2020 Creative Writing Prize Winners

Congratulations to the winners of the 2020 Creative Writing Awards! Below please check out an excerpt of some of the winning work.

Academy of American Poets Prize

James King

OUR RESPECTIVE SQUARES

 

We are surprised to find each other from
so far away. On the rooftop across from mine,

she waters her planter boxes. Tonight we have
brown clouds; tomorrow it might rain. Her tomatoes

quiver in anticipation. On my own rooftop
I wave to her from behind the chain-link fence. Yes,

my building has a fence on the roof. It is to stop
people from jumping; the sidewalks below don’t

need another pop of color. Even those that want to die
are too lazy to climb. I don’t know. I think we are both

surprised that from here, we might believe
that the earth is flat; the world does not seem

to curve away from us in either direction. I think
we are both surprised, day after day, to come back

to our respective rooftops and find the other there
backlit by a wobbling sun. I think we are afraid

of the day when we come to the roof and find
that we’re not alone together. Tomorrow her tomatoes

might grow to completion and be plucked straight
from the vine. Tomorrow, they might take down my fence.

Nothing is guaranteed; not our smudgy asterisks of color,
our fruits, our human outlines. Not the height of these

buildings or the height of our eyes looking out
at dusk. No, not even the shape of the world.

 

Jacobson-Laing Award

Karen Zheng

TANGERINE

Waipo presents a peeled tangerine
asks if I want it--yao ma?--


in the gentlest sigh. I’m afraid to break
the surface of the now-naked fruit,


gentle crimson, clinging
with white skin. It waits for me.


I nod and split it in half
to reveal seeds, waiting to pass on their beauty.


Waipo tells me to slow down,
but I choke and swallow a seed.


Bitter sweetness floats lightly
in my stomach, holding heavy centuries


of history, etched with ridges each ancestor
carved onto its core, waiting to blossom


decades later,
bearing the same sweet fruit.


I give the other half to Waipo,
but she removes the seeds


before popping the whole thing in her mouth,
leaving her, seedless,


and me, growing a tangerine tree
for my granddaughter.

 

MANNEQUIN IN THE CORNER OF ABERCROMBIE & FITCH

MOTHER HAUNTS ME WHEN I HAVE SEX

Jacobson-Laing Award

Julia O'Sullivan

ROUTE 66

After “Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas” by Edward Joseph Ruscha


The road is wide on the way
from what was.


The oil, fracked.
Siphoned from its mother,
still yearning for her tunnel arteries,
still moving blind and heart-ward.


The Earth, pock-marked
and dug into.


Stick the flag in,
and call it: America.


In this land we will lay,
disintegrating.


Sweet land of liberty. One day,
they will turn our bodies aside
to drill.

 

THE BECOMING
After Gertrude Stein and Oakland, CA


This is the way it was
when we were growing.


The air, purpling under the exhale
of an entire city.


The boys who raised us:
Choking on the full-body promises
of marijuana and the half-bodies
of almost-women.


This was the way it was.
Hats backwards, warm Januarys.
Always on bridges,
Always between two places,
suspended.


And we were all devout agnostics,
but we have never felt closer to God.
In a city so choked, so turning, so gorgeous
we didn’t know where to put it.
Now, we cannot tell if we leave it
or if it leaves us
because “there is no there there,”
no hope of returning
to the place that made us.

Mecklin Prize

Maeve Fairbanks

JOE

My brother makes the starving artist thing look good. With an Ivy League degree in film studies and no source of steady income, he’s got that grungy devil-may-care vibe kids these days vie for. He rescued his timbs from a dumpster and is the only person I know who could find a $400 jacket in a thrift store or – when driving down the highway at 65 mph – spot a red retractable dog leash laying in the ditch and actually pull over to get it. He’s just the perfect level of ratty that he’s actually pretty cool.

He doesn’t worry about a thing, just rolls with the punches: while he was photographing Lake Superior during a storm, a wave rose and engulfed him and his camera. He came home, popped it in a bag of rice, and started making chicken wings. His camera worked well enough after that for him to recover some “sick” footage of a wave hitting the lens, which he later set to music and turned into a film. Another time, while filming in the Boundary Waters, his drone ran out of battery and plunged into the icy black lake below. No hope of retrieving it. I asked why he wasn’t upset. He shrugged, “Nothing I can do about it.”

One week before my brother graduated from Dartmouth, he went mountain biking with friends. The course was rough. It was the second jump that got him. Coming downhill, he approached it too fast. He panicked and braked, flew over the top of his handlebars, landed on the rocks. I was in my bedroom when the hospital called. I had just finished my junior year of high school and was sitting on my floor sorting through the papers in my binders when the phone rang. Across the hall, in my parent’s bedroom, my mom answered. Everything was normal until I heard my dad yell, “His head! Is his head OK?” They had just finished pouring thousands of dollars into that head.

