the prose of shs
presenting our [short story] submissions
They were in the car, her daughter drawing in the backseat while she drove home. Most of the moms she knew didn’t support their kids the way she did. A few weeks ago, she had heard her daughter’s friends complaining about high school, how stressed they were that they had to try so hard in their junior year to be accepted into their dream schools, and she thought, I give my daughter every chance she needs for whatever school she wants. Driving her daughter to every event she could was one way she had of showing how much she cared about her daughter’s future.
“There is a volunteer session at the soup kitchen next Saturday,” she told her daughter. “And your tutor is coming tomorrow night. Make sure you finish your essay before then. You should also start studying for your SAT Subject Tests and AP tests. I know they feel far away, but they are coming sooner than you think.”
“Yeah, Mom,” her daughter replied while sketching. There was a moment’s pause. “Mom.”
She glanced at her daughter in the rearview mirror. Sometimes her daughter called her name like she felt something within her that she didn’t quite know how to say out loud. That always meant her daughter was going to say something she didn’t like, and she should agree with her daughter. She never did.
“Mom,” her daughter repeated, “don’t you think these activities are too much? That maybe I don’t want to have so much on my plate?” Her daughter continued shading in the eye she was drawing without looking up at her mother.
“Honey, you know I know what’s best for you,” her mother replied. “I always want to help you succeed in life, and I act in your best interest.”
“I know,” her daughter said as she pressed harder into her sketchbook with her pencil. “I just don’t understand why I have to do so many hours of work for activities that I don’t enjoy.”
“Look, I promise it pays off in the end. If you work hard now, then you will go to a good school. Then you can use that education to look for a solid job and income. It’s just part of high school. You have to struggle now to succeed later.”
The daughter noticed that her mother was speeding and wished she would slow down. “But if I’m unhappy,” her daughter said.
“Just look at the articles about it. Most successful people with successful jobs received a solid college education and worked hard to be where they are.”
“Successful.” Her daughter was scribbling even more aggressively with her pencil as her mother continued to speed. She hadn’t realized that she had accidentally shaded in the white part of the eye. Her sketch was completely ruined, and she could hardly tell it was an eye anymore. The entire sketch had been a waste. “Okay,” she added, “I guess you think that success is more important than happiness, then.”
“In a way, I suppose it is,” she answered. “Happiness comes from success. How can you be happy if you’re not successful?”
“Successful,” her daughter repeated again.
“Yes, successful,” she said through gritted teeth. She didn’t like what her daughter was implying through her tone when she was just trying to support her daughter.
The car had grown hotter, but the daughter could not turn off the heat because she couldn’t reach it from the back. She shifted uncomfortably. She wished her mother would turn off the heat. She wished her mother would slow down. She wished she were anywhere but the hot car with the dark, ruined sketch and a mother that didn’t notice any of it.
“You’re speeding,” the daughter said finally.
“Oh, hell!” her mother exclaimed as she hit the brake to slow down. There was a moment where no one spoke.
Then her daughter asked, “So you don’t want me to be happy?”
“Josephine, that is not what I said!”
“Yes, it is.”
“No, it isn’t. Of course I want you to be happy. I just said that happiness comes from success and hard work, that’s all.”
“But what if I could only be successful or happy, not both? Which one do you want for me?”
She glanced again at her daughter in the rearview mirror. Her daughter was finally looking up from her sketchbook.
“Josephine,” she said evenly, “I don’t want to have this discussion anymore. You’re creating a hypothetical that doesn’t need to be asked. You can have both.” She nodded to herself because she knew she was right. Her daughter could be both successful and happy, and that was that. “You can have both, and I always try to give them to you.”
“But pretend I can’t have both. Pretend I can only have one or the other. Happiness or success.” Her daughter held her breath, as if afraid to move the hot air. “So?”
“Okay. I pick successful. If you’re not successful, you can’t have a job with an income that supports your life. Everything good in life stems from success. So I pick successful.”
Her daughter nodded, casting her eyes back to her sketchbook. The silence was worse than her daughter getting angry. At least if her daughter were angry, she would know that her daughter still cared enough to argue, but by not saying anything, her daughter was accepting defeat. She felt angry that her daughter had not fought back, and she felt angry that the conversation had happened at all. Her daughter’s silence only added to her own frustration.
In turn, she decided to frustrate her daughter. She knew her daughter wanted to go home, so she made a stop at Target first. The aisles were filled with people standing next to their shopping carts, everyone too busy looking for what they needed to be concerned with anyone else. She kept muttering to herself under her breath as she thought about the fight. Soon enough, her daughter would graduate from high school, and it would all be over anyway. It made her feel nauseous to think about arguing with her daughter. Her heart sped up. She stared at the shelves before she continued walking.
