2022 Creative Writing / Visual Art Contest Winners
A Moment in Stride
by Haley Richardson, First Place
Sometimes at the edge of the world, there is a spark. A fleeting moment of relief against the endless nothing. It can be anything, really. The spark that lights up the individual and tells them to keep pressing on.
He had been walking for days toward a war no one wanted to fight. Red welts stung against his cheeks where the wind had struck him and his fingers were so numb he could barely keep hold of his pack. He had long since lost the faint sounds of carriages on the roads and guessed he must have walked miles away from what had once been home. The muscles in his legs ached and he could feel the soles of his boots wearing down with each melancholy step. He knew he had to find a place to rest because soon the little light provided by the sun would be gone and he would once more be plunged into darkness. A clearing, a small town, it really didn’t matter. The minutes melted away as he walked and the light weakened when he saw it. There, in the middle of a small glade, was an old piano.
He could barely believe it. Its paint was chipped around the edges and some of the keys were yellowed with age, but nevertheless there it stood. He approached it cautiously, as if it were a Trojan horse and the enemy was waiting around a corner. With one frostbitten hand, he reached out and gently pressed down on a key. The resulting sound was faint, but left a soft echo reverberating through the trees. With one sound, a dam in his mind crumbled and released a flood of memories.
A glowing window. Through that window was a woman with weathered skin and graying hair twisted back sitting at a piano, with a small boy, no older than four, placed squarely on her lap. The boy squirmed, desperately trying to free himself and follow the tabby cat that had slunk around the corner. The woman sat firm and straight, and gently took the boy’s soft hands in her brittle ones and placed them on the keys. She pressed his fingers into them and walked him through a scale. Then another and another, until he was able to turn out a few clear notes by himself. They sat like that for hours, and eventually the tabby cat was forgotten and the boy's wide eyes were locked on the woman as she played songs for him and let him pick his favorites from a book of yellowing sheet music.
The memories came faster after that. There he was, aged six or seven, sitting on his grandmother’s rickety piano bench as she played old hymns, dutifully turning the pages of her song book for her. Then again, at age eight, his small fingers tripping over themselves as he raced to meet the next note, desperate to reach the tumultuous chorus before suppertime was called. By age ten, he was surrounded by his classmates at a birthday party, raucously plunking out childhood songs as dozens of tinny voices chanted their lyrics, bolstered by glasses of punch and birthday cake. The memories kept coming, winding through his mind and body, until before he knew it he was playing those old songs from his childhood in the woods. Finally, he reached the last memory, one that had been patiently waiting for him to collect it, like a dusty book sitting on a shelf, biding its time until someone opened it up and unleashed the whimsy it contained.
Resevaire Academy, four years ago. He had been but a child then, with the confidence and gall that only youth has. It was the night before graduation, and the graduating class had gathered around in the common room, sipping poorly concealed glasses and stealing bites of cookies sent by someone’s mother. June had snuck up on them, and with graduation mere hours away, the students had decided to gather for one last night before they exited the oakwood doors they had entered all those years ago. The gathering had been going on for a few hours now and one by one voices had begun to patter out due to exhaustion or nerves or the heat coming in through the open windows. The party was coming to an end, but he didn’t want it to. Graduation was tomorrow, and he knew that the end of the party was officially the end of childhood. And he wanted one final night that he could tuck away and keep for his remaining years of whatever “adulthood” would bring. So he did what he knew best, what he knew would make them stay for a final hurrah, as cliché as it sounded. The common room was large and packed with people, so it took great effort to worm his way to the grand piano in the corner. It may have been laden with used napkins, cookie crumbs, and half-empty glasses, but the instrument still held its grandeur. The keys were much nicer than the ones on his grandmother’s piano, but when he gently pressed them, the same beautiful sound rumbled through it.
In an instant, he was back in his grandmother’s house, sitting side by side as they worked their way through her endless piles of sheet music, mixing songs and chiming in with new harmonies in a never ending game. He took a seat at the bench and struck a chord, trying to remember the songs he used to sing with his classmates at birthday parties. He sang quietly at first, the lyrics not quite forming right, but they steadily crept back to him from the farthest reaches of his mind, until his voice became sure and strong once more. His voice was the only one singing for a while, but eventually more kids joined in, until the echoes of an entire student body shouting the words reverberated throughout the common room and out into the warm, summer night. The party didn’t last long after that, and soon enough the boy was the only one left in the common room, the glow of the street lamp outside emitting just enough light for him to continue playing, careful not to get too caught up in the music and risk waking the others. He remembered playing all through the night, getting lost in his last night of childhood. He paid dearly for his night of fun the next day when he nearly fell asleep while waiting to walk for graduation, but he knew it would always be worth it.