I saw my brother a week later, a cast on one arm and a sling on the other. He hugged me as best as he could and said brightly, “I was wearing a helmet!” I’ve seen the helmet. It’s smashed to pieces.

 

My brother moved back home this year. He has too many hospital bills and student loan debt to support himself on the East Coast anymore. Besides, he says, Minnesota’s cooler. He spends long days out in “the shop” – our garage which my dad converted into a wood working studio. Together, they build wood-canvas canoes out of recycled wood. My brother drives to the junkyard and collects wooden furniture to convert to new canoes. He calls to tell me about his new project: converting a pickle barrel into paddles. Modern pickle barrels are made with stainless steel, but he got his hands on an old one made out of white oak – rot resistant, perfect for the water. White oak’s a fortune, he explains.

 

On Christmas day he took me out in his first canoe. He said he wanted to check for leaks. It was ten degrees in Minnesota – one of the warmer days for a boat ride. We bundled up and went down to the lake. The first few feet off shore were frozen over so he walked out onto the ice, loaded the canoe, and helped me in. It seemed like a still day from the shore – the size of the waves were masked by the vastness of the body – but when we got out on it the waves easily spilled over the bow. He tossed me an empty beer can from his backpack and told me to bale us out. We crashed over wave after frigid wave and the water sprayed my face, soaking through my layers. My brother steered the canoe into the crashing waves and I faced out over the horizon, toward the place where the curvature of the earth obstructs the view. I tried not to worry about whether or not I could swim to shore before freezing to death. In the stern, my brother whooped. Between scoops of water I turned to see him, paddling furiously to keep us upright, grinning. “This is sick!” He yelled. His eyelashes were frosty and icicles had formed on his mustache and I yelled “You’re crazy,” because he is.

 

A few days later, a blizzard hit. The water crashed over the boulders on the North shore, freezing almost instantly in the sub-zero temperatures. Ice built up on the rocks – layer upon layer – so that the beach looked like a pile of giant glass marbles. We made the fifteen minute drive down the hill so he could shoot some footage of the storm. Most drivers wouldn’t brave the roads in whiteout conditions but my brother doesn’t worry. He thinks he’s unstoppable in his manual all-wheel-drive. He says he's gotten it out of a lot of ditches before. After we drove up the shore for a while he found a spot that satisfied him and pulled over. He went around back to get his equipment out of the trunk only to discover that he forgot his camera lens. We had to drive all the way home to get it. I told him that it’s just like him to do something like that. He laughed and asked me what that’s supposed to mean. I mean that he’s got rotten luck.

 

I stayed with my brother for about a week when I first moved to New Hampshire for college. One day we drove to a swimming hole in Vermont. We climbed down a steep rocky cliff and set up camp on some big, flat rocks. Downstream, teenagers jumped from a covered bridge; the drop looked like a mile. I watched them and I worried about them. I thought, I could never. I laid down on a rock in the sun, and my brother sat next to me on the edge of a boulder, swinging his legs over the water. For a while, we just listened to the river and the breeze running through leaves and the shouts of the kids downstream and the cars speeding by on the road above. Eventually, he said, “You know, I’m probably not gonna live as long as most people.” Casually, calmly, but a little like he was breaking the news. I turned my head to squint at him through one eye, squeezing the other tight against the sun. We try not to talk about dying.

The first I heard of the cancer, I was stumbling through Richard James’ Avril 14th in A flat major on the piano in one of my high school’s practice rooms. I was running the third section again and again, missing the D flat every time. My brother had bought the sheet music for me when he came home for Christmas a few months earlier and asked me to learn it; he wanted to use the music in a black and white film we were planning to make together. So, when my brother called, I told him how close I was to perfecting it. He said, “I just thought I’d call and tell you because… I don’t know, I think I’d be pretty mad if you had cancer and didn’t tell me.” And then he laughed.

He’s growing his hair out now. He’s wanted long hair for a few years, but every time he tries to grow it out, some life-threatening circumstance befalls him that prevents him from showering by himself, so he chops his hair out of convenience. This time around, I got a little nervous when his hair reached ear-length. But it has grown much past that now. Over Facetime, he brags about his hair. He asks me if I think it’s long enough to braid. He shakes it out, then pulls a lock from the top of his forehead all the way down to his chin. I laugh, yes it’s very long. I promise to braid it for him next time I’m home.

Mecklin Prize

Shaphnah McKenzie

My aunt Cherry lived in a valley in the southern part of Jamaica. Her little house was an oasis from civilization, behind which the Rio Minho roared at night, and the coconut trees dropped their fruit, ripe and unripe, at irregular intervals. There were other houses around, but they required a good few minutes of footing to get to. There was a church nearby, as well as a few corner shops (the contents of which never exceeded rice, flour, liquor and soap), and there were miles and miles of farmland that stretched far into the other county.