As she wandered through the aisles, two young boys were running and playing. The boys were about six or seven and had bright blond hair. Shrieking excitedly, they seemed not to have a care in the world as they smiled and chased each other with toy cars in hand. Usually she would have rolled her eyes at the idea of a mother allowing her children to misbehave in a store, but today she found it peaceful to watch the two young boys laugh. She left the store without buying anything.
When they arrived home, her daughter went to her room. She followed her and heard her daughter crying through the door. “Josephine,” she said, “please. Let me say sorry.” Her daughter didn’t answer for what seemed like an eternity. She hated to hear her daughter cry. “I just want you to be happy.”
“You do?” her daughter asked suddenly, her voice catching on itself. She could hear a shuffling of papers before her daughter opened the door, her eyes puffy and wet. She looked behind her daughter at all of her sketches scattered around the room. She noticed many drawings of eyes, and forests with crooked trees, and ghosts, and all of the sketches were shaded dark.
“You know, you’re a really talented artist,” she told her daughter. “You could be really successful one day.”
Her daughter’s mouth turned down. Her eyes filled with tears. Very slowly, the daughter closed the door in her mother’s face with a quiet click, putting both of them in different rooms, separated by one piece of wood, leaving nothing but heavy silence hanging in the air.
I remember the warm summer night you met me at the bridge in the woods, the one that leans ever so slightly to the left over the stream. We sat for hours in the dark talking about nothing in particular, and you said that you could have listened to that waterfall forever, bubbling quietly as it flowed over that rotting wooden dam. We explored those woods inside and out, unlocking all the secrets that they held after dark, when only moonlight lit the way through the tangled trees. We would wait until our parents went to sleep, shining lights out our windows, only a stones throw apart, to signal once we were the only ones awake. One night when it was drizzling, but hot enough not care about being wet, you woke your mastiff Rosco, after you tripped over the corner of his bed, and out of fear that he would wake your parents, you took him with us into the woods. He hurried over rocks and roots straight to where we were going as if he had known those woods for years, his nose hovering inches above the ground, searching for a scent, his ears twitching each time a branch broke or the trees whisted in the wind. “You just want to run as far away as you can, don’t you?” you said, as Rosco tugged at the leash to get farther and farther, your arm jolting with every stride he took, our footprints quickly disappearing in the rain soaked dirt behind us.
The one time when we travelled so deep into the woods that the thickness of the trees blocked all the light, and you stumbled upon the rope ladder, dangling at the base of a massive oak, leading to a treehouse resting high up in the boughs of that moss covered tree. You climbed the ladder first, calling for me to come up once you had deemed it to be safe enough, and we sat there, suspended in the dark, talking about all the incredible renovations we could do to our latest find. When we next returned to that treehouse in the light of day, and we hammered new boards over the old ones to hide the rotting, splintered wood, I thought of the rusted nails, still holding the ancient shack in its place, and imagined them snapping, the way all things meant to last eventually break.
Those nights in the woods were quiet, not a bird made sound, save for the occasional owl, calling from up in the trees watching us as we passed beneath its perch. Often I thought about the owls, singing their somber song, watching the world in the dark, their wide eyes taking in everything around them as they hid in the night away from the rest of the world, away from reality. What did they think about when they saw us? Did they see a friendship for the ages? No, probably not, I’m guessing they just saw two animals, a danger to be avoided, hiding in the dark from what couldn’t be escaped.
Remember the warm night in late August when we got lost and couldn’t find our way home? We decided to wait until morning and use the sun as a compass, and as the sun rose we lay on our backs, staring up through the branches, at first just a silhouette against a light orange glow, but revealing and winding themselves slowly into a tangled, twisted maze, as if in a constant battle with no purpose. As we made our way home through the trees, neither of us spoke. The green around us hurt to look at, not like in the dark, when colors became pleasantly dull, and the world was ours.
You don’t remember it like that though. To you, the dark was all encompassing, it closed us in, trapping us in the trees which loomed over our heads, the branches like bars of a cage, sealing out the sky. The treehouse we had found was rotten and falling apart and we should have never even gone up it, it was a careless and stupid idea. Your dog wasn’t just trying to run around and have fun, but was trying to get away from us, pulling with all his might to escape captivity. You remember that the sound of the waterfall filled in the awkward moments of silence, when nobody knew what to say, another half hearted attempt to begin conversation shut down by a one word response. That the dark hid the looks of boredom, strewn across our faces as another night at the bridge or the treehouse came and passed. You told me the owls didn’t have thoughts, or even cared in the slightest about what we did, for them life was just a game, a chase, a hunt, as they tried to survive another day in the darkness of those woods. We were talking about them one night and you said, “Anything will seem significant if you only think about the role it plays in relation to you.” I didn’t understand this at first, but I knew it had to mean something, I knew there was a bigger significance.