All this and more rushed through the boy, now a man, as he stared at the instrument before him. The piano was out of tune and some of the keys released no sound at all, but the songs were still there, floating out of the instrument and into the brisk night air, bringing a sort of lightness with them. Slowly, he sat down on the wooden bench and started at its creaking, as if it were an old man whose joints were long out of use. His freezing fingers pressed down hard on the keys, searching for the songs hidden within them. Before long, the piano was turning out melodies, albeit a little out of tune, but still there. The man had no idea how long he’d been sitting there, entranced by the memories and music, before his fingers gave a jolt and he was thrust back into the present, into the cold, dark woods. He knew his fingers couldn’t take the night air much longer, but it still took everything in them to tear them away from the keys and stuff them back into his pockets before they fell off.
The piano faded away into the distance as his feet carried him away, in what he hoped was toward a town he could stop in for the night. Inside his pockets, his fingers still twitched, tapping along to imaginary tunes. He couldn’t risk crying, for fear of his tears freezing to his face, which would make for an altogether unpleasant experience, but his eyes welled, though whether it was from joy, nostalgia, or sadness, he could not say. Walking had always relaxed him as a boy and he had carried that habit with him as an adult. As he walked he thought. He didn’t know how the piano had found its way to the glade, or who it had belonged to before he had found it, and he realized that he did not want to know. He would take the moment in stride and continue on, toward whatever was waiting for him ahead, grateful for the reminder of home.
But wait, he thought. Is that- The slightest of sounds had perked up his ears. Through a thicket of trees ahead, were the flickers of light and the gentle plinking of a wandering soul sitting at a piano, who had found their spark that kept them playing on into the night.
Between Us: I. The Atrium
by Hudson Dinh, Second Place
Too quiet for sleep. It’s been that way for some time now, and so I don’t get much of it at all, and what little I do get is not very good. Ideally, there’d be the endless static of a cityscape outside or a nearby dormitory utterly devoted to bacchanals; rather, the sad stillness of the suburbs has me hearing my own heartbeat run about my head. I tried, truly, to adapt. I put on a noise machine and ambient livestreams, put up layers of curtains and tried every room temperature, but nothing clears this silent air.
That sleep I do get is the gift of rain, especially thunderstorms, what with the occasional boom of heaven’s timpani. That’s real ambience, that is, not some pitiful looped track. If I keep the window open, a chilling wind seeps in so that the silent air is rinsed away. It feels odd to be so genuinely excited by flecks of light on a pane and its screen, those endless refractions of streetlights and stoplights. What’s often unfortunate is having to watch them go transparent as the sun saunters slowly down the street, and they have fallen short of sedating me. For nearly everyone else in the apartment complex, I’m sure, this is the fanfare for a new day. I’m there, however, for the entire promenade, and I still can’t quite surmise when precisely the sun rises. I often wonder, at what brightness or hue can I formally greet this new day? Then again, it’s not much of a new day if the old one hasn’t ended.
I do miss the city, I’ll say it outright. It’s not enough of a fix to drive in for architecture classes—I need a constant stream, both of inspiration and familiarity. Such an addiction starts young; I blame a childhood beset by extended family, saturated with a paradox of sociality and loneliness that some call “midding.” That’s when you’re halfway between the life of a party and the ghost of it—in better words, when you sit on the poolside of conversation, not expected to submerge yourself any further but surely welcome to. It’s a fantastic feeling, really. I wouldn’t call it a happy one, but it’s not depressing either; whatever it is, it’s the only sedative that works. I can’t live in a coffeehouse, you know.
By comparison, adult life is a listless thing. Family sees you off to some haughty university, and you bring with you the constant stench of expectations. Too often does it feel like a house built on top of you, demanding upkeep. It’s friendless and it’s restless, and as its foundation, so am I.
In my defense, where insomnia drops you after your abduction is a state of utter abstraction. It’s a nasty business, discriminating reality from dream, so by a certain point you give up, get up, and go out in that trance. Peers won’t have much to do with you; food won’t do much for you. You seem to float here and there, but at the same time you carry this tremendous weight that likes to sit around your eyes and your feet. (Not like that house of expectations helps with the load.) Everything drifts so far from your reach, always before you but never any closer. You’re freezing, and nothing is more attractive than sleep. I think, you may as well not exist.