Both my mother and father had been raised in the Jamaican countryside, meaning they both grew up surrounded by water and wilderness. I, on the other hand, was a town girl born and bred. I was used to the hot tar roads and the bustling town, the honking of cars and the squalor of roadside market vendors.

So when I found myself on the porch of my aunt’s house on that fateful summer day in 2010, it felt as if the sultry breeze had whisked me away to another world—one where the gurgle of the river was always in my ears, where the air was crisp and had a faint goat smell. I remember this most.

My aunt welcomed us with open arms; my mother and father were more than happy to see. I remember sitting on an overturned bucket in the side of the yard while they chatted, bare feet tucked underneath the hot grass, taking in my surroundings through squinted eyes as the sun beat down on my forehead.

The river ran near the base of a small muddy slope just beyond a fence of weeds that ran along the back of the yard; the bank of the river was layered with smooth rocks. Intrigued by the concept of swimming in it (or wading around in it, at least, since I didn’t know how to swim), I eagerly awaited the end of their conversation to inquire about the river. Of course, their conversation carried on for a while, and I was forced to ask my little cousins about it— they were five and six years old, and I had naturally underestimated their ability to answer my questions. They did. They told me that we’d go to the river soon, when the sun was setting. Sunset was the best time to go down to the river.

At sunset, I found myself standing on the bank of the river, shivering, clutching a bar of soap and a washcloth in my hand, my face as red as the Otaheite apples that I loved so much, that flourished in the country. My cousin, the little girl of six years old, was in the water, shooting me a gap-toothed grin of encouragement. My mother, her bare skin gleaming golden in the sunlight, was telling me that I ought not to be so shy. That we had this part of the river to ourselves. That vulnerability was part of the countryside.

Yes, vulnerability was part of the countryside.

I would have resisted, skittered back up the slope fully-clothed and hidden away in one of the two small bedrooms in my aunt’s house; but the sibilant coaxing of the rippling river lured me in, the susurrus of the stream caressed my senses. I was bare but the bareness was good; the bareness was part of the countryside.

I was kneeling against the smooth rocks on the bottom so that I’d covered up to my neck. I peered into the water, that window into an aquatic world that swished and swirled and sailed continuously towards the sea, and saw tiny schools of fish swimming around my legs. Underwater, my legs were a blurry brown.

Under the searing, blazing gaze of the sun, I was a blurry brown blob bobbing along the stream. I leaned back, stretching my arms, and blocking out my mother’s voice that pleaded for me not to get my hair wet, I lifted my legs, disturbing the rocks and sand and freeing crayfish that lived underneath- crayfish that liked to pinch your toes with their claws.

I baptized myself in nature, in isolation, in tranquility, in the realization that there was more to life than the flickering screens I surrounded myself with, and the noise of the town that constantly drilled my ears.

I looked up at the sky and saw shapes, and not just clouds. I saw a butterfly, a hand, a chocolate bar, an alien. I saw the past, the present, the future and everything in between. I kept my eyes on the sky, facing away from the sun. The water flooding into my ears kept everything else out.

Everything except the sound of my own heartbeat.

Grimes Prize

Julia O'Sullivan

THE UNMAKING

The dawn fog lay in wait as if it had forgotten the sun’s promise of burning. Hannah woke to gentle hands, mewing at her in the soft dark. Her mother, Linda, placed cool fingers on her flushed face, before crossing the room to press open the curtains. This morning unfolded in mumbles, as most school days did. Hannah’s sleep had been sweaty and pink. She had a salty lick of drool on her cheek to prove it. Her hair was sticky and still punctuated by the contours of her cotton pillowcase. The small room looked bleary in Hannah’s sleep-shrouded eyes. The old crooked witch in the corner become a jagged shadow and then a chair. The black coffin across the room became a dresser. The small prison under the window became a bookshelf. How different her things looked in the light.

Hannah offered a brief period of sleepy struggle followed by a kitten stretch, the bending of her sloping belly and the arms of victory. Linda nudged her towards the dresser and knelt, opening drawers and lifting the cotton items gingerly. Hannah chose her outfit with tender nods and shakes.

This decision would set the precedent for her day. Her mother gazed on approvingly. Hannah chose things that would elicit a warm smile from her and cooed niceties like fashionista and beauty queen. Hannah knew she had to look the part, even if she didn’t quite know what the part was.

Today would be the orange corduroy pants with the crisp, white blouse. Hannah liked the flowers embroidered around the neckline and the pink scalloped edge. Hannah folded her limbs into her chosen garments. She regarded her reflection and beat back the static tendrils of hair that danced around the space above her head.

Breakfast was peanut butter waffles, orange juice, and bananas sliced like coins. Linda wiped the orange tint from the fuzz of Hannah’s upper lip. A new sense of urgency descended on the kitchen, and Linda tore around the island like a wind, cutting crust and zipping things. When Hannah’s plate showed only the forensics of her breakfast, the crumbs and peanut butter smudges, she brought it to the sink and hoisted it over her head to the counter. By the door, she slipped into her Sketchers, and Linda appeared at her heels to pull up the loops behind her Achilles.