Then how do you explain the significance of this? I revisited those woods only a year ago to try and find all the places we used to go, only to discover that the majority of them were gone. The wooden dam holding back the small pond had been swept away by the river, it seemed as though the water had risen slowly, pushing against the feeble dam more and more before spilling over the top and bursting through the thin, rotting wood. The banks had flooded, loosening the soil around the small wooden bridge causing to have finally teetered over as we always knew it would. The planks in the water were slowly being pulled apart by the current, the bridge sinking deeper into the sediment under the water, slowly disappearing. The treehouse was no longer in the great oak tree, the old wood all gone, and the new wood we had brought was laying on the ground in chunks, surrounded by a few remaining rusted nails.
I recount my memories of these places the way you say I should: each place a reminder of a summer spent growing up with a friend, each carrying its own significance to me and who I’ve become. These memories are limited and pointless things; places, people, and items restricted to a single point in time, the rest of their existence ignored, like observing a single leaf in a forest full of trees, the importance of its existence lost out of context as it is blown about on the ground. People look at snippets of life, forgetting the bigger picture, the importance and significance of something given in a few words: a rotting wooden dam. An entire childhood is summed up by a single summer spent in the woods with the trees. Even now saying “trees” the corners of my lips turn upwards forming a small smile.
Not once have the trails been mentioned, never more than just a little ways away, but always ignored, marking the way we were meant to go, the right way through those woods. We preferred to follow our own paths without instruction, although we always knew one day we would have to come back to the trails, though neither of us could have said why.
No matter what challenges I’m facing, successes I’m celebrating, or regrets I’m lamenting, I never miss a meeting. Every month I draw my gauzy brown curtains, pull up the blinds, and look outside the window. There is no combination of words that can precisely encapsulate the relief, comfort, and calmness I feel when I see your perfectly round, gently glowing face there to greet me.
Silent conversations are grossly underrated. Unlike the daytime, when I have to force myself to say futile nothings in the name of breaking awkward silence, here there is no need for superfluous words. Though your soft, luminous smile touches billions of other people, I feel as though our chat is a private tête-à-tête.
My (already dull) perception of time becomes hazy during our meetings. There is no difference between ten minutes and an hour, but what importance does time have anyway? Our bond transcends the ticking of the seconds measured by monotonous, mechanical clock hands, chained to make rhythmic laps to no end and no avail.
Parting is sweet sorrow. In the morning, the sun will rise to take your place again. I will have to face what I must during the day, but for now I can rest assured, lulled by your benign beams and reminded that your faithful face will watch over me as I fall asleep.
When I entered our bedroom, I saw that her pen was lodged in the diary page where she finished writing, the laundry was off the floor, and the office chair was at its highest setting. Due to me being here more than she is, it’ll become dirty again in no time. When she was here, I know she stopped here.
It was a little annoying how I always had to initiate conversation. Did she not want to talk to me?
“Did you do anything cool today?” I asked. The pencil was dull. My handwriting is bad. She could probably barely read it.
She’s here randomly. It could’ve been night.
“Even though it was raining I still went out for a walk. It was alright. It wasn’t the rain that bothered me, just people’s confusion and them thinking I’m you. I think I’m going to stay in more. Overall though I did enjoy myself, how are you?” The cursive and pen ink were too compatible.
“I don’t know. I think I’m good.” I erased that. I looked at the corner where we put our shoes. Her white and red Air Max 270s. Rain-polished. My black Air Force Ones. I like them. You can’t see what’s wrong with them.
“I’m doing well, I just talked with Ms. Angela*. I think she was just checking in.” I didn’t write a lot. I’m not good at lying.
I left my pencil near the edge of the desk. Throwing on my pajamas, I thought about her. Although I don’t know much, I did want to know more about how we met, and why. Only she knows. I would begin again the next day
“Where did you come from? You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to but I was just wondering.”
“Well, I’m only reluctant to tell you because I don’t know if you're ready.”
“What do you mean by ‘ready’. It must be some sort of super cool origin story then.”
“Yeah, except it’s not so super and not so cool.”