There is one thing, though, that the rain doesn’t help, that borrows the weight of expectations and offers in exchange a rare, paradoxical clarity: nightwalking. I discovered it coincidentally when some inconvenience had me about town at twilight. Eventually, though, I fell under its umbral charm and began to volunteer for the act. I dress appropriately and creep out of the complex, down the street to the corner, where the first choice of direction greets me—unexpectant but welcoming. From there I am free. That silent air gains a little paranoia and liberation, a quirky color that you don’t forget the taste of. The streets form a titanic web—in my delirium, I am happily reminded of Piranesi’s “imaginary prisons.” So, I don’t bother to try to make sense of it all; who can expect me to? I get to trust instinct alone, and the complex always comes back into view before daybreak. It seems that only I can hear the night’s call—come on now, passing cars don’t count—and that only I am fluent in its language.
But time isn’t very kind to me, and so when hospitals began to fill and the deathly numbers ascended, I found myself frequenting the city fewer and fewer times. I suppose we were living in older structures than we all thought, and as such things are wont to do, all came to ruin quite soon, with us hurried into our mouse-holes to wait out the pandemic. I can’t say school got much more invigorating, what with all the purely theory-based lectures and the toothpick towers dubbed “unit assessments”; the professors still alive weren’t likely getting much sleep anyway. I’m sorry for being so heartless to them all, I really am, but having my rendezvous with the night’s darkness put me in a complacent state. For the first few months, I even slept better than usual; never before had my evenings been so safe, so rational, so controlled.
Always, there was quiet. I treated it warmly at first, but it overstayed its welcome. What was a month anymore, what was a day? Reality began to smear again. You can’t comprehend my frustration at this. Somehow, expectations found my mousehole and plugged it, keeping me from those rendezvous and suffocating me with this bill or that project. I was cast beyond insomnia and into a debt of sanity. Perhaps that’s when the voice came in.
Mind you, mine is a shy apartment. One can’t hear a thing from either adjacent neighbor, day or night. The neighbor above is a young, cocksure character; the one below prehistoric and impulsive. Understandably, we don’t plan picnics together. So when the voice started, I dragged myself to each door inquiring about it, yet receiving no validation. It was, as children would have it, a haunting.
It did start at midnight—the witching hour was nigh and all that. I was broiling in bed, mind winding down, and let out a dusty cough right as sleep opened its doors. In that same moment there sounded, I do swear, another cough, similarly sudden but followed very clearly, Pardon me.
I was shocked awake. The diction was so visceral, the volume so dominant, that there may well have been a mouth at my ear. I scoured the room for another presence, then the rest of the admittedly bare apartment. The door was locked; the window was shut. Nothing was running, save the fridge and the ventilation, and nothing was playing. Outside there blew the same silent air, which seemed to raise its eyebrow at me, a little sympathetic, a little mockingly. Have I disturbed you?
It had to be from the wall.
Nothing is quite so awkward and ineffective as a virtual check-up, but I decided to withstand the staid somberness of my doctor for just a while. Casually, I asked about any peculiarities she had been seeing in patients since the start of the quarantine, anything like hallucinations or split personalities. She gave a fragile, vague reply: that hasn’t been our utmost concern, if you’d like, I can refer you, this medication might be in order, how’s your energy been? School isn’t cheap, so I let the topic wither away there; I figured that the self-diagnosis of insanity would be thriftier than a professional excavation.
While the voice went mute for some time, the mere possibility of its return dashed any sound sleep. I could not begin to craft a dream that the voice would not crash down upon. So I made the time—it wasn’t easy—for nightwalking once more. The aimless hours: stealing glimpses into houses and their workings, their little people and their little talk, walking to a store and treating myself to something for nothing. That kept the tired mind alive. I kept things under control during the night, which was mine. Apparently, so do the lawmen, as the police cruiser sauntered up to me and asked in its glacial way what I was doing out so late at night.
“Nightwalking, sir. I’ve trouble sleeping.”
They questioned if I did this commonly.
“Goodness, no! Nor do I commit anything criminal. You wouldn’t keep yourself cooped up all day nowadays, would you?”
They were fortunate not to. Regardless, they had me coaxed into the cruiser and returned to the complex. I wasn’t aware of the curfew, and upon learning of it, grew a little sullen for the end to my escapades. There went my freedom, the rich colors of night, the safety, the control. The complex crept into view, framed by the bars along the car window. I was irrationally terrified. In that thin paranoia, walking up the stairs to my floor, I forgot to mourn the titanic web; a sea of lucidity submerged those imaginary prisons. The door closed behind me, the bedroom lay before me, and the voice began, Welcome home.
