Tips

Characters

AMBER, an ambitious 18-year-old

who dreams of being a beautician.

ATTENDANT, a woman in her

late fifties who works as the

restroom attendant of a five-star

Italian restaurant.

MAN/RICHARD, a forty to fifty-

year-old man who pays young

AMBER to keep him company.

PREGNANT WOMAN

 

(A young woman around twenty, Amber, storms into the bathroom of what seems to be a gourmet restaurant. There is a restroom attendant leaning against the wall, she is in her early sixties. There is a cart next to the attendant with a jar labeled TIPS, a small bowl of mints, a stack of hand towels, the woman’s large purse, and an old picture frame with two newlyweds inside it. Amber slams down on the granite countertops before looking up at herself in the mirror. (All dialogue of AMBER, ATTENDANT, and MANAGER in a New York accent.))

 

AMBER

Shit.

(She turns on the sink and splashes some water on her face, then heads toward a paper towel dispenser near the attendant. The ATTENDANT sticks out her arms, offering up a linen towel.)

 

ATTENDANT

Here. Those paper towels from the dispensers? Rough as sandpaper. You’ll scratch that pretty face right up.

 

AMBER

Thanks.

                        (She blots her face with towel before handing it back to the attendant.)

 

ATTENDANT

                        (Pulling AMBER’s hand up to her face.)

Good God almighty! What a rock ya got there, huh? You got a real keeper on your hands.

 

AMBER

                        (Pulling away quickly and taking off the ring.)

You don’t know the half of it.

 

ATTENDANT

I guess I don’t.

AMBER

                        (She stares at the ring in her hands, proceeding to scratch it against the mirror.)

Of course.

 

ATTENDANT

What?

 

AMBER

It’s real. I knew it would be, I’m just lookin’ for a damn excuse at this point…

 

ATTENDANT

Are you tryin’ to tell me that you’re over here, hollerin’, because that thing is real? Never in my life,kid. Never in my life have I seen such a—

 

                                                                        AMBER

I don’t want it! I don’t want the ring, okay?

                        (Looking down. Long pause.)

                                                                       

ATTENDANT

You goin’ back out there anytime soon?

 

AMBER

No. I mean, I dunno. 

 

ATTENDANT

Well, it seems like it’s just you ‘n me then.

 

AMBER

So?

 

ATTENDANT

So nothin’ I guess.

                        (AMBER sits up on the bathroom calendar and picks at her nails.)

Mint?

                        (AMBER nods her head. ATTENDANT tosses her a mint from a small bowl on the cart next to her.)

 

AMBER

(Pointing to the picture on the cart.)

That you?

                                                                       

ATTENDANT

Me an’ my husband. Well, late.

                                                                       

AMBER

Oh. I’m real sorry, uh, I didn’t mean to––

 

ATTENDANT

It’s not like ya knew.

(Looks down.)

 

AMBER

How long were you two together?

 

ATTENDANT

Long time kid, long time. ‘Bout 39 years.

 

AMBER

Wow.

 

ATTENDANT

Wow just ‘bout sums it up.

 

AMBER

I dunno if I could do it.

 

ATTENDANT

Do what?

 

 AMBER

Ya know, the whole thing. Bein’ with someone for that long. Just seems like you’d be sick of ‘em.

 

ATTENDANT

You got it all wrong there. Every day is somethin’ new, when you’re in love like that.

 

AMBER

Yea, I guess so.

 

ATTENDANT

(Pointing to AMBER’s ring.)

That why you’re throwin’ a fit over that thing? Scared you’re gonna get bored?

 

AMBER

I’m not just gonna dump all my baggage on you, lady.

 

ATTENDANT

Why not? I got nothin’ better to do. And if ya feel so inclined, throw a tip in my jar. We’ll call it even.

 

 AMBER

Ehhh I dunno.

 

ATTENDANT

C’mon, I’m old! Life’s boring when you’re old. Gimme somethin’ that’ll bring me back.

 

AMBER

Ya promise you won’t say a word ‘bout this? Not to anyone?

 

 ATTENDANT

Not a soul.

AMBER

Alright. Wait, no, you know what, forget it. It’s stupid and I’m not gonna bother ya with it.

                                                                                                                      

ATTENDANT

I’m sure it ain’t stupid if you’re this wound up ‘bout it.

                       (AMBER looks at her, unsure.)

Who would I have to tell anyway?

 

AMBER

(Sitting herself up on the countertop.)

Alright. So I’m tryi’n’ to put myself through cosmetology school cause I’m real good at makeup and hair and all, but my parents refuse to drop a dime on it. They say it’s a ‘waste of my potential’. Bull. I ain’t never been good at anything else, but hair and makeup? That’s all me.

 

ATTENDANT

Ya got a nice face, kid, no need for any ‘a that makeup.

 

AMBER

Well, thanks a lot. But that’s not the point. Point is, I’m puttin’ myself through school on my own, so I need money, right? And my roommate, she told me ‘bout this ‘escort’ service. She said all I had to do was go out to dinner with this one guy, keep him company, and I could make a couple hundred bucks.

 

 ATTENDANT

Uh, oh.

 

AMBER

So I’m out with this guy, and he’s like 40, maybe 50. Real nice fella, good at keepin’ conversation ‘n all. We finish up eatin’ and he asks me how much I charge on the hour. And I says a hundred on the hour and ya know what he says?

 

ATTENDANT

What’s he say?

 

AMBER

He says, “You’re worth a lot more than that, sweetheart.”

 

ATTENDANT

Oh you’re really in trouble now.

AMBER

But I needed the money! And he kept payin’ me more ‘n more every time I went out with him and then one day I told him ‘bout my school and how I gotta pay for it all by myself and the guy just writes me a check! And ya know he says?

 

ATTENDANT

What’s he say?

 

AMBER

He says, “There’s more where that came from.”

 

ATTENDANT

You really got yourself into a mess now didn’t ya.

 

AMBER

Yeah.

 (Beat.)

 

ATTENDANT

So that ring’s from him?

 (AMBER nods.)

You gonna go through with it?

AMBER

I dunno.

 

ATTENDANT

Do ya love him?

 

AMBER

What?

 

ATTENDANT

You heard me, I said do ya love him?

 

AMBER

Course not.

 

ATTENDANT

Well then what else is there to know?

 

AMBER

He’s payin’ for my school. And my rent, too. If tell him no, he’s gonna cut me—

 (Knocks on the bathroom door.)

 

MAN’S VOICE

Amber, darling, are you in there? What’s taking you so long?

 (AMBER looks wide-eyed at the attendant.)

 

ATTENDANT

Uh, yea sir, she’s feelin’ a little under the weather. Somethin’ to do with her food, we think. Uhhh, ya see, there are lots of people gettin’ sick ‘round here lately and—

 

MAN’S VOICE

But we didn’t even begin our meal. There’s no way she could’ve gotten sick.

 

ATTENDANT

(Whispering.)

He didn’t even buy you somethin’ to eat yet?

(AMBER shakes her head.)

A drink?

(AMBER shakes her head.)

 

ATTENDANT

Jesus H.

 

MAN’S VOICE

What was that?

 

AMBER

I’ll be out soon. I’m just feelin’ sick that’s all. Go ‘head back to the table, hon.

 

MAN’S VOICE

Alright well, hurry back. We’ve got big plans to discuss!

 

ATTENDANT

Seems nice to me.

 

AMBER

He is! I’m tellin’ ya, he’s a good guy, he, I, I just—

 

ATTENDANT

Don’t love him?

 

AMBER

No. But the money…

 

ATTENDANT

Look, kid, ya just gotta figure out what makes ya happy.

 

AMBER

Beauty school. That’s it; it’s where I wanna be. It’s where I’m meant to be. I mean, I can just feel it, I know I’m good enough I really do.

 

ATTENDANT

Then what’s stoppin’ ya? Go on back to school and forget about this guy! He’s grown man for God’s sake– he can handle it.

 

AMBER

No, but I can’t! I gotta pay for school and I already quit my old job cleanin’ apartments and there’s just no way I could–

 

ATTENDANT

Did you say cleanin’?

 

AMBER

Yeah? Why what’s it to ya? I needed quick cash, alright.

 

ATTENDANT

And I’m one to judge? Do you see what I’m workin’ as?

 

AMBER

Oh, right. Wait, so why do ya care?

 

ATTENDANT

I got an idea kid, and I think it could work.

 

AMBER

What is it?

 

ATTENDANT

So what if—

(A pregnant woman walks into the bathroom, glances at AMBER and ATTENDANT, and walks into a stall. AMBER and ATTENDANT awkwardly wait for the woman to finish using the bathroom and wash her hands. ATTENDANT picks up the bowl of mints and puts them in front of the woman.)

Mint?

 

PREGNANT WOMAN

Uh, no thank you.

(ATTENDANT swaps mint bowl for tip jar, extends the tip jar and smiles cheesily. PREGNANT WOMAN sneers and exits.)

 

AMBER

My God, did ya catch the bump on that lady?

 

ATTENDANT

That thing was ‘bout the size of Manhattan itself!

 

AMBER

(Laughing lightly.)

Yeah, it was, wasn’t it?

(Her smile fades into a troubled expression as she looks down.)

Do you, I mean, have you… ever?     

 

ATTENDANT

No.

 

AMBER

How come?

 

ATTENDANT

Couldn’t. Just wasn’t made up like that I guess.

 

AMBER

Oh. Sorry.

 

ATTENDANT

Yeah.

 (Beat.)

You alright kid?                                                               

 

AMBER

(Clearing her throat.)

Yeah, yeah. I’m fine.

 

ATTENDANT

Don’t seem fine to me.

 (AMBER reaches into her pocket and pulls out the ring, fiddling with it.)

Ya know, Daddy Warbucks is still out there waitin’ for ya.

 

AMBER

Ya think? At this point he mighta just left.

(Puts the ring back into her pocket.)

 

ATTENDANT

Maybe. Maybe not, though. Only way to find out is to go out there yourself.

 

MAN’S VOICE

(Knocks heavily.)

Amber? Amber, darling, how are you feeling? I’m getting quite worried about you.

(AMBER and ATTENDANT make eye contact, ATTENDANT shrugs.)

Amber? Are you even in there? Hello! I’m coming in there right this-

 

AMBER

(Walks over and swings open the door.)

Hi.

 

MAN

Oh, hello. I was so terribly worried that you had run off, or were sick, or that you couldn’t find our table, or maybe that-

 

AMBER

I’m all good and fine. Now, let’s go back out there and order somethin’ to eat, I’m starvin’.

 

MAN

That sounds just wonder- wait. Did you take off your ring?

 

AMBER

Oh it’s right here I just–

                       

MAN

But why would you take it off at all? Does it not fit? Is it too big? I told the man you were a lean seven, not a six and a half!

 

                                                                        AMBER

No, no it fits fine I just–

 

MAN

Then what is it? Have you changed your mind already?