She brushed Hannah’s hair until it was smooth and placed a headband with a white bow onto Hannah’s head, careful to slide it over her sleek brown bangs. There was a bright red circular birthmark the size of a pencil eraser under the curtain of hair, and Hannah requested for it to be hidden. The doctor had said it would fade by the time she was 12, and she was eager to be free from the blemish. Hannah slipped into her backpack and picked up her canvas lunch bag. The school bus would be at the end of the street soon, and Linda led her by an arm with unmistakable purpose. Outside smelled like morning-wet asphalt and cut grass.

Linda smiled at the other parents, as she primped and straightened Hannah’s loose ends. A small boy bumbled up to them with sandy hair and chapped lips. His mother slinked behind him in a white T-shirt and soft jeans. She called out to Linda, with a loose smile hanging around her glossy veneers,

“Linda, can you please intercept that boy before he wanders into the road and makes a mess of our morning?”

“You can’t seem to keep up with him these days, Susan,” Linda called over her shoulder, gesturing for the boy to bundle under her wingspan where Hannah waited.

“You’re telling me.” Susan caught up, rustling her son’s sandy hair. He stuck his tongue out at Hannah, but Linda and Susan didn’t see the transgression. They were already exchanging gossip about the high school babysitter. Hannah knew nothing good would come of her tattling. She darted her eyes away from the glistening tongue to the bus rounding the corner. These were her final moments in the protective canopy of her mother’s limbs.

Once, she had watched a show about Emperor Penguins huddled together with smooth eggs in the caves of their thighs. This was how she felt now, with the harsh Arctic wind lashing at the bow on her head, lifting like gaunt wings. The approaching bus was the final countdown of her incubation period. She wondered if the baby penguins ever wished to return to the insides of their shells.

The bus sidled up to the curb and Hannah’s mother pressed a palm into her chest, as if to keep her from bounding into the incoming yellow beast. The underbelly sputtered and puffed, and the door swung open. A line began to form with Hannah at the rear.

“Hey, little lady,” the bus driver boomed as Hannah stood at the steps, “What did I do to deserve such a pretty girl onboard this morning?”

Hannah’s face warmed, and she sunk back into her mother.

From overhead she heard her mother say, “Tell the nice man thank you, Hannah.”

“Thank you,” she exhaled behind the fingers she had begun to chew. When she turned back to read her mother’s face, she was mouthing a Thank You to the bus driver as well. She felt a pang, as if her mother had left her out of a joke.

It was similar to the moments when her parents would begin to speak in spelling. Linda would make eye contact with Hannah’s father, John, over her head nestled between them on the couch in the orange glow of their living room on a Sunday night. They might be watching Arthur the Aardvark or Caillou. Hannah would want this moment to suspend eternally. All of her things were in the right place.

“John, I think it’s almost–ABCDEFG,” a foreign assortment of letters. She would watch their mouths moving, hoping to unearth their riddled sentences.

Or across the kitchen counter while John lingered as Linda was sautéing golden onions and paprika in a pan, “I heard today that Bill and Kristen are getting a–ABCDEFG.”

Sometimes her father would look across the center console of the car as Hannah darted her eyes between the street lamps as they blurred past the window, “I think Martin’s father got diagnosed with–ABCDEFG.”

“No alphabet speak!” Hannah would cry out.

“Hannah, there are some things that are just meant for adults.”

Now, Hannah pushed herself onto the bus, clutching the slimy metal rail for balance.

“I’ll see you at two, angel,” Linda said. The bus door crushed the air behind Hannah, severing her morning. She made her way through the thin aisle to an empty seat, nicked and scratched through its brown pleather upholstery. She scooted to the window, pressing her fingers into the glass like a tanked starfish. Linda was already enthralled in an animated discussion with Susan, so she did not see the pressed white hand.

As the bus pulled away from the stop, Hannah thumped her foot into the seat in front of her and watched her mother shrink. Hannah felt drowned by the drone of the children around her. There was shrieking laughter, and someone in the back bounced a basketball on the floor of the aisle. As she nestled into the crook of her bus seat, she watched paraphernalia fly down the aisle: a bouncy ball, an apple, an origami fortune teller. Bobby peaked his head around the back of the bench.

“Stop kicking my seat,” he said, and she stilled her legs. Bobby looked at Hannah with revulsion, and she stared blankly back at him. “Your shirt is ugly.” His head looked like it was floating, as if it had been detached from its body. He turned back around wordlessly.

Hannah’s skin burned beneath her shirt. Though her mind filtered through a graveyard of possible replies, she was worried he was right. Before, this shirt had made her invincible, but now she understood its fickle appeal.

