brings a jolt of complete unease and confusion.
I had always figured that I was bad with faces. You hear this commonly enough and I thought it was just extremely applicable to me. Only when I failed to recognize my own mother each day when she came to pick me up from school, did my family realize there might be more to it.
They took me to a specialist who diagnosed me with prosopagnosia, or more simply, face blindness.
Ever since, I have shied away from my own reflection, and of course other people. The embarrassment that comes with being unable to recognize people I’ve met before gets old, quickly. It doesn’t matter if I have seen the face two times or two hundred times, there is little chance of a connection.
Looking around my new, cramped apartment, I try not to compare it to my spacious bedroom at home. Regardless, a mental picture forms of the robin’s egg blue walls, antique desk, and inviting bed where I had lived for most of my life. I sigh. How easily I can describe in detail the appearance of my room but when asked to point my little brother out of a crowd, I am hopeless.
By the time I have made a decent dent in moving in, by which I mean scraping the first layer of clothing and books from my boxes and depositing it unceremoniously on the narrow bed, I am itching to leave the small studio in exchange for the roaming and bustling city that is now my home. Locking my door behind me, I step into the monotone hallway, followed by the elevator, and finally I emerge into the weak sunlight of early autumn in Boston.
The city is undeniably beautiful, but what makes it truly unique is the way in which historical and contemporary elements evolve elegantly around and each other, as if the architects were engaged in some elaborate dance, meant to compliment and outshine the other.
I wind my way through the streets, teeming with every kind of person imaginable, until I find a suitable cafe for a bite to eat. Buying a blueberry muffin and smirking at the thought of my mother's disapproval if she saw my first "meal" in Boston, I find a table in a corner to eat my snack. I look around at the other patrons in the cozy patisserie; judging by the friendly, easy manner of the staff, it seems to be a popular spot with many regulars. I take out the novel I am reading, but quickly get pulled into the intricacy of the people with the cafe.
A woman with a notebook sits at one of the high counters, and despite scrawling furiously in her journal, takes frequent breaks to drink from an immense mug of coffee, which seems to never empty because of the closeness with which a waiter watches her progress. A young man with hair cropped close to his head waves a video camera around and seems to be begging one of the women behind the counter to let him film. Although she gives a resolute “no,” she does so with an exasperated smile as though this were some sort of well-enjoyed routine of theirs. A tall, tall man with legs as long and skinny as church spires, seats himself near the door, stretches out his extensive legs, and unfolds a newspaper with a rustling like dry leaves in the wind. He is the picture of comfort and ease, that is until someone opens the door, when he is forced to draw his legs up towards his body to avoid the swinging door. This constant yet random movement could give one the impression that he is attempting a very strenuous core workout. Several of the staff giggle, while others simply look sympathetically in the direction of the irrationally tall man.
Just staring at these people in their everyday lives, I am overwhelmed with a sudden sadness. I analyze them in the moment and can see details so clearly, but I will never see any of them again. Even if by chance I were to happen upon them again, I would never know and never be able to know that I had seen the person before.
While I am studying the customers, the door opens once more, bringing a particularly fearsome gust of wind, as well as making the giant scrunch up yet again. The young man who joins the society of this small, busy cafe is my next object of observation. I watch him cross swiftly to the counter and order a black coffee. Drink in hand, the man turns, scanning the cafe for an empty table. I glance around the room too and we simultaneously reach the same conclusion. The tables and plush armchairs are all occupied by noisy groups of people enjoying their morning snacks. As his eyes sweep over the corner where I sit again, I drop my gaze back to my book. After a couple of seconds I glance back up to see the young man heading straight for my table in the corner.
"May I sit down?" he asks politely, and inwardly I curse at the prospect of making small talk with yet another stranger.
"Of course," I respond, and outwardly I smile brightly as he pulls out the chair across from me.
The young man takes out his laptop and begins to type intently, giving me the opportunity to study him unashamedly. His eyes, a district shade of blue, sit in a pale face, cheeks flushed from the wind outside. Black hair curls around his ears, a tangled mess that obviously hasn't been cut in several months.
Without looking up from his computer, he asks what book I am reading. Hesitant to fully enter the dangerous realm of small talk, I show him the cover without actually saying anything.
"Is it any good?" he asks with a smile, "I haven't read it yet."
"It's alright," I reply, effectively killing the conversation.
He goes back to whatever he is working on and I try to turn my attention to my "alright" novel. The awkward silence that seeps in like the plague has me feeling guilty for ruining his attempt at discussion.
"So what are you working on?" I ask, sounding incredibly lame to my own ears.