 

AMBER

I can explain–

 

ATTENDANT

No. I can explain.

 

MAN

Mind your own business, maid.

 

ATTENDANT

(To AMBER.)

And you think he’s nice?

 

MAN

(To AMBER.)

What?

 

AMBER

I–

 

ATTENDANT                                                        

No, ya know what sir last time I checked you’re some poor excuse of a man, and this is the ladies room, so if you could so kindly get the hell outta here that would be just great.

 

MAN

What gives you the audacity to–

(To AMBER.)

Do you know her?

 

AMBER

Yeah, well, no, I mean–

 

ATTENDANT

Excuse me, sir, I don’t think you heard me the first time. Get outta my restroom. Now.

 

MAN

(Grabbing AMBER’s arm aggressively.)

Come on, Amber, we’re going.

 

ATTENDANT

(Grabbing MAN’s arm with both of hers.)

Hey, hands off, buddy!

 

MAN

Would you calm the hell down!

 

ATTENDANT

(To AMBER)

Ya know what, kid, I don’t care how stuffed this guy’s pockets are I can’t let you go with him.        

 

AMBER

I’m sorry, what?

 

ATTENDANT

You heard me you’re stayin’ here. Sir, I’m gonna ask you to leave and this is the last damn time I’ll do it, so I would suggest that you get that rear of yours moving before I take this to the manag–

 

AMBER

I’m not stayin’.

 

ATTENDANT

Don’t worry ‘bout the money kid, I got a way I can take care of it. Just tell this jerk to make his way out the-

 

AMBER

I SAID, I’m not stayin’.

 

ATTENDANT

You’re not seriously gonna entertain this guy are you? Kid, you’re young! You, you… you got a future ahead ‘a ya! And time, too!

           

MAN

I told you, she’s not staying. She told you she’s not staying. How many people have to tell you she’s not staying for you to understand the concept that she is not– 

 

AMBER

My God, would you can it, Richard!

 

RICHARD

Excuse me?

 

AMBER

I told you to quit talkin’! Did ya hear me this time?

(RICHARD and ATTENDANT stare blankly at AMBER.)

Could you, give me a minute, please?

 

ATTENDANT

You heard the girl, get outta here.

 

AMBER

Both of you.

 

ATTENDANT

What?

 

AMBER

Now, please.

 

RICHARD

Amber, I don’t understand the meaning of this.

 

AMBER

Please. I needa be alone.

 

RICHARD

(Under his breath.)

With all I do for you.

(Exits restroom.)

 

ATTENDANT

Glad we finally got rid of that shmuck.

 

AMBER

I said both of you!

 

ATTENDANT

Fine, fine. Make this quick, kid. I gotta job to do.

(ATTENDANT exits. AMBER sits up on the counter and leans over, placing her hands on her face. She begins to cry. After a minute or so, she gets up and paces around the bathroom, still crying. She then approaches the counter and looks at herself in the mirror blankly, before pulling a cell phone out of her pocket. She dials a number and puts the phone to her ear as it rings.)

                       

AMBER

Hi, it’s me…Yeah, I know, I know…Please, Ma, just listen to me!…I know it’s been a while but just hear me out, please…I’m in trouble and I– uh, I dunno what to do… I was short on money and I, I joined this thing some ‘a my friends were doin’… No, Ma. I’m not sellin’ drugs… I’m an escort… An escort… I’ve been hangin’ out with this guy who’s a little older ‘n he pays me for it… No, Ma, it ain’t like that!… No not even once!… I know, I know… It’s just that he’s the only way I’ve been payin’ my bills ‘n if I cut him off I’ll have to drop out and I’ll lose my apartment…

 

RICHARD

(From offstage.)

Amber, would you come out here please?

 

AMBER

(Struggling to get the words up.)

Um, just a second, I– um, I need, uh, a little more time, okay? Ma…. Ma!… He asked to marry him…Yeah… I don’t wanna but I think I might have to and, and I just need your help…

(AMBER falls back into tears.)

I don’t love him, Ma, I don’t… You think so ‘cause I sure don’t… Well I love you too… Really?… You really mean that?… Thank you, Ma, thank you… No, no I understand… I’ll come home tonight. I just gotta get my stuff… Okay… I love you, too. Bye.

(She slides the phone back into her pocket and slumps against the counter with a deep breath.)

 

RICHARD

(From offstage.)

Are you alright? You sound upset and I didn’t mean to upset you, you were just being dull–

 

ATTENDANT

(From offstage.)

Dull? Who you callin’ dull, moron?

                                   

AMBER

(Opening the door.)

I’m alright now, you can come in.

 

RICHARD

Can we go now, sweetheart? I think it’s about time we put this night to rest.

 

AMBER

Yeah. Take me home. Go have the valet pull up the car and I’ll meet ya out front.

 

ATTENDANT

What? You’ve gotta be kidding.                                 

 

RICHARD

I knew you would come around. I’ll see you out front.

(Exits.)

 

ATTENDANT

You can’t be serious with this guy, kid! What in the Lord’s name are ya thinkin’?

 

AMBER

Look, I called my ma. Her and my pop agreed to pay for my school if I can cover my rent so I can stop all this. I’m just gonna have Richard bring me home so I can get my stuff, and then I’ll take a cab out to my parents’ place as soon as he leaves. As long as I can get a job, I think everything is gonna be alright.

 

ATTENDANT

Wow, kid. Good for you.

 

AMBER

Thanks. And thanks for your help tonight. It was, uh, nice meetin’ ya.

(AMBER hugs the ATTENDANT.)

 

ATTENDANT

Glad I could help. That is my job, ya know. And hey, if you’re lookin’ for work, you should apply here. They could use a few extra hands for cleanin’ and the pay ain’t bad.

 

AMBER

Thanks. I’ll think about it.

 

ATTENDANT

Well, goodnight. And good luck, too.

 

AMBER

‘Night.

(AMBER exits the bathroom, leaving a few coins in the tip jar on her way out and throwing a smile to the ATTENDANT.)

 

*BLACKOUT*

Olivia Hunt is in eleventh grade at Downingtown East high school. She is an avid writer and aspires to study screenwriting. Her dream is to write her own television sitcom, or to become a writer on Saturday Night Live. Olivia loves live music and concerts, going to the coffee shop down the street to write, and soaking up every beautiful moment of life.

Spelling “Kindergarten”

I am clutching my father’s hand like I do so well, because, God help me, I am not going into that classroom if it is the last thing I do. I’m not crying, because that would be out of place and embarrassing and my greatest talent is staying quiet. But, I am silently protesting, tugging on my father’s arm in place of wailing. I never talk much, and school is definitely not an exception.

 

I don’t want my parents to leave me here in this cold, dark school, even though the windows let in plenty of sunshine and fall leaves glow crimson and marigold on the grass outside, and even though the posters on the wall are colored butterscotch, aquamarine, and emerald, and other multisyllabic words I can spell at the age of five.

 

I will undoubtedly be tired and bored for hours on end in this cold, dark school, not to mention that friendship isn’t my forte. My backpack (which is violet, probably) hangs off of one of my shoulders, and I care more about leaving this place than the fact that my pencil case is threatening to fall out of the open pocket, and spill out onto the brown and blue speckled carpet.

 

My dad finally pries me off of him. Damn it, I think, but don’t say out loud, because I shouldn’t really be knowing words like that yet. Soon, my dearest father has delivered me straight into the hands of the devil. My teacher smiles, but I am sure that there is something sinister behind it.

 

I take millimeter steps to my desk, which is bordered at the top by a name tag spelling “Srishti,” the wrong way, of course. I’m positive that I can spell better than my kindergarten teacher. I will prove this fact, weeks later, after I am mistakenly sent to ESL due to my selective muteness, and after I successfully obtain several fancy mechanical pencils for doing well in the program, despite the fact that I speak English fluently.

 

I glance towards the door when I sit down at the desk, which is grouped in a table with three others. The girl directly next to me is small and quiet, although she will eventually grow up to be a loudmouth, who is nearly a foot taller than me and proficient in walking in heels. Her name tag spells “Lynn,” the correct way, of course. We don’t talk but we share a look, which is enough for now.

Srishti Ramesh is 15 years old and a sophomore in high school. She enjoys reading and writing, especially young adult literature. She also loves music, mostly hip-hop/rap and rock. She lives in Voorhees, New Jersey with her family and an unfortunate lack of pets.

Shattered Mirrors

I peel myself off of the stiff cotton sheets on my bed and stand up. Whoa, dizzy. Probably stood up too fast. No big deal.

I walk across the ratty old carpet of my bedroom and head toward my dresser. Jesus, these drawers will be the death of me. I can never get them open. It’s definitely the combination of the thick, Florida humidity and the fact that these things are just beat up, in general. My fan hums silently in slow circles above my head, a pathetic attempt to cool down my room. I can feel little beads of sweat ooze from my cracked, clammy hands. I pull harder and still, nothing. Bent into a squat, I wrap both hands around the little porcelain knob. I lean back and yank, and the drawer flies out toward me as I land on the floor with a crash. I push the drawer off of me and slowly stand up. Dizzy again. What is with me today? I wait until it goes away and then head over to my mirror, pulling up my tee shirt to reveal my soft torso underneath. My hips are wider than average and my stomach is not so flat. Just not good enough.

I rush over to the digital clock on my desk, covered in dust, to check the time. Five minutes to get out of the house. Grabbing a black nylon leo and an old pair of tights out of the drawer on the ground, I undress and dress as quickly as I can. The waistband of my tights tugs against the skin under my belly button, making a visible crease in the outline of my figure. Miss Jane is definitely going to say something. I sling my dance bag around my shoulder and head downstairs.

“‘Morning, Mom.” I slide my tee shirt and sweats back on over top my dance clothes.

She looks up from the paper at me.

“‘Morning.”

“You ready to go? I’m gonna be late.” I fill up a used plastic water bottle in the sink.

“Yeah, yeah just a second,” she says without lifting her gaze.

“Okay, well I’ll be in the car, so hurry up.”

She is so oblivious.

The car ride to school is silent besides the cool draft floating up from the air conditioner. Mom and I never really talk in the car. I used to fight with her because she’s an awful driver, but at this point I just let her roll through all the stop signs and red lights she wants. She turns on the radio with the small click of a little black knob. The volume is barely on, but I leave it because it suits us. We pull up to the office entrance and I hop out without a word. I immediately see Emily walking toward me, her shirt looking tighter than usual.

“Hey, Katie. Callbacks for second auditions came out today.”

I bite my nails in nervousness. They’re soft and broken down, the edges jagged against my bottom lip.

“Oh, shit! I totally forgot! Did you get one?”

A discontented look creeps onto her face. Her eyes jut down to the sidewalk.

“No. Rejected, as usual. Unlike you, though.”

My eyes light up. No way, that must mean…“Emily, uh I’m sorry. But, uh, by any chance did you see if uh… did I get it?”

I twist the fabric of my leotard into a knot against my hip over and over.