She pressed her face into the cold glass and took stock of her landmarks. There was the Shell gas station, collecting strangers in flannels or suits, leaning against their gleaming cars staring into lotto tickets and local papers. There was the yellowing tree on the following corner, holding on to the final threads of its leaves. There was the homeless man at the city bus stop, bundled in a puffy parka with a chin shrouded in a browning cotton beard. Everything shifted under the blue morning cast.

Eventually, the school building grew larger in the window. The driveway looped around in front of the stately brick building. Arches lined the front façade like a cartoon sea monster looping in and out of the ocean. The bus spat the children out on the school’s curb like marbles, and Hannah scurried through the scatter to find her Kindergarten teacher. Ms. Lowell was a woman in her sixties with short grey hair and an extensive collection of cardigans. Her smudged glasses enlarged the grey eyes that perforated her papery skin. Her nose was pointed, and her thin lips had lines spreading out of them like spider legs. There was a skirt of pudge that hung around her torso. She was meaty, straining against her heaving body.

“Good morning, everybody. Get in line,” Ms. Lowell said through a thick rasp. She led them over the jeweled floor of the school hall, around a corner, then another corner to the classroom. At the door, the little girls picked out pink paper cutouts of women in dresses with their names written in curly script on them. They placed them in paper pockets on a board that read “ATTENDANCE” at the top. The boys traveled to the other side of the board, picking blue paper figures of men in pants. Hannah examined the small pink woman with her name on it, faceless and trapped inside the paper fibers of her body.

“Hannah, get to your place on the rainbow rug. Stop dawdling,” Ms. Lowell called out from the blackboard at the far wall of the room. Hannah hadn’t noticed that everyone else had already taken their seats on the cubed rug of rainbow colors. They turned their heads from their crisscross-applesauce legs to watch her sheepishly drag her feet to the front of the room. She felt her blood kiss the skin above it. She made her way to the purple square and made herself busy fishing crumbs out of the rug fibers until the attention of the room was transferred elsewhere. How she hated being observed.

Hannah’s day bled through the clock. With her chin resting on her hand and her elbow resting on her knee, she counted things around the room to stay occupied: the paper leaves stapled to the wall for Autumn, the panels in the white ceiling, fluorescent light fixtures, the cubbies, the chairs around faux wood tables, books on the shelf. She was counting the buttons on Ms. Lowell’s cardigan, when Ms. Lowell interrupted her.

“Hannah, would you like to come up and help me read a page of this book?” Hannah wanted to say that she didn’t. She preferred to stay in the privacy of her purple square. But she rose, pulling at a frayed thread on the scalloped edge of her shirt. She stood beside Ms. Lowell and looked into the pages of the book. In the illustration, a woman knelt with a rag below the highchair of a little girl.

“Now sound it out,” Ms. Lowell said, looking down through her thick lenses.

Hannah sputtered, “Pam.”

“Good.”

“Pam sp–spilled it,” Hannah examined the picture of the woman kneeling over an orange stain, “Mom mopped it.”

“Very good, Hannah.” Hannah looked around over the heads of the children facing her, picking at their scabs and the Velcro straps of their sneakers. She was grateful for their averted eyes.

When she sat back down, she noticed Bobby was sitting behind her. Had he been there the whole time? He began to prod her with the toe of his shoe. Hannah turned around to shoot him a look. He looked over her head as if she had been imagining things. She turned back around, and as soon as she did he began poking her under the fabric of her shirt. She squirmed and turned around again,

“Stop it,” she hissed, “I’ll tell.”

“If you do, I’ll punch you.” He made a fist and lurched forward.

“There will be no talking. Hannah, face the front of the room or I will put you on punishment. Do not distract your classmates.”

“But he–” Hannah began, but Bobby reached back discretely and pinched her.

“That’s quite enough, Hannah.” Ms. Lowell said, turning to the next page, rotating the picture book around the room for all of the children to see. Loose skin hung from her upper arms, jiggling with lagged response to her movement. Once again, Hannah felt embarrassed for the attention. She inched to the front edge of her square.

Bobby began to tap on her back, pulling at her belt loop. Hannah felt like the goldfish she had over the summer, who would bump his head into the glass tank over and over until one day he jumped out and sailed to the carpet. Hannah was running past him to find her colored pencils when she saw the small corpse, sick with twitching. She ran to her mother, and by the time they returned he was still, an eye locked on the ceiling. Linda dropped him into the toilet bowl, and Hannah watched the small flame spin before it flickered seaward.

Ms. Lowell told the class it was time for their first playtime. Hannah threaded herself through the tangle of children. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to join some of the clusters around the room, but she felt intimidated by the boldness of young children. She had tried to play with others before, but they had often enforced rules on her playtime. Some told her she had to play the dog in the game of dollhouse. When she asked to play with trucks, she was ignored, and her fingers got stepped on. She would rather sink to the background. In her worlds, she got to be all of her favorite characters and play with all of her favorite toys. Her playtime didn’t know compromise.