“I don’t believe in ghosts—assuming you are one.”
Assuming you’d even need to, although perhaps it’d help if you did. And all that you “believe” is simply what little you are allowing yourself to experience.
Thus began a most peculiar friendship. I seem, in my conversations with the voice, to let slip from my grasp all rationalism. What was paranoia became bigotry, and that has no place in our relations. Perhaps, I was so deprived of interaction that the walls saw fit to console me. That being said, the walls are quite poor at consoling me:
I don’t care for how you abandoned me some nights ago. It was so sudden and frantic; it made me insecure.
“Don’t you make me sound crazy! As if buildings talk...”
But they do! You know, in the ones that don’t—the ones that can’t answer you—something has gone terribly awry. Something is missing, and it’s really quite sad.
This continued throughout that night, up until that ambiguous break of day, and has recurred without any discernible pattern for many successive nights. Oh, how I try to make sense of the ordeal, and sometimes I get close. Ultimately, however, the voice evades clarity and suspends reality.
“Might I ask why are you haunting me?”
Well, it’s complicated. A few years after my construction, a most blood-curdling crime took place in my walls, and since then the tormented soul of the victim has been imprisoned along the pipes and wires.
“You’re not serious, are you?... Will you ever divulge the exact crime?”
In your dreams!
Ours are atonal dialogues, modulating without reserve from absurdity to disarming sincerity.
“Why stay disembodied? To be a poltergeist would surely spice your, let us call it, existence.”
Listen, I’ll never expect you to prove that you’re really there, and in exchange, I hope you don’t expect the same of me.
“You seem embarrassed.”
When I can’t sleep nor sleep well, I rinse away the quiet myself. I turn a tad toward the wall and fill the space between life and the ghost with a question, a comment, a joke. The voice always engages, as if also lying beyond the wall patiently; when words evade me it closes the gap. A pattern reveals itself gladly.
“Is it not boring to haunt an apartment wall?”
Sure, but I find fun for myself. For instance, I’ve recently been playing around with analogies. I doubt it sounds normal, even if I weren’t what I am, but there’s a wealth of joy to be had in the simple marriage of idea and image.
“I doubt it sounds normal, but I am in utter agreement.”
Dreams, visions, faith, knowledge—what hasn’t analogy succeeded in expressing?
“Indeed! It’s a shame, you know, how so many people—academics especially—do away with analogies as they mature, as if the technique is childish or ineffective. Really, though, it is an endlessly rewarding way to conceive of things.”
Do you have a favorite analogy?
“It’s difficult to say. Embarrassing, too, but I’ve always been fond of the ones about ‘home.’”
I question still the exact nature of the voice: whether it be internal or external. Perhaps with time that truth will also surface.
How go your studies?
“I doubt you really want to know. It’s not a very dynamic affair.”
Really? I would assume that architecture is a very ‘alive’ practice.
“In moments only. Otherwise, I’d liken it more to engineering. I’d surmise it’s been that way for decades now, this heartless approach to design and construction. I spend more time with blueprint paper than with bricks!”
Ah! I myself lament the nature of my own construction. Still today I feel as though I function like a machine.
“Well, I wouldn’t say you’re a ‘machine.’ I don’t think you’re real enough to be anything, especially a machine, if I’m to be honest.”
!... Well, you can’t offend a machine.
“That settles it, then. You are a ghost after all.”
Very funny. But if I’m also to be honest, I do worry. Will ever I be more than a tool for you? Will ever I represent something for you? Will ever I be a home?
“Now there, curb the dramatics!... I like to think you will. I just can’t say whether or not I’ll be the one to make a home of you.”
You’re certainly qualified.
“You flatter me; over there sits a thoroughly unread textbook!”
So you anticipate moving?
“I thought it was obvious. Let alone any demands from my career or family, I’m not made for suburbia. I need noise and movement, lights and nightwalks, all before me and under my control but never to draw me all the way in... I am, I suppose, a chronically restless person...”
Perhaps it’s fated that you not stay here long. After all, you are a body, and I the product of some uninspired blueprint. How sad, I suppose, that I am not yet if ever a space for your soul—assuming you have one.
“Were you a poet before your murder?”
That question was not received kindly. Then again, I was getting quite tired. Often we would quarrel, although one can only be so aggressive in pajamas.