“Yeah, Katie. You got it.” She looks genuinely pissed and there’s a sense of bitterness in her voice. I don’t blame her. But I’m not sorry enough for Emily to not feel good about this. In fact, I feel great.

“Are you serious?”

She rolls her eyes and pulls out her phone. “Yeah, I’m serious. Here’s the pic of the cast list. I’ll send it to you if you really want.”

I glance over at her phone screen and immediately see my name. I’ve finally got this.

“Wow.”

We stand there in silence. I look Emily up and down. She was a curvy girl, kind of short for a dancer. Her thighs thick and muscular, and her hips a little too wide.

“See ya, K,” she murmurs as she walks away.

It’s me this time. I got the final callback. A thought crosses my mind and I change course from studio 3B to the bathroom. I walk in and swing each stall door open with a whoosh of warm air, checking for people; empty. I enter the large stall on the very end and lock the door behind me with an echoing ‘click’. I drop to my knees with a soft thump in front of the toilet. The off-white plastic seat has scratches running down it.

Pulling my hair back with the elastic on my wrist, the overwhelming smell of water rushes up through my nostrils. I hear a girl walk in and enter the stall next to me. I try to wait patiently, but I’m nervous, and I can hear quick, panicked breaths pouring out of me. I can hear the rolling moan of toilet paper coming out of its dispenser. I hear the grumbling flush of her toilet, and with that she washes her hands and is on her way. A breath of relief fills me. My hands shake as the right one creeps up toward my face. I shut my eyes and my cracked lips part. I need to look good for this next class, and right now I don’t look good enough.

___

“Alright, girls, put the center barres away and take the floor to stretch for a minute while I find some music.”

I place my fingers under the barre and push it up into the air a couple of inches to help lift it away with a few other girls. We reach the wall and they all let go expecting me to handle it, but I fall under the weight and the barre comes crashing down to the floor beside me.

“What the hell was that?”

I sit and stare straight at my teacher. Miss Jane is your typical retired professional. Still has the perfect body, thin arms and legs with barely any waist at all. She’s got that long, beautiful neck and defined cheekbones that pierce through her skin. That’s the thing. You can’t break the mindset. Even when you’re too old and they don’t want you anymore, you still can’t break it. You still need your body to be perfect, and you still think it’s far from it.

“Katie!”

“Yeah, yeah, sorry. I’m fine. Tripped, I guess.”

I hate when this stuff happens. Ever since it started I’ve been losing body strength and every once in a while, I just make some huge scene and it’s so embarrassing. Whatever, I’ll just play it off as clumsiness, as usual.

“Alright, ladies. Line up to go across the floor.”

I follow the other girls over to the corner and tune out Miss Jane as she rambles on about the combination. The mirrors are fogged up from the body heat in the room, but I can still see my outline in the reflection. All of the sudden I get dizzy. The shape of my body blurs and anger bubbles up inside of me as I see myself. I look terrible. This isn’t going to cut it for the upcoming audition.

“Katie, what the Hell are you staring at? God, get out the way!” A tall, slim brunette pushes past me. Ashley is her name, I think.

“My bad, sorry.” I walk back to the end of the line and try to focus on the others hard enough to pick up the combination.

The rest of class sucks. My gut burns and the bags under my eyes hang heavy. I need sleep. Soon enough, class is over and Miss Jane asks me to come talk to her on my way out. After packing up my things, I head over to her. She’s standing against the wall with a pen and pad, probably taking notes for next class.

“Katie, hi,” she says impatiently.

“Hey, Miss Jane. Is something wrong?”

“No, no, nothing wrong. Just wanted to talk.”

I bite at the raw cuticles lining my fingernails. My throat aches all the way down to my chest. My breath is scratchy and uneven.

“So, I heard you got a second audition for the Miami City Ballet.”

“Yeah, I’m really excited. It’s a great opportunity.”

“Indeed, it is. But, there’s something you need to keep in mind. Most city ballets only take certain body types in their companies, and one might say that in the ballet world, yours is not…ideal.”

My entire body goes numb. A chill runs from the top of my spine all the way down through my limbs and torso. I open my mouth to speak but the words won’t come out. I stand frozen in the moment with no way to break out of it.

“Katie, do you understand what I just said to you?”

I force an answer up out of my throat, “yes, I understand.”

With that I run out the studio, with only one place to go. As soon as I arrive, I hear the familiar click. And smell the familiar stench. And I sit there and breathe it all in because I know nothing else will come up, and I’m not sure what else to do but to just stay here, curled up on the warm tile floor.

“Katie?!”

My eyes flutter open to see my mom hovered over me.

“What happened?” I murmur and try to sit myself up.

“I came to pick you up and when you weren’t outside, I came in and asked Jane where you went. She said you’d probably be in here. God, Katie, I thought you were over this bullshit!”

“I—”

“Get up already! I’m 10 minutes late for my meeting! I’ll be lucky if I’m not fired at this point.” I try to stand, grabbing the cold metal bar to get my footing back.

“I got that audition, Mom.”

“What audition? You know what, no, I don’t care. Let’s go. I’m late.”

___

It’s the morning of audition day. As soon as I wake up, I notice how bloated I feel. It’s like somebody climbed inside my stomach with a balloon pump and filled me up with helium, only stopping when my skin was about to pop. I roll onto my back and slowly rise to sit. My face beats, swollen like hell.

Finally, I get up, get dressed, and pack up my things for the day. I head downstairs, grab two bagels, a banana, a granola bar, and a cold coffee drink, and shove them in my bag. Shockingly, Mom is still asleep. Thought she’d be at work by now. I’ll take the car to school myself, then. That’ll be sure to spite her.

A few minutes later, I pull up in my navy Saab, tires squeaking to a halt. Sitting in my parking spot at school, I twist my tee shirt into knots over and over. I look down and notice my hand. It looks like I’ve taken way too many turns on the monkey bars. Just like back in Kindergarten. Whoever has the most calluses is the strongest, “the toughest”, they said. Not such a sign of strength now, I guess. Teeth marks imprint the skin just under the knuckles of my middle and index finger. Almost like little half-moons, lining up in rows across my hand. I glance in the direction of the rearview mirror to catch the image of my face staring back.

How can you even look at yourself?

_____

First, second, third, and fourth period were painful. I don’t think a day has ever gone by slower in my life. Thank God, lunch is here. I walk into the cafeteria and step inside a busy swarm of voices, layered on top of one another at all different volumes and tones. If you really listen hard enough, you can pick up a few words from someone’s conversation. I head into the lunch line and slide a hard, green, plastic tray off the stack and onto the counter in front of me. Shuffling along in the classic assembly line of food, I go from steamed vegetables to a roll, to a greasy slice of meat lover’s pizza (well, two, because I asked for an extra), and finish up with a stale looking brown brick they try to pass for a brownie. Yum. I pay for my food and quickly exit the cafeteria, hoping to escape the noise as soon as possible.

Traveling through the hallways is sort of a routine for me. It’s quiet and lonely, yeah, but that’s why I like it. I’ve never really liked being overcrowded with people or spending my time with big groups. I like being by myself. That’s where I can breathe most of the time. 

The fluorescent lights give off a soft hum, their artificial glow stinging my eyes and making them water. I pass a girl at her locker, hear the chiming of her backpack zippers clinging together. Turning a corner, I’ve finally reached my destination. I walk in and head toward the last stall. Locking myself inside, I throw my backpack aside and shimmy my back down the wall to a seat. Messages are scrawled in pencil on the walls all around me. I grab a slice of pizza and go at it. God, that’s good. Too bad fifteen minutes later it’s coming right back up.

____

Dancers begin to file into the main studio where auditions will be taking place. Fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes until I need to be on my absolute A-game, ready to take the floor. I slide into a split and start to stretch out. Other girls around me are doing crunches and planks, or stretching their feet with elastic bands. An older man walks in, small in stature and carrying with him a black, leather briefcase. He takes a seat at the piano in the far-right corner of the room. Must be the maestro. I change legs in my split and stretch a little bit further. The air is sticky and heavy with sweat already. I’d have to say mostly from the nervousness in the room.

“Okay, ladies. Let’s go. I need you to line up at the barre in number order, lowest number closest to the door, highest number closest to that wall. I’ll give you 30 seconds. Go.”

Andrew Beckman, Artistic Director of the Miami City Ballet. This is the man who will ultimately decide whether or not my career begins here. He’s a tall man, with a defined, muscular jawline and a stoic look upon his face. He seems extremely serious and cold. His eyes are a deep brown, almost black color. He walks toward me slowly.

“Are you going to line up, or are you just going to continue staring at me?”

Shit.

“Um, yes- I mean no, uh- sorry, sir.”

I move as quickly as possible to my spot on the barre and stare straight ahead. I can feel my face reddening rapidly, every pair of eyes in the room was on me. Great start, Katie.

“And fouetté, and fouetté, and fouetté, and fouetté! Pull those arms in closer! Turn out your supporting leg! Why am I not seeing straightened knees? Where the Hell are those straightened knees!”

The combination ends and the maestro stops. I can feel the sweat soaking my body through my leotard and all the way down my tights. My chest is rising up and down with my breath. I see Andrew coming toward me.

“You, 54.”

He stares me up and down.

“Yes?”

More staring.

“Nice work.” With that, he walks back the front of the room and turns to face the maestro.

“Something a with a little more power. For grand allegro.”

The maestro begins to play and strong music carries across the room. I catch Andrew glancing over at me with a look of somewhat interest. This is going really well.

“So girls, I want to see tombe pas de bourree glissade saut de chat. Arms in fifth for the saut de chat. Questions? No? Okay, then. Maestro!”

Once again, music pours into the air and dancers begin to cross the floor. Andrew circles them, observing closely, looking for any flaws to point out.

“Point your feet! God, is this a joke to you people?”

I approach the front of the line and prepare to go across the floor. My legs are shaking with anxiety. This is the last combination of the audition, the last chance to prove myself. Focus. No matter what, stay focused.

“Very nice, 54. Keep up the good work.”

I finish on the other side of the floor with a breath of relief. I am so getting this spot.

______

“Okay everyone, nice work today. A list will be posted online of our new company members by tonight at 7 p.m. Letters will also be sent out to all of you letting you know whether or not you have been chosen. I wish you all the best of luck.”

I curtsy with the others and start to pack up my bag to leave when I feel a strong hand on my shoulder.

“Remind me of your name again?”

I turn to face him. He is older-looking up close. Small wrinkles crease his pale forehead.

“Katie. Katie Glysen. It was such a pleasure to audition for you today.”

“Ah, yes. Well, Ms. Glysen, I wanted to have a chat with you about your audition today. You’ve clearly had excellent training and your technique is wonderful, there’s just one problem…”

He glances down at me with an unsure look on his face, studying me from the shoulders down. I go numb.

“Do you understand what I’m trying to say here, Ms. Glysen?”

I say nothing.

“Ms. Glysen?”

This can’t be happening again, not now.

