Bethesda Local Writers Showcase 2024 - The Writer's Center (2024)

High School Short Story Contest – 1st Place

The Coffee Shop
By Abigail Ott

Kendra checked her phone again. She had already been waiting 15 minutes for her date to show up, but he hadn’t even texted to say he was going to be late. She tried not to judge him. After all, he might have had an emergency at work and not had a chance to text her. She knew she dealt with emergencies often enough, though she always tried to text her dates when she was going to be late. She fiddled with her necklace. She had to remind herself why she was doing this. She needed to find someone who could support her as she fought for her people. She knew she needed someone ordinary to show people that Unalans could be loved and appreciated, not just feared and despised. She didn’t meet a lot of ordinary people in her day-to-day life, so she had gone on dating apps to find someone.

Kendra got up, restless, and went into the bathroom to check her makeup in the mirror. She looked pretty today. Her honey-colored skin glowed in the sunlight. Her glossy black hair was pulled back into a loose twist, but some shorter pieces had come out and framed her face nicely. Her eyes, which were naturally a red-orange color so bold they looked like they were aflame, were hidden under dark brown contact lenses, specially designed by a friend so that she could scan for U-rays, which were emitted by all Unalans, including herself. They weren’t always scanning, or she would be able to distinguish very little when she was with her friends, but by looking right at someone and doing a specific sequence of blinks, she could see whether or not they were Unalan. It was handy for days like today, when she wanted to get a read on someone without giving away her own position.

She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and went back out. Sitting down again, she took another sip of her coffee and glanced out the window, then back down at her phone. Still nothing. One of the baristas came out to give her a refill. “He stand you up, Kendra?”

“I’m going to give him a bit longer. Maybe he had an emergency or something. Thanks, though, Annie.”

Annie shook her head. “Always wanting to believe the best of people. I like that about you. How ’bout this: Every cup of coffee from now until he shows up or you leave is free.”

“But then I’ll never want to leave.”

Annie put her hand on her hip and looked down at Kendra. “Well, we close at 10, as you know, so you’ll have to be gone by then.”

“If I’m right, he’ll have shown up or texted me long before then.”

“We’ll see.” Annie shook her head again and moved off to another table.

Kendra smiled. She had been coming here for years, so she knew all the baristas and many of the regulars personally. She had had almost all of her first dates here, from the ones who had never shown up to the ones who had broken up with her after a few months because she “just didn’t prioritize their relationship” or she “worked too much” or they “felt like she was holding part of herself back” or something like that. A small portion of the regulars were guys who had fallen in love with the coffee shop when she had introduced it to them and kept going there even after they had broken up with her. She didn’t hold a grudge; she knew her job was demanding and had known from the beginning how hard it would be to find someone willing to put up with it. So far, she hadn’t been able to find that person, but she just kept swiping right and trying again.

She had finished her coffee and gotten a third cup before the bell on top of the shop door rang to announce Jered’s entrance. He was rather handsome: a tall white man with dirty blond hair and pale green eyes. As he spotted her and strode over, she scanned him for U-rays, but with a negative result.

“Kendra Mayfire?” he asked.

“That’s me,” she replied. “Jered Peters?”

He nodded and sat down. She expected him to apologize for being so late, or at least offer an explanation, but he didn’t even mention it. Not a good sign.

As they started conversing, she fiddled with her necklace—apparently unconsciously—drawing his eyes down to the amethyst pendant, but he didn’t react to it. Not a Friend, then, either.

She slowly and expertly guided the conversation, as she had done so many times before, until she could work in how something “reminded her of Janet.”

He naturally asked who Janet was.

“Oh, just a girl I knew in middle school,” she replied casually. “She was actually Unalan.”

The effect was immediate. His face darkened. His mouth twisted up in disgust. “Unalans.” He said it like a curse word. “They’re evil. Demon spawn come to terrorize us with their twisted forms and unnatural powers.”

Kendra went still. “You think so?” she asked, her voice icy cold.

“You want to know what I think? I think they should all be hunted down and killed like the monsters they are.”

Kendra had heard enough. This privileged, bloated white man was condoning the centuries of torment and fear that her people had gone through, championing the Midnight Massacre that had decimated their numbers and traumatized so many, spitting on the graves of brave heroes like Amethyst, Malcolm, her father, and so many others who had sacrificed their lives for their fellow Unalans. It was disgusting.

The fire inside of her flared, tingling invisibly just beneath her skin, as she started in a falsely calm voice, “Did you know that most Unalans don’t look that different from ordinary people?”

“What do you mean?”

“Most Unalans just have tiny differences: an odd hair color, sparkling skin, something that can easily be disguised with cosmetics or another little fix. They’re all around us, just living their lives.”

He was silent: half-confused, half-stunned. She smirked.

“In fact, you probably know at least one already. And they’re not trying to—how did you put it—‘terrorize you with their unnatural powers.’ Most of them are just trying to survive. And hunting them down? That’s already been tried. Multiple times.” She was standing now. “But it’s never going to work. You know why? Because there’s always going to be someone willing to stand up for their people, to fight back against the murderers.” She leaned forward, blinking twice quickly to turn off the tinting on her contact lenses and allow the fire in her eyes to shine through. “Someday, we’re going to have our own haven, a safe place for anyone in danger, where we don’t have to hide who we are. But until then, I, Kendra Mayfire, chief of the Unalans, am responsible for keeping my people safe from idiots like you, Jered, who want to hurt them.” She held her fist up, the back of her hand facing him so he could see some of the scars on it, and shot a spurt of fire out of the knuckle on her middle finger, which formed into the shape of a bird as it flared up. Then, she turned and marched out of the coffee shop.

+

The next day, Kendra returned to the coffee shop, a hood pulled low over her face so she wouldn’t be recognized. She had been practically yelling by the end of her rant yesterday, and she knew every eye in the coffee shop had been on her when she had stormed out. She had no idea what the reaction had been, so she needed to test the waters to see if she could keep going there. She was especially nervous because this place was so close to her heart and she didn’t want to lose it.

She paused outside the shop. They had drawn some new art on the window, which wasn’t very unusual as they changed it up regularly, but this art was different. It was a coffee cup with steam rising out of it, which wasn’t unexpected, but the steam seemed to be in the form of a phoenix, like the one she had formed with her flame yesterday. It was a good sign, but even better was the chalkboard set up outside the shop. It was always there, but since yesterday, someone had added some stick-on rhinestones in a little pattern on the top. It wouldn’t have been significant, but all the jewels were purple, like the amethysts all Unalans and their supporters, known as “Friends,” wore. It made her slightly hopeful, but it wasn’t enough to keep her from covering her face as much as possible when she walked in.

The moment the bell on the door rang, everyone in the shop looked up. It was more crowded than usual, as if all the regulars had decided that particular day and time to stop by. Most were wearing something purple, some more subtle than others, but all purposeful. As she went to the counter, they all went back to what they had been doing, but a lot of them nodded and smiled at her as she passed.

When she got to the counter to order, she noticed that two of the drink names had been changed. A cold drink made with blueberries that had been called the Ambrosia Berry Cooler Drink was now called the Amethyst Berry Cooler Drink, and a coffee drink with chile powder, the Warm Heart Spicy Latte, her personal favorite, was now the Phoenix Fire Latte.

“One of your usual?” the barista, Annie, asked, smiling.

“Yes, please,” Kendra got out her wallet to pay.

Annie shook her head. “It’s on us. Least we could do after your horrible date yesterday.”

Kendra noticed that her name tag was decorated with purple rhinestones. “Thank you,” she said sincerely. “It’s nice to see this much support.”

“Of course! Now go sit down, and we’ll bring your drink to you.” Annie nodded over to Kendra’s usual table, which, despite the unusual crowd of people, was free.

As she walked to her table, more people smiled and nodded at her. She was almost tearing up by now at the incredible show of support from this community. When the barista brought her coffee with a note of support signed by all the other employees of the shop, tears actually welled in her eyes. She had never expected this much solidarity from everyone. It was incredible.

+

A few months later, the coffee shop had changed even more. A lot of the decor was now in various shades of purple, and most of the drinks had been renamed things that had hidden meanings for Unalans. Even the coffee shop itself had gone through a rebranding. Where before it had been The Cozy Coffee Corner, it was now Rebirth Coffee, a change outsiders assumed was an effort to stay “cool” and “hip,” but was really an allusion to the phoenix rising from the ashes, which was how many Unalans viewed their people under Kendra’s leadership. The sign was even a phoenix made of steam rising out of a coffee cup.

The culture of the shop had changed as well. At Kendra’s suggestion, they had hired a new barista who could sense Unalans’ powers, and more Unalans felt safe coming to the shop because of her. Those regulars who didn’t approve of Unalans gradually came to feel that they were not wanted, so they found other shops to visit. The shop didn’t suffer from their loss, however, as many Unalans and Friends saw it on the internet, or just noticed it as they walked by, and, correctly interpreting the hints, realized that this shop was welcoming to those like them and started to visit regularly.

Kendra herself got coffee there every day, and the shop gave her hope. There would always be people like Jered in the world, people who hated and feared Unalans, but there would also be places like this, where Unalans could gather without fear, where they could come together in an actual community. She started to believe even more that her dream would one day come true. Maybe Unalans could get their own territory someday; maybe, eventually, people would stop hating them. But even if that didn’t happen in her lifetime, there would still be havens like this, where people could come together to love and support one another, and where Unalans could truly be free.

High School Short Story Contest – 2nd Place

A City Storm
By Syndey Tamashasky

The humid air consumed the city, smothering the skyscrapers in an oppressive heat. An angry breeze wrapped itself around the city blocks, causing trees to whistle and dogs to howl. Clouds crammed together in the sky, and the ground underneath darkened. Footsteps quickened, a new sense of urgency filling the streets.

Max watched out the townhouse windows as his father hurried home. Head down, pace quick. He watched others doing the same, their only concern reaching shelter. Averting his eyes from the sidewalk, he noticed the white-throated sparrow perched in a nearby crepe myrtle. Its eyes darted back and forth nervously as it fluffed its gray feathers. It hopped along the myrtle’s branches and watched the people rush by. Suddenly, the door burst open, snapping Max back to attention.

“Max? Linda?” called his father. “Anyone home?”

Max rushed to the front door to greet his father. “I’m home! Hi, Dad.”

“Hey, buddy!” His father ruffled his hair. “I’m glad you’re home, seems like it’s gonna storm real bad.”

Max’s eyes drifted back to the window and fixed on the desolate street.

“So, is your mother home?”

“She’s upstairs.”

The sound of his father’s footsteps echoed through the house before fading. Max scanned the branches of the crepe myrtle, but couldn’t pinpoint where the sparrow had gone. A strong gust of wind swept through the street, shaking the trees with such strength that the pink and orange leaves tumbled out, getting caught in the breeze and carried to the ground.

A young girl jogged down the street, her school bag slung over one shoulder and her jacket lifted over her head. The first drops of rain began to fall. Softly at first, then larger, and more frequent. With a loud crack of thunder, the clouds opened up and rain came crashing to the ground. The girl disappeared around the corner.

“Sounds like it’s started!” Max’s mother said as she and her husband walked into the kitchen.

Max’s gaze remained set outside. He watched in fright as the rain thudded onto the ground, flooding the street. The wind blew stronger and out of the crepe myrtle tumbled a small, soaking-wet sparrow. Max gasped. “Mom! Dad! Look!”

His parents glanced out the window.

“Looks nasty out there,” remarked his father.

Max stayed silent for a minute, watching the little bird try to stand. But the rain cascaded down, imprisoning the sparrow and knocking it to the ground. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the neighborhood stray, Yoshi, darting down the strip of grass next to the sidewalk. Yoshi’s paws landed in the dirt, coating him in a brown paste. He skidded to a halt under the sparrow’s tree, his fur dripping from the rain and mud.

The sky lit up as a bolt of lightning struck the ground. Thunder followed, a deep roar in the sky. The plants drooped with the weight of the rain. A loud crash sounded from the top of the street. Max turned to see the neighbor’s trash cans knocked over, with garbage spilling out and being swept into the gushing water.

“What are you doing, kiddo?” Max heard his mother ask.

“Can’t we go help? There’s trash everywhere and it’s terrible out there!”

His mother shook her head in dismissal. “No, we shouldn’t go outside. Besides, it’s not our problem. People will take care of it.”

“But who?”

“The trash collectors, fire department, whoever,” she said, just as a telephone wire detached from its pole, splitting the wood. It dangled in the air, tossed in every direction by the wind.

Max’s mother left the room. From the kitchen came his parents’ muffled voices.

“What’s up with Max?” asked his father.

“He’s just worried about the storm. Thinks we should do something,” replied his mother.

“Aren’t there people who take care of these things?”

“That’s what I told him.”

They shrugged it off. But Max watched as the clouds began to lighten. As they separated, a rainbow revealed itself. Max tugged on his sneakers and called, “Be right back!” to his parents.

He ran out the door, surveying the damage. He began to make his way to the tree, cautiously, so as not to slip. The door to the brick townhouse across the street opened, and Susie, a girl in his year, came out.

“Max!” she called.

He waved in response, his face scrunched in concentration.

Susie walked over to him and gasped. “Yoshi!” She scooped the cat up and ran her palm over his head until he began to purr. “I’m going to get him clean,” she stated, before turning to go back to her house.

Max lifted his head and realized that all the children on his street had begun to come out. Up the street, the twins were collecting the trash. The girl with the backpack joined them, trash bag in hand. An older boy was on the phone with the electrical repair company, and Susie was now on her doormat with Yoshi, drying him with a soft pink towel. Max smiled to himself and knelt in the mud. He found the sparrow chirping under a clump of wet leaves, cupped it in his hands, and lifted it up. He wiped the dirt off its wings and carried it over to his steps to dry.

The door cracked open and his parents stood there. “What’s going on out here?” they asked.

“It looks better!” remarked his father. He paused. “We would’ve helped if we’d known we could, you know?”

Max just shrugged and smiled at him. He looked over his shoulder at the children who had stepped up. Then he turned back to his parents. “We’ve got this.”

High School Short Story Contest – 3rd Place

The Arm-Wrestling Match
By Noah Grosberg

It was a very big day for the Birmingham Elementary third graders. Today was the day that Archie Wood𑁋a strong and pale boy, who was by far the most popular in the grade𑁋and Kirin Acharya𑁋a flimsy lad of Pakistani descent, who was quite shy, to say the least, have the famed arm wrestle that all of the children in the third grade had been waiting for, for over a week.

Last Tuesday, during lunch hours, all of the third grade (which was only 43 students) participated in an arm-wrestling tournament led by none other than the strawberry-blond, Archie Wood. The tournament had lasted for two days, with Archie Wood winning and winning and winning. Archie would prance around the linoleum floors of the cafeteria, flexing his biceps in triumph after each victory. Many of the other boys, and a couple of girls, would follow Archie from table to table, marveling at Archie’s brute strength and pulsating purple vein in his right bicep.

If you could not tell already, Archie was a very proud boy. He was proud of his strength. He was proud of his height, for he was the tallest in the grade, if only by half an inch. And he was proud of his golden curls which he said resembled those of Aquaman’s hair perfectly.