“You’re quite demanding sometimes.”
I’m working on it. I hope for it soon to come across as playfulness. Really, that’s what you need most, so far as I can surmise: to rediscover play in your work and in your life.
“You’ve lost me.”
Give it time. It’s those silly beliefs of yours that hinder these revelations. What’s all that about the ‘spirit of the age’?
“Our architectural doctrine? I’m not much of a fan either, don’t mistake me. It’s not fun; my only fear is that it’s right.”
If I may propose to you a doctrine of my own, then: that you build a world according to the architecture of your psyche.
If and when I do catch sleep, it’s while talking to the voice; the nights grow cold anyway, so I nestle close to the wall. I enter the world of dreams with an unusually clear mind, a kind of emergence into reality compared to the delirium of my waking days. The latter is freezing, the former always warm—not an embrace, mind you, but rather a proximity. I am feeling an inner movement, a shift in my structure. We are actors sharing the stage that I am building, board by board. I am learning to live again, and this life will be nocturnal.
“What makes you happy?”
Nothing less than containing you—body and soul.
“That’s assuming I have the latter.”
Come on now, what’s a room without a center?
I don’t hear the voice in the mornings before I run errands or attend the rare in-person lecture. That is, except for during one sunrise, at the precise moment of daybreak.
If you could put some music on—any kind would do—before you leave... It's lonely when you’re gone.
The old days end to let the new begin.
by Sarah Rosales, Third Place
When you come home, the house is quiet. The wood and stone greet you familiarly as you step through the doorway, and the stench of the Thames follows right behind like an unwanted guest. It is still the afternoon, and so you will find something to do until your mother gets back.
As a washerwoman at the Carmody Estate, your mother works for barely a handful of pennies. When she comes home, her hands find your shoulders or the top of your head or your cheek or some variation of those three, and she kisses you in places it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to kiss, like that bump you’ve been trying to smooth out on your nose. She touches you preciously, with hands that are scrubbed dry and raw like the cracked wood beneath your feet, but you find yourself leaning into them despite their splinters. She is one of the most hardworking people you have ever known.
You don’t like thinking of your father. He’s always been disappointing in ways you hope to never emulate. He works the fishing docks in the daytime and drinks himself silly in the evenings. It’s all he has ever known. With his pathetic habits, it’s still a complete wonder how he can hold down a job. That man is roughspun, cut from something that only dirties you and your mother, and he only carries fury inside the bones of his hands. You wonder, sometimes, where fathers like that pick up that sort of anger. Perhaps, it was given to them like a cruel gift, or maybe, it latched onto them one day, and they just never found the strength to let it go.
The floorboards bend slightly under the weight of somebody entering the house. You hear your mother step towards the kitchen, immediately working on dinner. From your spot by the window, you notice she’s brought home cod. It’s not your favorite, especially with its eyes bulging and its blood dripping onto the floor, as she prepares it over the fire, but it’s the cheapest on the market.
When you greet your mother, she smiles warmly, and you feel brighter inside. Without a prompt from her, you start to spill all the new things you learned in school: the stories you were able to read today, how cleverly you solved your arithmetic problems, always faster than your classmates. Since you got home, you have planted yourself in your sitting nook and found yourself utterly enraptured by a tale about ruthless pirates and the allure of the open sea--a book your teacher kindly let you borrow.
Your mother wipes her hands on her skirts, and squeezes your cheeks so hard you feel the pressure through your teeth. She often does that when is feeling particularly joyous, and right now, you catch a teasing glint in her eyes.
“Eddie,” she begins. She sits beside you by the window and takes out a piece of red cloth. “I want you to feel this.” Her fingers caress the fabric and you mirror her actions. It’s the softest thing you have ever had the pleasure of touching.
“Where did you get this?” you ask in awe. “Did you buy it?”
She shakes her head. “The estate is full of beautiful things like this--silk clothes, silver plates--and they just throw them away like nothing.”
That red silk cloth has to be the most expensive thing in this household. “Why are you telling me this?”
The brightness in her eyes softens. “The truest thing I have ever known is that the state of our lives will never be up to us.”
Her voice doesn’t drip with bitterness or venomous hatred. There’s something profoundly sad lying in it that makes you want to hold her until the reality of the world rearranges itself into something better.
“We’re just not those kinds of people,” she says and hands you the silk. “You can find happiness in a small life, but power, riches, respect--we’ll never be born for those types of things.”