Hannah arrived at a box of figures and dug through to find the plastic Batman. He was sleek and painted black. He had one bulging arm missing.

“Give him to me,” Bobby appeared over her. She shook her head no. He grabbed the figure’s forearm, but Hannah tightened her grip around the plastic man. The final plastic arm clicked out of its shoulder joint. Bobby growled and tossed it a few feet away. Hannah followed the airborne limb with her eyes.

“Bobby,” another boy called across the room. He turned quickly and followed the voice. Hannah flocked to the landing site and collected the arm. She pressed it into his shoulder socket to no avail.

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered. She hobbled him along the linoleum floor, trapped in his fixed, armless pretense. She slipped away to the cubbies and fastened him into a pocket of her backpack. She had to separate him from his ruthless playmates. The rest of the school day passed in a twirling lull.

At two o’clock, the children marched back to the driveway. Some trudged and others skipped. The older kids rushed by her overhead, clutching their thick, dog-eared books, and open backpacks hanging from their arms. Eventually she stumbled her way through the hubbub to the row of buses. Ms. Lowell ushered her onto the right bus. She climbed on board.

“Lucky me again!” the bus driver said, peering down at her.

She made herself smile, “Thank you,” and carried herself to the back of the bus, finding an empty seat in the last row. Even the seats across the aisle were empty–alone finally. Nestled into the crook of the metal beast, she gazed out the window at the bodies and cars moving around her, colliding in frequent and insignificant ways. She felt suspended.

Her solitude was severed by Bobby digging a pudgy finger into her rib cage. He sat down with a flourishing swoop. The first thing she noticed was the dried red juice outlining his mouth.

“I’m your boyfriend now.”

“What?”

“You’re my girlfriend.”

“No, I’m not.”

She thought of the time her father had been laughing with her uncles.

“My Hannah,” he had said, grinning, “She won’t have a boyfriend until she’s 35. Isn’t that right, Hannah?” Hannah had nodded to please him, and the men chuckled around her.

Bobby shrugged.

“Too late.” He grabbed her hand. She struggled, but his grip was locked.

“Let me go.”

“You have to hold my hand if we’re boyfriend and girlfriend.” Hannah looked down at his fist around hers, the dimples in his hands flexed. He stared straight into the back of the seat in front of them as if he couldn’t see or hear her. She stopped struggling, giving up so she could look out the window. Maybe he would stop if she let him get bored with her.

But he didn’t let go. The skin of her hand began to tingle, and she could no longer tell her sweat from his. The bus pulled away from the school, and he never stopped looking straight ahead, not even when he said,

“My mom said girls and boys have different private parts.”

Hannah looked at Bobby.

When her family was out to dinner and it was her father’s turn to take her to the restroom, he would hold her hand and walk her into the men’s room.

“Just watch your shoes, sweetheart,” he would say, and she would know that there were things she shouldn’t encounter. She had this feeling now, in the soft parts of her forearms. They grew cold and she began to feel heavy in her body–absolutely human and caught in the contents of her skin.

“Look,” Bobby said. Her eyes fell to the waist of his pants. He had shimmied them down his milky thighs. “Show me yours. You have to now that I’ve shown you mine.”

Once, her mother had given her a kit for polishing rocks. It rotated dull, sandy stones in a small tin canister, over and over again until they were polished with unequivocal shine. She felt as though she had swallowed rocks into the canister of her belly.

She shook her head no.

“You have to,” he said again. She shook her head no. He stared at her blankly.

It was then that she knew he wouldn’t give up. Not all the way until they were home. And then maybe not even the next day or the day after that. So she gave up and revealed herself to him. In her memory, it was a thing that had only ever been seen by her parents. She began to feel a burning between her legs, like the zinging of a light bulb. He looked, then looked away.

“See, I told you they’re different.” He finally dropped her hand, and it felt cold and light.

She pulled her orange corduroys back up. How meticulously she had chosen them this morning. The dull burning didn’t fade. They sat next to each other in silence. Hannah pressed her hot face into the cool glass. Letting the passing town assume a comfortable blur. There were no landmarks anymore. She wondered if she pressed herself hard enough into the serrated metal wall she might be able to tumble onto the passing curb, falling like a flimsy sack of bones and ligaments.

When the bus pulled in to their stop, Hannah waited to spill onto the street. The strings that held her upright by her shoulders loosened when she saw her mother, waiting with her arms crossed over her chest. Her hip was pushed out, to take the weight off of one leg. She was standing with Susan, waiting for their children to return to their rightful places. Hannah looked at her shoes as Bobby filed off the bus in front of her. She stared at the nape of his neck, his overgrown hair reaching over the line of his last haircut. When she touched down on the pavement, she bounded to Linda.