An arm-wrestling tournament was an event nothing out of the ordinary for the third graders of Birmingham Elementary, or any third graders for that matter. I’m sure you remember a time in your adolescence when everything was about seeing who was the fastest, the strongest, the tallest, and the smartest. This was no different for Archie and his classmates. Just a month before the arm wrestling, the third graders had raced from the football net to the jungle gym, again created by Archie and won by him. Although some whispered behind Archie’s back claiming he was too boastful and perhaps a little conceited, they could not deny the boy’s strength and brilliant ideas of fun.

So, Archie continued to win and continued to move on from one child to the next. However, Kirin Acharya was the only one who refused to participate in the tournament, but nobody really cared because he was so unpopular. That was at least until Archie had beaten 41 of the 42 other students.

On Thursday, Archie had strutted across the cafeteria, with his little gang of admirers following at his heels, asking who he had beaten in the arm wrestling. Of course, Archie knew, but it was just another way to assert his glory and show off to the girls. He was a king, a pioneer, an emperor, and Archie had just conquered the grade, at least he thought.

Archie went to every table and asked every child until he came to Kirin who was sitting by himself, eating a turkey and cheese sandwich on whole wheat bread, and reading a comic book about Spider-Man, a character he admired dearly.

Now, you must understand that Archie was not a nasty boy at heart. He just liked to get what he wanted. Pompous and overbearing, yes. Unpleasant at times, but Archie was not mean and nasty, at least not most of the time. This time, however, Archie may have crossed the line.

“Kirin, have I beaten you in an arm wrestle yet?” Archie said in an obnoxious tone as he tapped Kirin on the shoulder

Kirin, who was very surprised to be spoken to by Archie, just mumbled and stuttered. Kirin couldn’t think of the last time Archie had spoken to him. Why was he speaking to him now? Now, many of the other kids in the grade, in addition to Arhcie’s little gang, had gathered around Kirin’s table, watching him with scrutiny.

Kirin finally said quietly, “Uh..uh. I-I don’t know.”

“What d’ya mean you don’t know? We either wrestled or we didn’t,” Archie hissed, now starting to get annoyed. Archie didn’t have time to argue with someone so irrelevant and unimportant as Kirin.

Kirin just sat there and took a bite of his sandwich. Unfortunately for him, a bit of mustard had smeared onto his chin, and the other children snickered.

“Kirin, mate, have ‘ya lost your marbles? I think he has.” Archie jeered to no one in particular. Archie was a crowd-pleaser and his followers laughed at this.

“Answer the question, man,” Oliver, Archie’s best friend, shouted.

Kirin began to quiver and his almond-brown eyes started to water. Finally, Kirin looked up and said shyly, “I don’t think I have, but I really don’t want to. ”

“Bloody hell mate. Ya don’t have an option. I want to be the arm wrestling champion of the grade, and that means I must beat everyone in the grade, so ya must wrestle,” Archie roared.

“I said I don’t wanna. You’ve beaten everyone else. Isn’t that enough?” Kirin whispered. He looked up to meet Archie’s cold blue eyes. That look was as an answer as any.

“You must arm wrestle,” all of the children shouted in excitement.

A small tear grew at the bottom of his right eye. Kirin was about to lift his arm to wrestle when a voice rang over the intercom, calling Kirin to the office. Kirin was relieved to remember that he had a dentist appointment that afternoon.

Kirin quickly rushed from the cafeteria, but not before Archie yelled, “We wrestle after school, in the back alley next Friday. Ya better be there.”

When Archie got into his sister’s Ford Puma, he began to cry. It was only Maya’s second day back home from University for the winter holidays, and now her younger brother who had been so cheerful, since she arrived, was crying in her backseat. Maya asked Kirin what was going and Kirin told her the whole story. He knew he could always count on his sister to know what to do in difficult situations like this one.

“That conceited bastard,” Maya said aloud when Kirin had finished telling her the story. “Archie Wood…his brother was in my grade, Trenton Wood. Also a conceited and pompous bastard. He always pranced around in a turtleneck, boasting about his A-Level results.”

Archie had stopped crying by this point and laughed a little. He loved how his sister was not afraid to express her opinion about anything to anyone. He trusted her advice the most out of everyone, except maybe his parents.

“You know what you have to do, Kirin? You just gotta not arm wrestle him. Don’t give him the satisfaction of victory.”

“Hey!” Archie said defensively, “What makes you think I can’t win?”

Maya laughed. “You look like a stick, Kir. I’m not trying to be mean. It’s just a fact, but you’ll get bigger. You just gotta give it time,” she said not in a mean way, but rather lovingly.

Kirin hung his head dejectedly but knew it was true.

“I guess so,” Kirin said, “But then everyone will just make fun of me for wimping out. I don’t know if I can not do the arm wrestle.”

“It won’t matter in the long run. Nobody’s gonna remember this in a couple of weeks. Just trust me. Don’t give in. Don’t give that little bastard the satisfaction.”

Archie nodded but wasn’t so sure about what his sister had said. That kind of humiliation of backing down would certainly last a lifetime, he thought.

That night, Kirin decided to not take his sister’s advice. The embarrassment of not participating would be too much to bear. Anyway, he was the underdog. If he lost, no one would be surprised. He had nothing to lose.

Kirin spent the next week preparing for the match. He found his dad’s old resistance bands in the closet and did curls with them. He locked the door to his room and did pushups and situps on the carpet while listening to “Eye of the Tiger.” Kirin envisioned a victory and the shocked faces of his classmates when he pinned Archie’s hand to the table. Maybe, just maybe, Kirin could pull off the unthinkable.

It was now Friday, the fateful day of the arm wrestling match. A little wooden table was set outside in the grubby back alley, in the middle of two scraped stools. Soon, the bell rang, marking the school day’s end and the third graders dashed to the alley to watch the arm wrestling match. It had just rained only 30 minutes ago, so puddles filled the alley, but none of the children cared. Although their trainers would get wet, and although the alley smelled faintly of vomit, all of the third graders were there to watch the much-anticipated match.

Archie walked through the crowd of children grinning rather co*ckily. He had rolled up the sleeves of his uniform to his elbows, and now took off his tie and handed it to one of his friends. Kirin ambled about 10 feet behind Archie, eyes fixed on the wet asphalt. He had trained for a whole week for this moment but did not feel ready.

The boys took their spots on each side of the table, Archie with triumph already bright in his eyes and Kirin wearing a timid frown. Right behind the table, Oliver stood and procured a whistle, ready to referee the match.

Everyone leaned in with great eagerness, even though they knew that Archie was going to win. It was undeniable. Victory for Archie was inevitable. Bets were placed, and a few hopefuls placed a couple of pounds on the underdog, hoping to win big. But there was just no way that Kirin would win.

However, every person, whether they’re British or Scottish or Welsh, or even American, has a bit of resilience and internal strength that can be someone else’s physical strength. That was what Kirin was thinking at the very second before the match began. Kirin had read David vs. Goliath just the night before and envisioned himself as David fighting Archie. It could be a Cinderella story, like Luton beating Man City, Kirin thought as Oliver’s whistle pierced the air. He could do this.

Kirin and Archie gripped hands, biceps straining, and tried to force the other boy’s arm to the table. Each boy’s knuckles whitened in the strain of the moment.

“I can do this,” Kirin yelled in his mind. In a way, he felt he had won just being there.

This, however, is no fairy tale, and certainly not a Cinderella story. There was a brief struggle and Archie pinned Kirin’s arm to the table. The spectators cheered, and Archie stood up victorious. Kirin had been defeated to no one’s surprise.

High School Short Story Contest – Honorable Mention

Hydrangeas
By Juniper Sohn

I grew a sunflower in kindergarten for a class project. It grew and it grew and it grew in my backyard garden until it was taller than my parents. It loomed over my head until it was gone one morning. I rushed to my mother, swearing that someone must’ve stolen it. She took my hand in hers, and gently showed me its fallen corpse, buried in a flurry of tall grass. I couldn’t see it until she lifted up the head against the light coloring of my house.

I watched lavenders in my middle school gardens grow during classes. I loved when the rooms were right above them, especially if my seat was by the windows. As I spectated the small budded flowers spread throughout the grass, they slowly faded. By my second graduation, I had to sit by the edges of the wooden fence to see them. I don’t think anyone watered them enough.

I passed by the same bunch of flowers when I went to high school every morning. They were tulips. I could tell by the shape of their petals and how they fell around each other. Sometimes it was hard to tell how many there were. I saw four when I began high school. There were only two when I graduated. I found out there were actually six before I left for university. I never saw the others wither. Maybe they blended into the sidewalk.

I decided to grow an orchid when I went to college. It stayed perched on top of my dorm desk. I watered it every day and tried my best to take care of it. I liked orchids because they don’t blend in with everything else. They stand alone. My roommate and I were close then. Sophom*ore year, she knocked the orchid over while making out with her boyfriend. I couldn’t find it from the dirt it was lying in for a minute too long. I don’t like them anymore—the flower or my roommate.

In my second year of college, I decided to study art. My subjects were almost never people; they were predominantly flowers. Sketching was easy enough—just outline the shapes I’ve noticed since I could comprehend sight. Pointed ovals for the petals, thin skeleton-like cylinders for stems, and varying oval or circle shapes for leaves depending on the species. Painting was another thing entirely. The tones become muddy if I blend too much, the lines unsalvageable, colors sporadic and nonsensical. For some reason, this matured nicely into my signature, my style. A sort of abstract wonderland of colors that didn’t make any sense with the objects they were paired with. Suddenly, my paintings boomed, catching the attention of an art professor and his network. I wasn’t sure if this was a blessing or a curse, but I suppose, as long as I could earn good money, it didn’t matter.

I had earned enough after an especially successful exhibit when I moved out from home for the last two years of college and a few years after that. I bought a lot of plants and flowers for my new apartment. They took up half of the living room, next to my sliding glass door that led to a balcony of even more greenery. It was my own household museum. I was the curator. Dark, light, mid-toned, dark, light, mid-toned, dark. As long as this pattern wasn’t interrupted, I could see them. Each and every one. I painted them from a variety of angles and arrangements to later be displayed in my public exhibits.

I started seeing her three years after I started publishing my art. We met at one of my exhibitions of a collection that I’d personally attended—I enjoyed after graduation freed my schedule of rigorous school projects and exams. She loved my work, asking about where I got my inspiration. I told her the truth: my plants. I had seen other people before, of course, but they had gotten tired of my obsessions with flowers, my obsession with work. But she—she was obsessed too. The first night together I watched her skin contrast with the roses covering my bedroom wall. She was beautiful. She told me I was too, as her eyes stared into my soul. Did I love her? I forgot about the roses that night.

She moved in a year later. The boxes overcrowded the living room, fighting with my plants for territory. I felt shy about them for the first time then. I apologized for the cramped space. I was ready to throw the lilies out of my balcony. She pet my head, making my tidied hair into a stringy mess. I didn’t mind. She told me it was alright. She told me she liked it. She told me she loved me.

I told her I loved her the next Valentine’s Day. We had gotten rid of some of the plants. Not all of them, not even the majority. Just a few, to make room for our dancing at night, with the best records, spinning on our turntable, lights off, the moon shining like a disco ball. We went out for a dinner date. But it rained and we didn’t bring an umbrella, and the restaurant we wanted to go to needed a reservation and we didn’t know. It was a disaster. I told her I was sorry, probably a million times, but she only laughed, took my hand, and led me to the nearest floral shop. She told me to pick out a flower, any flower. I stood there for a while, taking in the various shapes and sizes, until I picked a potted lipstick plant. It looked whimsical—like her. After we bought it, we ran like madmen through the rain and to our apartment. She helped take care of it.

She asked me to marry her two and a half years later. It wasn’t exactly a surprise, but it was close enough. I suppose if you’ve been with someone that long, you’d know if they’re planning an engagement. She took me to my favorite floral shop the week before, and asked for my favorite plant. Hydrangeas. The colors change based on the soil’s pH. Purple and pink and blue, mixing like confetti and paint. They’re supposed to be beautiful, and when I explained this to her I told her that I wanted nothing else but to be able to see it. She looked at me sadly, then. So sad it was almost endearing. So, she bought me a hydrangea, and coincidentally, there was a jewelry shop on the way home from the shop. She begged me to go in with her. We looked through the rows and rows of rings. She was so fixated on them, I found it hilarious how serious she was taking it. I told her I liked one ring, with the metal brought up and shaped like petals around a small gem. She nodded vigorously. The next week she proposed to me in our living room as the sun was setting, bathing us in a vivid curtain of light. She opened the ring box and revealed the ring I picked out. I kissed her, smiling ever so softly. She pulled back, asking what my answer was. I noted a hint of panic in her tone, and laughed. Yes.

She gave me the glasses a year after we eloped. We got married in the local courthouse. After it was over, I asked her if it was really okay not to hold a wedding with a ceremony and a reception and months of planning. She said she was saving for something, and we could have the wedding later. What could have been so important to buy? It’s an investment, she said. Looking back, I feel a bit bad, but she knew what she was doing. I can’t really blame her. I can’t even blame myself. I can only blame the hydrangeas. She handed them to me in a box during sunset again, in the living room again, surrounded by flowers again. I asked if this was another proposal, and she laughed, telling me to just open it. I examined the shiny black leather, the gold letters that spelled “OSMO.” When I lifted the latch, I was confused. I already have reading glasses. I already have sunglasses. I looked up, and her hands were clasped under her chin, excitement exuding from her expression. She told me to put them on. Slowly, she cautioned. Hurry, she urged.

I saw her for the first time then. I saw her coral lips, peach skin, tan eyes with blue and green frilled around the edges, brown hair dyed a dark red with the roots grown in. I saw it all. Look around, she said. As I turned my head slowly, I took in the shades of green covering a fourth of the room, the bright yellow fading into a gradient of orange and pink and red scrambling through the window, the varying purples, blues, browns, yellows, reds, pinks, white, black. The shapes and sizes were suddenly unimportant, mushing together into a magnificent watercolor painting in my eyes as tears streamed down my face. She put her hands around my face to be parallel to hers. It’s overwhelming, I know. She was crying too. You’re beautiful, I whispered. We kissed and wept and loved each other; and when I woke up the next morning, I left her in the bedsheets to put on the glasses and face my hydrangeas on the balcony. One was green in the center and purple around the edges. The other transcended from swirls of light blue to deep shades of pink.

We held the ceremony six months after that. The venue was held outside in a fairytale-like garden, with bunches of varied flowers hung in an arch shape over the altar and stringed soft yellow lights following our guests and us from the thin, unpredictable ivy-green and walnut branches of the trees surrounding it. She went first with her father at the cue of the music, and as I prepared for my entry, I could feel my chest warm from the friction of my rapid heartbeat. I took a deep breath and pushed up my ironically black glasses to fit better over my eyes. I had to see all of this. I walked down a couple minutes after, by myself, over the stone path, never departing my eyes from my wife. God, she’s beautiful. Her ivory dress framed her in such a glorious manner, everything else ebbed away into the background as I got closer. I clutched my bouquet of vibrant, red-orange lipstick flowers, dripping tears while we read our vows and put our rings on each other’s fingers. When we kissed, she threw her bouquet, pulled my waist to hers, and met my lips with such colorful magic I knew then that I had surely been enchanted by her. As we prepared for reception, we walked back up the aisle, fingers intertwined. On the red carpet behind us, hydrangeas remained.