You can’t help but rub the cloth against your cheek. For a moment, you imagine it as the soft hands your mother could have had, if the both of you lived a different life.
“We never will be.”
When your father comes home, the table is set for dinner. Along with cod, there’s boiled potatoes and sliced bread. For once, he’s sober, and that surprises you.
The house fills itself with a tense quiet, a contrast to the peaceful silence you and your mother had been enjoying before he arrived. It feels like a shark circling the waters, waiting for you to set your foot in.
A chair scrapes against the wood as your father pulls in to the head of the table. He eyes the food with contempt. There are no endearments, no questions--just an air of apprehension that’s waiting to burst. You’ve always hated how quickly he turns a home into something vile, how quickly your mother becomes ashamed of herself for mistakes she has yet to make. She recedes into herself as she eats. It saddens you that every night she makes herself smaller than she already is.
“I can’t eat this,” your father says, and throws the bread to the plate.
“What do you expect to eat like a king?” your mother mutters before she realizes what she’s done. You sit on your hands to brace yourself--the shark smells a foot in the water, but it’s not yours.
The food is flung at your mother’s face, the fish and potatoes staining her.
“Why do you make this slop!?” the man yells. The plate clatters helplessly to the floor, and you feel yourself sink into your chair. Desperately, you wish that you and your mother disappeared to somewhere better.
“It’s all we can afford,” she responds meekly. Her hands grasp her dress and she looks to her feet. You’ll never forget that face--that look of utter fear, the kind that coils around your entire being and eats away at your heart. Never has your abhorrence for your father been stronger.
He slaps her across the face hard, and she takes it, because what else is she to do?
“I need to get out of here,” he says, and walks out the door. It has started to rain.
Your mother bends down and starts picking the food up from the floor. You offer to help, but she tries to give you a look of reassurance.
The state of our lives will never be up to us.
The futility of her statement echoes in your mind. You want to grip change, hold it by its ends and carve it into something new, something you and her deserve. You want to be made for good things.
Your mother retires to her room, holding herself up after putting away dinner.
You walk out the door to find your father.
You can guess where the bastard wandered off to. You see him stumble out of the tavern and you follow him down the rain-slicked streets. You catch him by the pier, near the old stone wall.
You didn’t know what you would do once you found him. He’s twice your scrawny size and can still fight back even in a stupor. The sky crackles with thunder, and the sea splashes tumultuously against the edge of a nearby dock.
“Edward! Boy!” He smiles deliriously once he spots you. You creep out of the shadows. “My son, come here.”
Your feet are stuck to the ground. The thumping of your heart beats in your ears incessantly. Your father’s mood shifts as easily as the waves. “I said come here!”
He trips over a stone and you stare at him with dark eyes.
Something vicious curls in your chest. You grab at a length of rope you eyed by your side, something a sailor probably left when he was tying away the boats. You wrap the rope around your knuckles, once, twice over and pull until it rubs raw against your skin. Is this you tying the rope around your father’s neck? Or a deep-sea monster that swam out of the ocean? For a fraction of a second, the rope feels like the mighty arm of a sea beast, and you feel more powerful than you have ever before. Your foot finds itself planted into your father’s back to gain more strength than your thin arms have. It rains harder as your father claws at his throat. His tongue rolls back, and he gasps chokes that scratch at the roof of his mouth.
When you let go, he drops to the wet stones lifelessly. You drag the body to the edge of the pier and kick him in. The water consumes what’s left of the man.
You look at your hands. The joints have darkened where the blood was strangled for a moment, and the rope’s ghost tracks trace itself around your skin like chains. Despite the roaring of the ocean and the thunder up above, you hear nothing but the ceaseless beating of your heart. But this time, it’s mixed up with something else--a buzzing in your head, as if a void were calling out to you.
Were you… always capable of this?
Your father is dead, yet you can’t help but think of your mother. You still carry that blood-red silk cloth she gave you. What would she think of her little boy now?
You turn around, rub the soles of your shoes on the stones and do not walk back home that night.
Tomorrow, your mother will wake up early and get ready to go to work. She will come home, hands as dry as bark and prepare dinner, just like she has always done. The table will be set for three, and when you don’t come home, she’ll simply assume you’re off doing God knows what, as teenage boys are known to do. But she’ll believe you’ll come back. You always do. When her husband doesn’t come home, she’ll sigh in relief that maybe that piss-poor bugger fell in the ocean for the night.