“Where’s your bow, sweetie?” Linda said, shaking her head. Hannah’s hand floated up to her hair. Where had she put it? She didn’t remember taking it off. Except that she remembered it had started hurting, pushing into the soft places behind her ears. Hannah reached for her mother’s hand and pulled her towards their house. Linda turned her head back towards Susan who was kneeling down to Bobby, pushing the hair off of his forehead.

“Looks like we have somewhere to be. I guess I’ll see you tomorrow.” Linda said with gentle exasperation.

“We’ll be here. Same time, same place.” Susan smiled in return.

When they got home, Hannah disappeared into her room instead of taking position at the kitchen table waiting for a snack. Linda began to slice an apple and schmear peanut butter before meticulously placing raisins on the crisp shelf. She brought the bowl into Hannah’s room. Hannah was sitting on the floor surrounded by letter blocks.

“What’s wrong, sweetheart?” Hannah looked up at her mother but returned to clicking her blocks together. “You know you can tell mommy anything. Don’t you?” Hannah shuffled her blocks around the floor. “Tell me, sweetie,” Linda placed a hand on her daughter’s back.

“On the bus, Bobby showed me–” she pointed to her groin, “Then he asked me to show him mine.” Hannah looked into Linda’s watchful face.

“Did you show him?” Hannah nodded, and they held silence between them. “Oh dear,” Linda inhaled, “Why did you do that?”

Hannah shrugged, searching for language she did not have. She refused to meet her mother’s gaze, preoccupied by shoving the “R” into her smooth calf. Linda lifted her daughter’s face, and she could see the soft flesh cheeks begin to fill like blisters. Fat tears grew from her tear ducts and careened down her face.

Linda brought Hannah into her chest, clutching her head with manicured talons. “You can never do that again, Hannah. Not even if he asks.” Hannah nodded into her mother's breast, her lungs emptying themselves in stiff increments.

Hannah felt that her mother was always trying to protect her from the wrong prying eyes. When they walked in the street Linda would clutch Hannah tightly. When shadowy men passed them at night, she would shield Hannah’s small frame behind her own. She would even check behind them to make sure no one had been following them. Linda would filter out the wrong prying eyes in favor of the right ones. At birthday parties and holidays, her mother would tote her around like a doll. She would spin Hannah beneath an extended arm. She would order clothes from online and they would have “fashion shows.” Hannah learned to love the cooing of her relatives, marveling over how fast she was growing. There were times for hiding and times for showing off. It was not always clear to her which time it was. One thing was always true. The person she wanted to find her the most beautiful was her mother.

Hannah could not explain what had happened to her on the bus. There were gaps in her memory of it all. In her mother’s embrace, enduring shame filtered into the spaces between her understanding. She became Adam’s rib, malleable marrow, and yet hardened. Now, Hannah felt her body loudly. For years, she would avoid her naked reflection, its glaring potency. Her body became the aftermath.

Once her mother left the room, she fished Batman out of her backpack.

“I didn’t know what to do,” she said to the armless man. He stared back at her blankly. “I didn’t mean to. I should have stopped it.”

At dinner, Hannah sat in her usual place at the head of the table. Her father shuffled his food around his plate and her mother looked nervously from her father to her food and back again.

“How was school today, Hannah?” John broke the prickly quietude.

“It was good,” she looked up sheepishly from her separated peas and diced chicken.

“Learn anything?”

“We made turkeys out of paper.”

“Sounds like taxpayer dollars well spent,” he laughed towards her mother. Her mother smiled and reached out to squeeze her daughter’s wrist. Hannah was relieved when her father’s laughter cut through the thick horizon of discomfort, though she didn’t understand his joke.

“Hannah, you know that your father and I will love you no matter what you do, right?” Linda said gently.

Hannah knew her mother wanted her to nod, so she did.

After dinner, Hannah brought Batman out once more. She sat with him on the rug off of the kitchen. She observed the empty space between his muscular thighs, the flat plane of his missing genitals. It became her favorite quality. She wished she could smooth over hers. She wished she could quell the burning.

Her parents spoke in low tenors as they cleared the table.

“I just don’t understand how she got the idea to show him her–ABCDEFG.”

“Honey, weren’t we all curious once?”

“John, she’s five.”

“Just call Susan and explain the situation. It’ll make you feel better.”

Hannah snuck behind the counter island to better hear her parents discuss her transgression over the filling sink. She listened to the jingle of her mother dialing seven numbers into the landline.

“Susan, it’s Linda,” a pause, “I’m so sorry to trouble you at dinner time. I was just reaching out because Hannah told us earlier that she and Bobby showed each other their private parts on the bus,” a longer pause. “I know. Of course, we were also surprised. But you’re right, nothing to worry about I’m sure. Exactly. Just kids being kids”

“Hi, Susan. It’s John,” her father’s voice now, “Of course, we thought we wouldn’t have to deal with this for quite some time. Five going on fifteen, I swear.” His low chortle.