High School Short Story Contest – Honorable Mention

Protocol 7
By Kalina Peterson

An alarm blared across Creya’s consciousness, and she stirred, knowing what the sound meant, but not quite ready to acknowledge it.

“Time to wake up Creya,” whispered a slightly motherly voice, right in her ear.

Creya let out a small moan and stretched. “Ugh Lexie, why?”

“Umm, school? Remember?”

“Oh.” Creya promptly turned around and face-planted into her pillow.

“Creya,” Lexie said warningly. “Do I have to initiate Protocol 7?”

“NO! No, no no. I’m up, I’m up.” Creya thrust aside her covers and hopped out of bed. “See?”

Lexie laughed. “That’s what I thought.”

Creya glanced at the tiny device in her ear, which held her personal AI Lexie. She wondered how she’d gotten to the point in her life where a tiny AI got her out of bed and wide awake at the mere mention of Protocol 7. She had only experienced it twice since she’d gotten her iPro, and it was not something she wanted to relive anytime soon. Protocol 7 was an override program installed by the government, where the AI could take any measures necessary to have citizens keep the law. And since citizens were forbidden to remove the AI, Protocol 7 could get pretty ugly, pretty fast.

Sighing, Creya quickly made her bed in the military style her dad had taught her. Stomping over to her dresser, she plucked out a pair of black cargo pants and a gray T-shirt. Then she grabbed her green camo jacket, gaze lingering on the worn cuffs and slightly faded colors.

The jacket had once been her brother’s before he had been drafted for the war. He had given it to Creya when he had to trade it in for his military uniform. Creya hadn’t seen him ever since. She shrugged it on and sat on the edge of her bed, pulling on some socks.

Standing up, Creya walked down the stairs, grinning as she caught her first glimpse of the kitchen. It was decorated with pink and red streamers, and a banner that read “Happy Birthday Lia” was strewn across the wall. Two birthday presents sat under a triage of balloons, and a stack of pancakes sat right next to it.

Lia, Creya’s now 6-year-old sister, sat at the table gobbling down some pancakes.

“Happy birthday!” Creya said, sitting beside her sister and pulling up a chair.

“Thanks!” Lia said through her breakfast.

Their dad, Lieutenant Venten, strode into the room, his uniform immaculately pressed and clean. “Lia! Happy birthday.”

“Daddy!” Lia ran towards him. He caught her and spun her around, laughing. She giggled and he set her down, squatting down so he was at her eye level.

“Are you excited?” he exclaimed.

“Super excited. I’m one of the first kindergarteners to get their iPro!”

“I’ll bet you are. So, do you have any idea what—” He cut off and looked straight ahead, standing up. “Incoming call,” he muttered. “sorry.”

He brought a hand to his black iPro and switched on his mike. “Yes, sir.” He paused to listen to whoever was on the other side. Creya and Lia shared a glance. “I’m moving to a discreet location now, sir.”

He gave his daughters a quick wave before stalking off down the hallway towards his office.

​Creya boarded the school bus, choosing a seat near the front. She set down her backpack and, out of reflex, reached for the seatbelt, but then realized that it wasn’t there. After self-driving automobiles came out, the government made it mandatory for all vehicles to be self-driving. So, seatbelts weren’t needed anymore because car crashes became a thing of the past.

The bus started up and Creya gazed out the window, watching as apartment buildings sped by. Occasionally, she’d see a tree or two on the street, but nowadays, most gardens were on the roofs of the apartment buildings. As they sped by, Creya glimpsed multiple ads for the latest iPro model. War advertisem*nts littered the streets, each one motivating young men to join the army and fight for their country. Occasionally, Creya would spot a Wanted poster for Alan Cypher, the most dangerous criminal in the nation.

From what the wanted ad claimed, he was an abolitionist, and he had been terrorizing the country for more than four years. He was the leader of a group of rebels that had been fighting the government for years. The attacks had gotten worse as he grew up, making him smarter, stronger, and faster. The government tried to cover up the damage that had ensued from his attacks, but some were harder to hide than others. One time, Cypher had blown up an entire fleet of military jets and got away clean. The government was still scrambling to figure out how he did it.

His wanted poster seemed like some sort of joke. The picture of what he looked like was just an extremely blurred photo of him running. Nobody had been able to make out any of his features, so the probability of citizens identifying him was pretty low. The reward for information about him varied, depending on how useful the information was, but the reward for bringing him in was enough to feed any citizen for a lifetime.

Creya leaned away from the window and sighed. Hopefully, Cypher would be caught soon.

Hours later, Creya sat on a bench at the bus stop after school, waiting for the bus that wouldn’t come for at least another twenty minutes. Lexie was quizzing her so she could study for the history test on Friday.

“What did the 53rd Amendment do?”

“It made self-driving cars mandatory.”

“Good,” said Lexie approvingly. “How did President Miachels solve the American housing problem?”

“He signed the Vertical Housing Act, which required all buildings to be at least three stories high and have a basem*nt. It also cleared out a lot of rural land and replaced it with apartment buildings.”

“And?” Lexie prodded. “What else?”

Creya bit her lip. “Uh… it moved many farms onto rooftops?”

“Nope.” Lexie corrected crisply. “President Micheals ordered all of the—”

Lexie cut off abruptly.

Creya paused, waiting for the AI to finish her sentence. No audio came.

“Lexie?” She asked cautiously, tapping her iPro. No response. “Lexie, are you there?”

Nothing.

Creya’s brow furrowed. This had never happened before. The AIs never faltered. Confused, she tapped her iPro again. It couldn’t be broken, could it? And it couldn’t be an internet crash, all iPro’s ran on the government’s server. But why would the AI not respond? Creya couldn’t think of any plausible reason for Lexie’s disappearance.

Fear clutched at Creya’s throat. What if the government thought she had purposely disabled her AI? She could be thrown in prison!

“Lexie?” Creya asked frantically. “Where are you? What’s going on?”

Again, nothing. Creya racked her brain trying to figure out what she could do to get her AI back online. She didn’t dare take it out and inspect it, then she would certainly be breaking the law. The iPro didn’t come with a reset button, mainly because the government didn’t want people tampering with the device.

Creya glanced around hoping nobody else would realize that her AI was offline. But when she looked up, she was shocked. Time had seemed to stop. Everyone that had been walking purposefully to go about their business had stalled. Many stood still with confused and terrified expressions clear on their faces. And almost every voice seemed to be saying their AI’s name.

“Emma?”

“Mike?”

“Daniel?”

“Hunter?”

“What’s going on?”

“Layla?”

“Is this a prank?”

“Susan? Where are you?”

It slowly dawned on Creya that not only had her AI stopped working, but everyone’s iPro had seemed to crash. Nobody seemed sure what to do. The government had explained that, in an emergency, the AIs would explain what to do, or relay government messages to the public, so everyone was safe in an emergency. But the government had never explained what to do if the AIs crashed.

Creya swallowed nervously. What should she do? She couldn’t contact her dad, she couldn’t call for help, she wasn’t sure where the nearest safe location was, she didn’t know how to get home, she wasn’t even sure if the school was open so she could ask a teacher.

Looking around, Creya spotted yet another impossibility. The cars and trucks speeding on the road in front of her slowed, then stopped.

Every. Single. One.

Creya stood up to look at the road further ahead. Again, all the auto cars slowed, then stopped. The occupants seemed shocked. Automobiles never stopped unless they were at the desired location. Creya whipped her head around and stared at the street behind her. All the auto cars there had stopped too.

People slowly began filing out of the cars and buses, unsure what had happened. From the bewildered and panicked looks on their faces, Creya could tell that their AI had stopped working too.

Something flickered in the corner of her vision, and Creya turned, finding that all the TV screens showing ads were flickering. Some cut out into static. Others flicked back and forth from the ad, to a blank screen. A couple of gasps and shouts started. People pointed and whispered at the flickering screens, marveling at yet a third impossibility. Since when did TV screens all cut out at once? Then, suddenly all the billboards, all the TVs.

A teenage boy, probably a couple of years Creya’s senior, stood in front of the camera. He had dark brown hair and caramel eyes. His face was bloody and bruised, his nose crooked from what looked like a punch. He wore a black jacket with a singular white stripe on the sleeve. But most frightening of all, he had no iPro in his ear. Creya gasped as she realized who the young man must be.

Alan Cypher.

“Citizens of the US!” he cried. “My name is Alan Cypher, and, though many of you know me as a criminal, I want you to see that what our rebellion is doing is right! The government has been controlling you! The AIs, friends you trusted, monitor your every move, your every choice! You have no freedom. Your life is being controlled by a robot!”

“Your privacy has been stripped away the moment you first put on your iPro. The government has access to all of your legal and personal information. Our lead scientist investigated the device you all wear right now. It records every word you have ever said and sends it to the government. People of the US, stand with us! Realize that what the government has done is wrong and fight against it.

“This used to be a country of freedom and choice, where citizens had the right to privacy. Let’s make it that way again.”

Alan raised a hand, in it lay a black iPro.

“This used to control my life,” he said. Then he curled his fingers into a fist and smashed it, the CRUNCH of a broken iPro echoing across the streets. He looked straight into the camera. “Don’t let it control yours too.”

The feed cut out, leaving all the ad screens black.

The crowd stood in stunned silence.

Nobody seemed sure quite what to do. No one near Creya seemed brave enough to take the first step. Everyone either stared at the black screens in shock or glanced at the people around them, unsure how they would react if they decided to remove the convoluted device.

Creya’s mind was racing. Had it all really been a trick? Lexie had acted like her friend, but all along she had been sending everything to the government. Every message she sent, every call she made, every conversation, every minute of her life had been shown to people she didn’t know.

Creya felt like she could see clearly for the first time. How could she not have seen this? She had no control over life, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, the reason was a device she had willingly kept in her ear for eight years. Creya felt more afraid than she ever had in her life, yet somehow she knew that the decision she was about to make was the right one.

The lack of movement and sound seemed suffocating.

Her hand shaking, Creya slowly reached toward her iPro. Then it all went wrong.

Then the pain started. Pain she had only felt twice before.

Protocol 7.

It came in waves, each one more powerful than the one before. Creya cried out and tried to identify where the pain was coming from. She was tingling all over, like her entire body had fallen asleep. Each wave of pain was like an electrical shock. Then it began to fade, first in her head. Then her neck. shoulders, elbows, hands, hips, knees, feet. It was all gone. She was numb. She couldn’t move. The ground rushed up towards her and seconds later she realized she was lying sideways on the sidewalk.

She hadn’t felt the impact.

The noise sounded in her ear, loud enough to make her want to cry. Gunshots, train horns, doors slamming, trumpets playing sour notes, sirens wailing. Her head throbbed painfully. Tears filled her vision. She tried to blink it away, but she couldn’t. She couldn’t feel anything. Blobs lay on the ground beside her. Creya panicked as she realized they were the people who had been with her at the bus stop.

Protocol 7 had been initiated for everyone.

​Creya tried to cry out for help, but she couldn’t move her lips. She couldn’t feel them. Trying to stem her rising panic, Creya began counting the seconds.​ Seven hundred fifty-three seconds had passed when Creya heard a strange sound. Jet engines. Faintly, she heard a hatch opening and footsteps approaching. Ears straining, Creya tried once more to cry out for help, but it was in vain.

​The footsteps stopped a good distance away and someone sighed. “A shame, I know. But it had to be done.” the voice said. It sounded male.

​“Sir? What should we do with the bodies?”

​Creya felt a surge of hope. That was her dad’s voice! He’d see her and take her home. Relief washed over her, it felt like the first thing good that had happened in hours.

​“Send battalions to return citizens to their homes. Tech support is working on sending out a nationwide memory wipe, by the time the numbness wears off, no one will remember Cypher’s message.”

​“Yes, sir.”

​“Thankfully, we were able to trace the feed from the rebels. I’ve sent out troops to scour that area, they should be reporting back soon. Once I get that report, I want you to head to the area and see if you can find anything.”

​“Yes, sir.”

​“Good.” A sigh came again. “Truly a shame. But it had to be done, for the good of the country.” the man said.

​“Yes, sir.”

High School Short Story Contest – Honorable Mention

The Knight
By Naomi Bortnick

A bench. Black swirly armrests, long wooden braces holding up a man and his chess set. His name is Jason. He went to the park to play, with whom he didn’t know. Yet.

The sparrows sing; kites dot the clear blue sky; the flowers slowly open up to the start of spring. The pigeons peck at the crust of the sandwich that the children forget to eat. People laugh, people grieve, people live.

That’s what happens at the park.

He comes here every day, his place to think. To watch. To reflect. To learn. He’s at the age where there are regrets, but he doesn’t dwell. Life’s too short for that.

He brings the chess set, hoping someone will sit down and play. Like how he did when he was a child.

Like when he met Lance. The closest friend he’s ever made in his life.

But then he moved his rook too fast and lost him. Forever.

The old man closes his eyes, reaching for the familiar memory. Lance’s smile, a glowing rainbow on a rainy day. His freckles, dotting his nose and rosy cheeks. The old man remembers brushing each one, and with each touch, Lance would reward with a bubble of laughter.

He opens his eyes. A child is learning how to ride a bike in the park, her father running after her as she practices leaving the security of the training wheels. He is with her the whole time, won’t allow anything to happen to her. The old man remembers learning how to ride a bike for the first time. His father was also running with him, down the neighborhood road. He fell, scraped up his knee, tears spilling down his face. His father comforted him that day, absorbed some of the pain. Why did that have to change? His father wasn’t there for him later, not when he confessed.

Lance, his deep brown skin, wavy curls falling over his eyes. The man Jason loved, but didn’t disobey his father for. The man Jason kissed many times, but pushed away when his father pushed back.

The man Jason thought he was protecting.

They were in Jason’s room, talking. Playing chess. Laughing. One of Lance’s brown curls fell over his eyes, and Jason took it between his fingers and tucked it behind his ear. He kept his hand there for a moment, cupping Lance’s face, tracing his thumb over Lance’s dimple that appeared whenever he smiled.

Jason’s bedroom door opens. His dad barges in.

“Jason, I need you to–” Jason jerks his hand away from Lance’s face, but Jason’s father had already seen enough. Lance’s dimple disappears. Jason’s stomach drops; his heart rate accelerates.

“Get the hell out of my house.” Jason’s father’s firm, quiet voice rings loudly in Jason’s ears. Lance stands up and walks out, head lowered. Jason peers up at his father’s icy stare, his bottom lip trembling.

He shakes his head, jaw clenched. What his father whispers next stabs Jason like a sword.

“Disgrace.”

Jason curls up on his bed. His body won’t stop shaking, his mind won’t stop racing, his tears won’t stop pouring. He squeezes his eyes shut as his emotions swarm him like bees.

Each a painful, lasting sting that Jason will always remember.