“Well I don’t wanna press you so I’ll quit being a detective. Anyways, what have you been doing these past few days? I saw the LED light strips on the crown of the ceiling. It’s coming out pretty good.
“I’m just trying to add some sort of pop to our room, we can’t just keep it all dull and dirty.”
Perhaps she didn’t like my shoes. The new shoe rack she bought when she was out made of these metal grids coated with bright blue and red plastic. My shoes were underneath hers. They were drenched even though it had stopped raining when I went out. Hers rain polished.
“Maybe we could add some posters. I saw this cool one of a green Lamborghini in some store front while getting breakfast this morning. Also sorry about using your pen, my pencil must’ve disappeared somewhere in the room.”
“You mean one of those tacky posters from those school book fairs. Also it’s alright about the pen, but did you really lose your last pencil? It’s probably somewhere in these clothes by the desk. I can find it."
Reading her reply, thumbing her Inkjoy, I felt an unfamiliar hotness radiate from my skull. I stared at her shoes. They didn’t catch fire.
“Damn, you don’t have to be such a–” I erased that. “Yeah it was kinda tacky now that I think about it. Thanks for finding my pencil, too.”
“Yeah, no problem. I was also thinking about adding some of those light strips under the bed and desk. Kinda like the lights on the undercarriages of those supercars you like so much.”
They were there without my input. I didn’t know how to turn them off. I couldn’t sleep at night.
“Are you gonna add anything else?” It’s hard to show passive aggression on paper.
“I saw these abstract triangular shaped designs with vibrant, popping colors. Like this.”
Expressing her idea, there was a little doodle beneath her message. I already like the wall.
“Is this what you wanna do?”
“Yeah, why? Do you not like it?”
“I don’t know, are you sure you wanna do this?”
“Yeah, I don’t mind at all. Plus that drawing doesn’t do it justice.”
“Alright make it look good I guess.”
Soon there were big paint cans of bright peach, saffron red, and hot pink. They were gonna clash with the seafoam green of the walls.
“Can you promise me another thing.”
“Yup, of course.”
“How did we meet?”
“I love you too much to say?” Hot pink smudged the page.
“You don’t even know me, and if it’s too much to say then write it down.”
I know she read what I wrote. The chair was up, her pen was out, and the floor was laundry-free. Though, it was still dirty. Projects look better finished. A right shoe looks better when it’s next to the left. Paper looks better dry, paint soaked or otherwise. I’ve never heard her voice. I bet it’s like mine but with more experience and optimism and a condescending undertone. Writing doesn’t do it justice.
“What happened is really really bad.” It was really bad. Her handwriting has never looked worse.
“Do I say thank you now?” She still hasn’t answered me.
*Their foster mom
When Hudson Fitzgerald died, people from throughout the county attended his funeral, some out of respect for his patriotism and valor, while others attended to feed their curiosity and confirm the rampant speculation of the previous week. Hudson had not been seen out in public for the past two years.
His home was isolated slightly from his neighbors atop a cul-de-sac in the quiet part of town. The house was a single-story with a basement too big for his lonely self; there was simply too much space to occupy his singular thoughts. The war devastated Hudson twice: while deployed in Europe, a letter arrived indicating the loss of his mother through a sudden heart attack. His mother, who raised him alone, left him the home where he was to be devastated by the second tragedy of war: shell shock.
Before the empty home, and before the heart attack, and before the war, there was Avery and there was West Point. Since the day Avery Clark arrived in Kingston in 1911, she and Hudson immediately fell in love with each other. All of Avery’s friends joked to her, asking “when is the wedding?” If it were not for West Point, Hudson probably would have found work locally and married Avery right away. But this was unnecessary because her commitment and her expectations of this commitment were set in stone.
When he left for New York that summer, Avery vowed to wait for Hudson when he got back. He would go to the academy and then to war to fulfill his traditional role as a man. Likewise, she would fulfill her traditional duty as a woman to wait for Hudson.
Her voice was warm and full of life, “I am so proud of you, everything you have ever worked for, I love you.”
“I love you more.”
“What happens with us now?”
“Nothing will change between us. Once I finish up with West Point, I will look for you in the crowd and catch up with the times but only if you’re willing to wait.”
“I will always wait for you. You can count on that.”
After the armistice, it took a few months before Hudson would step foot on American soil. The soil was the same, but his country was changing. There were rumors of the 19th amendment being ratified in New York. Hudson tried to reach out to Avery once again, but she did not accept. He responded with frustration, reminding her, “you said you would always wait for me!”
“I did, but you changed. I changed. The world changed!”