"I'm trying to organize my notes before the next term starts," he replies, "it's a more work than you would expect."
"What university are you going to?"
"I'm in my second year at Emerson."
"Really?" I say, "I'm starting there next week!"
"Well welcome to Emerson um ..." he looks at me, silently asking for my name.
"Noelle," I fill in obligingly.
"I'm Casey, good to meet you," is his response.
I nod politely and look away until, "So what are you studying?"
"Neuroscience," I say, "what about you?"
"Double major in computer science and music," Casey replies.
"That sounds like a lot of work," I say, impressed.
"It is difficult," he muses, "but definitely worth it I think."
“How do you like the school in general though?” I ask, “Does it meet your expectations?”
“Of course!” he exclaims, “It’s absolutely fantastic and as soon as you adjust to college, I am sure you will be very happy.”
“I hope so ..."
“Well I would be happy to help you out,” Casey offers, “if you think you need it that is.”
“I might just take you up on that,” I reply with a smile.
“Can I give you my number just in case?” he asks.
“Okay,” I respond, and he produces a pen from somewhere in his pocket. My internal monologue is questioning why I am simply giving this complete stranger more chances to talk to me.
The lack of paper leads me to simply hold out my wrist for him to scrawl down the ten digits in a small, cramped font.
Glancing up at the clock above the espresso machine, I see that it is nearing the time which I promised to video call my mother.
I take a last look at Casey, knowing I will forget his face as soon as I leave my comfortable chair, and then excuse myself. He smiles goodbye, telling me to call or text whenever, and then his dark head bends down once more over the computer screen.
I exit the café swiftly, forcing the tall man into yet another curl up. It has begun to rain and the ink on my arm runs in black rivers down my arm. I look back through the slightly grimy, café windows, but I do not recognize a single person within, and the one who has so kindly offered me help, is a stranger yet again.
Zarin Mohsenin's biography
My name is Zarin Mohsenin. I just finished my sophomore year at Pinewood School in Los Altos Hills, but I am from Woodside myself. My inspiration for my short story “A Distinct Shade of Blue” came from an episode of 60 Minutes I watched when I was around 9 years old. The episode was a series of interviews with people who were face blind. I never forgot the episode and therefore decided to use it as the topic of my short story. The biggest challenge I faced while writing the story was to make it about more than the character's face blindness. I wanted readers to be able to relate to the feeling of being in a new place, while also recognizing the extra obstacles the protagonist faces.
Noelle, the neuroscience-student narrator in "A Distinct Shade of Blue" suffers from prosopagnosia, "or more simply, face blindness," in a story that is thoughtfully narrated and perfectly pitched, bizarre and beautiful. From the fascinating opening scene — Noelle at her new Boston apartment, discovering her face — to the incredibly moving and beautifully delivered last line, this writer uses an extraordinary circumstances to illuminate a universal emotion, to exquisite effect. — Meg Waite Clayton
Deiana Hristov | "Ivan and Natasha"
“Don’t stress,” my piano teacher says to me as I cover my face with my hands. Only two days before the performance and I keep botching my piece. “You know the music. I’ve heard you play beautifully. Just forget the audience. Just play. Start again.”
I place my hands on the keys. Khachaturian’s “Ivan and Natasha” is not difficult technically, but playing piano is like storytelling: the reading of the words isn’t what’s hard, it’s bringing the words alive.
I start gently.
Two young lovers, trying on this new feeling, walking around the park as the sun kisses the horizon, painting the clouds in pink and orange. They amble, sometimes talking, sometimes just admiring the flowers and the dying light filtering through the trees.
Occasionally, their knuckles brush, oh so innocently.
He’s so sweet, she thinks.
She’s so pretty, he thinks.
A bud, blossoming.
I put more pressure on the keys. Soft Discord.
She starts to notice the dirt under his nails, how he interrupts her if she’s been talking for too long, that his front teeth overlap.
He thinks she spends too much time trying to look pretty. When she goes without makeup, he thinks she looks plain.
Both cover their thoughts with plastered smiles.
The melody intensifies, spiraling upward, louder and louder. The sharp notes sting my ears, whip my face like little stones.
It starts small. Maybe he forgets their six-month anniversary. Maybe she doesn’t call when she says she would. The bubbling tension has itched under their skins for too long now, and it erupts, a black ooze, slowly submerging them.
She starts to cry, which he hates, voice hysterical as she screams.
He clenches his jaw into that smirk that always makes her feel so, so small. The louder she screams, the broader his smirk, until her shrieks are reverberating through their flat and his smirk contorts into a hateful sneer. Any good feeling they ever had for each other is drowned in hateful accusations as they lash out.