A couple is sitting on the bench next to the old man. Their dog is running around, chasing after the sticks they throw. Lance had a dog. A big gray husky, icy blue eyes, always hyper. They used to walk her every morning before school started, even when they were forced to wake up before the sun rose. But after that day, Jason didn’t meet Lance outside his house anymore. Jason ignored the smile Lance gave when they passed each other. Jason would only steal a glance when no one was looking.

The old man sits on the bench, staring mournfully at his chess set. Someone else joins him. A hand moves a pawn up two squares. The old man looks up, and gasps. A familiar face, bright brown eyes, gray curls falling onto his forehead. Freckles dotting his nose and cheeks. Brown skin containing the wrinkles of old age, a bright smile.

“Your move, Jason.”

For more information on the Local Writer’s Showcase, please visithttps://www.bethesda.org/bethesda/localwriters

High School Essay Contest – 1st Place

My Two Worlds
By Hannah Brunick

I stare blankly at the mirror as she smears charcoal eyeliner into a wing on my face. She says the shape, paired with her ridiculously placed smudges of highlighter, will bring out the Asian in my eyes. I am a confounding collage of features: a biological representation of two cultures intertwined, yet they have never felt anything but separate.

My Western traits are admired by Korean aunts and grandmothers. They praise my large eyes and double eyelids. They paint me in the light of coveted American beauty. I did not feel this American beauty when I opened my lunch box and the other kids covered their noses. I did not feel this American beauty when they pulled their eyes back with their fingers and sneered, “Ching chong.” In these instances, I feel only the burden of that foreignness inside me. I am other.

I have my mother’s eyes when I smile; when my face is all scrunched with joy, people suddenly believe I hold some resemblance to every Korean relative I have. My sporadic moments of Korean beauty are hailed as a trend—an aesthetic. I do not feel this Korean beauty as I watch my culture become an internet fad, frequently fetishized to the point where I am disgusted to be myself. I do not feel this Korean beauty as I grapple with the ability to speak in the language of my family, nauseatingly conscious of the way I am allowing my heritage to slip between my fingers. Now, I fear myself in a different way. I am not foreign enough, just another uncultured girl amidst the ranks.

There is no question as to whether or not I have felt either side of this beauty. Undoubtedly, I have felt both, but I have yet to feel them on the same occasion. My two sides have always remained just that: distinct halves that cannot fuse.

High School Essay Contest – 2nd Place

Mortality and a Rainbow School Bus
By Sofia Guyer

There comes a point in your life where mortality extends its shadowy hand to claw something beloved away from you. This shadowed figure manifests itself in different ways—maybe the death of a childhood pet, or the passing of a grandparent. This devastating event permanently alters how you perceive existence. Although it robs you of a certain innocence, of a belief in a world free of suffering and mortality, it can mark a certain awareness in your life.

Although there are infinite literal ways to react to death, philosophical reactions typically fall under two camps. The first is the common reaction—the submission to nihilism, the insurmountable, crippling depression, and the loss of faith in the world. The second reaction is a choice to believe in the better parts of existence and look at loss as an opportunity to explore parts of the world they hadn’t appreciated before. I’ve witnessed my relatives experience both types, and the difference in how they’ve been able to continue their lives has been astronomical.

My Nai-Nai1 passed away in 2016. I watched as my Ye-Ye’s2 spirit seemingly died with her. The man I once knew as a hard-working, passionate, and considerate first-gen immigrant capable of making a life for himself in a whole new continent became a ghost of his former self. Even at the young age of 8, I could tell something was horribly wrong with my beloved Ye-Ye. The bags under his eyes became heavier, he lost weight from not eating, he rarely left the house, and most noticeably the light in his eyes was gone. He spent the next few years haunted by the death of my Nai-Nai. He hoarded old portraits, pictures, and books, and closeted himself away in his room. He fell under the more common category.

My grandpappy lost his wife to cancer in the summer of 2018 and he defined his life according to his conscious decision to live bigger and brighter than ever. He sold his house. He bought an old school bus and painted it rainbow. He took that rainbow school bus and drove it all over the country. He drove down the Pacific Coast Highway, across the Midwest, and after weeks, he arrived in Maryland, to the quaint pink house my family was nestled in.

I could see the age and traces of grief in my grandpappy’s face, but most prominent was his endless love for life. You could see it in his smile lines, his wind-ruffled salt and pepper hair, his effervescent blue eyes. Although he had lost the love of his life he had found more to live for. He found the quiet, holy moments on the road where it was just him, the wheel, and whatever was playing on the radio. He came to savor those moments of just existing.

My grandpappy fell under the category of embracing life—and he was much better off as a result.

High School Essay Contest – 3rd Place

Suture Your Future
By Ariana Miranda

I love needles. Their versatility is incredible. From creating vibrant designs out of piles of yarn to providing life-saving medical treatment, the power a simple metal rod holds is astounding.

Each needle I own represents a different phase in my life.

When I was 6, I was given two small pink knitting needles. During the summer my parents went to work so I stayed with my grandmother, Serafina; wherever she went I followed, and whatever she did I copied.

“¿Qué estás haciendo?”

( what are you doing?) I asked her

“Estoy tejiendo, ¿quieres que te enseñe?”

(I am knitting. Do you want me to teach you?)

Knitting requires using two or more knitting needles working together to create something out of yarn. My grandmother held my hands in hers and showed me how to knit. While she was cooking dinner, I would sit on her stool, and start knitting, just like her. When I was first learning, I would constantly ask for guidance and be terrified of ruining our creation. Row by row, we completed them together.

After my grandmother left America, those needles became meaningful to me. Whenever I use them, I am reminded of our time together. I remember the sound of metal rods constantly clicking against each other and the smell of her humintas—a Peruvian cornbread wrapped in corn husks—coming from the oven. It was truly perfect.

“Tengo dos agujas de tejer, uno para mi y uno para ti.”

(I have a pair of needles, one for you and one for me.)

Crochet needles and hypodermic needles are currently my most used needles. A crochet needle stands on its own, a singular tool used to create a diverse array of new things. I taught myself how to crochet during the global pandemic, when navigating a new and unknown normal, isolated from both friends and family. They have become a personal talisman of mine representing my growth and development from constantly depending on my family, especially my grandmother, to an independent teenager. Although a crochet needle isn’t alone, it’s independent and capable of creating so many things. While many people fear hypodermic needles, to me they represent healing and my future career path in the medical field. This powerful yet simple needle is used every day to save and protect lives, with vaccines, EpiPens, and more.

Suture needles are the needles that I strive to use in my future career. Only specially trained medical professionals can properly wield them. They literally put people back together with a needle while using incredible technique.

Needless to say, needles have constantly been a part of my life. They have been with me in the past, present, and hopefully the future. They have been a physical reminder of how I’ve developed as a person.

No matter the distance, I know my grandmother and I will always be connected through the needles she passed down to me, and as a first generation American, someday I will pass down needles of my own.

High School Essay Contest – Honorable Mention

Be Water, My Friend; But Also, Be Granite
By Winnie Chen

“Please remember what Bruce Lee said: ‘Be water, my friend!’”

At weekly flute lessons, my teacher often disapproved of my attempt to perform perfectly. Her philosophy was that to be a superb flautist, it’s essential to “flow” with elastic and ongoing motion. Yet the flute is also a highly responsive instrument that demands the opposite: control as intense as granite.

That paradoxical blend of water-like fluidity and granite-like solidity also applies to the creative realm. I’m both a classical and a jazz musician, and everything from cadenzas to improvisation requires a sophisticated mixture: of fluid spontaneity and interpretation combined with a solid base of knowledge and practice.

Playing a jazz riff, for example, demands solid knowledge of music theory so that I can invent magical sound creations that can develop in unexpected directions. Balancing those contradictory approaches of fluidity and solidity has been a challenge throughout my life.

In illustration, while growing up in Shanghai, I was a popular student who ate with different friend groups each lunchtime and always felt a relaxed sense of belonging: if my life then were a flute choir, it would be exceptionally harmonious.

However, when I moved to America just before high school, I slammed into a cultural granite wall. Indeed, while adjusting to my new school, I was so ashamed about my lack of belonging that I hid in the restroom for the entire lunch period, anguished day after day.

Therefore, my life felt like a staccato flute composition with lengthy and bewildering pauses. I was struggling to process no longer being the girl whom everyone knew and liked, but instead, a “Who is that?” Over time, though, I made many friends and attained a waterfall-like social life, but I still am processing differences between adolescence in America and in China.

Experiencing an intercontinental move had benefits, though. In the process of adjusting to a radically novel culture, I discovered my delight in making the most of any opportunity that flowed my way: eagerly navigating the challenging rapids of my new circ*mstances, rather than resisting them.

That’s why I began participating in parliamentary debate, where the topic is provided topic only on the day of tournaments. My impromptu speech skills transformed rapidly, and I’m proud that in just three years, I’ve morphed to someone who masters torrents of words: clearly articulating arguments, effectively refuting opponents’ points, and robustly affirming stances.

Lee’s advice about fluidity continues to serve me well in all aspects of life, yet he developed his thoughts further. He also claimed that water embodied the “very essence of gung fu” because no matter how fiercely he hit water, he couldn’t damage it. I’m determined to embody that contradictory position: fluid and open, yet concurrently so solid in my values that I cannot be harmed.

Consequently, my unique personal philosophy—after adjusting to life in a new country and thriving—is a twist on his guidance: “Be water, my friend; but also, be granite!”

High School Essay Contest – Honorable Mention

The Tarnish that Remains
By Joanne Fan

One day, I looked down and noticed the tarnish between the keys of my flute instead of its usual shiny luster. It seemed dull and lifeless. I can’t recall when it exactly happened, but this darkness continued to resurface relentlessly like an uninvited guest at my doorstep until I felt I had no choice but to let it in.

This darkness became my reality, and in this new familiarity, I found comfort. After coming home from school, I hurried to my bedroom windows, closing the white shutters that drooped lazily against slivers of scorching sunlight inching their way through. I collapsed on my bed, wishing to be forever held in the quiet embrace of my bedroom. Confined to my own little world of serene blue walls and childish clutter, I closed my eyes in an attempt to turn day into night.

As a highly sensitive person, I often feel deeply. Sometimes, it is as if I am being crushed by the weight of the world, the planets and the stars while I stand helplessly still as a statue. In my family, I feel so much like the odd one out that I entertain the thought of being adopted. While everyone else is driven and practical, I am idealistic and sentimental. I can shed tears over a line in a book, a song or someone sitting alone in a restaurant while my parents furrow their eyebrows in confusion.

The pandemic was one of my darkest times. But Wednesday nights as a flutist in my new youth orchestra changed everything. During rehearsals, our passion sometimes prevailed over our technique. My conductor called it a “beautiful problem,” his tone ever so optimistic. This phrase resonated in my mind, as even a positive adjective could be paired with a negative noun. Life isn’t simply black and white; we can choose how we perceive and react.

On the concert stage, I felt the sorrow, the joy, and the emotions in between. But here, they became my strength as I poured them into every note I played. Our passion radiated like a hundred hearts beating as one, and the music washed over me like a rainstorm after a year-long drought. The mouthpiece of my flute transformed into a mouthpiece for my soul. It grew into a vessel for all the words that go unspoken. Through music, not only could I heal myself, but I could also heal others.

My flute and I shone upon hospitals, senior homes, concert halls and classrooms in China. Laughter echoed across screens on Sunday mornings as I taught elementary schoolers, relishing conversations about cat allergies and Squishmallow collections while celebrating new fingerings mastered.

One day after practicing, I looked down at my flute. Again, I saw the spots of tarnish persistently nested between keys. I smiled. Like old friends, my flute and I have journeyed across brightly lit stages, towering concert halls and crowded warm-up rooms. Our scars don’t make us less beautiful; they brighten the joy that eventually comes after.

High School Essay Contest – Honorable Mention

Swimming
By Chelsea Zhu

Dedicated to father

The first time you take me swimming, I confuse your arms with a lifeboat. Believing I’m ready for the deep end, you let go and mistake my pleas for prophecy—you believe I’m born for the waves. Choking on chlorine, I try to scream your name. The weight of the water pushes my pulse out of my larynx. My body sinks. Seconds ago, you said, One day, this will be you—pointing to the swimmers wearing knee skins. Separated by a pool rope, I watch their freestyle kicks act like anchors. How they make these waters their cove of sanctuary. When you sign me up for swimming lessons, I swallow another wave whole—my stomach green.

***

During practice, I never complete the swim sets on time. Instead, I take turns with my friends to see how far we can swim down 13 feet. While I touch the bottom of the pool, the first time with my feet and the next time with my hand, I open my eyes. This is the first time I hear the ocean. Crescendos and decrescendos. For the first time, everything seems connected. Then, your face emerges in front of me. You shake your head, realizing the stroke you taught me to swim is my slowest. When I rise to the surface, I see the divers practicing their somersaults and twists. This pattern of jumping so high and hovering in the air in the tiniest moment—only to fall back into the water again.

***

If only I knew my skin would become a stranger to the pool.

***

It was all my fault. Please forgive me. Please remember all I want is to stop the water from digging into my body—too sore to climb out after all these meters. I forget about the evening swims—us two finding peace in the electric blue. You swim butterfly while I drift on my back, the sky shining over us. No matter how much I love drowning into the tune of the crickets and your lyrical splashes, I tell you I never want to swim again when you enter my room. This is when I burst out of the ocean, leaving my body behind—and you, engulfed in algae bloom.

***

I didn’t understand how I was not racing against other swimmers—but racing for a memory with you. Stuck in between two colliding waves, I’m castaway from your dreams.

***

Throughout the years, I remember you saying there are many concepts you can’t explain, you don’t know, and I think it is still beautiful if the oysters we find don’t have pearls inside them. The Earth becomes more forgiving when we find reassurance in the rock bottom. When we know that we can survive in the deep sea. I will swim back to where I left you. Today, I’m still waiting to discover what lies in these waters.

For more information on the Local Writer’s Showcase, please visithttps://www.bethesda.org/bethesda/localwriters

Adult Short Story Contest – 1st Place

They Did(n’t) Dance
By Bari Lynn Hein

1. They Didn’t Dance

This is Neil’s bliss: this restaurant, these people—his hardworking staff who fill the kitchen with the aromas of garlic and tarragon and thyme, his guests who fill Beaumont’s with the sounds of clinking and laughter and cheers.

He walks past inverted glasses glistening beneath candle chandeliers, past four tables covered in white linen and fine silverware, past a serving tray from which his headwaiter, André, is extracting steaming plates of coq au vin and boeuf bourguignon.

Nine times out of 10, when a guest has asked to speak with Neil Beaumont, it’s to pay the restaurant owner a compliment; Neil has no reason to think this time will be any different. He approaches table seven expecting to find it occupied by smiling strangers sipping after-dinner aperitifs; instead, he sees his closest friends, Will and Julia.

Will stands and extends a hand. “Dude!” The men are 48, but when brought together they become schoolmates again. They grasp one another’s hands and clap each other’s backs. Julia rises and reaches for a hug.

Eighteen years is a long time for Neil to be in love with his best friend’s wife.