The night before, Hudson had nightmares about the trenches of Cambrai. The ticking of his grandfather clock reminded him of the grenades being set off in the distance. The chirps of the crickets sounded too similar to the ringing he still had in his ears from time to time. His reclusive nature was very similar to how he was alone for far too long in a foreign land. Despite the recklessness of being reclusive, Hudson preferred to be alone because he was not really alone: the thought of Avery kept Hudson sanely insane.
In early June of 1919, Hudson saw Avery in the dense crowd on Fifth Avenue and promptly grabbed her wrist with the hand she was holding her sign with. Her voice was dry and cold, “get off of me now Hudson.” After the war, Avery and her friends took to the streets and protested along with the Women’s Suffrage movement. The mob of women marching held up signs saying “Equality for Women” and “Wilson is against Women.” The movement, so foreign that it seemed like a daydream to Hudson, was now Avery’s new reality.
Two weeks earlier, when Hudson arrived from War, Avery was not waiting for him as she promised. Rather, her parents welcomed Hudson home, but their company had lost its meaning. Her parents shared Hudson’s disappointment. They felt they had lost a daughter just as he felt he had lost his wife.
When they finally get their daughter home for just one evening, Hudson arrived soon after. He felt it was romantic, but the look of surprise on Avery’s face showed her true feelings. Startled, she immediately attacked him verbally.
“You had your war, this is mine.”
Hudson stood in silence.
“You believe that I have changed? Well look at you, standing there with your fists clenched. You have changed too!”
At that point, Hudson’s fists clenched tighter, as did the veins across his forearms.
Two years after Hudson returned from the war, he had developed a nightly routine. The neighbors saw Hudson pace around his backyard with an ivory taper candle. Once the candle melted halfway through, Hudson would roam around the deep forestation in his backyard where the neighbors could not see him anymore and he would return without the ivory candle. The neighbors felt a gush of relief for Hudson as they thought he was finally coping with his problems.
Three months later, a horrid stench filled the entire cul-de-sac. When the police arrived at Hudson’s home to talk to him, he was not there. They entered through the open door where the aroma resonated throughout the desolate residence. In the kitchen, Sheriff Jon found a head-shaped dent in the counter. There were locks of long hair hanging from the ceiling of the living room with a red tint. In the basement, dull bone saws lay in the pool of blood on the concrete floor. There were limbs with jagged edges piled in the corner: some had chunks that were bitten through, some were attached to chains.
When Sheriff Jon went to the backyard, he saw a group of police huddled around. Kingston’s Lone Wolf lay decomposed on top of a broken slab. Underneath lay the mangled torso and head of the pleasant Avery Clark. Numerous candles lay waxed to the ground and aligned as a tribute of some sort. Then, Sheriff Jon noticed the top of the stone slab was etched a few faint words. “... I will look for you in the crowd and catch up with the times but only if you’re willing to wait.”
The warm June air was buzzing, electric with passion as thousands of students stood united. Cries of “Long live freedom!” and “Down with corruption!” which had been locked up inside their hearts for so long finally burst free under that sky painted orange by the flames of rebellion. These were not just any protesters — they were the country’s best and brightest, young leaders from the most highly regarded colleges in the nation. Standing among them was a history major wearing a denim jacket. She had worked for hours on her poster, which proudly displayed an English phrase she could not pronounce but had read about in a borrowed textbook: GIVE ME LIBERTY OR GIVE ME DEATH.
Perhaps it was ironic, then, when she felt a bullet rip through the thin poster board, tearing it right out of her hands. The person behind her screamed, whether in surprise or pain she did not know, for she had already taken off, consumed by a spiraling wave of panic. There was blood on her arm; she could not tell if it was her own. All around the city square people scattered, shrieking like animals as armed troops opened fire on what had been a crowd of peaceful protestors.
The young woman’s legs carried her through all the chaos, even as they grew weak at the sight of friends and classmates writhing on the ground, clawing at the gaping wounds on their heads and stomachs. Her only wish was to see her family again. She thought of her father, how proud he had been when she received her college acceptance letter, how he had bought her a huge crate of the sweet white nectarines she adored so much. She thought of her mother, who was probably doing the laundry for her sisters at home or trying to convince her younger brother to do his homework. And so she did not stop running, leaving both her poster and her hope for change behind.
On the other side of the city, in a school of medicine, a male student was bandaging bullet wounds, trying desperately to keep up with the hundreds of wailing patients. It seemed to him that there would not be enough bandages to keep up with the steady stream of new injuries, but he tried to make do with pieces of cloth and towels; as a future doctor, it was his job to protect the patients in his care.