He grabs a duffel bag from a closet and storms through the flat, grabbing as many of his things as possible. She follows him, crying, yelling, begging, pulling at the bag, but he pushes her away. The space of the flat seems to shrink until she feels like she is suffocating in his anger, finding herself gasping for breath.
She falls to her knees, everything blurred from her tears.
The last thing she sees before he slams the door is the black flame in his eyes.
Subito piano: the notes are meek now, and trickle down the keys in a twinkling chromatic scale.
Everything is so quiet, Natasha thinks, so peaceful when he’s not here.
She turns on the radio.
On the way back to his flat, Ivan buys some wine. He doesn’t mean to drink the bottle, but with her gone, there’s no one to share it with.
He falls asleep with stained lips, curling towards her absent form.
A month passes.
Natasha keeps finding things he left behind around the flat. She collects them in a shoe box under her bed: so far, she’s found 5 socks, a bow tie, and a framed photograph of him with his sister.
Sometimes, when he’s drunk and drained, Ivan takes out his phone and hovers his finger over the call button for her contact. But he’s never quite desperate enough to press it.
The next section imitates the beginning theme, but this time, I play it cleaner, smoothing over the mistakes I made at the start.
Like the first time, they meet at the park at dusk.
They sit across from each other on the cool grass, knees separated by a sliver of space, each looking at the ground, the sky, the trees, anywhere but at the other.
He clears his throat. “How have you been?”
“Fine,” she says, not looking up.
A tense pause.
“Well,” she says again with measured words “Not, like, great, but…”
“Yeah,” he interjects, because he knows what she is feeling, has been living with it for the past two months.
“I’ve missed you,” he whispers softly.
She meets his eyes.
“I’ve missed you too.”
A soft, calculated embrace.
The piece grows louder again, but faster and more controlled this time, before breaking like a wave.
They try again.
The shine from the first time is gone, but in a way, it’s easier: they both agree it was exhausting keeping up a constant facade of passion.
They no longer feel the need to prove how much they care about each other. Now, both are satisfied to simply exist in overlapping circles, to feel the other’s presence.
Their kisses are chaste but tender.
They no longer say “I love you.”
Two heavy bass notes, like a heartbeat, then silence.
From the outside, their relationship is in perfect balance. Friends tell them how jealous they are of Ivan and Natasha’s chemistry. Ivan is pretty sure his mother has already started planning the wedding.
So they smile, they hold hands, they pretend. When at home, they retreat to separate rooms. But pretending takes energy, and over time, both are too tired to hold on to the last wisps of their relationship.
When one day Ivan, from his end of the couch, shakes his head, gets up and gathers his belongings, Natasha doesn’t protest.
He meets her eyes one last time before he closes the door.
For the past six months I’ve played, listened, and thought about this piece. I have Ivan and Natasha’s story engraved on the tips of my fingers. But now, standing behind the curtain, I cannot recall the first notes. I try to drum it out against my thigh, but I can’t remember if I play the second note with my third or fourth finger. Only then I realize my hands are trembling, my palms wet. I wipe them against my skirt.
“Next, Ivan and Natasha by Aram Khachaturian, performed by Claire Wallen,” someone says, but it is as if I am watching this scene unfold through a window. The man on the stage is not calling my name. The “Claire Wallen" about to perform in front of hundreds of people is not me.
I can’t feel my legs, I can’t move. Then somebody coughs in the audience and I lurch forward, on legs that are not mine. The stage is illuminated, but the audience is draped in darkness, leaving only me and the piano. I seat myself at the instrument and position my hands above the keys. Inhale. Exhale.
With the coolness of the keys under my fingers, I start to play, and send Ivan and Natasha dancing across the stage.
About Deiana Hristov
For rising Gunn High School sophomore Deiana Hristov, creative writing can sometimes be a daunting endeavor. While it can be entertaining, its lack of rules also requires patience to navigate, which she isn't sure she has yet. Currently, she prefers the more straightforward journalistic style she uses in writing for The Oracle student newspaper to fiction's greater freedom.
That difficulty though seems to fit somehow with her short story "Ivan and Natasha," a tale about a challenging piano piece and a challenging relationship. The inspiration for the story, which placed first in the Short Story Contest's Teen category, originated during lessons with piano teacher Olga de Maine, with whom Hristov was learning a piece by Aram Khachaturian.
De Maine talked with Hristov about the the love story embedded in the notes of "Ivan and Natasha," which oscillate from harmonious to discordant in the piece. When Hristov was brainstorming ideas for short stories after a lesson one day, the story of this complicated relationship leaped forward.