Her eyes are two shades of brown, like cloves. She lowers her lids as she always does when her gaze meets Neil’s. Recently, since reading Julia’s latest novel—Pendulum, about a woman who becomes obsessed with her husband’s brother—Neil has wondered if perhaps his feelings are reciprocated.

“We’re celebrating tonight, dude,” Will says. “Guess who made the bestseller list this week.”

Pendulum?” Neil says.

Julia smiles. Her cheeks flush.

“This is huge!” Neil turns around and calls over to André. “Let’s get my friends a bottle of Champagne. On the house.” He holds out a hand like a game show host. “We have a bestselling author here.”

A few other patrons look over and make approving sounds. Neil didn’t mean to embarrass Julia. He knows how much her writing means to her. He knows more about her than just about anyone else, perhaps more than Will.

André arrives with two glasses and a bucket housing a bottle of Champagne. Will says, “Would you mind bringing a third glass?” He turns to Neil. “You have time to join us in a toast?”

“Of course.” While he waits on a glass, he wraps a napkin around the bottle and removes the foil seal. “So, any Hollywood buzz?”

Julia laughs. “No talk of a movie yet. I’m No. 16 in hardcover fiction.”

Neil twists off the bottle’s cage and releases a satisfying pop. “I read a review last week: ‘Manus has given us the word mastery we’ve come to expect from her, along with some raw honesty we did not know about.’ ”

Julia is beaming. “Good job memorizing that.”

“Way to go, Manus. You’ve got the whole package: word mastery and raw honesty. Do you have any idea how proud I am of you?”

“Hear! Hear!” Will raises his glass. “To No. 16!”

The threesome tap glasses.

They talk about the book, Will dominating the conversation, as usual, but showing no real understanding of the characters Julia created. Neil wonders if Will has even read Pendulum. He once confessed he hadn’t read any of Julia’s first four published novels. Maybe he will now that a bestseller list has validated his wife’s work.

“Tell me about Violet,” Julia says after she and Will have placed dinner orders with André. “What’s she been up to?”

Neil pulls out his phone, finds a recent photo that Siobhan sent of their 7-year-old and passes it to Julia.

“Oh, Neil, she’s gorgeous.”

“Gotta agree with you on that,” Neil says. Violet’s first sentence was: “Pick me up, Daddy.” The last thing she said, before he boarded a recent flight back east, was: “Do you have to go, Daddy?”

Julia has shared with Neil her regrets at never having had children. He sensed her longing whenever she was around Violet, during those two brief years his daughter lived under his roof, senses her sorrow now as she gazes at the little beauty on his cellphone screen.

When André arrives with dinner, Neil excuses himself. Later, he walks his friends out and lights a cigarette. Watching smoke curl toward the stars, his mind is consumed by a litany of what-ifs. What if Siobhan had never walked into his restaurant? Violet would not exist, so it’s hard to wrap his mind around that. What if Will hadn’t smiled at Julia first, hadn’t made the first move? What if, 18 years ago, when Neil Beaumont first laid eyes on Julia Manus, they had danced?

2. They Danced

Julia has always known she would end up here, on this section of sidewalk, standing in front of one of the biggest publishing houses in New York City, a tower so tall that the high-rises reflecting off its windows barely reach its midsection. She’s always imagined she would be preparing for an event like the one that awaits her tomorrow at noon, a reception honoring those who’ve received literary distinction in a national writing competition. What never occurred to her—at least not during the years of her youth, which seemed endless at the time but in retrospect passed far too quickly—was that the recipient of first prize in the category of original fiction would be someone who once fit into the crook of her arm. Julia is overwhelmingly proud of Katrina, who can put words together in ways that Julia has never been able to. She places an arm across her 16-year-old daughter’s shoulders.

Katrina wears a furtive smile; she already knows she’s headed for great things. So does Ansel, who is by now a block ahead with Neil, waiting to cross Broadway. Yesterday, outside the five-story brownstone that houses one of the country’s leading acting schools, Ansel stood with his head held high, his shoulders back, his eyes closed for a meditative moment.

When the family has cleared the crosswalk, Neil says to the kids, “You know where this pizza place is?”

They point down Broadway.

“And the theater?”

“We’ll be fine,” Ansel says, with ill-concealed impatience.

Neil kisses them on both cheeks, the way his own father used to kiss him. Julia hugs her kids and reminds them to send a text message when they’ve reached the theater.

Now it’s just the two of them. As Neil has reminded Julia recently, in a couple of years, both kids will be off at college and they’ll be alone all the time.

“So, what’re you hungry for?” Neil says.

“I’m not really hungry yet. Can we just walk a bit?”

They start to backtrack along Broadway. This time, as they walk in the shadow of the publishing behemoth, Julia is overcome by sadness. She sees her downturned lips reflected off the oversized sunglasses of a woman walking past. Car horns and a distant police siren play a suitable accompaniment to her melancholia.

“What’s on your mind?” Neil asks.

Julia tells him she’s fine and picks up her pace. Self-pity has no place here. She has no right to feel this way.

She and Neil are still in love, after 18 years. Their children are making imprints on the world. Their house is almost paid off. The music store that Neil inherited from his father still stands, and groceries will always be in demand, so Julia’s job as a supermarket cashier is secure. She and Neil can afford to provide for their children’s dreams, can even spend a few nights in New York City to celebrate their children’s accomplishments.

They’ve reached Rockefeller Plaza. Traffic sounds are now muffled by flags flapping overhead and by the trickle of a fountain down below. Julia leans against the wall overlooking dozens of pink umbrellas and thousands of pink flowers.

She sat at one of those tables in the plaza with Neil 18 years ago, shortly after they met, to celebrate her 30th birthday. They’d allowed themselves to imagine what it would be like to live in New York City. Neil would soon start training at L’Ecole des Arts Culinaires and pick out a prime location for his restaurant. Julia would get her foot in the door of the publishing industry as an assistant to an acquiring editor, a position her grad school adviser [SW1]had helped her to land. At night, she would write novels and eat gourmet meals that Neil had prepared. The last time they were here, 18 years ago, Neil’s father was still alive. They had no idea a child had been conceived.

Neil stands beside her now, stares at her, waits for an honest answer to his question. The sun makes his brown eyes look almost as golden as the statue of Prometheus just beyond Julia’s reach.

“You’ll think I’m the most selfish person in the world,” she finally says.

“Try me.”

The flags continue to flap. The fountain continues to cascade. Prometheus continues to shine. Julia cannot speak. Instead, she cries.

“Hey.” Neil wraps his arms around her and brings her head to his chest.

“In a year, Ansel will probably be going to school here,” she sputters.

“Right. I hope so.”

“And Katrina will be applying to colleges. She’ll probably be published by then, knowing her.”

Neil strokes Julia’s back. “I expect she will be.”

“And I’ll still be asking, ‘Paper or plastic?’ ”

A long pause follows, a long flag-flapping, fountain-trickling pause.

“And I’ll still be telling kids not to smack the cymbals with their bare hands,” Neil says.

“So where did we go wrong?”

“I’m not sure that we did go wrong.”

“I had dreams, Neil. I mean—I didn’t necessarily think I’d be a bestselling author, but I thought people might enjoy my books, and maybe be affected by them for a little while. And you thought people would be flocking into your restaurant, in this very city.” The sky has turned from cerulean to indigo and long shadows stretch from the skyscrapers across the cab-dotted, bus-blocked street. The flags overhead whack the air with intensified energy from a gust. “I feel like we wasted a lot of years.”

Neil’s been staring at her for several seconds, waiting for her eyes to meet his. “But we had fun.”

“Yeah, but—”

“No. Think about it. We had fun. Camping out on the bed right after Ansel was born? Taking the kids out on my Radio Flyer? Those backyard barbecues when Will and Pat would bring their kids over and they’d all splash around in the wading pool?”

“You made the best burgers,” Julia says, drifting for a moment.

“How ’bout reading to the children at bedtime?” Neil takes Julia’s hands into his. “How about the bike rides? And fishing and flying kites by the lake? Seems we were always detangling fishing lines and kite strings from trees.”

She gazes at the pink umbrellas surrounding the fountain and remembers 10-year-old Ansel as Oliver Twist singing “I’d Do Anything” with the little girl who played Nancy. They’d spun a pair of umbrellas across the elementary school stage, and for the duration of the song, had made the audience believe they were riding in a carriage. “I keep coming back to the elementary school plays, for some reason. Reliving those years.”

“We still have another year of school plays. And then who knows what lies ahead for all of us once Ansel comes here.”

For a moment, Julia envisions her son performing on Broadway.

“It was all so much fun and it went by so unbelievably fast,” Neil says. “Last September, at Back-to-School Night, when I introduced myself to Katrina’s English teacher, you know what she said? She said, ‘Aren’t you lucky.’ ”

“We are lucky.”

On the corner, a musician has unpacked a saxophone from its case. He raises his instrument to his lips and plays the first few strains of “What a Wonderful World.”

“It wasn’t just the kids who made the last 18 years fun, you know,” Neil says when the song is finished. “It was you, too. Whenever I’m with you, I feel—how should I put this?—I just feel right. Even when we’re mad at each other, I feel right. Does that make sense?”

“Yes.” Julia watches the water incessantly flow off the sides of the fountain. “We could’ve ended up with different people. We would’ve missed out on everything.”

“I think we would’ve ended up together, sooner or later. I think that’s just the way it was meant to be.”

She considers that possibility for a moment. Her sadness is dissipating. It’s hovering over her now, rather than pressing down on her. “Maybe burgers.”

“Burgers?”

“You asked me what I’m hungry for. Ever since you brought up those backyard barbecues—”

“Burgers it is.” Neil drops a few bills into the musician’s case and reaches into his pocket. Julia knows what he’s going for: the app that found them their hotel rooms, directions to the acting school, the perfect place for breakfast this morning, the show the kids are about to see. She doesn’t want an app to pick the restaurant where she and Neil will eat their dinner tonight.

“Put it away,” she says.

Neil slips his phone away, and wordlessly, they head toward the intersection of 51st and Fifth Avenue. Prometheus is illuminated now, as are the streetlights. The traffic signal turns green. Hand in hand, Julia and Neil cross over.

Adult Short Story Contest – 2nd Place

English Breakfast
By Naomi Louie

Every morning, Poppy makes tea. She puts the kettle on with just enough water for one cup—she hasn’t made tea for two in almost a year—and listens for its whistle as she butters her toast. Most days she takes it off the heat as soon as the water’s boiling, but some days she lets it go on and on until her ears ring, until it starts to sound like a voice of its own, filling the apartment with its shrill song.

Today is one of those days. She lets it boil for seven and a half minutes. It’s better than this endless quiet.

It’s been so quiet since Henry went away.

She spends those seven and a half minutes picking out a mug. It’s a tough call, but she finally settles on a blue one dotted with buttercups. She takes the wailing kettle off the heat and reaches for a teabag.

Poppy is a firm believer in the superiority of English Breakfast (but only when she makes it—Henry always over-steeps his tea). She’s tried 46 varieties of tea, from a pomegranate-rose rooibos to a smoky three-year-aged Pu-erh, but none of them compare to a steaming cup of Weatherby’s classic blend (an English import, smooth and refined, her mother’s favorite). She keeps the tea bags in an old Weatherby’s tin—the company’s cut costs in recent years, so they’re only sold in cardboard boxes now, but she always empties the boxes into the little copper tin on her kitchen table. Thirty-five bags per box. She buys another box on the eighth of every month, so the tin never runs empty.

But today, she peers inside and finds she’s taken the last one.

“Time to restock,” she says. Her words hang in the air, painted birds with nowhere to land. Suddenly aching, she addresses the tea bag instead, watching swirls of amber drift up as it sinks. “Poor thing. You must have been awfully lonely in there.”

She finishes her toast, grabs her purse, tucks her nicest cashmere sweater in the crook of her elbow. In the downstairs lobby, she checks her mail: a telephone bill, a book of coupons, this week’s New Yorker. No letter from Henry, and no news of him.

She squeezes into the sweater on her way out. It is September 15th, and there’s a chill in the air.

——————-

The 91st Street European Grocery is, as the name would imply, on the corner of 91st and Park, tucked between Silvio’s Fine Tailoring and Gold Fortune Chinese Restaurant. It’s 20 blocks away from the apartment, but Poppy doesn’t mind. She’s taken this pilgrimage a hundred times without tiring, each one different from the last. New storefronts, new people, new ink-black spots of sidewalk gum.

There’s nowhere else in the city she can buy Weatherby’s, not since the dingy little tea shop by the university closed. She had spoken to the tea shop owner at the clearance sale, a slender, crane-like woman with graying hair and a thick Oriental accent. My country is burning, the woman had said, busying herself with the jars behind the counter, a restless tremor in her voice. Everyone was restless then, the war still a silhouetted figure at the threshold, soon to step into the light.

Poppy had paid for a silver teaspoon with a hundred-dollar bill. Keep the change, she’d said, pressing the money into the woman’s hand. For your family.

Sometimes, when she prays for Henry, she prays for the woman too.

——————-

When she finally reaches her destination, her hands are cold and her knees are beginning to ache. She chalks it up to the nights she’s spent pacing around her living room until her feet grew sore, trying to ward off nightmares: gunfire and shadows and raw-faced, bloody corpses wearing Henry’s wedding band.

She steps into the 91st Street European Grocery, blinking hard to adjust to the harsh light. It’s brighter than she remembers. Larger, too, and cleaner, all gleaming metal shelves and freshly waxed tiles. The musty, spiced aroma of the cluttered aisles is gone, replaced with a strange sterile smell. No portly mustachioed man at the register. No wine racks. No Spanish ham.

“Can I help you?” says the lanky, mop-haired boy at the checkout counter. He looks about 20 or so, not much younger than Henry was when he proposed.

The memory strikes her like a blow to the gut—her dark-eyed darling kneeling in his best blue shirt, the top two buttons undone, taking her hand with impossible softness. She thinks of how he’d looked up as he kissed her knuckles, the gaze he reserved for her and only her, always warm around the edges. Then she thinks of the men she’s seen returning, all sunken cheeks and vacant stares. She thinks of the men who don’t return. The woman in apartment 408, wailing for her son, as a uniformed officer struggles to hold her upright. The twins, who play hopscotch outside the deli every weekend, left forever fatherless. And Henry, his brother’s dog tags slung around his neck, his mouth set with terrible certainty, turning away away away—

No. No. He’ll be home any day now. Any day now.

“Sorry, what?” the boy says, and Poppy realizes she’s spoken aloud. Her mouth is dry, and her breaths come quick and shallow. The light makes her temples throb. The quiet hum of machinery becomes a sudden roar.

She stumbles outside, head spinning, twisting her ring so hard it hurts. The boy calls after her, just barely audible over the panicked thrum of her heartbeat. She scans the street, frantic, searching for anything familiar, anything at all. There’s no Silvio’s, no Gold Fortune, no 91st Street European Grocery. Just her, adrift and alone.

The cool breeze makes her shudder. She sways, unsteady. The mop-haired boy bursts through the door just in time to catch her as her legs give out. His face looms close in her tear-blurred vision, but his voice seems to come from the far end of a tunnel. “Hey, ma’am? Hello? Are you okay?”