He shifts his weight to the side and crosses his arms, looking now beyond me into the distance.

“What I mean, is that you have the talent. The dancing is there and you have what it takes. But, when it comes to having the right look for a dancer, I’m afraid you just don’t cut it. You’re just not as… thin as most. I’m sorry.”

My limbs are stuck. A rush of anxiety and anger and insanity overcomes me and I don’t know what to do with it so I just stand there. Not a word, nothing.

“I think I should be going now.”

“Of course, of course.”

With that, I grab my bag and get out of the building as fast as possible. I will never be good enough. No matter what I do, no matter how hard I try; it’s over.

____

The air coming in from the cracked windows is cool and dry. My eyes are set on the road, with the occasional shift to the setting sun on my left. The sky is beautiful shades of violet and coral, swirled together in a picture of calamity. It looks like a painting, full of magnificent colors all intertwined. An overall serenity has overcome me in this moment, because I know exactly what I need to do to make things right.

The only thing I’ve ever wanted, the single word that rules my life- I’ll never get it. Every day I try to take it and change the way things are, but I’ve realized now that nothing is ever going to change. Nothing will ever get better. Nothing will ever be enough. So, I’m letting it go, and I’m all right with that. No more burning in my throat. No more stinging in the beds of my fingernails. No more splintered lips. No more judgment. No more pressure. No more fear. Just isolation. It’s time for me to let go, and stop trying to be something I’m not. One last ‘click’; this time, it’s the wheel.

I’ve lost control.

____

Epilogue:

Emily is walking through the hallway and feels a million eyes scan her. Faint whispers fill her ears:

“Did you hear about Katie Glysen?”

“It’s a shame, what happened with that girl.”

“Maybe she was depressed or something.”

“What are you wearing to the memorial?”

“Do you think we’ll have an assembly?”

They don’t get it, Emily thinks. Yeah, they’re performing arts kids, but you don’t know unless you dance. From day one, they train you to look at yourself in the mirror and criticize yourself. It’s just how it is. I mean, Katie wasn’t even that bad, at least she was sort of tall. If she thought she was bad, then I…

She turns for the bathroom.

____

Olivia Hunt is in eleventh grade at Downingtown East high school. She is an avid writer and aspires to study screenwriting. Her dream is to write her own television sitcom, or to become a writer on Saturday Night Live. Olivia loves live music and concerts, going to the coffee shop down the street to write, and soaking up every beautiful moment of life. This piece is based on the tragic eating disorders she has witnessed in the world around her from growing up as a dancer.

Puppet Master

Pitiful…unusual…pitiful…unusual

oh, what a tale.

Oh, what a story,

one may expect to come true.

 

A doll sat up on the old, grandfather clock. It seemed to be staring down at the floor with glassy eyes begging to be on the ground. Lifeless eyes followed your every move and the silent beating of a heart that should have been still filled the room.

 

A man stood in a dimly lit room, sewing. He would make his creation come to life. Lifeless eyes would become real; a still heart would once again beat. The man sang a small

song as he worked, humming a made up tune.

The old clock goes

tick tick tock.

A doll sits on that clock

singing

one more block

one more stitch

and one more heart.

 

The clock chimed twelve: ding, dong, ding, dong in twelve successive strikes. But he didn’t stop. He didn’t have any care for time, for the only thing on his mind was his creation. Soon, another hour passed and the clock chimed one. The man put down his needle and thread, taking in a deep breath of air.


“Finished!” he exclaimed, holding up his creation for his other servants to see.

 

Glassy eyes, a stitched smile, and the echo of a heartbeat were his definition of perfection. He set his creation down and waited. One, two, three… His breaths came in rapid succession; his most perfect creation was about to come to life, and come to life she did. She creaked and jittered before standing up with a robotic motion. Perfect.

 

He gave the girl a smile – a wicked, wicked smile.

“Welcome home, dear princess. You may call me the Puppet Master. Everything will be alright as long as you never grow up…”

 

It was all okay. He only took the children that were already living a dollhouse life. He had to get ready. The next one, the next target, he needed another. He needed a perfect prince for his perfect princess.

The man donned his hat over his mop of black hair. He brought the brim down over his sharp, green eyes. He then shrugged on his coat. A black coat, blacker than the night, reached past his knees. And the last were his shoes. Pointy shoes with tassels adorned his feet, a color of emerald that matched his eyes.

 

He slipped outside, shutting the door behind him without a single sound. Creeping like a shadow, blending in perfectly with the dark he looked for an open window – the sign of yet another paper house. He quietly crept in, knowing that the child in his bed would be awake. He stood in front of the child’s bed, nothing of him visible except his emerald shoes. The child sat up, trembling with fear.

“Wh-who are you, Mister with the emerald shoes?”

The man just held a finger to the child’s lips. The child was alarmed – when had he moved? He then smiled at the child, a sweet, sickly smile that showed off his glistening teeth.

 

“Hush,” the man whispered in the child’s ear, and with that the child fell back on his bed, in an eternal sleep. He picked up the child, cradling the boy like a newborn baby. His new, little doll princess would get a perfect doll prince after all. Once again he blended in with the night, but this time holding a little boy in his arms.

 

The man arrived back at his house and set the boy down on the stone, cold table. The boy was pallid. His pallor pale, veins sticking out, everything about him screamed DEATH. But the man would not accept this, no. He did not kill; he merely preserved. He preserved innocence and youth, saving children from homes they did not wish to be in – paper houses, doll houses, paper families, doll families.

 

He finally began his operation. A light tune started playing:

 

Dolls in dollhouses,

children playing.

Dolls in dollhouses,

children crying.

It’s okay,

hush,

you don’t need to struggle.

Pain will soon change to pleasure.

When your body has been torn apart,

memories will fade into pain.

 

First, he picked up the knife. The knife glinted in the dimly lit room, but it wasn’t any knife, no. It was a surgeon’s knife, an artist’s knife, a knife used for procedure; one that was used to form art. The man ran the knife across the boy’s naked torso, letting the crimson roses bloom across his body. The blood drained into a bucket. He then put the knife down and grabbed a needle and thread, stitching the boy’s wounds up. But he didn’t stop there; he continued stitching while humming a little tune:

 

Needle and thread

needle and thread

might wind up dead.

 

The boy now had stitches sealing not only his wounds, but also crossing over his mouth. His mouth was twisted into a sick sort-of smile, and his eyelids had been sown to remain open. Electric-blue irises that hid underneath were exposed. Electric-blue irises that once held life now held only death and…despair.

 

After putting the needle and thread away, the man clapped his hands together with excitement; his eyes were sparkling brighter than any gem. Taking out a pallet and a paintbrush, he once again went back to work. Paying no attention to the time, he let the grandfather clock chime on. Tick, tock…Ding, dong! With a flurry of hand movements and timed strokes of the brush, he was done. He had created the perfect prince for his perfect princess.

 

The boy had a light blush on his cheeks and his skin was given a golden hue. His eyes had been painted over with an even more startling blue. But most importantly – the finishing touch – a symbol on the boy’s left palm, a symbol of ownership that would remain forever. Adorning the boy’s left palm was a feather, a red feather.

 

The man put the boy down and waited. One, Two, Three… The other dolls also watched in anticipation. The boy creaked and jittered, much like the girl before him had. Once again, the echo of a still heart’s beating filled the room. The man gave the boy a smile – a wicked, wicked smile.

 

“Welcome home, dear prince. You may call me the Puppet Master. Everything will be alright, just as long as you never grow up…”

 

Pretty soon children started disappearing all across the country. The Puppet Master was the stuff of nightmares and everybody had heard about him. The man that crept in the shadows and kidnapped children. Nobody had ever gotten a glimpse of him, but the last cry of the children kidnapped was a clue turned legend.

“It’s the Mister with the emerald shoes!”

 

Everybody knows the legend now; everybody knows to keep their windows shut at night. 


Diya Goyal is an eleventh grader at Eastern Regional High School who dreams of one day becoming an author and poet. She holds a passion for reading and writing, and absolutely adores the mystery genre. Although, she would not be able to answer if asked what her favorite book is. Goyal also loves to watercolor and sketch.

A Domestic Skirmish

Mississippi, 1834

           

            Sarah and I, we was only eight when we saw a dog fight for the first time.  Just behind our house, where our pop would round up some twenty dogs over the course of each and every month, hed put up a new wall for each fight and watch the devils go at it for an hour or so, or at least till the last dog was standing, all tard out but victorious none the less, and one man would be screaming for joy at his big win while hed watch the cash (which had piled up from all the bets at the beginning of the fight) fall into his hands.  A lot of men theyd just come to our house to watch, but they aint pay no bets.  These men warnt no bother for pop, cause theyd still pay to watch, and he made plenty of money doing so.

 

            Our mama died when we was real young, and for the longest time, we aint knowed what happened to her.  I dont think wed of ever found out if it warnt for Ms. Mary.  Lovely lady that she was, she came to be a great step-mom for Sarah; least I think so.  She was a learned lady, Ms. Mary, and she was young and pretty too, with beautiful, long brown hair, and blue eyes that sparkled when she taught us.  She was the only teacher in our school who was a lady, and all the boysd be starinat her in class, and she kept everybody talkinat lunch time (though not usually bout her lessons).  Course she knowed all about pops business with the dog fights and such.  Everybody in town knowed pop was a businessman, and he aint never let nobody get in his way.  Hed be gone as long as weeks at a time, and he aint never talk bout where he was a-goin, but hed always come back with at least ten pups of all shapes and sizes.  Sarah and I came to be accustomed to beinalone in the big house and actinolder than we was, and methinks we growed up a little too fast livinthat way, but Ms. Mary she pitied Sarah and I, and she left us a delicious hot meal on our doorstep many nights when pop warnt home, and methinks her wonderful apple pie helped us stay young and lively.  She was a lovely lady, Ms. Mary.

 

            Anyways, as I said, Ms. Mary she came to be a motherly figure for little Sarah.  I often seen them in class together long after the school day was over, and they was always a-talkinand talkin, real close together, and I would set outside the door and keep down low and sneaky so I could listen, cause Ms. Mary she learn lessons to Sarah after class that she never would during the school day.  Shed tell Sarah that the young girl had to be strong, but she couldnt show it.  Lord knows how one could do that!  Sometimes I would grow a little jealous I warnt ever invited to their secret meetings.  But one time, she and Sarah they caught me a-eavesdropping.  Luckily, they warnt mad, but they just laughed and told me to come inside.  So I done as they asked, and thats when she broke the news to us both.  We was each ten then, and so I spose she thought it a proper time to learn us of our mamas death.

 

            The story warnt much; she probably knowed us kids couldnt handle the details.  She told us that our pops came home drunk as a monkey one night when we was real little, and he got ran into Ma, and they got in a little argument bout his drinking habits, and then it escalated (I aint know what that word meant at the time, but now I knows, cause Is much smarter now), and Ma she got to talkin’ ‘bout how cruel pop was with his poor dogs hed been a-forcinto fight to the death, and he aint wanna hear no more after that.  He done murdered her, and thats all Ms. Mary told us.  Perhaps I aint never gonna know how he did it, but I spose thats fine, cause now when I think bout it I really dont wanna know.