“Help!” someone shrieked from the school gates. “Please help, she’s dying!”
The student looked up through the window.
A group of locals was trying to prop up a girl who had taken a bullet to the head. Her skin was blue, and she lay unblinking and unresponsive, her blood pooling onto the ground.
“Please find help elsewhere! We don’t have any more supplies,” the student croaked.
There was nothing he could do from inside the school building as he watched a line of tanks roll over the locals’ bicycles in the street, pressing them down until they formed sheets no thicker than cardboard. And there was nothing he could do as the group carried the girl away by foot, her eyes already rolling up into the back of her head. As tears of horror welled up in his eyes, the young man decided that if this was how his country’s government treated its people, it was not worthy of his loyalty.
Thirty years later, nobody speaks of the massacre that took place on that warm summer night, the violence that defiled the “gate of heavenly peace.” The new generation has not learned about it, and any mention of the incident is punishable by law. So if you ask Wei, a history professor, what happened on June 4th, 1989, she’ll say “nothing special.” And if you ask Xiaofeng, a well-respected doctor, he’ll say he has no idea. But every few years, on that one specific night, they’ll go visit a certain square in Beijing and sit in silence under the streetlights, lost in memories of hope and defeat.
The people rushed all around him as they swarmed in and out of small textile factories and artisan’s shops, taverns and cafes, brothels and bathhouses. The man noted that the chaos of the normal day was elevated as more people were running around the busy market street. The hum of the people swept by him as he walked down the cobblestone road, his running neighbors in a hurry to gather whatever they needed. The rush of familiar faces increased as time passed, running up and down the road; completely in chaos. The stones were pelted further into the ground with the stomping of the feet of thousands as they ran up and down the street. The scent of fresh ocean air with a hint of a variety of spices was replaced with nauseating smells from the mountain above. A week’s worth of gas had built up from the bubbling rock and had sunk down to the foot of the mountain where the town of Pompeii stood, magnificent in all its glory, a statement of the powerful Roman Empire; all the buildings white stone with arabesque detailing, various shades of gold woven into the florid prints on the walls.
What normally would have been a rather sunny and beautiful day was engulfed in a huge gray cloud. The air was heavy with smog, stinking the eyes of small children as they chased their dogs down the street, who rather than being obedient had decided almost overnight to turn into ferocious beasts, barking at all hours of the day and running in circles as if they could feel a vibration under the crust telling them to flee. The man chose to leave the chaos and go up onto his favorite perch ways up the mountain to where he could see the ocean in the distance and the town down below. He noted that although it seemed crowded in the market, the population was actually less than normal since many of his family and friends had chosen to leave about a week ago due to the shaking in the ground. It didn’t bother the man though, it meant the Earth was alive, and that was a good sign.
The ground began to hum again, the rumbling louder and louder until the man’s ears hurt from the ringing. The loud sound from the surface beneath the man’s feet shook and made the man stumble all about. The dirt vibrated off the ground and buzzed around. Small pebbles jumped and turned around as if they were dancing, flinging dirt onto the man’s shoes. The cracking and crumbling ground gave way and the man tumbled down the side of the mountain. The man tried to grab hold of low branches and shrubbery, but he was unsuccessful. The man landed on the buzzing ground, which was vibrating with new violence now, and shivered in pain. Wincing, he stood up and began to limp away from the mountain towards the town below. As he moved the pain wore off and he began to jog.
As he ran, the man noticed that it was getting increasingly hotter. The air around him was becoming harder to breathe. Each breath the man took became shorter and shorter until he was gasping for air. The combination of heat and smoke was becoming more deadly with each breath the man took. Smoke swirled around in the man’s lungs, irritating the lining of his throat and making his chest ache. The man began to panic and frantically glanced around for any other person who could help him.
But he was alone. No one was around to tell him everything was going to be alright. No one was there to tell him to calm down and take deep breaths. No one was there to tell him to keep running away from the mountain. No one was around to tell him not to freeze in fear. He had no one to turn to for guidance or comfort. The market street was empty now; the sounds of coughing echoed in the air. The sounds bounced off the walls and the streets. The man tripped on a piece of pottery left behind, elaborate with all sorts of dyes from local flowers and plants; the articulate designs shattered in millions of small fragments as if someone had picked up the pot and thrown it against a wall. The man caught himself and was momentarily relieved that he had done so because if he had fallen he was sure that he lacked the strength to get back up. Larger pots had survived the wave from down below creating an obstacle for the man, as well as fallen fruits and bags of spices. The street laid in ruins.