He’s warm. Solid.

God, how long has it been since someone held her like this?

“Hello?” the boy says again, jolting her out of her thoughts. “Can you hear me? Should I call an ambulance?”

Bracing herself against his arms, Poppy stands. She’s feeling better already, though her hands are still trembling. It takes her a moment to find her voice. “No, no. Thank you. I’m all right.” She blinks until the world comes back into focus. “Just a little dizzy.”

The boy frowns. “I can call you an ambulance?”

“That really won’t be necessary. I’d rather just go home.”

“Can someone come pick you up? Children? Husband?”

“No,” she says, sharp and bitter. She clutches the boy’s arm a little tighter. “My husband enlisted.”

“Oh,” says the boy. “I take it he didn’t return?”

Poppy’s stomach twists with sudden fury. She shoves the boy away, and he staggers backward, bewildered. “He will,” she snaps, turning to fix her sweater. “I know he will.”

Even to her, the words ring hollow.

The boy clears his throat behind her. “Ma’am? I, uh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you. I think you’re just a little confused. I’ll call you an ambulance, okay?”

“Thank you for the offer, but I don’t need one. I’m going home.”

She starts in the direction of the apartment, but the boy follows, quick as a foxhound and twice as eager. It’s no use trying to lose him—he’s tall enough to match her stride with ease, talking as he goes. “I really don’t think you should walk there.”

“I’ll be fine.”

“Ma’am. Please. It’s cold out.”

“Then go back to your nice warm shop and leave me alone.”

“Look, I’m sorry for what I said earlier. I just want to help, and—”

“I don’t need help!” Poppy snarls. It comes out louder than she intended—several passers-by across the street stop to gawk—but she can’t bring herself to care. She whirls around to confront the boy, a bit too fast to keep her balance. Before she can even react, he’s there, his hands on her shoulders, holding her steady until she regains her footing.

“See?” he says, bending to meet her gaze. His eyes are the color of fresh-brewed Ceylon green, light and piercing. She looks away, mortified. “You shouldn’t be out walking, ma’am. Especially by yourself. Please just let me help you.”

“I… I don’t want an ambulance. I just want to go home.”

The boy sighs, letting go of her shoulders. “If you’re absolutely sure, I’ll drive you. Just give me a minute to lock up. And don’t go anywhere. Okay?”

Poppy takes a long, deep breath, drawing the sleeves of her sweater down over her ring. A shiver runs through her. He’s right—it’s getting chilly.

——————-

Poppy and the boy take the shop vehicle, a small white junker of a box truck with QUALITY PRODUCE emblazoned on the sides, accompanied by cheerful, chipped paintings of various fruits and vegetables. The ride is brief and quiet, the low grumble of the engine broken only by distant honks. Poppy watches the city go by—brownstones, bodegas and boutiques all blurring into each other. The whole world trickling away.

“Is this it?” the boy asks, pulling up outside of her building. She nods, and he double-parks, putting his hazards on.

“Thank you,” she says. Her purse feels heavy as a boulder in her lap, but she opens it anyway, rummaging for cash. She comes up with a fistful of ones. “Here. Take these.”

He laughs, shaking his head. “No, ma’am. I couldn’t possibly—”

“Take them,” she insists, stuffing the bills into the cup holder as she zips her purse. “Consider it an apology for lashing out. I know you meant well.”

“I don’t need the money. Really. But—”

“Too bad. It’s yours.”

“But ma’am—”

“Thank you again, and goodbye.”

Wait!

Poppy stops, already halfway out the door, and glances back. “Yes?”

The boy hesitates. He’s fidgeting with the steering wheel, his slender fingers tapping along to the beat of the blinkers. “There’s nobody I can call for you?” he says at last.

A thousand memories of Henry flash through her mind: the first kiss they’d shared at the top of the Coney Island Ferris wheel, the way only his left cheek dimpled when he laughed, the drowsy good morning he’d whisper into her neck every time she woke up by his side.

But above all, she remembers that night. How he’d kissed her forehead and squeezed her so tight it hurt, his brother’s dog tags pressing against her skin, cold as the moon. How stark he looked in the hallway light, like a man carved from stone, the harsh line of his mouth unmoved by her tears. How she’d fallen to her knees and begged him to stay and he’d left her there, sobbing on the hardwood floor, her heart hollow.

“No,” she says, closing her eyes. Her wedding band feels like a vise. “Not now. Not anymore.”

“I could walk you to your apartment?” the boy offers. “Make sure you’re settled in. Even leave you my number in case you need anything.”

When Poppy looks up, he’s gazing at her searchingly. His face is softer than Henry’s, rounder in the jaw, but handsome in its own way. As he reaches toward her, a few stray locks of shaggy hair fall across his forehead. She’s overcome with an inexplicable temptation to brush them away.

The boy takes her hand carefully, like she’s made of paper, his thick brows knitting together with concern. His palm is smooth and dry against her own. “You don’t have to do this alone, you know.”

She could invite him upstairs and tell him everything. It’s commonplace for military wives to seek solace in the company of other men—frowned upon, perhaps, but not unusual. An abandoned wife makes a more sympathetic character than the wife of a draftee, of course. It would be only natural for the boy to comfort her, to let her melt into the warmth of his arms. And from there, anything could happen.

Emotion rises in her, shame and rage and aching loneliness all knotting together at the base of her throat. For one treacherous moment, she allows herself to want.

Then she pulls away and gets out of the truck. “I’ll be all right.”

——————-

The boy doesn’t leave until Poppy is safely inside. She waves goodbye from behind the glass door and watches him drive away. The truck grows smaller and smaller until it rounds a corner and disappears completely. As if it were never there at all.

In the downstairs lobby, she checks her mail: a telephone bill, a book of coupons, this week’s New Yorker. No letter from Henry, and no news of him.

It’s warm in the building. She pulls off the sweater on her way up.

Her tangled emotions have faded to a bone-deep exhaustion. It takes a couple of clumsy tries to unlock her front door—her fingers are still numb from the cold. She puts her purse on the kitchen table, then pauses.

Someone’s made her a cup of English Breakfast.

She takes a sip. It’s cold and bitter. Over-steeped.

Poppy sinks into her chair, hope sparking in her chest, startling her with the breadth of it. She raises the mug to her lips again with shaking, age-spotted hands, eyes trained on the door, and waits for her man to come home.

Adult Short Story Contest – 3rd Place

Ebony Hair
By J. Millard Simpson

It was deep winter the night the child came. If Grandpere hadn’t answered a call of nature, surely she’d have frozen to death.

“What is that? Is someone there?”

Was that a piece of dropped firewood? He squinted, and the black blur resolved not into bark but hair. It was a small girl.

Swiftly, he scooped her up and ran to the dining hut. The cook was abed, but the fire yet blazed for Sleipnir, down with fever in the sickroom behind. Kicking the cook’s assistant from his pallet before the fire, he placed the child as near the hearth as he dared. “Boil water,” he ordered, and went to fetch Axelrod, our carpenter and what passed among us for a surgeon.

I bunked near Axel, and when he went, I followed. The whole camp woke and crowded into the dining hut, craning to see the new arrival. Our din woke Au Jus, the cook, from his fetid nest in the storeroom.

“What’s all the racket, Hap?” he demanded, rubbing his eyes. I hate Happy, which mocks my scarred smile, but Hap I can live with. I told him what little I knew, and he grimaced, pushing forward toward his kitchen.

By now Axel had had enough. “Shoo! Back to bed with you! You’ll all hear in the morning. Go!”

So fierce was his aspect that we all left uncomplaining. Even Au Jus fled before his scowl, latching his door behind him.

+

Axel addressed us over breakfast. “We bathed her in hot water until she warmed. I think she’s safe from frostbite, and her breathing is regular again. Children often survive many things that would fell a grown man, but she’s so young, perhaps only five winters. She’ll need more care. I’ll stay with her.”

He was true to his word, nursing her while the rest of us went to work at the mine.

All day, we spoke together of the tiny guest fate had sent us. There were no villages up here in the high valley, and she was so small! She must somehow have made it through the pass despite the heavy snow.

“Perhaps she’s light enough to have come over the crust,” suggested Bosch, a stuttering, oft-silent German. Such was her effect even before she awakened that the most taciturn spoke freely. Only mute DuBois kept silent, though near enough to follow the discussion.

We marveled at her survival in the harsh weather and wondered what extreme could have forced her to venture here, deep in the Carpathians. We knew well what had driven us, though we didn’t speak of it: war at home, and the lure of easy wealth in this place the locals all feared.

We hoped she might be a sign of changing fortunes, a good omen long overdue. Six of our number had died this year, by accident or disease. Yes, there were fortunes to be made, but the price—! Yet now, perhaps….

After dinner, Axel told the assembled company he thought her out of danger. “Her cheeks are pale as snow, but there’s red in her lips now. I’ll sit with her in case she should stir.”

Eustace, the cook’s boy, was evicted for the night, and Axel set up a chair in his spot, feet outstretched near the hearth. Though exhausted, he would brook no other in his place. He was dozing when the last of us left the table.

+

Eustace found him the next morning when he went to start breakfast. He ran and got Au Jus, who sent him for the rest of us. White-haired Douglass and I arrived next.

Eustace brought the girl out into the main room and played with her while we tended to poor Axel in the back. He’d been found lying on the floor, a grotesque look on his face. A bitten apple lay nearby; perhaps he’d choked.

The child immediately took to the cook’s assistant, who talked softly with her and kept her by him as he prepared our breakfast. She stayed silent.

Ah, but Axel! I could not close his eyes, however hard I tried, and that grimace—

In the end, we covered his face with a cloth. To this day I think of him in the dark of his grave, eyes forever staring….

The winter had been brutal, and death had taken a third of our company. Axel, though, had been hale and healthy, and it came as a shock. We buried him in our small cemetery, breaking open the frozen earth with picks. Douglass, who’s older even than Grandpere, read a few words. Then we went off to work the mine. Sleipnir, though weak, was well enough to help, and Eustace now tended to our foundling. It was he who started calling her Bianca.

It was days before the wee girl recovered enough to be fully aware of her surroundings. She remained pale, with no roses in her cheeks. The only color in her face was the red of her lips, striking against the deep black of her hair. Yet she seemed sturdy enough.

I spent several days hiding my scarred face from the child, for fear I’d frighten her. Then, one evening at dinner, I looked up to see her standing by my table, staring. She reached her small hands toward my face, and I bent down to let her touch where my cheek had been cut through. When she was done, she nodded to herself, then climbed in my lap for the rest of the meal.

Bianca never did speak, though she had no difficulty hearing. I believed her voice had been frightened out of her. We learned through gestures that her father was dead and her mother had driven her away, young though she was. The least mention of her mother visibly terrified her, poor thing.

+

We were shorthanded, and every man was needed to work the mine. We’d assembled the Baron’s share of the ore, but now we needed as much again to cover our stake. Fortunately, Sleipnir was better, and the cook and his boy did double duty. Poor Eustace was unused to hard labor but did his best. Often, we sent him back at midday, worn out.

As the land was wild and untamed, we warned little Bianca to stay close to camp while we worked. Ever obedient, she did as she was bidden, and made herself useful by cleaning, carrying water from the stream, and performing such small chores as she was capable of.

It’s a strange thing, but sometimes the roughest souls can be the gentlest. Before long, her sweet nature had won over even the most antisocial among us—and our occupation does not drawthe genial. Stuttering Bosch sang lullabies, and DuBois the silent capered about and pulled comic faces to make her smile. Even scowling Grandpere, foul-tempered as they come, would have walked over hot coals for her. We found ourselves competing in small ways to please her, some offering a tasty treat, others carving small toys. In return, she bestowed on us her complete trust and the unconditional love of which only a child is capable.

We debated over Bianca’s future, worrying it between us like dogs with salt beef. Eventually, we decided to send her to the Baron with the first ore train. Our valley would be cut off by deep snow for weeks yet, though, so we gave her one of our barracks huts and crowded into the other two. The hardship was to us as nothing. She brought us such joy. She delighted in her own space, though she often left to be with her friend, the cook’s boy.

When Eustace died, she was inconsolable.

+

As with Axel, he was found on the kitchen floor in the morning, his face twisted with strong emotion. In his hand were the splintered remains of a hair comb he’d been carving, perhaps broken in a convulsion. Another grave was dug in the frozen earth as Douglass and I tended to his body.

“So young,” Douglass said to me. “Axel at least lived a full life, but Eustace… I don’t know, Hap, I really don’t.”

I was deeply grieved myself, but even so, I was amazed to see tears running down the seamed face of my old friend. We had become inured to loss these past months as our numbers steadily dwindled. Then I realized part of it was fear Bianca might be next—and of the unknown. Death without cause was a new terror.

We all talked after the burial and decided to post a watch for the next few nights. We had much to do and little time, but if something out there was killing our fellows, we had little choice. We would stand guard in pairs. Every man among us resolved to do with less sleep.

+

Open cliff-face mining is fundamentally unsafe, and we were pushing ourselves to make up for lost numbers. In hindsight, we should have expected it. One of our shorings, built without Axel’s expertise, collapsed, and Bart died outright in the rockfall. George and Corny were both badly injured. We did what we could, tending them in our sick room, but both soon succumbed.

All three were buried as soon as weather permitted. Again, Douglass said the words; again; we went straight back to our labors. Slowly, the ore piles grew, as did our profits, if such they could still be said to be. We’d paid a blood price for every rock.

In the beginning, we’d rested on the Sabbath, but now there was no time. The Baron’s man would come with the thaw to tally our haul, and without our pay, we’d never survive the summer. Instead, we took turns resting in camp to guard Bianca, preparing dinner while the rest worked the mine; for Au Jus was especially strong, and we could not spare him.

As the weeks progressed, first Dexter and then Ferdinand fell sick with a wasting ailment. When they could no longer work, they took to the sick room.

“It is some strega cursing us, sending poisons,” muttered Grandpere. “The child’s mother is out there, watching.”

We decided to search the valley, but that night the spring rains came. The cliff face that was our dig site flooded, and for better or worse our work was done. For three days the storm raged, and we stayed indoors, resting at long last. The morning of the fourth we went out in the mud to bury our fellows, both dead the night before.

+

Douglass stood once more at the stone that served as an altar, and read once more from our Bible. Bianca clung to the bier and cried freely, and so too did those few of us who survived. We had been 20 in the autumn; today we numbered but eight including the girl. The invisible specters of our absent fellows loomed large in our midst.

We had no warning at all. The child’s demented mother appeared as if from nowhere. She was soaked to the skin, frostbit, and dressed in rags. In her hand she carried a broad-bladed hewing axe.

Before any of us could react, she rushed into our midst, seized the girl, and slew her with one stroke.

+

Two of us bound the woman and locked her in the hut. She didn’t resist, a small mercy. She only wept piteously, her eyes wild and unfocused. So did we, grown men though we were.

Perhaps we should have hanged her as punishment, according to custom. Instead, we resolved to leave it to our betters, either Church or Baron. I think we’d all seen enough death.

Surely, this mother was mad.Looking at her, it was hard to imagine so slight a woman could have carried out such a brutal attack. Only that unnatural strength the insane possess could have driven the axe clear through her victim, burying it so deeply into the wooden bier that we’d broken the haft trying to remove it.