The short story interweaves details about a narrator practicing the work with an account of the on-again, off-again relationship of Ivan and Natasha — one that subtly depicts the changing psyches of both lovers. In writing the story, Hristov said that she deconstructed the piece, playing one part and writing down what she thought was happening in that segment.
"To get inspiration, all I had to do was go and play the piece," she said.
The story's conclusion — where the nervous narrator fears she has forgotten the notes before her recital — comes from Hristov's own experience and anxiety about performing for large audiences. Though she has studied piano since elementary school, she said that for her it's more about learning and fun than competition.
Hristov noted that what makes Khachaturian's "Ivan and Natasha" challenging is that its strange combinations of notes often don't "sound right." When asked if she thought the piece was beautiful, she said that careful listening and a sense of its heartbreaking story lend the piece a special substance.
"In that way, it is beautiful," Hristov said. "It's a story without words." — by Sam Sciolla
From the judges ...
Beautifully woven piece — story and music; ambitious and well done; writer states "but playing the piano is like storytelling: the reading of the words isn't what's hard, it's bringing the words alive." The writer depicts a tricky relationship with accuracy and care. And it is a great idea — superimposing modern details on an old, old story.
Tjasa Kmetec | "The Skeleton Man"
Every morning on the way to work, I would stop for coffee at the same coffee shop. It was an old building, and the people that owned it did not try to hide that fact. There were visible cobwebs on the corners of the counter where you ordered. The brown wallpaper was peeling off, so that in some spots, an entire strip gave way to the moldy wall underneath. None of the tables were completely stable and could not be trusted to hold your coffee without a sudden wobble. The coffee itself wasn’t bad, though it wasn’t exactly good either. Despite the smell of dust, the place had a certain nostalgia which compelled me to stay loyal even though a Starbucks had opened up right across the street.
Every morning I would open the creaky door, and subject myself to the horrors that lay inside.
Every morning he was sitting outside. He sat on tattered cardboard that barely covered the cracked cement. He was always wearing the same ragged buttoned up shirt and dress pants. They would have been considered fancy, if it was not for many stains and holes that beset themselves on his clothing. His pant legs were in tatters at his skinny, pale ankles. His face was old and weather-beaten, his eyes had once been blue but were now a pale grey color. His skull was visible through his pale skin. His hair was in a few white wisps on the top of his head. No matter what the weather, he always had a raggedy wool blanket over his shoulders. He sat in the same position every time I passed by; hunched over his criss-crossed legs, moving his thin lips feverishly, but making no sound.
This skeleton man seemed noticeably out of place in the fast paced street.
I made no move toward him for a few months. Then one day, while I was walking out of the coffee shop (the name was never known to me), I turned my head tossing a strand of hair out of my eyes and caught sight of him, sitting in the same manner he always did. It wasn’t the first time I had seen him. But it was the first time I had really taken note of his ever-constant presence. I looked across the street at the new Starbucks that had just been built. There were others like him outside, some holding signs, others calling out in desperate voices. And then there were a few that, like him, sat quietly, seeming a bit out of touch with reality.
I looked back at him. He hadn’t noticed me staring. But then again he hadn’t seemed to take notice of me any time I had walked by. Feeling charitable, I walked back inside the shop and bought a cup of hot cocoa and a muffin. I walked back out and walked cautiously toward him. When I had reached him, I kneeled down right in front of him. I put out the hot cocoa and muffin in front of him. I tried to look into his eyes, but found that he was trembling so hard that I was having a hard time finding his eyes.
I stood up, cleared my throat, and said, “Enjoy.” I immediately regretted my sharp tone and cushioned my harsh statement by gently saying, “The muffin is blueberry, I hope you like it. My name is Elise, by the way.” I scolded myself for feeling bitter about him not acknowledging me.
With a new-found sense of self pride in myself, I turned away and started the walk to the office.
So this is how it went for a couple of months. I would buy coffee for me and something for him and then I would deliver it to him. It got so that sometimes I would stop and sit with him for a few minutes, often having a one-sided conversation (with me doing all the talking and him sitting in his usual way, making no sounds or remarks). He never talked to me or thanked me for my service, but every morning I would find the muffin wrapper, with not a crumb left, and the empty cup I brought for him the morning prior. I started to imagine that some of the color had started to come back to his skin, and that he was looking healthier than before.
One morning, I brought my best friend, Olivia, to the shop with me. I bought my usual coffee and also a biscuit and hot cocoa for the man outside. When she saw my load, she laughed.