An intense wave of heat released from the volcano, which was so hot that small shrubbery and grass instantly dried and shriveled up like they had not seen a drop of water in thousands of years. The ground cracked and crumbled in the shattering heat and looked baked as if it were a desert. When the wave of heat reached the man, his body instantly contracted in on itself. The man’s bones snapped and popped as they were crushed by a million tons. His blood veins burst and blood oozed out of the man’s eyes and ears. His fingernails dribbled blood unto the ground and his skin turned a bright tomato red from the third-degree burn. It sizzled and flaked off of his body in large shards and they instantly turned a blackish-brown, like charcoal, as they hit the boiling ground.
Suddenly, a gigantic cloud of ash pushed through the peak of the mountain. Rock collapsed and crumbled into the crater and splashes of hot molten lava sputtered about, leaving little streams of the red ooze on nearby rocks. The once-great mountain turned to two, as two new peaks were formed to replace the old one. The enormous dark wave sunk down into the valley which the town laid in and engulfed everything in its path. As the ash wave reached sixty-five thousand feet, pumice showered down on the destroyed city, breaking everything in its path. As each object was covered in the thick black fog, they were petrified. Whatever creatures that were once living before the heatwave were now suffocated in place, creating a still-life image of the town in the midst of its ruin. The man was absorbed by the wave and his broken body was frozen in space and time. His frame was stuck forever in a running structure, and his face was shriveled, but it left an expression as if the man was screaming out in pain.
The pool water lay still in the middle of the overgrown grassy yard as Skylar watched from her bedroom window. She passed by her cluttered room and headed for the water. She squeezed through the hallway, tiptoeing down the stairs. She ran through the long grass, and jumped into the open water. Straight into the deep end. Skylar looked up to the sky and laid flat on her back for ten minutes. Her bed was piled with homework. She felt very tired. She had been drinking sleepy time tea before deciding to go out for a swim. Besides, swimming was the only thing that could truly tire her out, yet still leave her relaxed.
Skylar looked up from the water, her mother’s face visible from the window. Her mother's face disappeared quickly, her eyes frightened to meet with Skylar’s. Immediately, Skylar wrapped her black towel around her wet body and emerged from the pool. She sauntered through the grass. Her eyes focused on the window. As she went through the back door, a few steps away from the kitchen, her mother spoke:
“Sky, sweetie, how is your homework going?”
“Fine,” Sky replied, her eyes glancing at the reflection of the pool from the shiny glass door.
As her mother spoke, Skylar could think of nothing.
“Oh, and remember this,” her mother continued, pointing to a medal on hung up on the hallway wall. “You got this at the science fair, oh, and this one at the robotics meet…”
Her voiced dazed off into the background, as she pointed to an empty wall filled with medals and photos.
“Mom, I have got to finish my homework,” Skylar interrupted.
Her mother joyfully smiled and turned away.
“Make sure to focus,” she sang.
Skylar ground her teeth, “I will,” she muttered. No matter what, she did not talk back to parents or any authority, as it was easier to move on with your life than create more commotion.
Skylar took her time walking up the stairs, lugging her legs onto each step.
Her room was simple: Light blue walls, a bed, and a large desk. Above her desk hung a simple mirror. Her bed was filled with homework, pens, and books. Her homework always ended up done, no matter how late she pushed it off.
Ms. Malum groomed girls and boys like Skylar. Homework finished, eyes blank, and not a SINGLE mark on their records. Ms. Malum spent more time outside of the bathrooms and crowding the already crowded hallways than she did in the classroom. Her eyes peering through the tiny plastic windows on the cheap faux wooden doors, her heels clapping with every conspiring step, and head-turning with every second; she cannot miss a single thing. Ms. Malum perceived herself as all knowing. Her thought processes being utterly simple: All kids are hiding something.
Lassus Liberi High School was known for its excellent academics. The school was nicknamed as the school that never sleeps, in the city that does not either. When you walk into the school, you're greeted almost immediately with a staircase leading to a tiny library, guarded by revolving administration. Small hallways, overflowing bulletin boards, and art projects that framed the exterior of the interior. A few classrooms were painted with bright colors, and the rest were tight boring beige boxes; glass windows filled the school with mocking light, in the dim hallways.
Skylar often waited a minute before leaving her class to get to the next one, she wouldn't walk at a faster pace, nor try to make it to class on time, but at least she wouldn't be amongst twelve hundred other students trying to get through the same space. Skylar forcibly smiles while walking through the halls: One grumpy look, and a couple of trips to the bathroom, and you are done in this school. Ms. Malum passed Skylar, two seconds later she stops three girls.