 

            Ms. Mary took me aside after that, and she told me that I neednt have any special lessons with her cause I was a boy and I warnt gonna have no problems beinmyself.  But then she begged me to start my own business when I was older, and to not take over pops dog fighting monopoly and such, cause money warnt everything and dogs lives mattered more.  I assured Ms. Mary that I warnt interested in seeing any more dogs fight if I could help it, and that made her real happy, and she smiled and thanked me and gave me a nice big kiss on the cheek, and told me I was a good boy and that Id grow up to be a much better man than my father ever was.  Boy did my face light up bright red like the 4th of July after that!  All the boys, theydve loved to have been kissed by Ms. Mary, and theydve probably gone runninaround tellinevery person they saw bout the whole thing.

 

            Now one time, a little pitbull, methinks he went by the name of Jody, he done bit the tail off another poor pup, and when he done so he twirled the damned thing round and round in his jaws like a tornado, and he was all triumphant and such, and dark, fresh blood was a-flyinevery which way; and Sarah she didnt like that too much, and so she got to cryin’ and cryinlike I never seen nobody cry before, and I swear she bawled nuff to fill up the crik that run behind our house.  The other men there that was watchinthe fight started to stare at the poor girl, and soon as pop saw her he took her away.  I never knowed what he told her, but after that night she aint never cry at a dog fight again.  When I asked her about it (and I did many a time), she just shook her head and said cryinwas bad for business, and that she had to be strong like me.  Pops always told me I was a strong boy, and that made me feel good, specially when he learned me to chop wood and carry the logs around to make a new pit for the dogs.

 

            I spose pops cared about Sarah, anyhow.  One time he told her to draw out a diagram for the pit, and she done a wonderful job and drew a perfect little square ring, and he congratulated her.  She was mighty proud and happy after that.  But soon as she tried to be like me and help carry the logs, he smacked her and gave her a long talking to, and I aint make out much of it but this: Girls aint sposed to build things, theys just sposed to watch.

 

            The first time pop gave me an ax, he motioned me to follow him out back, and by and by we come upon the beautiful group of Mexican petunias that grow in our yard by the crik, and they was bright violet and mighty pretty.  I always loved those petunias.  At first I wondered why pop needed me to bring the ax, then he says we would be cutting down a mighty oak, but first we had to get rid of the petunias.  That made me quite sad, but he said them Mexican petunias was invasive and brought the other trees down.  So he took the ax and went at em, and by and by he started pulling em out by their roots, and then we got to choppinmy first oak.  Pop said wed build a mighty big wall for the dogs with that trunk; it was wider than me!  That ax was heavy, and I got to beinreal tard out cause hed make me work all day, but I got used to it; Id be out choppinwood and buildinbigger and bigger pits every weekend.  The neighborsd stop by every once in a while, and when they seen me out back a-hackinaway there grew a look of pity in their faces, cause they knowed all the expectations put on me was too much.  But they never said anything, cause pop was a man of power with all his money and such, and he warnt to be challenged.

 

            Ms. Mary was a great poet, and shed always give Sarah poems to read, probably because she couldnt let no one else know she was writing them.  Thats how Sarah got so smart, I spose.  It was truly wonderful, though, cause Sarah shed read the poems and then bring them home for me to read, and it sure did take me a long time to understand em, but by and by I got to knowing what Ms. Mary was talking about in each one.  And boy did she have a lot to say!

         

            One day, near the end of the school year, Sarah told Ms. Mary that she should publish her poems so as to let all the townspeople read ‘em.  But Ms. Mary she said ain’t no women’s poetry would be respected in our little town in Mississippi, and even worse, she could get hung for it.  But then Sarah come up with a wonderful idea; what if Ms. Mary could put her poems up all around the town and sign ‘em off with a different name?  Why, Ms. Mary she thought a moment, and then she said she loved the idea and called Sarah a genius, and she got right to doin’ so.  She’d go out late at night, I s’pose, and post em in each and every bar and post office and on the back of people’s carriages and even around our school.  The poems was wonderful, and they was all different and interesting.  Some of ‘em were about nature, and others was about romance.  But some of ‘em were challenges to society; she wrote about the unfairness that women faced, and in one poem she wrote about the problems with slavery!  But her most famous poem she wrote in the hot Mississippi July, and it was about no other than pop:                                          

                                   

                                                It is nothing short of amazing to see

                                                A group of loyal companions, so ebullient and friendly,

                                                Transmute to beasts

                                                as a result of the actions of one man                                      

                                                The god-awful business-man!

                                                He who sees no harm

                                                In a little fun with a fight to the death

                                                I would not be taken aback

                                                if one day his money

                                                turned on he who so gracefully stole

                                                for one mans treasure map

                                                is most certainly not worthy

                                                to act as a map for his very life

                                                                                                k.

            It got the whole town talkinday and night, all about who K was or why he hated the dog fights so much.  Pop he tried to ignore it at first, actinas if nothinever happened, but by and by he got angered with everyone staring at him.  And one day he vowed hed find out who this K was and punish him.  Needless to say, pop kept a-goinwith his business, and the money kept pilinin.  I think his trips to the bank helped to take his mind off all the K business.  Well, those and a whole lot of nights at the bar, for sure.

           

            A man by the name of TerryI aint never seen him at a fight beforehe thought it smart to come to a fight one night that July.  I found out he was from across the state border, and hed just seen his pup go missinthe week before.  He was taken by K.s poem of course, and thatd learned him of where all the missinpups were goin.  Course we aint know all that bout him at first.  But once the fight started, sure enough Terry seen his missindog in the pit and made it a big deal.  Terry started asking pop questions about the places he got his dogs from, and said he wanted his dog back, but that didnt last long.  Everyone was mad he caused a disturbance in the fight, and he was kicked out before he could say much more.  They laughed mighty hard after that, except for Sarah, who followed him outside, and the dogs they kept a-goinat it and soon enough everyone was back to watchinand cheerin.  But pop he got mighty pale and he aint watch much of the fight after hed gone.

 

            He stopped hostingfights for a while after that night.  One day, he told us he had to go into hiding and that we might not see him for a couple-a days.  But days stretched to weeks, and we aint see much of pop.  A lot of folks started showinup on our doorstep, and askinto see pop, and when wed tell em he warnt home, theyd get angry and demand to know where he went off to.  When we told em we aint know, they got mighty red and angered.  Sarah got to beinquite scared of those kinds of folks and worried that theyd hurt us, so she told Ms. Mary, and of course the saint come to live with us and help us.  I was worried that pop would come home one day and find her in our house, but she didnt seemed to think about that too much.

           

            Anyways, Ms. Mary helped us out quite a bit.  Besides cooking for us (though we was already used to her bringing dinner most nights), she helped us deal with the folks that come to our house.  They was always mad about pop, and she told em that we aint know where he went but that she believed stealing those dogs for fights was wrong and that shed send them a letter if she ever found out where pop was a-livin.  They was always mighty thankful after that and kind too.  Ms. Mary had that effect on people; she could cheer anyone up no matter how mad they was.  Sarah and I got to beinreal close with Ms. Mary in those weeks with pop gone, and she started to learn us how to write poetry.  I warnt too good at it, but Sarah she had a natural talent.  She and Ms. Mary had loads of fun and theyd spend all day that summer writing out by the crik. 

           

            One time I went out with them, and while they was writing I got to explorinthe crik a little.  Since I was 13, I figured it was time to start going out into the wild like a real man.  But I aint walked 4 paces before I come across a little furry body in the distance, right on the opposite bank of the crik.  I hopped across some stones and made it to the other side, and quickly I saw it was the body of a poor pup, sporting a coat of fur that was once bright blonde but was now all matted with dried red blood.  The sad little creature!  So thats what pop mustve done with all the dead warriors; hed put em right in the crik to flow right in to the Mississippi.  This poor little pup mustve been misplaced and stuck.  I didnt want to pick him up; his eyes were still open with the same ferociousness they mustve had when he breathed his last breath.  I called Ms. Mary over, and she gasped with great horror when she saw the poor creature. 

 

            She said we ought to give him a proper burial.  So we picked him up with a shovel (aint none of us wanted to touch him) and put him in the ground in a little hole we dug near the crik, and Ms. Mary read a poem she said was dedicated to all the dogs whod lost their lives, and right as she was a-finishinand Sarah was about to pour the first handful of dirt back on top, the back door opened and we all turned to see pop, and soon as he saw Ms. Mary with us kids his face turned mighty stern and red like a devil!  He walked down to us with the stride of an angered king, and just like Henry VIII he told Ms. Mary shed lose her head if she failed to do some explainin.  Well, unlike anyone else who mightve shrunk and quivered from such a statement delivered by such a man as pop, Ms. Mary stayed calm and collected.

 

            “Im caring for your children,she said.  A child simply cannot live without proper guidance, and your extended absences have rendered these two young ones lonely and miserable.

 

            As one could expect, pop was struck by this challenge.  Pop observed the scene, and then he started to walk around, shaking his head and such.  He seemed to think things over a minute, and when he turned to face us, he was a different person.  He spoke in a way I never seen before.  Instead of getting all mad and screaming, he got mighty soft and kind and spoke in a quiet voice like a teacher:

 

            “Why, miss, you see here, I think what we have is a little bit of a misunderstanding.”  Miss Mary stood still and looked confused, and Sarah did too.  I couldnt believe this new version of pop; I was still so surprised that he aint hit Ms. Mary yet, but I was thankinGod that was so.

 

            Then he said, A lot of people been sayinawful things bout me, miss.  I dont want to send the wrong message—”

 

            He looked up real quick, so as to see if Ms. Mary was lookinand probably to make his speech a little more powerful, I spose.  Sure enough, Ms. Marys eyes were stuck on pop, and so he went on, even more softly, almost like he felt bad for the lady.  Surely he was tryinto seduce her!

 

            “Im a nice man, really, I am, miss.  But I just dont understand why you think you need to come on to my property, look after my kids, and bury my dogs.

 

            His words struck my ears with a powerful blow, cause they was just so unexpected and queer cominfrom that mouth.  And I could tell Ms. Maryd had it with that, and I squirmed and cried inside cause I knowed she had best keep her mouth shut, but she was determined to send a message of her own.

 

            “Now you listen to me, Mr. Businessman.  These dogs are most certainly not your dogs, and Id bet quite a few of your visitors of these past weeks would gladly reaffirm such a statement.”  Well Ill be damned, the lady done it!  It was over now.  I aint know how much longer I could hold it all in.  I had to do somethinsoon, else pop might lose his temper that was already so fragile.