“Why are you buying so much?” She asked curiously.
“You’ll see,” I said. When she looked at me questioningly, I laughed and grabbed my things and walked toward the door. Olivia followed. I opened the door with my elbow and walked toward the man. Nothing had changed today, he was sitting in the same way, his mouth forming silent words. I had begun to see him with a certain fondness. I looked back and saw Olivia with an odd look on her face. She was hanging back by the door. I motioned for her to come over. I gently put down the biscuit and cocoa, and picked up the remains of yesterday’s visit. I walked to the garbage cans by the curb holding them in my hands. When I walked past Olivia, she grabbed my arm. When I laughed, she looked at me and I saw her nervous expression.
“What do you think you’re doing?” She whispered. She sounded pretty spooked. Her tone scared me and I dropped the garbage.
I started but she cut me off.
“That man right there—” She pointed her finger at his trembling figure, “is where he is, because he deserves it. Don’t go spending your hard earned money on a hopeless case.” I stood gaping at her. I couldn’t believe seeing such cruelty in my friend.
“He’s a human being for god’s sake! How could you say that!” I raged at her.
“Just look at him, Elise,” She turned her head toward him. I looked too. A sort of guilt built up inside me, because I saw what she meant.
“I know it’s terrible to say, but just look at him! He’s insane! He doesn’t even recognize you, let alone thank you, for the kindness you show him! His life is spent already, Elise, you shouldn’t waste your time and money on him.” She looked away knowing how cruel she sounded. She had let go of my arm and was now standing with both hands clutching the cup of coffee in front of her.
“One of my mom’s friends, she did the same as you, she gave money and food to these people. But in the end, they robbed her, Elise! I just don’t want the same thing to happen to you!” She looked at me now. Her green eyes were piercing through me. I looked back at the man one last time. In that moment I wished that he would look up and turn his eyes on me. But he did no such thing. He did what he had always done, he rocked himself a bit and whispered to himself.
From then on I started going to the Starbuck’s across the street. I ignored them when they held up their signs or cried out to me. Sometimes I would look across the street and through the crowds of people and the morning traffic, I would catch sight of the skeleton man. But I always turned my head the other way and kept walking, no matter the uncomfortable feeling twisting in my belly. After about a year, I turned my head and strained my eyes to see across the busy street. He was gone. He and his hunched, trembling body were gone. His silent words were absent. The sitting cardboard was now scattered on the street. I looked down at my feet, allowing a moment for silent grief. Someone bumped into me from behind and I spilled my coffee on the ground.
“Watch where you’re going!” I heard a voice yell at me. I walked to the garbage can on the curb and absently threw my cup in the trash. I took a deep breath and continued to walk down the chaotic and cruel street.
Tjasa Kmetec's biography
My name is Tjasa Kmetec and I am a rising sophomore at Gunn High School in Palo Alto. I have always loved reading literature, but my English teachers in the past couple of years have really helped me develop a passion for writing and sharing my thoughts and feelings in a clear way. When I heard about this competition I was very excited and after reading a couple of the previous year’s entries, I wrote my story in one long sitting on the last day before the deadline. My inspiration for this story was the power struggle in the relationship between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” and the fact that the destitute are often voiceless. It distresses me to see the callousness in people and to find the same unkind attitude in myself. I wanted to explore the reasons behind this unkindness; is it fear, embarrassment or apathy?
Thank you for choosing me for this honor. I am very much encouraged by your recognition.
From the judges ...
A topic that has been much written about but this story is told with daring and surprise; great empathy even as protagonist caves in to another person's view; tough, but convincing resolution. The dialogue between friends is hard hitting and well crafted.
Catherine Vera | "The Myth of Apollonia"
Many have marveled over the tales of the almighty gods of Ancient Greece, awed by their superhuman strength and power. And yet little credit is given to the human citizens themselves, who — while not possessing the nobility of the gods — have accomplished much. But, when human pride is stretched into hubris, horrible things may occur. And so our tale begins.
Once in Ancient Greece, there lived a beautiful young woman named Apollonia. Many praised her for her beauty, but the maiden also possessed another gift: she could create the finest cuisine, seeming to almost manipulate unadorned food into beautiful arrangements as fair as herself. This skill increased her self confidence, and she prepared stunning and delicious meals day and night.
Lord Zeus, the mighty king of immortals, had heard the stories of the beautiful maiden who was also an excellent cook. Thus, the powerful lord sought out a meal cooked by the girl. However, Zeus knew that he could not show himself in his true form, else he would frighten the mortals, so he disguised himself as a human, as he had done on countless other occasions.