“I know,” she emphasizes, “you girls have class in the 100’s hall, why on earth are you going up the 200’s?” she questions, one eyebrow raised.
The two girls froze, looking at each other for an explanation.
While Ms. Malum isn’t looking, Skylar plugs her headphones back in and continues to class, following an exact route to avoid each hall monitor the school is using. Right as the bell rings, Skylar enters the class and takes a seat. As the teacher talks, Skylar grows bored. The bland walls tug at her restlessness. There was no one in the class that she could talk to. As the teacher continues to explain the quadratic formula, the lights in the room grow dimmer. Sky shifts around her seat, the chair is squeaking, but she couldn’t care less. The teacher faces Skylar, glaring her eyes widely, her grey hairs sticking out, her fingers suffocating the stylus, pressing onto the cluttered Promethean board filled with notes. Her teacher does not appreciate the sound.
Once school is over Skylar strolled to her car, as she walked to her car she could see the sparkling lake ahead of her. Students attempted to race out of the lot, the chaos of beeps and shouts from each car before the rush hour finally ends. She dumps her bag down by the door and rushes to her room. She throws on any swimsuit before getting stopped by her mom.
“Now honey,” her mother began, “you know you must finish all homework before starting to swim, you also have sat prep, your club meeting, and lacrosse.”
Skylar sighed. “I know,” she replied
Skylar dumped tonight's homework back on her bed, lying beside crumbled pieces of paper, pens, and flashcards.
Skylar's day went on routinely, with not a minute to spare. She arrived home at 9:00 pm. She ran through her room, tripping over clothing that has painted the flooring of her room. Her swimsuit is neatly folded onto the clean half of her bed. After throwing her clothes off, it is time to head for the water. The long grass tickles her feet as she rushes to jump in, feeling each droplet of water hit her body one by one. She crashes into the deep end, sinking to the bottom of the 14 feet deep pool, she opens her eyes to see nothing but the clean darkness of the pool, her body immediately carrying her up. No matter how long she spends underwater, Skylar is always lifted to the top, the water. After her swim, Skylar found her mother sitting by the kitchen table. Going against her gut, Skylar sat down besides her. Her mother’s phone was open to the “WHATSAPP” app. Skylar’s grandparents live overseas, in a war-ridden country, she rarely saw them. Mrs. Halab shut off her phone; she slowly turned and faced her daughter.
“You know,” she started, “your father and I worked very hard to come to this country.”
‘Here it comes,’ thought Skylar, ‘the story that makes my stomach knot.’
“I know, and I appreciate it, of course,” she replied, forcing a smile as she says it.
“I just want to remind you that you're here to learn, you are not here to fool around.” She asserts.
Skylar felt frustrated, but it’s easier to simply agree than hurt your parents. “I know, I won’t fool around anymore, I promise,” she recited.
A relieved expression filled her mother’s face. She smiled and walked up the stairs.
School the next day went on as usual. English first period, followed by Biology, then Math. Math was Skylar’s least favorite subject, where everything must follow the rules and in a routine like fashion. During math Skylar headed to the bathroom, ‘I can take one break today, it will be fine,’ she thought to herself. After signing multiple sheets of paper to conclude that she was, in fact, heading to the bathroom directly below the 200’s, and not walking the hallways, Skylar walked into the bathroom. A minute passed of merely standing. Three girls were standing in the big stall, each crying over separate issues. Skylar sympathized with them; every girl has cried in the big stall before, it is hard to not break down in this school. Almost thirty seconds later, the clacking of heels grew louder, and Ms. Malum kicked open the door, nearly breaking it. She headed straight to the big stall, passing Skylar, pounding on the door. The girls unlocked the door and stepped out, each with runny noses and puffy red eyes.
“You three are going to be in H U G E trouble for this, you understand me?” Ms. Malum snarked.
The girls looked at each other confused and dazed, each about to tear up.
“I’m sorry...what did...we...do?” the smallest one questioned softly, breaking down between each word.
“I don’t fall for your innocent acts, what girls stay in the same stall for over 10 minutes, you think I don’t know what you’re doing? Cut it out, and you will see me in my office after school,” Ms. Malum replied.
Skylar kept her head down, pretending to wash her hands. The water started to rise in the rectangular sink, the cries of the girls muted over the running sink water.
‘Just focus on the water Sky, don’t turn around,’ she thought to herself. But as the girls' cries grew louder and louder, it seemingly became impossible. She focused on the water for another minute, and then slowly turned around. With every inch of her body shaking, Skylar dove straight into the conversation. Straight into the deep end.