When she realizes that the both of you won’t be coming back, how will she feel the loss of you? You imagine her sitting by the window in that little home, looking at the children who walk down the streets, trying to find your face among them. She’ll wonder where you ran off to, doing that everyday until you walk right through the door and give her the biggest hug and an apology for staying out so late.
You feel the ghost of her hands skim your cheek, and the weight of home in your pocket.
Home at Last
by Melissa Duran De Paula, Honorable Mention
She looks as beautiful today as she did all those years ago. As she lays still in her hospital bed, I reminisce about our youth. Our late-night drives, quiet library visits, nightly movies. We used to be so young.
When I first met Julie, we were kids in the same playground. That first time we played, we were just a boy and a girl from the same neighborhood. As time wore on, little five-year-old us became inseparable, unstoppable. We were opposites, but the same. She was wilder where I was more reserved, she liked coloring while I liked drawing, her golden hair clashed with my black curls. But we both loved stories, and we explored every day we saw each other, looking for forgotten treasures. We could achieve anything if we were together. The playground was our kingdom, she was my queen.
One sunny day in our playground, Julie delivered the news that she was moving soon. I don’t remember much after that, but she claims we played the same as usual. We were too young to understand the concept that we would be separated. The following week, my mother took me to our playground as usual. The feeling of despair I felt when I couldn’t find Julie I can still feel to this day, nearly 60 years later. I searched for her everyday for weeks, until it became clear that we would not see each other again. I eventually stopped going to our playground, forgot all about my best friend, grew up in a life separate from hers. New friends, relationships, stupid teenage mistakes, we went through it all apart. I didn’t think of her again until my Sophomore year in college.
The library on campus was a quiet spot, but popular nonetheless, with many students claiming their own spot at the tables. Passing through the rows and rows of books, I stopped to admire the Victorian setting, the high ceilings and vast windows. When I looked up, though, what my eyes focused on was more beautiful than anything I’ve ever seen before. At that moment everything stopped as time slowed. On the second floor of the place, practically drowning in all the books, was a blond young woman with thin reading glasses perched on her nose. When our eyes met, it was like everything clicked into place, like I was finally returning home. I learned something then — I could be lost in a sea of a thousand people and I would still find my way to her.
The next few moments are a blur and hyper-focused at the same time. I remember 19-year-old me rushing to the other side of the library to get to the steps, and the feeling of glee when I saw her at the top of the stairs, knowing she had rushed to see me, too. I remember the awkwardness as we tried to figure out what to do with ourselves, the tense moment of silent stares interrupted only by our heavy breathing. If you ask me anything else, I will come up blank. All I remember is her.
She decided to take the first step, as I knew she would.
“Are you who I think you are?” she questioned, testing the waters. Her leather bag and piled books were near a tipping point, but she didn’t seem to care, her focus being on me. Being the recipient of her undivided attention excited me, bringing out the butterflies in my stomach at full force.
“It’s me,” I responded, still staring at her with wide eyes and a furious blush on my cheeks. “John Honberry,” I clarified, rather stupidly.
Something in her let go at that moment. She ran down the stairs and embraced me tightly, no longer caring about her belongings.
“God, I missed you,” she whispered in my ear, sending shivers down my spine.
“I missed you too, Julie,” I said softly, clinging to her in full force.
We stayed like this for a while, eyes closed, neither believing our luck. It was like we’d been holding our breaths for all this time, and finally learned to breathe normally again. Two people finally finding their home, the place where they belonged.
“You better not have changed,” she says with a half laugh, letting me go. “If you have become a jerk, consider my hug retracted.”
“Change is inevitable,” I countered, earning a nod from her in return, “but I don’t know about my overall ‘jerk’ score. Maybe we could get some coffee, then you can assess me first hand,” I suggest, surprising even myself. Since when have I been so forward?
“I would like that,” She replied after the initial surprise wore off. “I really would.”
I don’t consider this library encounter followed by a coffee meet up as our first date. It was about two friends catching up after a long time. Lots of questions were asked, recalling old information and cataloging new ones. My “Julie” file extended significantly that day, and I can still recall nearly every word she said to me: her passion for stories only grew in the time we were apart, so now that she started college, she studied English with the goal of becoming an editor; she didn’t actually like coffee, so she ordered a brownie instead; she remembered my love for plants; she called me cute. That last fact isn’t exactly a “Julie” fact, but it is an important piece of information.