 

            Pop started to walk over, slowly but all the more powerful.  He got real close to Ms. Mary and whispered into her ear, so quiet I could barely hear:

 

            “Do you mean to tell me, miss, that youve invaded my home and decided you could stay for weeks?

 

            “Yes.

 

            “And youve been looking after my children all this time?

 

            “Yes, they never had a mother to perform the task.

 

            Pop smacked her hard across the face, and Sarah and I both felt it, and Sarah she started to cry right away, and even I felt a little tear on my face.

 

            “Quiet!pop yelled, his face bright red, and Sarah couldnt stop so she run away down to the crik, and I couldnt figure out what I was a-gonna do.  Pop grabbed Ms. Mary and begun to talk real soft and devilish again.

 

            “Yous the first person Ive met from this here town that dont like dog fights.  I never thought that such a lovely poet could be a lady.

 

            Ms. Mary quivered when he said that.  He knowed the secret!

 

            “Dont you worry, miss, I aint a-gonna kill you.  Not yet, at least.  First Is got to make sure the whole town knows what happens when a poor soul challenges me and disrupts my business.

 

            And then he took Ms. Mary inside, and I spose he locked her somewhere, and so I went down to talk to Sarah, and she was a-cryinand cryin

 

            “Dont cry, Sarah, yous a-gonna make this here crick overflow!”  She stopped and looked up at me, and right away she says, We gotta kill pop.”  As one might guess, I was mighty surprised at such a statement from this innocent child.  I knowed we couldnt do such a thing, so I tried to learn Sarah about some morals that Ms. Mary mightve forgotten to learn her.

 

            “Sarah, we cant do that,I said.  Wed be sorry we done it, and the whole townd shame us.

            “I dont care about the town, I want to save Ms. Mary!

 

            “Sarah, Ms. Mary aint related to us.  We cant kill pop to keep her alive.

 

            “Ill think of something,she said while she stood up.  Then she stormed off, and I begun to get a little scared at what would happen.  The little girl couldnt kill pop!  And course when she tried to do so shed probably end up gettinkilled herself.

 

            Well, later that night pop tried to be a good dad and make us some dinner for once, but Sarah said she didnt want his food, and so he sent her away without anything to eat.  After I was done, I found her and she told me that she found Ms. Mary; the lady was locked in the basement.  Sarah said we had to bust her out, and I figured I could help her do that, but the time warnt quite right yet.

 

            A few weeks later, pop went out again; I spose he was a-gonna go in to the bar.  So Sarah and I took our chance, and we went down to the basement.  She was locked in there, and we aint know how to get the door open, so I went to get the ax from out back, and it took me a mighty long time and plenty of strength to do it but I finally busted the door open.  Boy did she look sick!  She was palern a ghost, and it made me quite upset to look at her.  She was strapped to the wall, her arms stretched out at her sides, and she was all tard out, and I figured pop warnt feeding her much.  She was mighty happy to see us, though, but then she came to and asked what we was a-doin.  When we done told her we was gonna bust her loose, she said, Why, such an idea is highly unintelligent.  Now, you two leave this minute!

 

            When we kept a-goin, she got more nervous and desperate. Your well-being is not to be risked for me!  Please, children, you must try to please your father.

 

            But we aint stop, and by and by she didnt seem to care no more.  I spose she realized that our efforts would work, cause I was handlinthat ax like a man and her ropes were a-cominundone mighty easy.  We got her undone, and she fell down into our arms.  We helped her up the stairs, and got her some good food and water.  Then she thanked us and told us she felt rejuvenated, and so we were proud and happy.  But then she said shed have to flee, or else shed be killed and wed be punished bad.  She told us wed be smart to come with her, too, and Sarah and I was fine with that idea.

 

            But soon as we reached the front door, we saw pop a-comindown the way with a whole pack of men behind him, and we knowed he was excited to show the whole town how he done caught the mysterious k.  Sarah and Ms. Mary was both scared, I could tell, and Id be lyinto say I warnt too.  Then Sarah got to mutterinunder her breath, and she was so restless, and she kept sayin, Where are theyWhere are they?

 

            I was wonderinwho on earth she couldve been thinkinabout, and so I asked her if she was expecting guests other than the angry men on their way across the front lawn, and she told Ms. Mary and I that she gave the man Terry a letter to send to his brother, so as to round up the mad townspeople from across the Mississippi border whod had their dogs a-stolen.  Sarah done told them to come this very day to capture pop!

 

            Well, Ms. Mary and I aint had much time to take in the surprise, cause pop and the townspeople was getting mighty close, so we run out the back door and took the long route to town without lookinback.  Sure enough, once we got there, Terry was leadina pack of angry men towards us, and they all had new dogs with em.

 

            “Mr. Terry, my mailit worked!Sarah shouted.  Terry looked down and seemed to congratulate the girl, but then he wanted to get down to business.

 

            “We was just on our way to your old man, miss,he said.  Now that everyones here, wed love to take care of some unfinished business.

 

            “I could lead you the way, sir, but pop has got the whole town with him, and Im sure they wont go down without a fight!

 

            But these words didnt stop Terry and the gang.  They marched like a group of soldiers right down to our house, and once we got there pop and the townsmen were a-settinout front, just awaitinour arrival!  I warnt too sure what was gonna happen, so I walked behind Ms. Mary, and she walked behind Terry (who had a smaller group than pop did), and Sarah walked behind me.  By and by we come up to pop, and for a while nobody said nothin, and the silence was so hard on my head and it almost seemed too loud; I got a headache.  Terry soon opened his mouth, and I knew he was about to say somethin, but then Sarah she come out of nowhere and I swear she made my heart skip a beat with the words she said:

 

            “Pop, youve been a-killinand a-killinfor the longest time now, and I cant stand it no more!  Those doggies deserved to live, and momma did too!

 

            She delivered those words with the most beautiful tone, sweet but all the more powerful, and a little tear come to her eye when she let out a little sob over the last words, and then she ran right into Ms. Marys arms and cried softly.  Course pop didnt want none of it, and he was mighty upset to be humiliated as such in front of the whole town by his own child, and so he came a-storminover.  Normally I wouldve been prayinfor Sarahs well-being, but I figured if the townsmen were half as touched as I was theydve stepped in to protect her, so I warnt worried at first.  But pop took long strides without stoppin, and nobody was doinnothin, and so I knowed the townsmen warnt on our side like I thought, and that made me disappointed and afraid.

           

            Pop reached the crowd of Terrys men and started to push everyone to get to Sarah and Ms. Mary; surely that ladys time had come.  But nobody was lettinhim through so easy, and he got mad and pulled out a gun and started shootinand thats when the whole fight let loose.  We was in the back, Ms. Mary and Sarah and I, and so we got to runninreal quick and made quick for the woods, and the whole time we aint turned our heads once.  I dont think Ive ever run that fast in my life, and by the time we reached the woods we ducked behind some trees and looked back.  Just over one of those beautiful Mexican petunias, I could see it all.  The men were caught up in a brawl, most of em on the ground punchinand pistol-whippinand scratchinand bitin, and it was a mighty sight to see.  A few shots were fired, and a lot of blood stained the grass of what we used to call our front lawn, and men were fallinand turninto savages.

 

            Ms. Mary said we should keep a-gointo get to a safe town, and so we followed.  I took one last look at the house, cause I knowed I probably warnt gonna see it for a long time, and I caught one glimpse of pop.  He looked like he was tryinto regain control, like he was tryinto keep his business goinas hed planned, all smooth as he liked it, but hed lost his grip on the animals, and as he stood up and tried to yell somethinI couldnt make out, he caught a knife through his back, delivered by Terry himself, and I looked away and started to run.

 

Max Hinkle is a 17-year-old writer from Glenside, Pennsylvania. He is a rising senior at the William Penn Charter School in Pennsylvania and hopes to pursue writing in college. This short story, if one couldn’t already guess, is heavily influenced by Mark Twain’s works.

Thick Woods

There are a lot of quiet towns like ours in the world, and a lot of them have nothing else to their name. Most towns have some sort of story, or legend, and so does ours. Behind the schoolhouse, past that little creek with the broken-down sign, there’s a dense verdant wood that opens it crackling oak arms. The story goes that little Jenny Lee tripped and fell back there so deep in the leaves and mud and rocks that nobody heard her screaming. So deep that when her body began to fall apart and split into leather and dust and marrow, the roots reached up from the earth and reclaimed her body, like Gaia taking back what was once hers. So deep that the crumbling pillars of bone still sit undisturbed, waiting for someone to come looking for little Jenny Lee.

 

Stories shift over time, and people get to talking. I’ve lived in this town for almost eighty years now, and the one thing that’s always been constant is that people get to talking. The stories always start on the playground, children urging each other in coarse whispers to avoid the man in the trees that killed Jenny Lee, then that the man is ten feet tall, and then that it was just an accident, and then back to the tall man again. Stories spread, sometimes the parents find out, sometimes the kids just grow up never hearing the real story and tell everyone their variation. I can hardly remember all these years later which way it was. Stories are like epidemics, they just spread and spread and never really stop.

 

Somehow or other, the story made it through the town, and to the townspeople, and soon enough all the people ever did was talk about what could have happened, and who could be the man, and that now, when they thought about it, they saw Mr. Brigsby lurking around the woods a few days before little Jenny disappeared. Soon Mr. Brigsby left town, and that was the last I ever heard of him. Once the story had really gained a little traction, I remember how the curfew was lowered to five o’clock sharp, and I remember those quick, frantic glances my parents cast when they ushered me in at night. I remember waking up late when the sheriff’s old car rolled up in front of our house, and I could hear Fats Domino’s voice crooning gently from his radio if only I cared to listen.

 

The story never really left the playground, just got shared and retold, and the children always talked about the man and about Jenny and about whether Mr. Brigsby only left town because everyone treated him a little different when the rumors began to spread. One child there, I can’t remember her name for the life of me, was held back a year and was in her final grade before going on to middle school. She was treated like a saint, because everyone thought she had to know everything about the disappearance, after all, she was there. But whenever they asked her, she would just smile knowingly and say she had no idea. Soon enough, playground rumor was that she was the killer, but that never panned out as much as poor old Mr. Brigsby.

 

No one ever really learned what happened to the girl, but every once in a blue moon someone would say that they were out in the woods, looking for a ball or shooting game, and they would see a little set of bones covered by thick woolly moss against a tree, but it’s not evidence that matters these days. All that matters now is the story, and that’s all that’s really left, anyway. Sometimes I get to thinking about how much fuller the town was then, before everyone left for the big cities or to be closer to family; nobody never really said that it was all because of the story.

 

 Sometimes, I like to go down behind the schoolhouse, past that little creek with the broken-down sign, and just stare at the darkness behind the thick wet leaves. Anything could still be sitting back there: Jenny or Mr. Brigsby or the little girl who was held back a year, but I try not to let it bother me. I know I’m getting to be a relic of the town’s golden years, and these days, I’m just content to be down in that little spot, where all those years ago, I killed little Jenny Lee.