Upon meeting the girl, Zeus demanded she prepare him a meal. When it arrived, he was both immediately struck by her beauty and overwhelmed by the delicious food. When finished, he identified himself as King of the Gods and demanded that Apollonia immediately pack her things and accompany him to Mount Olympus to cook for the gods, for never had he tasted anything so mouthwatering. However, Zeus knew, based on past experience, that his wife Hera would greatly despise him bringing yet another maiden to Mount Olympus. Thus, Zeus pulled out from his golden cloak a black mask, and instructed Apollonia to wear it when they arrived at Mount Olympus, so as to conceal her beauty from the jealous wife. She was happy to go, as she had become so bold from receiving so many compliments that she truly believed that her place was among the gods.
Upon arriving at Mount Olympus, Apollonia was amazed to see the temple, in all its glory and wonder, embedded into the clouds. It was more majestic than any place on the surface of the Earth. Of course, no mortal could enter this exquisite place without the permission of one of the gods, and Apollonia felt that she was better than all other humans since she was being invited inside. She put on her black mask, just as Zeus had requested.
Hera, the beautiful queen of the gods, arrived, wearing a mesmerizing, pale rose cape. Apollonia took a deep breath; behind this lovely goddess was power and rage, contained like a ferocious lion behind the bars on a cage, contained but barely so.
Hera now spotted the mysterious girl accompanying Zeus for the first time. While immediately suspicious and outrageously angry, Hera was a bit relieved to see that the girl was simply wearing a single black mask, and had not been transformed into something as Zeus had previously done.
“My dear Hera,” Zeus quickly began to explain, “this girl that you see before you is not like any other—”
“And by that, Zeus, do you mean to say that she is not like the countless other maidens you have brought here?” the goddess interrupted.
“Do not fear, sweet Hera. The girl has been brought here simply to be a chef to the gods. After all, the food that she creates is truly exceptional — even you will be able to appreciate it.”
“Don’t you know that Hestia cooks fine nectar and ambrosia for us? Why do we need someone else to cook? I am sorry, but I truly do not understand. Hestia has no need of a helper.”
“What if I was to tell you,” Zeus continued, “that instead of being Hestia’s helper, this girl should be in Hestia’s place? Her cooking is truly finer that any of Hestia’s ambrosia or nectar...”
But now, Apollonia, who had been watching on the sidelines, saw that Zeus had gone too far. Hera’s normally calm sea-blue eyes burst into flames of fiery red, the low snarl in her voice rising to a growl.
“How dare you!” Hera shouted, furious, “I refuse to let some stranger take the place of a god! In fact, I order her to leave at once!”
“Hera, dear,” Zeus reasoned, “let us not be overly critical or harsh. There must be a solution or at least a middle ground...”
By this point, Apollonia’s mind was racing. She had to stay here on Olympus and prove herself worthy, and yet she couldn’t assume that Hera would be convinced by Zeus’ statements. Finally, she couldn’t take it anymore, or perhaps her strong character simply got to the best of her. Apollonia swallowed hard, and boldly addressed the Queen of the Gods.
“My queen, all that I ask of you is a chance to prove myself. After all, the lack of proof is all that is clouding your judgment. Let me give you the evidence you are missing so that you will be able to sincerely determine if I truly should be banned from this sacred mountain, or whether I should remain to become the supreme chef of the gods that I was born to be!”
“And what better way to prove yourself, fair maiden, than to hold a competition,” Zeus seconded, “so that we may truly be able to measure your skills against those of Hestia!”
Zeus’ word was final, and there was no debating anything further. Once Zeus had settled upon a plan, even Hera could not oppose him. Nevertheless, she remained appalled by the fact that her husband could consider such a preposterous idea.
After careful consideration, she decided to go along with the scheme, knowing that no mortal girl could ever cook food so wonderful that the gods would forsake the ambrosia and nectar that kept them immortal.
The competition was scheduled to last three courses, and commenced that very evening. Hera, now wearing a cloak of dark pink, told Hestia not to worry, and to just prepare her usual dinner. Hestia gladly agreed to the plan, since she was one of the nicest and most generous of the goddesses. In the past, she had even given up her own throne so that Dionysus could have a seat among the gods. Hera announced the first course. The gods were all seated at their own thrones, with an elegant table set in front of them. Athena, goddess of wisdom, knew that such a competition was foolish and unwise, but like all the other gods, she was curious to try the food that this mysterious stranger would prepare. The gods smelled the familiar scent of Hestia’s golden nectar floating from the hearth, but from the kitchen came a more intriguing smell. Apollonia appeared as the doors from the kitchen swung open, still wearing her black mask, and bearing a platter upon which a dozen bowls were filled with the most delicately-flavored refreshing broth. Dionysus, the god of wine, who was therefore the god who could most appreciate fine beverages, proclaimed that Apollonia’s soup was better than Hestia’s nectar, and all of the gods (even Hera) had to agree. Upon hearing this, Apollonia grew very proud and confident. She loudly proclaimed that she would surely win the contest because the main meal that she would prepare next was better than anything on Earth or on Olympus!