But was she the cause of the mysterious deaths of Eustace and Axel? Could the madwoman have somehow poisoned Ferdinand or Dexter? And if so, why had we seen no sign of her before now? We could make no sense of it.

“At least now we can stop standing watch of nights,” said Au Jus. I looked at him quizzically; he shrugged. “We’ve nothing left to lose.”

I could not argue with him.

Grandpere, weeping silently, did his best to make Bianca’s pitiful little corpse look presentable for her burial. Tenderly, he hid her wounds beneath cloth scavenged from coat linings and spare linens, tying a wide bow of scarlet ribbon to conceal the gaping wound that once had been her throat. The innocent beauty of her still form was a clawing agony, unbearable; yet bear it we did, somehow.

That evening we laid her out on a white bedsheet. On her chest, we placed the wooden cross from the storeroom door. Then we took turns standing vigil throughout the icy night.

The Baron’s man arrived with the dawn. Young, strong, and well-favored, he stood head and shoulders above the rest of us. By comparison, we looked soiled and uncouth; yet he treated us with respect. He listened closely as Douglass recounted the tale of Bianca, the child that had found us, the joy she’d brought to our miserable lives, and then her sudden awful death. He agreed to take charge of the madwoman and to see she faced justice for her crime before the Baron himself.

Then the lordling knelt with us in the mud by the small grave and sent up his prayers. He helped plant the wooden cross from her breast that would be her only marker. When the time came to lay her to rest, he bent over the small body to kiss her forehead.

At that moment a loud crash came from the shed where her mother had been imprisoned. While her guard was at the burial, she had burst free, and even now she ran toward the gathering shrieking. We stood still, watching as if transfixed.

Suddenly, the madwoman fell to her knees. Her eyes widened in horror, and she pointed. We all turned back and saw behind us what the mother had seen: tiny white hands reaching up to embrace the young nobleman as if his kiss had somehow miraculously returned her to life.

Then his body fell aside, life’s blood pooling on the muddy ground. The scarlet ribbon streamed away and up she sat, restored, her lips red with fresh blood and skin gleaming snow white against the ebon blackness of her hair.

Adult Short Story Contest – Honorable Mention

The Snallygaster
By Michael Norton

“A mummified turd.”

That’s what my little brother called it, but I know that’s just boy-talk and meant to make me squirm and squeal and toss our family treasure into the fast-flowing river where the cornhusks and animal waste and women go.

It’s a tooth. An ebony cuspid from the Snallygaster that has been in the family for years and years, and if I’m wrong then our father is wrong, and so is his mother and her father and his mother, and if you don’t defend your family, you might as well be a mud-scrapper outside the town gates, even if you’re defending it from your own brother.

And anyway, you can’t mummify a turd because a turd doesn’t have a heart or a spleen or lungs or a soul, and anyone who ever knew how to mummify anything is long gone and buried, their graves washed over and their stones, engraved with one of the great dead languages, stand at the bottom of the sea.

My brother just wants me to feel bad. I’m not sure why. I don’t think he really knows why either. Here are the things that I do know for certain:

One. That the tooth is a tooth and that it came from the gnarled maw of the Snallygaster.

Two. That I am not allowed on the hunting trip today, nor tomorrow, nor tomorrow’s tomorrow, and that I’ll “be ready when I’m ready,” which is awfully confusing and awfully unclear, and clarity is the soul’s true cry (I think).

Three. That I’m not a child anymore. I see the children of the town, and I’m definitely not one of them, though I was quite recently. I thought, back then, that one day I would magically transform into an adult, that I would be tall enough to look down on everyone, and be co*cksure and savvy and know about a hundred thousand things and have these marvelously stable opinions that would never bend or break like reeds in the wind but rather would stand unwavering, but instead I turned into what I am now, which doesn’t really have a satisfactory name, so I feel like some halfway creature, like the Snallygaster, just a bunch of mismatched components. I have to stand in the part of the river where the sandbars slow the current with the other women every month by the light of the mocking moon. No one ever confuses me for an adult. The Snallygaster has feathery wings, but no one ever confuses it for a bird; it has a scaly body, but no one ever confuses it for a lizard. Its tentacles don’t make it an octopus. Of course, living memory does not contain the beast. These reports and rumors of its appearances are older than the tooth that is 100 percent not a turd, and this tooth hung around my great-grandfather’s neck, so no, my great-grandfather who survived the end of mostly everything did not waltz around with a turd around his neck, thank you very much.

Four. I don’t have anyone to talk to about this, but if I did, they would appreciate the cool clarity of a numbered list because they would be like me. And no one is like me. And clarity, I think, died in the Flood.

The hunt is today. Hunt days make me feel small and worthless. I want to go. I want to be out there. I want to see the monster. I don’t, however, revel at the thought of holding the blunderbuss.

“Wouldn’t even fire if they tried. It don’t work no more, and anyway, they filling it with acorns and acorns isn’t bullets,” and on this point, I reluctantly agree with my stupid little brother. But Still: It’s a gun and guns are abhorrent things.

Getting eaten by the Snallygaster is an abhorrent thing too. So is having to wade into the river when no one is splashing or swimming, so are crimson eddies and how water sweeps away everything, and so is having to squeeze string-bugs all day instead of traveling to the edge of the known world to try—and heroically fail—to find and defeat the dreaded Snallygaster.

String-bugs are so sad and stupid, which is why I think I love them. Killing them for their strands of string is so awful, but no one cares but me.

The ways in which I’m like a string-bug: String-bugs are disposable little things with squishy pale bodies and hungry little mouths; they eat whatever is given them, and never ask for more or less. They never leave the town. Born indoors, they are squeezed by society and then left to die in a low boil to extract every last inch of the precious string that is used for everything from fishing nets to Sunday bests.

The ways in which I’m not like a string-bug at all: String-bugs have a purpose.

In the winter, when every other animal is smart enough to sleep. Instead, we, non-string-bugs, huddle in the hearth glow and whisper summer stories to keep ourselves warm. The adults in town get bursts of all-consuming boredom that blisters into either unutterable acts in the snow or arts-and-crafts. Last winter, it was the latter, and the collective energy of a people, of a people who have managed to survive after time stopped, after the world died, of a people of which I’m presumably part and parcel, created a statue to honor a bug. “The string-bug,” the Mayor’s speech started. I hate speeches so I left and didn’t hear the rest. Something about sacrificing ourselves for the greater good, I bet. The Mayor’s job is to give speeches and disappear for months on end; my job is to squish bugs.

The hunt is today, and I’m angry. My anger sits inside my throat, making it impossible to speak, so everyone enjoys assuming that I’m a daisy or the downy edge of a feather or a tiny pebble, taciturn. No one knows that I’m a forest fire, terrible heat and sound, and my throat is choked by blue-black ash.

I want to go a-hunting. Please don’t misunderstand me (she says to no one, she says to herself): I abhor violence. I abhor the blunderbuss and all its connotations and context, and I even abhor the acorns, though I know it’s not their fault. I abhor the looks on their faces: Martha Soot with her bandanna and blades, grinning; Albert Stone snarling, eyes forward like a picture of a tiger I saw once in a half-burnt book; Charity Lightheart licking her lips like a hungry cat; and my father with his straight little mouth and straight little gaze, a tight little determination to do today what his mother and her father and his father couldn’t ever do: find and kill the Snallygaster.

When the communal kitchen burned to smolders in the night, it was the demon-thing (and not the watchmen’s juniper gin and heavy eyes). When the rotting-egg rains blew in from the west and curled the leaves of the crops and stung the eyes of those unwilling to stay indoors, it was the demon-thing (and not the past). When sickness fouls the air, the demon’s breath is near.

We’ve never seen the demon-thing.

I want to a-hunting. I want to see the gummy stump where the night-black tooth around my neck once stood proud and shone in the starlight like an obsidian beacon before my ancestor ripped it from the mad beast’s mouth (or, at least, that’s the story I’ve curated for myself).

I want to rub it in my brother’s face.

See? Nah nah nah, you see it? The missing cuspid! How can you see something that’s not there?
he’d probably say in his sing-song voice. He is stupid but quick with comebacks.

After I squeeze my allotted bushel of string-bugs, I’m done for the day. I’m done for the day, and the sun is still rising, I’m done for the day, and the hunters won’t be back for weeks. One hunt lasted a month, and I’m done for the day.

I followed the path down to the edge of the forest.

“There is nothing beyond the edge,” a popular town adage. On clear summer nights, the light-showers explode and shimmer over where we all know other towns must be. Whether a warm invitation or a fiery warning, the light show is spectacular. Since there is nothing beyond the edge—except, of course, the hunting grounds of the Snallygaster—no one talks about the light-showers. Framed in the flares of many-colored fires, we all look up, and never into each other eyes. To do so would be the highest form of insult.

The hunters leave in the earliest spring, one step behind the melt line, hoping to catch the Snallygaster just waking up from hibernation, a vulnerable sliver of time. I’m watching them from the farthest point of my tether, invisible, tight as string-bug string. I’m bound here in the town that kept going after so much else ended. The hunters go on and on, and I’m jealous. I need to see it.

When I get like this, I clutch the tooth on its chain around my neck. It feels like a dagger. I don’t take it off anymore. After the anger often comes this shaking stillness, heartbeat in the tip of my toes, wobbling. And then a true silence, a true stillness, though without calm, without peace. I want to go a-hunting in the sylvan mist in the morning when the moon isn’t mocking, but rather beaming down an approving smile, a hymn for adulthood, amen.

The hunting party is gone. And the town has shrunk, collapsing in on itself like a bad redberry pie. The waiting is the hardest part. And I’ve been done for the day for most of the day, and the river fractals out to about a hundred thousand little streams, and the biggest of them winds its way past the edge of the town, and no one has told the water that there is nothing beyond the edge. The water doesn’t know that where it’s coming from and where it’s flowing to does not exist.

I dip my feet up to my ankles in theoretically impossible water, which is cool and smells like stone. I’m still in that state of sacred stillness after the rage of anger. It’s sacred because it’s mine and no one can take it from me.

Something moves in the bushes on the other side of the narrow stream, and I assume it’s a ground pheasant or a woodland rat. But it shakes the bushes too violently for me to be right. If I were to scream, I don’t think anyone would come a-running. I sit and wait for whatever it is to emerge.

I bet it’s my brother trying to scare me. I tell myself that over and over until I see a flash of scaly skin. Or, at least, I think I did. Lightening erupted in my legs and I ran home without looking back.

Home, holding the monster’s tooth against my body, I am breathing hard and heavy. I had to tell someone. I couldn’t keep this all inside.

So, I’m telling myself, the only one I can trust for now.

Adult Short Story Contest – Honorable Mention

Maria and Maria and Maria
By Silvia Spring

July in Boston was an ocean of heat that kept Mari indoors, on the couch next to the air conditioning, which hummed at a middle setting. Buses hissed down the street outside. Squirrels panted as they clawed up the trees by the window. She’d leave next week for a YMCA camp.

She looked at the dial on the A/C and thought of her mother leaving the apartment that morning. “If I find that thing on HIGH when I get home tonight,” she had warned. “I swear to God, Mari.”

Mari’s sixth-grade summer reading books, full of dull sentences that took her nowhere, lay on the table. She wandered in circles around the house, opening the fridge to its plastic-wrapped contents, eating a cup of Jell-O, picking at the hard stain of something spilled and dried on the carpet, and opening her mother’s closet and letting her hands run through her blouses, which stirred with the smell of perfume, a bitter orange.

In the back of her mother’s closet, behind rows of blouses and dresses and the rack of leather shoes with worn-down heels, three cardboard boxes sat stacked in the corner, “Perez” scrawled across them in permanent marker. Mari knew they held her grandmother’s things. Her grandmother, Wella, was, in her mind, both the old woman curled in a wheelchair, chewing her food so slowly that Mari couldn’t stand to watch, and the beautiful young one in the photo on her mother’s nightstand, posing in her wedding dress, an angel to pray to before bed.

When Wella died a year ago, Mari had tried to comfort her mother. She held her hand as she sobbed, the phone to her ear, hearing the news. The idea of losing a mother was terrifying to Mari. Like considering her own death, it opened a pit in her stomach. What could it feel like to be left behind without your mother, your only parent?

“Do you wish you could see her again?” Mari asked.

“More than anything,” her mother said. “I’d give everything for one more minute.”

Mari had grown up on family stories. Wella had been courageous, leaving Havana alone with her only daughter to wait in Boston for a husband who never followed. She left her life behind to create a better one for her daughter—and granddaughter. The sacrifices had been enormous, and Mari’s mother, Toni, reminded her of them, over and over, anytime her daughter complained about the bus that took forever, the gross food at her school cafeteria, her old sneakers.

“Think of everything Wella did for us,” she said. “Imagine having none of this. Nothing.”

Wella had earned most of the money that paid for the apartment Mari and her mother lived in, money Wella had saved for over 30 years working as a secretary in a dentist’s office. Her handwritten recipes for arroz con pollo, plátanos and flan peeked out of her row of cookbooks on the kitchen counter, recipes Toni never made. In death, Wella was a spirit larger than both of them, the one they prayed to for help finding lost keys, a parking spot, or passing Mari’s fifth-grade math tests and her mother’s nursing exams.

“Mami, Mami, Mami,” Toni would say under her breath, a prayer for whatever she needed.

It was Toni’s birthday, and when she got home from work, they planned to go to the Lucky Garden for pork dumplings and fried rice. Mari’s stomach rumbled. She wanted to do something special for her mother, a surprise better than a construction paper card, something that would get her attention, delight her, make her laugh, roll her shoulders down from where they stressed up by her ears all day. Mari wanted to show her that she wasn’t some demanding baby who needed to be scolded before she’d even done anything wrong. It was just the two of them—it had been since Wella moved into a nursing home—and Mari felt that she was growing up. She could be someone her mother could trust, lean on, even talk to.

The cardboard boxes peeked at her through the blouses. She bent down and slid them out one by one onto the carpet next to her mother’s bed. She looked at her grandmother’s wedding photo, in its silver frame, a rosary hung over its side, its wooden beads careful to overlap only over the train of the veil.

Mari had an idea.

She went back to her room to get the scissors from her desk. The tape cracked as she opened the first box to find a small blue vase wrapped in newspaper and a wooden cigar box full of paper cards, each decorated with its saint on one side and prayer on the other.

Dios te salve, Maria.

Llena eres de gracia.

Mari’s mother never spoke Spanish with her, so she couldn’t understand the words. She opened the second, which was packed with folded tablecloths. The third box had what she wanted. Inside a plastic cover with a long zipper, she could see its white lace and pearly buttons. She pulled it out by the hanger and laid it across her mother’s bed: her grandmother’s wedding dress, which Wella had always said would be hers one day.

Mari was named after her mother and grandmother, all three Marias. Her mother went by her middle name, Antonia, or Toni, and no one ever called Mari her full name either. She had curlier hair, a darker complexion, than both of them.