Gabriel Hanley is a freshman who enjoys drawing and writing. His favorite movie is Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.

The Life Unknown

(A Shandong Village in China, 1973)

            The damp, cement walls surrounded the cramped rooms in the apartment that was home to three generations of a family. The TV was outdated and small, the curtains were drab, the couch was worn, and there was no air conditioning or heating. The family consisted of two grandparents, both around seventy years in age, their three now grown children and in-laws, and their five grandchildren. The youngest grandchild was only six, while the eldest was almost twenty. They all gathered on the couch, the only light from the glow of the moon and the glare of the landline’s light.

*  *  *

(Shanghai, China, 2000)

            Staring solemnly outside the dust coated window, eleven-year old A-ne Zhang observed the chaotic disarray of cars beeping, infuriated shouting, and people shuffling between each other in the crowded streets of the city. Mama was wiping the dilapidated wooden table, while Baba (father) took Gege (eldest brother) on a walk through the streets to speak about immigrating to America for college. Seventeen-year old Jin was devoted to his dreams of going to Stanford and becoming a scientist. A-ne had no dreams whatsoever. Unless particularly talented, college was rare for the Meimei (younger sister) of Chinese households. While the modern western world had women becoming doctors, lawyers, and even politicians, most women in China were still doomed to a mundane life of cooking, cleaning, and nurturing the children. A-ne knew she would never surpass the overbearing shadow of Jin, and no matter how many times she tried to explain her aggravation to her parents, they could not relate. Her Mama was the eldest of three girls and was evidently treated as superior. Her Baba lived alone with his open minded Taiyeye (father’s grandfather), and was never disregarded.

*  *  *

(A Shandong Village in China, 1973)

            The adults whispered while the two eldest children helped the two youngest children prepare for bedtime. The middle child, an unwanted girl of twelve, wandered to the corner of the room and pulled out the three cots reserved for the five children. The three girls, a twenty-year old, a twelve-year old, and a six-year old, slept on one cot, while each of the other cots were reserved for the boys. Then, she tugged out the pull-out bed in the couch and started spreading sheets on it. This was for her Mama and Baba. Mama was the middle one of her siblings as well, while Baba was the eldest boy in his family. He was placed into an arranged marriage but refused to follow through with it. He then married her Mama, who he truly loved. From then on, Yeye (father’s father) disowned his son and later died of heart disease. Nainai (father’s mother) took care of her Baba’s younger sister instead.

Returning from the trance of her own thoughts, she began to pump two air mattresses; one for her Dayi (eldest aunt) and her husband to sleep on, and the other for her Jiujiu (youngest uncle) and his wife to sleep on. Her Laoye (mother’s father) and Laolao (mother’s mother) would sleep on the bed in a separate room. The separate room was for the eldest couple of the eldest generation. The bed was quilted with the most extravagant sheets, bedding, blankets, and pillows they could afford. There was also a chest for their possessions and a wooden shrine to honor the generations before them.

*  *  *

(Shanghai, China, 2000)

            Frustrated with boredom, A-ne glanced at her Mama, preoccupied with the dishes, and then dawdled off to the tiny closet in their room. She began to dig around, tossing aside shoes, jackets, and books before stumbling upon a light blue shoe box labeled “重要” (important). Disregarding her parents’ rules not to touch the belongings of others without their permission, she flung open the lid and began to study the documents inside. She was intrigued to discover a wrinkled paper with the heading “出生证明” (birth certificate) at the top. Scanning through it, she smiled at the sight of her name, birthdate, and size. She continued skimming the document, and then paused abruptly. A-ne immediately became alarmed at the name listed as her mother. It read, “Hua Fu Huang”. Her mother’s name was Lei Zhang; she was sure of it. Nearly certain it was a mistake, she read the name written as hers, more cautiously this time. It said, “A-ne Huang”.  A million questions began to vividly swirl through her mind as the potential of this information collapsed down on her. A-ne sat paralyzed in disbelief. Was her entire life a lie? Was Jin even her real brother? How long has this been going on? But most of all, how come she was never told?

*  *  *

(A Shandong Village in China, 1973)

            The house settled down as she laid awake in between the other two girls. Her grandparents were snoring soundly, and her other relatives all breathed heavily. She thought about her future, and what would become of her. She was always the one that was ignored or used as a chore girl. Her parents didn’t bother to spend any time ensuring that her hair was neat or that her shoes still fit. Her Didi (younger brother) was always out with their Gege. They received lavish apparel and new haircuts. They were sent to school with new, fresh supplies and were greatly praised with every proper mark. Her Jiejie (elder sister) was also sent to school, but it was a school for failed girls who were supposed to be taught manners and learn how to be proper. Jiejie was already arranged for marriage with a middle-class boy who was the son of a rice farmer. She would be sent away in a year and then would return to live with the family again in order for her husband to support the large household. Since her schooling was minimal, there was little chance of her attending college. She would simply care for and nurture her future children.

            Thinking about her own future, the middle child also thought about her schooling. She was only sent to school twice a week for math and girls’ manners classes. The other days, she took care of her Meimei, who was sent to school once a week for her manners classes. All of her uncles worked and so did her grandfather. Her Mama stayed home with Laolao to cook and clean, and the two uncles helped Laoye at his school for boys. Every night, the men returned weary and grumpy. They demanded that they were served supper and a drink right away. She was usually the one to get the food. If the men did not like the way she was standing, what she was wearing, or if she was a little late, they would spank her and berate her, cursing viciously. She dreaded them coming home every night. She promised herself that one day, if she had a child, she would make sure her child was far away from this family.

*  *  *

(Shanghai, China, 2000)

            Her daze of shock was interrupted by a thunderous shout for dinnertime. A-ne snatched the birth certificate and sprinted to the living room couch that she slept on each night. Rapidly, she stuffed the document under the cushions for safe-keeping, and dashed to the dining room. Baba, Mama, and Gege all stared at her in disapproval.

            “A-ne,” Baba lectured, “don’t run like that, you are giving me a headache.”

            “Come sit down,” Mama added, gesturing to the stool next to Jin.

            A-ne nodded, and walked over with her head down. She stared at her bowl. Inside, there were three scoops of rice and five green beans. Baba and Jin’s bowls were filled with what seemed like a mountain of rice, an abundant handful of green beans on one side of the bowl, and chunks of fish on the other. Sighing, she took her chopsticks and picked around at her food.

            “A-ne, don’t play with your food. Just eat it,” Mama scolded sharply.

             “Sorry,” A-ne muttered. Her appetite was dwindling as she thought more of that birth certificate. Finally, she mustered up the courage to say something, anything to break the eerie silence, “Can I ask you something, Baba?”

“What?” Baba replied coldly.

            “I was wondering if I could go to college like Jin.”

            It was like she had detonated a lethal bomb as Baba stood up, his eyes widening and his nostrils flaring. “You,” he responded slowly, “go to college?” A few moments passed of petrifying silence, before Baba began a very condescending laughter. The kind of laugh that an evil villain in a movie would make; the kind that would send shivers down your spine. “Please,” he roared, in between snickers, “a girl like you could never go to college! You’re absolutely worthless!”

*  *  *

(A Shandong Village in China, 1974)

            Waking up, the middle one rejoiced. The middle child rejected by all of her family would not be rejected today. Her Jiejie would be named and she would be donned in beautiful silk clothing along with the rest of her family. She would take her husband’s last name, using her family last name as her middle name, and receiving a fitting first name. Her grandfather wanted to call her “星福阳”. Her first name would mean star, representing the eldest girl’s starry eyes. The middle child hoped her name would mean flower, moon, or something pretty. As her mother fussed with her hair and qipao, a traditional Chinese dress made of silk, the middle child braided her Meimei’s hair. She grinned with excitement, as she had been looking forward to this day for weeks.

            During the ceremony, she began to fidget, as her sister’s name would be announced, and she would be officially married. The family had only four men to sustain a family of thirteen, so they couldn’t afford to put on a grand, elegant wedding and had to settle with a much simpler service. Laoye announced the new husband of Jiejie, 天阳, (Tian Yang) and then her sister’s new name, 星福阳 (Xin Fu Yang). Everyone attending cheered, and Jiejie beamed. Now, her Jiefu (eldest sister’s husband) would take Jiejie away, have a child, make some money, and come back to support everyone else. Jiejie would bring her entire family; her children, husband, and her husband’s parents home. The house would be more crowded, so the men would have to work harder to bring more income to extend the house. The men would come back with an even shorter fuse, but it was worth it. The despised middle child, would become a beloved Yima (sister of mother) to the new children.

*  *  *

(Shanghai, China, 2000)

                        A-ne, Jin, and Mama all sat shaking as Baba continued to screech in fury. “You foolish, futile girl. You will never amount to anything! You are simply a burden, and I bet if you disappeared nobody would miss, or even notice you were gone!”

            Tears welled up in her eyes, but her heartache escalated into rage. Mama glanced over at her, and calmly ordered, “A-ne, apologize to your Baba.” Baba stared at A-ne, waiting impatiently for an apology. A-ne’s anger amplified and her hands turned into fists. She was fuming. Finally, she stood up suddenly, glowering at her Baba. But to her, he wasn’t her Baba, it was someone else, pretending to be her Baba.

            “No.”

            “What do you mean no?”

            “I said, no,” A-ne reiterated, “my Baba isn’t here, so I am not apologizing to anyone.”

            The adults froze as if they were just shot in the chest. Jin stood up. “Very mature A-ne,” He said calmly, “just grow up and apologize.”

            A-ne scowled at him, “I told you, my Baba is not here! I don’t know where he is! Because those two, are not my parents! They’re strangers!”

            Mama stuttered, “W-what do you mean we’re strangers?”

            “You know exactly what I mean! And guess what? I’m going to find my real parents and we’re going to live happily ever after without the likes of you!”

            Baba banged his fists against the table, “Enough with this nonsense! Sit down right now and finish your dinner!”

            A-ne sat back down, gritting her teeth with anger. She knew she had to leave as soon as possible, and when nightfall came, she would pack up the little things she owned, and head off into the night, searching for someone she’s never met.

*  *  *

(A Shandong Village in China, 1981)

            She was proud, she would be the fourth child to be named, and the second girl in the family to receive a fitting name. Her Laoye had picked a name that meant flower. She would only have two components of a name though, since she was not to be married. She had informed her Laolao that she wanted to go to Shanghai and start her own life. Laolao had agreed and told her that she was proud of her for being courageous enough to tell her.

            “Hua Fu,” her Laoye said. That was her name. She loved it. Nothing in the world was better, and nothing would stop her from loving it. She stepped inside an old automobile, and started the long drive to Shanghai. There, she would settle down, perhaps create a family, and never go back to the village where she was a nothing.

*  *  *

(Shanghai, China, 2000)

            A-ne refused to bawl her eyes out, determined to show her parents that they did not have the power to cause her such anguish. They had the power to treat Jin like a prince and kick their little peasant girl to the side. They had the power to bestow the entire kingdom upon their treasured son and pretend there was nobody else to consider. They had all that power, but they did not have the power to make her cry.