In reality, however, Apollonia had nothing prepared. Frantically searching through the kitchen, Apollonia opened every cupboard, and still found nothing. Finally, she decided to wander around the courtyard for inspiration.
Once outside, she followed a narrow path which led to a magnificent garden. Apollonia could not help but be taken aback by the place’s beauty. A small vegetable patch lay on the right, while an apple tree sturdily-grounded in the fresh earth rested to the left. Only now did it occur to her that this must be Hera’s own garden, and excitement began to boil inside her. Each plant growing within this garden must be of the highest quality imaginable!
A red glint caught the corner of her eye. Apollonia turned to face the plant, searching for the bright red she had seen. At first, she thought she’d imagined it. Staring hard, nothing looked out of the ordinary, just a sea of healthy, green stems and leaves growing against the wall. But Apollonia, never one to second guess herself, stared even harder. Crouching down, she lifted a delicate leaf — and the ripest, reddest tomato stared back at her.
Adrenaline pumping in her ears, Apollonia reached out a trembling hand. She glanced over her shoulder. She would need to be speedy and quick. The consequences of being caught prowling in Hera’s private garden were too severe. Heart racing, she spun the red globe counterclockwise and tugged. Finally, with one last determined turn and tug, the ripe tomato fell into her hands with a soft but triumphant thud.
She raced back to the kitchen, where she used the tomato to create the most perfect sauce for a delicious pasta.
“Perfect,” she muttered contently, a smile on her lips.
The masked girl served a meal that anyone would love. For this course, Hestia had simply chosen to chop the typical portion of ambrosia, and while it was delicious as it usually was, it could not compete with the divine flavors of Apollonia’s freshly prepared meal. Again, Zeus proclaimed that the main course prepared by Apollonia was far more enchanting than Hestia’s usual ambrosia. And once again, Apollonia, now filled with pride and courage, boasted that she would surely win the following and ultimate course, just as she had succeeded in the two others.
Hera and Athena now became very alarmed. Athena took the queen aside and told her that Apollonia could not be permitted to win the contest, for if the gods stopped eating their magical ambrosia and nectar, they would lose their immortality. Hera agreed that this must not be allowed to happen.
Meanwhile, Apollonia had been relishing in all the praise and success that had come with her pasta dish featuring Hera’s tomato. It quickly dawned on her, though, that she would have to live up to those standards, if not surpass them, if she was to win the final course.
And so once again, she exited the kitchen and made for the enchanting courtyard that lay beyond. In this final dessert course, she would need to repeat the success of the previous courses. Different ideas ran through her mind, only settling on the most exquisite of sweets: an apple tart, crusted with the most delightful cinnamon and sugar. The moist and tender treat would surely win over the gods.
She stepped into the courtyard, which was peaceful and beautiful as ever. A swallow sung quietly and gently from a nearby tree. Nobody was there, as usual. She stepped past a little bridge ornated with rose azaleas, and headed, not for the sacred garden on the right, but for the sturdy apple tree grounded on the left.
With none of the apprehension she had possessed while picking the tomato, she reached up and boldly plucked a single apple from the tree. Her eyes widened: this apple was like no other, as seemed to be the case with everything here on Olympus. It sparkled like a jewel, reflecting the sunlight. Enchanted by its beauty, she gracefully strode to the pond, knelt, and began to wash the extraordinary fruit.
Then it all happened. Fast.
One moment Hera had been nowhere to be seen. The next, she was standing in the gateway of the courtyard, her cape, now a terrible shade of deep purple, blowing violently behind her. The clouds closed in, becoming dark and heavy, and a flash of lightning followed by the boom of thunder signaled the start of a storm. Hera’s eyes were once again their fiery red, burning deep into her soul. The lion inside the goddess began to pace, its fury inevitable, drumming in Apollonia’s ears. The creature began to snarl, then growled, and finally let out a full-out roar, free from its cage at last. With Zeus absent from the scene and thus unable to contain it, the goddess charged at the helpless masked girl, another flash of lightning imitating her mood. A second later, she was standing above the girl. Hera, the almighty goddess, flung her hand back, the garden shaking with her wrath, and brought it down again on Apollonia, sparks igniting from her fingertips.