Mari was 11, still growing, but she couldn’t see how her short calves and round face would ever lengthen out into the graceful beauty her grandmother had possessed. There was a refined and delicate world her Wella had come from, a black-and-white Caribbean, that she couldn’t touch and even her mother said she couldn’t remember. It was lost, but maybe there was a way for Mari to bring it back, just for today, to show herself and her mother that she could be glamorous too. They were all so alike, the three of them, and wouldn’t it make her mom happy to see that?

Wella had a beautiful life when she was young. Married young to a handsome doctor, she lived in a white house near the ocean, with her own seamstress and fruit trees in the backyard. Toni remembered the mangos well enough to know that nothing in the US tasted nearly as good. And forget the guavas.

All up and down their sea-breezed block lived their extended family, Wella’s parents next door, sister and brothers, great aunts and uncles, all with names that sounded to Mari like children’s book characters—Tiki and Pollo and Chea and Juanpi—all of them dropping by for parties, games of tennis, drives for ice cream. Toni didn’t talk much about those memories, but all the photos mixed with Wella’s stories made Mari feel she had seen it, been there too and missed it awfully.

Mi Cubanita,” Wella called her, letting Mari sit in her lap.

“Make sure that media-Cubana’s gringa bones don’t crush you, Mami,” Toni had warned, always nudging her to give Wella more space.

When the revolution came, Wella and her husband had decided she should take Toni to Boston, where he had attended medical school, to wait safely until it passed. Wella got a small apartment she paid for with the cash she had snuck out, rolled up inside a pack of cigarettes. They had only a few suitcases. It was supposed to be temporary.

But they stayed long enough for Wella to realize her daughter’s braces needed attention. She made an appointment with a dentist she found in the phone book, and when she couldn’t pay the bill, offered to work in the office organizing the files she saw were obviously a mess. The dentist laughed and accepted, not imagining she’d stay with the practice for decades, long after his son took over.

“What about your dad?” Mari asked, and her mother would shrug. There were rumors. He was in Mexico. He’d run away with a nurse from his practice. She heard things from her cousins.

“I didn’t need one, and neither do you,” her mom always said. Toni had never married and said she never would.

But Wella didn’t stop hoping her husband would arrive. The buzzer on her door read Dr. and Mrs. Perez until the day she moved into a nursing home. She never moved her wedding photo from her dresser. She was buried with her rings.

Mari unzipped the plastic cover and ran both hands over the dress’s bodice. Sequins spiraled all over the lace, hand-sewn in a pattern that narrowed at its waist. Its sweetheart neckline, rounded like the top of a pair of lips, felt stiff in her hands, its delicate piping yellowed. As she lifted it, layers of the tulle skirt unfurled under the silk. When she moved her hand, it left behind a red Jello thumbprint. She hoped her mother wouldn’t notice.

Mari checked the clock: it was just after three. Her mother finished her shift at the hospital at four, so she still had time. She stood in front of the full-length mirror and took off her clothes, staring for a moment at her white cotton underwear and training bra. Sweet Nothings, the tag said, which had made her mother laugh and laugh at the department store.

She turned the dress around looking for a zipper. Instead, a line of silk buttons ran down the back, each a delicate knot to be undone. She wiped her hands on her mother’s bedspread and got to work. Each loop a thin thread, several burst from the seam as she tried to untangle them, but she made her way carefully to the bottom, where the skirt began, and she saw with relief that she would likely be able to fit it, snugly, around her waist.

She put it on as she did all her dresses, over her head. She got lost in the skirt several times, its dusty citrus smell caught in her nose, but finally emerged, as if from underwater, and patted the fabric down around herself, smoothing it like sand.

In the mirror, there was too much dress. The hem tangled around her feet, and she saw that in several places it had torn slightly, despite her extreme care. The bodice hung loose, and she realized there was no way for her to button it up behind her back. She swiveled it around and did as many as she could, breaking a few more of the gentle loops, until she got to the top. She was pleased it wasn’t too small but now realized the two cups where her breasts should be were empty, sweet nothings. She walked carefully in half steps to her mother’s sock drawer and took two pairs, balled them up, and tucked them below her neckline. Perfect.

Back in the dress’s storage bag, the veil tied to its golden comb lay wrapped in its own layer of tissue paper. She raked it into the top of her head.

Her reflection looked back at her, a doll in costume. She wouldn’t be able to move very far without the dress shifting down her body, making her trip, or the socks wriggling out, but she didn’t look awful. She looked, actually, good. And how amazed her mother would be, to see Mari in the dress she prayed to every night. She’d laugh, of course, and the silliness of this unexpected vision, but then maybe she’d help Mari do her make-up, her hair, to complete the look. She’d send a picture to all her cousins, like, Can you believe this kid?

Mari looked back at the photo and tried to recreate Wella’s modest pose, her head tilted down over her left shoulder, eyes closed, her right hand resting gently on the silk of the skirt.

“Mari, what in God’s name?”

She opened her eyes to her mother in the doorway, home early. Sweat stained small circles under the armpits of her scrubs. Flowers leaned against the inside of a paper grocery bag, a present to herself. She dropped her purse and put both hands to her forehead.

“I wanted to surprise you,” Mari said, less certain, “for your birthday.”

Her mother looked around the room, to Mari’s shorts and T-shirt on the floor, the open boxes, and the Jell-O container on her dresser.

The sun leaned hard against the windows, the day nowhere near over. Sweat tickled Mari’s back, somewhere deep under the buttons she would never reach.

“What have you done?” Her mother asked, even though Mari had just told her.

Mari didn’t answer.

Her mother spoke slowly. “Take that dress off. Immediately.”

Mari thought her mother might help her, but she didn’t move. Instead, she stared at Wella’s photo, the most beautiful bride, in the pose Mari could never match.

Mari twisted the back of the dress in front of her chest so she could get to work undoing the tiny loops. Her mother moved toward her and ripped the dress apart down its middle, sending the buttons flying in arcs like grains of thrown rice, a few tapping against the mirror before landing on the rug.

“Not even on my birthday can you give me one day of peace, one day for me,” she shouted into Mari’s face. “Do you have any idea what this dress meant to your poor grandmother?” She pointed to the framed bride, who looked solemn now, frozen in her place.

Mari shook her head. “Wella said this dress was for me.”

Her mother’s eyes had followed the small shower of buttons on the floor, considering the mess, before she looked at Mari again. She shook her head.“There is nothing for you in that dress,” she said. “Mami had a terrible life. The selfless forever wife with no husband. Pining for someone who abandoned her. That’s no way to live.” She slapped her own chest, jolting the gold chains around her neck. “I’m not raising a daughter on some romantic tropical fantasy, so you—” She punched Mari’s chest with her finger, again and again. “You don’t even think about it.”

Mari stood in her bralette and underwear; the veil still light on her shoulders. She reached up and took it out carefully, handing it to her mother, who tossed it on the bed.

“Go take a shower,” her mother said, quietly. “With soap. That dress was filthy.”

In the bathroom, Mari looked at her own reflection, stripped back down to her bra, the temporary magic of the dress, and all the promise it had held all those years that she imagined it waiting for her, gone. She stepped toward the shower and felt something under her foot. It was one of the silk-covered buttons. She squeezed them in her hand, a small piece of Wella she could keep for herself. +

When Mari looked again, days later, the boxes were gone, broken down and thrown out. Her mother’s sewing kit was in the living room, maybe a sign of mending. Mari searched for the dress under her mother’s bed and in the hall closet, hoping to see it and touch in one more time, but she couldn’t find it anywhere. She had wanted it to be hers and now it was gone. Months later, looking for bobby pins on her mother’s dresser, Mari found two silk-covered buttons inside a small ceramic box, like pearls inside an oyster. She took them and hid the three surviving buttons together in her room, where she hoped her mother wouldn’t find them.

Adult Short Story Contest – Honorable Mention

A Surprise Visitor
By Karen Sandler

He sat on the edge of my bed with one long leg flung over the other, appearing bored while slowly stroking my dog, Lucy. She looked so relaxed I thought she might be dead. His frigid red eyes gave him away, although it took me a minute to bring him into focus. He’d woken me up, after all.

“What have you done to my dog?” I asked.

“Oh, silly girl! I could hardly gain your confidence by killing your precious little dog. I like her name, by the way. You named her after me, didn’t you? She’s just blissfully happy. I have that power, you know.”

He had luxuriously thick, curly black hair that hid his horns pretty well, so I didn’t see those until later. I didn’t notice his tail at all until he made his exit. I’m not sure how he hid it since he was dressed in black skinny jeans and a black long-sleeved turtleneck. He wore red Chucks on his feet with black laces, the ultimate hipster, excruciatingly handsome. Even the pinkish scales on his hands didn’t diminish his appeal.

“You’re not what I expected,” I said, still trying to rub the sleep from my eyes.

“It’s that dratted Bram Stoker and those inane New Yorker cartoons,” he sneered. “I have never greased back my locks or had a widow’s peak. In fact, my hair does whatever it likes. I couldn’t slick it back if I wanted to.”

“I know the feeling,” I said, amazed at how calm and safe I felt. In spite of the evident power of this creature, I still felt as though I was in control.

“You know,” he sighed, “I find this aspect of my first introduction to someone exceedingly tedious. I must always endure this weighing of my appearance against expectations; but you are a quick study, my dear. That’s clear.”

He produced a very long, curved ivory toothpick, curled back his upper lip, and began picking his teeth. He took it away and leaned toward me to display his perfectly white, dazzling teeth. “See? No fangs, either. People have a particularly annoying habit of confusing me with Dracula.”

“Wow,” was all I could say.

“So, let’s focus on you. Having quite a lie-in today, I see. It’s already noon! Rough night?”

“Don’t you have omniscient powers or something? I suspect you know all sorts of stuff about me already, don’t you?”

He rolled his eyes and shook his head in exaggerated exasperation. “I’m not here to give away the secrets of the ages for nothing, you know! I can answer all your questions, but I want something in return.”

How insidious, how dastardly, how fiendish was this? He was just going to pique my curiosity to the point where I would fall into his trap. This was clearly his playbook for English majors who couldn’t resist a good yarn—and dangerous territory for me. I’d have thought he was just going to offer me something I’d do anything to get, but no. He must have known I am particularly lacking in ambition, and so another tack would be required.

“Well, as much as I’d love to know why you’re here and what you want with me, I most want you to go away. Besides, I’m an atheist and I don’t believe in an eternal afterlife, heaven and hell, and all that stuff.”

He let out a terrific laugh, right from his gut. It wasn’t one of those horror film cackles at all; it was infectious, the kind that makes you smile in spite of yourself. “Ooooh! I love a challenge, my dear. Besides, true atheists are quick to work with me because they believe they have nothing to lose, so I’m game. Okay, I’ll give you a tidbit, because I know you’ll find this fascinating, and it’s clear to me you have a quick and curious mind.”

“Flattery will not work, okay? So just go away.” I was starting to feel less self-assured.

“I am an opportunist. I have my broader, long-range goals but I don’t have a detailed schedule. I’m not a glorified project manager after all. I can only visit someone when they are in the throes of sin, as you are today. Look.” As he had with the toothpick, he produced an object out of thin air and showed it to me. It looked like a gleaming onyx iPad, with a glowing red gauge in the middle of it. ‘Sloth-o-Meter’ was encrusted in rubies under the gauge, and a sparkling needle in it jumped wildly back and forth, especially as he brought it closer to me.

“Oh please!” I protested. “Sloth is a victimless crime. This is the 21st century if you haven’t noticed! Everyone is overwrought all the time. It’s ridiculous! I think some occasional sloth is healthy—everybody thinks that whatever they’re doing is so vitally important, and most of it is just bullsh*t! We need a little sloth from time to time to recharge and get our priorities straight. I think it can be a virtue.”

He arched one eyebrow, looking at me as he tilted his head.

“That’s my girl!” His eyes glowed a little redder and that radiant smile spread across his face. “And it’s Friday. You called in sick today. Are you sick? A little untruth thrown in with your sloth?”

“Things must be really tough for you if this is the best you can do. Aren’t there millions of people out there with murderous thoughts or dreams of world domination?”

“I have my minions to handle those. They’re just too easy. Even I can’t be in more than one place at a time, although I do have a bit more flexibility with time management. But let’s not digress. What about that report your boss wants on Monday? If you get fired, you’ll wish you hadn’t blown me off so quickly.” He glanced down at his perfectly buffed nails at the end of his long, tapered fingers. He obviously thought he was making headway.

“Was that a threat? Because if any of my literary instincts are correct, you have no power over me unless I crack. And I would think that would extend to the hard drive on my computer, so I can get that report done this weekend without any help from you.”

“Getting testy, are we? As I noted, you are a clever one. It’s true that I cannot crash your computer, but you haven’t even heard what I have to offer.”

“I don’t want to hear it. You can hang out here all day and it won’t matter. ‘They also serve who only stand and wait,’ and all that,” I yawned.

I must have hit a nerve because the corners of his mouth fell and his eyes became hooded. And then I understood—John Milton! He probably had the Bible quoted to him all the time and he could refute all that. But Milton, that’s another story. I spoke:

“’The mind is its own self, and in itself

Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n’

“Are you actually quoting that odious little prig Milton to me? You impudent sluggard!”

“Sluggard?” I laughed. “You are showing your age! And as for Milton, I may be a sloth, but I’m an educated sloth, and I did my senior thesis on Milton, so there’s more where that came from:

“‘He who reigns within himself and rules his passions, desires, and fears is more than a king’”

“This is beyond wearisome,” he said, stifling a theatrical yawn of his own. (Does he even sleep? I wondered.) “I thought you and I could have had a little fun together, but you are such a bore! Well, I’ll grant you your wish and leave you now, and you’ll never know what my offer was to be. You are correct. I do have some very impressive powers, one of which is to know what you really want better than you know yourself. So just put that slothful, little head of yours back down on your pillow and try to imagine the opportunity you missed. Adieu!”

With that, he sprung up from the bed, causing Lucy to jump. She and I watched as he disappeared into a foggy mist that had spontaneously appeared at the foot of my bed. The last thing I saw was a flick of his pointed tail.

I felt smug, believing I had cheated fate. I stretched and snuggled back down into the covers. It was only one o’clock in the afternoon. There was nothing pressing to attend to at the moment.

Still, I wondered what he could possibly have offered me that would have been so tempting….

Lucy settled back down and rolled over on her back so I could rub her tummy. She turned her head toward me, and I could swear her big brown eyes shone with a newly acquired reddish glow.

For more information on the Local Writer’s Showcase, please visithttps://www.bethesda.org/bethesda/localwriters

Bethesda Local Writers Showcase 2024 - The Writer's Center (2024)

References

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Manual Maggio

Last Updated:

Views: 6134

Rating: 4.9 / 5 (69 voted)

Reviews: 92% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Manual Maggio

Birthday: 1998-01-20

Address: 359 Kelvin Stream, Lake Eldonview, MT 33517-1242

Phone: +577037762465

Job: Product Hospitality Supervisor

Hobby: Gardening, Web surfing, Video gaming, Amateur radio, Flag Football, Reading, Table tennis

Introduction: My name is Manual Maggio, I am a thankful, tender, adventurous, delightful, fantastic, proud, graceful person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.