            As her parents completed putting the dishes back into the cabinets, Mama looked at A-ne. “We will speak about your shameful outburst in the morning. Now get some sleep.”

            A-ne watched as they trudged over to their bedrooms and shut the door. Waiting a few moments, she thought about her journey ahead. Would she finally find the mysterious “Hua Fu Huang”? Still pondering how her adventure would go, A-ne took two changes of clothes, a gourd full of water, a map of Shanghai, a bag of uncooked rice, a box of matches, and the birth certificate, stuffing them into her leather satchel she’s had since she was born. Slinging it over her shoulder, A-ne slipped on her rubbers (rain boots), and walked along the streets of her neighborhood, careful to dodge the frenzy of cars zooming back and forth.

*  *  *

(Shanghai, China, 1981)

            Hua Fu brought with her a leather satchel, a gourd, and some copper coins. Her village’s paper money had no value in the urban city of Shanghai. Her godmother lived in Shanghai, and owned a bank, The Bank of China. She would live with her until she could make her own living. Pulling into the spacious parking lot, she knocked quietly on the door. Her godmother stepped out, laid her eyes on her face, and smiled a warm beam of joy. It had been seven years since she had last saw her. Tears welled up in both their eyes as they embraced. Hua Fu was finally where she was loved.

            In the morning, Hua Fu woke up to the smell of fresh Youtiao (Chinese fried dough). As she wandered downstairs, she lay her eyes on a man she had never seen. He introduced himself as Lin Huang. They stared at each other awkwardly, and then suddenly burst out in laughter. It felt good to laugh, for Hua Fu had not laughed warmly in her lifetime. She realized that this was true happiness and freedom. Her godmother drove both Hua and Lin to the bank, and explained that for now, they were both to be bankers in her bank. They would work together as partners, and she would pay them. Little did she know, that leaving these two alone, a true relationship was about to blossom.

*  *  *

(Shanghai, China, 2000)

Even with the sky pitch black and the winding streets ahead reeking of danger, A-ne sought comfort in the headlights of cars passing through and bikes riding amok. Her birth certificate indicated the hospital as “市民廣場站” (Guangzhou Women and Children’s Medical Center), approximately 1500 kilometers away. Regardless, she continued walking through the city, unsure of where to seek shelter. A-ne was fearful and reluctant to keep going, but her boundless spirit pushed through, guiding her through the narrow alleyways. For the first time, she felt free, like there was no King and Queen holding her back from achieving all of her dreams. Turning her pout of anxiety into an enthusiastic grin, A-ne began to skip through the neighborhoods as the break of dawn approached.

The sky transformed from the abyss of black to a burst of yellow and dusty pink. A-ne’s muscles ached from fatigue, and she decided it was time for a brief nap. She plodded to a wooden bench outside a seafood shop, and laid across it, clutching her leather satchel close to her chest.

*  *  *

(Shanghai, China, 1988)

            Hua Fu and Lin Huang had gotten married. The wedding was a grand ceremony of love and joy. Seven years before, Hua Fu had been the one to say that she would never get married. Now she was glad she could spend her life with a man. Hua Fu had gotten to know this man very well, and after working for a year together, they had started going on dates, secretly taking breaks from their long shifts at the bank. Hua Fu was also now pregnant with their first child. She was due in March of 1989. She daydreamed about the child. She didn’t care whether it was a girl or boy, for she, as an unwanted girl, didn’t want her child to feel that way. She would love her no matter what.

            A few months passed, and now it was February 1989. Hua Fu’s baby bump grew. A girl was going to be delivered. Her distant cousin, Lei Zhang, would be there for the birth. Hua Fu wanted a family member to be there, but her Laolao and godmother had both passed the year before. No one else had supported her or even tried to get in touch with her since she left. Lei Zhang didn’t live that far, and she wasn’t cruel to her, so Hua Fu begged Lei Zhang to come. They didn’t know each other that well, and were like strangers, but family was family, and Hua Fu was going to start one.

*  *  *

(Hangzhou, China 2000)

Day after day, A-ne would walk nonstop, sipping from her gourd, begging pedestrians for money, and eating the little food she could purchase from the few coins sitting at the bottom of her satchel. As she got closer to the hospital, she began to ask people if they ever heard of someone named Hua Fu. She would either be ignored or told no. It began to feel hopeless, and that boundless spirit seemed to have bounds.

It had been a couple of weeks, and A-ne’s energetic skipping had become an exhausted walk. She approached a homeless man sitting in an enormous box. “Hi sir,” A-ne greeted, “I was wondering if I could join you.” He sat with a ripped shirt, jacket, and pair of jeans, all covered in debris. He grunted and gestured to the smaller box next to him. A-ne, grateful she wasn’t actually invisible, sat on top of the box, and heaved a big sigh of disappointment.

But even though her life was a blur of hunger and lethargy, it still proved to be better than being in the shadows, concealed by the dominance of Jin. She’d rather die from starvation in an effort to find her mother, than die a poor old woman, who cleaned and cooked all her life.

*  *  *

(Guangzhou Women and Children’s Medical Center, March, 1989)

            Hua Fu was limp, she had just delivered a healthy baby. She immediately named her, for the old tradition was no longer a practice. Her name would be Anne in English, but her Chinese name would be A-ne. She was a beautiful child, but for some reason, Hua Fu could not lift her arms to hold her. She lay there, and then, her skin turned cold, and her muscled relaxed. She was gone. Lin Huang was devastated, and vowed to take the child under his care. As if he wasn’t distraught enough, his entire life came shattering down on him. The bank  shut down, and Lin Huang no longer had money. He had to give his child to Lei Zhang, making her promise to take good care of her, and then saying he would be back to fetch her when he got back on his feet. Without another word, he left, leaving the crying baby in Lei Zhang’s arms.

*  *  *

(Hangzhou, China 2000)

            The draining weeks continued to inch slowly by, as A-ne and the man sat in utter silence, never even looking each other in the eye. A-ne would obtain as much food as she could at the markets once a day and bring them back, splitting them with the man. He would nod as a form of gratitude, still not speaking a single word to her. They would both look forward to rain, where they could collect the pollutant-free water in the gourds. This was her life now. A-ne could no longer concern herself with who received the best clothes, or who was given more attention out of her and Jin. But for once, she had her future planned out. She would find her mother, and they would move to America, just like Baba said Jin was to do. She would finish schooling there, and go to one of the prestigious universities there. While she still didn’t know what she aspired to do for the rest of the life, her mother would help her figure that out.

            After contemplating her future again and again, A-ne grew frustrated and decided to attempt to begin a conversation with the homeless man. “What’s your name? My name is A-ne,” she asked hastily, looking over at the man huddled in his jacket.

            He stared at her for a moment, his eyes widened, as if he couldn’t believe what she was saying. “Your name is A-ne?” he replied, flustered.

*  *  *

            Lin Huang looked at the little girl he had meet a just few weeks earlier. He couldn’t believe his ears. He stared at her in awkward silence, and then embraced his child, that he had thought was gone. He lived on the streets, looking fondly at every family, wishing he still had his. Now, his daughter that he had given up, had come here. They had sat together for the longest time, but he didn’t say a word to her. He embraced her fragile body in his tired arms. A-ne looked at him in bewilderment, and raised her eyebrows, confused. The more Lin Huang looked at her, the more she resembled Hua. She had her deep eyes, highlighted hair, bulb nose, full lips, her petite figure, and clumsy build. Right there, tears streamed down his face, as he smiled at his child. He was glad that he had finally seen her again, but confused why she would have left Lei Zhang.

            “What did Lei Zhang do?” was the only thing that came out of his mouth.

*  *  *

            A-ne scooted backwards, uncomfortable, “Who are you?”

            “I-I’m you father A-ne,” he replied, “Now, what did Lei Zhang do?”

            A-ne fidgeted with her shoes awkwardly, “She didn’t do anything. I found the birth certificate and wanted to find my Mama.” It felt strange, talking to her father. She wondered if it was worth it to leave. Her Baba was stricken with poverty, and that wasn’t the life she wanted. She wanted her family to have enough wealth to get to America, but those dreams seemed to have faded away. Those dreams of growing up in a large suburban home in the one of the many towns in America. Those dreams of going to school and exploring the different passions she could have. Those dreams of dancing at prom with the boy of her dreams. All those dreams could not be accomplished if they didn’t have enough money to get to America in the first place. She tried to hide her disappointment as she looked back up at the man. “Where is she?”

            As he spoke to her, telling her the story of what happened in the hospital, A-ne’s face went pale. All that time to search for her mother, and she turned out to be dead. Guilt began to build up in her gut, and it felt like it was all her fault. She was the one who killed her mother. The blood was on her hands. “I’m sorry I killed her,” she mumbled in a monotone voice.

*  *  *

            Lin Huang stared at the ground, and felt the bundle of American dollars in his pocket. He had taken them from the bank he and his deceased wife had worked at. There was about 10,000 USD in hundred dollar bills. He glanced at his daughter, and whispered, “Do you want to go to America?”

            Her face had brightened and she looked at him with the endless eyes that her mother had. She did not speak, just looked at him wide eyed. Lin Huang hung his head, disappointed that he could not make her smile. Oh how he missed Hua Fu. He stood up on shaking legs, grabbed A-ne’s hand, and started walking.

*  *  *

(China Air Airport, Beijing, 2000)

            After taking the bullet train from the Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station to the Beijing South Railway Station, they had finally reached the China Air Airport. The two were eager to finally escape the tangle of hardship that was Shanghai. America was a land of opportunity; a place where a girl could be just as successful, or even more successful than a boy. A land, where nobody would stare at you with judgmental smirks when you received an insufficient mark. A-ne’s Baba could finally get a job, A-ne would receive an excellent education, and everything would be perfect. The absence of Hua left a damaging hole in both of their hearts, but with the immigration to America, their family can be whole again.

            A-ne held tightly onto her mother’s leather satchel, as she and Lin walked onto the plane, and sat down. They were headed to Richmond, Virginia for a much needed break from the hustle and bustle of the city. For the first time since leaving the Zhang household, A-ne beamed with delight, and looked up at her father. Their life would soon be complete.


Katie Lu is a quiet seventh grader who loves writing, art, and music. She lives in a suburban neighborhood outside of Philadelphia. She is an only child, with no aunts or uncles, but has always been interested in her other relatives’ lives in Shanghai, China. She doesn’t know much about the Chinese language or lifestyle, but befriending Allie expanded her knowledge on her heritage.


Allie Jiang is a thirteen-year-old who sees herself as a dancer and bunny enthusiast (many people would describe her as having a VERY large personality). She lives within walking distance of her close friend Katie, and loves to spend time laughing and producing creative art pieces with her. She is fluent in Mandarin Chinese and has a large family in the Shandong province of China.


This story tells two tales of the common life of girls in China.