After this encounter, I started seeing her much more often around campus. We talked, we joked, we laughed, and about two months later, one coffee date became two. Then three, just to see how things work out. Our next date was dinner at a fancy restaurant (prompted by yours truly), and we made it for about 20 minutes until we looked at each other and understood that neither of us really wanted to be there. We paid for our sodas drinks and left, laughing all the way to a local burger joint. Neither of us cared about the cheap environment — we were together, and that was enough. That has always been more than enough.
Our relationship only grew from there. Those first dates became many: ranging from karaoke nights to art galleries to spending nights on the roof of the car watching the stars. Things weren’t always smooth, of course, as we had our share of fights, near break ups, disagreements. What kept us together was our respect for and understanding of one another. Even when we fought, I never once disrespected her or invalidated her opinions, and she returned the favor. Both of us were problem solvers, truly listening to each other to figure out and solve whatever problem we have. I would say it was one of our greatest strengths.
Six years after we found each other again, in the home we owned together, I got down on one knee. That day I promised her our happiness, to stand beside her no matter what, to support her, to love her for the rest of her life. She accepted my proposal and she cried, and I cried, and there were so many tears I’m pretty sure even the walls of our apartment were crying. Thank you, it said, for making me into a home once again. That night as we laid in each other’s arms, she admitted to having been looking for rings herself — I had just beat her to the proposal.
The wedding ceremony was beautiful, in the park where our playground used to be. 20 years later, I felt like a child once again. Giddy, hopeful, an unwavering mountain of happiness. And when I saw her walking down the aisle, with our family members supporting her on both sides of her runway, I truly knew she was the only woman for me. By the look on her face, I knew she thought the same of me.
Three years later came our first child, Liam. A beautiful little boy with my near black eyes and his mother’s dirty blond hair. As soon as we saw him, we knew we wanted more children to bless our home, which meant our beloved two bedroom apartment could no longer meet our needs. So began the house hunt.
It was a long search, but it was well worth it. We knew the second we stepped through the front door of 226 Lilac Road that this was going to be our forever home. With a vast yard and a tree right up front, I could plant my own vegetable garden, and Julie could finally get the library she always dreamed of. We just finished settling in when our second baby, Mona, came into the picture. On our decided last child, number three, we were blessed with the twins, Eris and Blaise.
From there on, life was the beautiful chaos that only a family can bring. Handling jobs and marriage and kids and report cards and lunch boxes and bills and vacations and “we’re out of toilet paper!” Through the years we saw our kids grow from playful little kids to awkward teens to slightly adult-ish young people, ready to be sent off to college. When the youngest ones left at the same time we retired, Julie and I felt as sad as any parent, but accomplished as well. We managed to raise four self-sufficient, decent people, while keeping our sanity mostly intact. Julie and I spent our retirement days dancing and reading and road tripping, sharing old memories and creating new ones. We were so happy. I should’ve known it wouldn't last.
“Go to the supermarket,” she ordered. “And get me some flour. I ran out and I need it for some recipe Mona is trying to teach me. Dang thing is giving me a headache” she said with a sigh.
“Right now? I’m afraid I’m suffering from an episode of acute laziness. Happens a lot to people our age, you know,” I joked getting up to get my shoes.
“Old man,” she said, coming to meet me. “I’ll save you the piece that isn’t burned when I finish my master recipe.” She had her arms around me now. She seemed so healthy, so normal. How did I not see?
“Oh my, what an honor. I love you, Julie, you know that?”
“I know, John. But can I tell you a secret?” She asked, looking around conspirationaly before whispering in my ear, “I love you too. Now get going or else you’ll find divorce papers in the morning.”
We laughed, and I left. I left her all alone. Why did I leave? I left. I put on my shoes, turned on the car and left. Her laughter still echoes in my head, the sound haunting me. She laughed so freely.
At the market, I got a call from my daughter, frantic over the phone. She told me she was on the phone with her mother when Julie collapsed. She said she called 911 right away and that Julie was being taken to the hospital. An aneurysm, they say. I left the house some 20 minutes ago. That’s all it took to change my life completely.
The past 24 hours have been a blur. I can’t remember anything past Mona’s phone call. All I know is that Julie now lies across from me on the bed that she died, her body not yet affected by death. My Julie, my home, gone. All our memories lie only with me now. I don’t know what to do from here. What do you do when the person you call home, the one you call yours, leaves you forever? Desperately looking for the why, for the why is an essential part of how the problem can be solved. There we have it, Julie, I say to myself, a problem even we cannot solve.
The sound of her voice fills my head as my eyes slowly close.
by Sarah Rosales, First Place