Apollonia opened her eyes. But something wasn’t right. The storm had completely vanished, the garden back to its original beauty. She had been cowering below the almighty goddess, but now Hera was nowhere to be found. Carefully, she bent over, looking into the mirror-like surface of the pond. The surface was blurry at first, but as she waited, the water became crystal-still.
In her reflection, she saw herself — but not quite.
Whiskers now contoured the sides of her face. As she stared in astonishment, more impossible things began to happen. First it was just the nearby flowers, growing slowly in size. Then it was the pond, the ground below her, and finally everything as far as she could see began expanding at an increasing rate, faster and faster.
“What’s going on?” Apollonia cried, panicking. And suddenly it hit her. “Nothing is getting any bigger, so I must be shrinking!”
Rushing over to the pond again, her hypothesis was confirmed. She reached out a hand to touch her reflection, then screamed. Where the pale peach of her skin used to be, gray and matted fur was sprouting, claws protruding from her fingertips. Her ears began to slide upwards to the top of her face where they became pointed isosceles triangles. Then a tail sprouted, striped with angry black, grey, and white. With the force she could muster she reached for her face and tugged at the black mask. With a last cry of desperation she realized it was too late. The black mask was permanently stuck to her face.
From that moment, the girl and her descendants would always be forced to wear a black mask, which they could never remove. They would never be able to eat any food unless they had washed it over and over. They would also have to scurry around at night, for they would be afraid to be seen.
In shame and disgrace at her seeing her new form, Apollonia scurried as fast as her new four paws would carry her and fled from Olympus forever. Since then, all of her offspring could never remove their black masks, and found they were compelled to always wash their food. Apollonia learned, just like poor Arachne who was transformed into a spider, that it was unwise to be too bold and to challenge the gods.
Catherine Vera's biography
Catherine Vera just completed the eighth grade at JLS Middle School in Palo Alto in June. She spends most of her free time either doing homework or practicing ballet. She is a student at the Ballet San Jose School and has also attended summer training programs at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, D.C.; American Ballet Theater in Irvine, California; and Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet in New York City. In the fall, she plans to attend the high school program at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, majoring in classical ballet. Catherine’s inspiration for this story is her lifelong interest in Greek mythology.
From the judges ...
This story is clever and fun. A mythically convincing explanation for the creation of Earth's best-loved creatures.
Judges for the Adult and Young Adult categories
A well-known, local fiction-writing teacher and coach, memoirist, co-author and developmental editor, Tom Parker is an O. Henry Prize-winning short-story writer and author of the novels, "Anna, Ann, Annie" and "Small Business." His work has appeared in Harper's and has been reviewed in The New Yorker. He has taught at Stanford University, the University of California, Berkeley, and Foothill and Cañada community colleges. His website is tomparkerwrites.com.
Meg Waite Clayton
Meg Waite Clayton is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of five novels, including "The Wednesday Sisters" and the forthcoming "The Race for Paris," to be published Aug. 11. She was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize, and her novels have been translated into languages from German to Lithuanian to Chinese. She's also written essays and opinion pieces for the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Forbes, Writer's Digest, Runner's World and public radio. Her website is megwaiteclayton.com.
Judges for the Teen category
Katy Obringer spent 22 years with the Palo Alto library system, which included serving as the supervisor of Palo Alto's Children's Library branch. Obringer also worked as an elementary school teacher for 10 years and an elementary school librarian for five years. Her love of introducing children to books continues in her retirement.
Nandy Etchemendy's novels, short fiction and poetry have appeared regularly for the past 30 years, both in the United States and abroad. Her work has earned three Bram Stoker Awards (two for children's horror), a Golden Duck Award for excellence in children's science fiction and, most recently, an International Horror Guild Award for her YA horror story, "Honey in the Wound." She lives and works in Menlo Park, where she leads an interesting life alternating between introverted writer of weird tales and gracious (she hopes) wife of Stanford University's provost.
Caryn Huberman Yacowitz
Caryn Huberman Yacowitz writes fiction and nonfiction books for children and plays for both children and adults. Her picture book, "I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Dreidel," was published last fall, was a Junior Library Guild selection and was named among the best Jewish picture books of the year by Tablet Magazine. Wearing 40 pounds of Victorian clothing and a wig, Caryn occasionally appears at The Farm as Jane Lathrop Stanford. Her website is carynyacowitz.com.