“John!” Linda scolded with a hint of laughter chipping away at her concerned tone, “Ignore him, Susan. But yes, we’ll do the same. It won’t happen again.” The adults chirped their goodbyes.

Hannah clutched Batman tightly in the tunnel of her palm. He would be lost by the end of the month: dropped on the playground, discarded by Linda, lost in the crevice of a couch or a car seat. He was not so immortal after all. In time, Hannah would flinch at the memory of her melodrama. She would wonder why she had thought to tell her mother of such meaningless follies in the first place. She was ashamed to have filled her home with false worry. She and Bobby had been curious. Two kids on a bus exchanging their bodies as information.

Hadn’t she wondered too?

Hadn’t some piece of her, in her churning stomach, wanted to reveal itself?

 

There were times when she was older and she would see Bobby walking down the hallway, and it would bring her back to that bus, the torn pleather upholstery, the cold glass on her cheek. The story would blur like the town they sifted through, and in some versions she would think she had instigated the incident.

Hadn’t she asked him first? If she remembered the situation under different lighting she could see herself asking him to take his pants down. She must have woken that morning with voracious curiosity. It had been an inevitable discovery. Expedited, but predestined.

And didn’t this happen to everyone?

Didn’t all of her friends play doctor and share kisses behind tree trunks and under slides?

Perhaps even her mother had experienced something similar at one time or another.

In the morning, Linda woke Hannah, and they repeated their ritual.

They marched to the bus stop like soldiers.

 

The burning. The burning.

 

 

 

William C. Spengemann Award

Raena Roman

POBRES GRINGOS

Erskine Caldwell

Jordan McDonald

DISCRETION

“Girl, you makin’ shit hot,” India shouted at her little cousin Az, her gaze scorched with a teenager’s disdain. Az had just asked yet another question to the man their uncle had sent over to jailbreak the cable box. With her mama off in the kitchen grabbing the man a glass of water, Az was having a field day with her inquiries. Thankfully, India thought, the man had not entertained most of her prodding. Just a few inches shorter than India, Az was tall for eleven but slow-growing in her understanding of social cues—two facts which annoyed India to no end. Az looked older but couldn’t act like it. “Askin’ all them damn questions,” India murmured under her breath, sucking her teeth at the preteen. “Go upstairs if you don’t know how to be quiet,” she snapped, having grown progressively more annoyed with her cousin’s unrestrained curiosity.

Chilled by India’s disapproval, Az tensed up, her body running cold then warm with frustration. Looking down toward her grey New Balances, she kept her tears at bay by giving her eyes another job. Az traced the curves embroidered on her sneakers, anchoring herself in repetition. Upon building up a reserve of emotional control, she looked back up at her cousin, her eyes indignant but patient. Knowing better than to embarrass her mama by arguing in front of company, Az vowed to bite her tongue for the time being. Her memory was about long as her legs, which is to say that she forgot nothing. India would get hers when the time came. Az couldn’t understand why her cousin was always yelling at her anyway, why she was making such a big deal about asking the man a few questions. How could questions be bad?

The man in question, Roe, was a friend of the girls’ uncle, Taylor. A few days before, Uncle Taylor had called Roe on behalf of his little sister, Az’s mother. Though the cable had been cut for nearly six months, it was not until earlier that week that she had finally given in and called her brother Taylor for help. Taylor made a point of making and keeping friends like Roe. He had a friend who did jailbreaks, another who made bootlegs, and a number of other contacts who made themselves indispensable through these sorts of specialized skillsets. A prudent and sociable man, Taylor thought it best to amass relationships that also granted him resources. Simply put, he didn’t have any friends who couldn’t help him. In maintaining these friendships, Taylor was big on reciprocity, extending himself to help others whenever possible. For this reason, though Roe lived all the way in Baltimore, he agreed to come out to Prince George’s County just to set up a cable box for Taylor’s sister.

As the girls reached a stalemate, Roe was still tucked away behind the TV. Lucky for him, he had effectively zoned out their bickering. He was used to little kids being curious about his work and adults or older kids reprimanding them in his defense. Though he didn’t actually mind talking to the children, he never said anything when the scolding began. Over the years, he’d found it best not to interfere with the lives of his clients unless explicitly requested. After all, some things could not be jailbroken.

Walking back into the living room with a glass in hand, Az’s mother placed the water on the coffee table for Roe. Looking over at her daughter and niece, she grew suspicious of the quiet that had overtaken the room. “And what happened over here?” she asked the girls. Az’s mother looked back and forth between India and Az searching for answers. Breaking the silence, India spoke first. “Nothin’, Auntie. We was just watchin’ Mr. Roe do his thing,” said India, her tone softer and sweeter than before. Az’s mother smirked. “Roe a damn tech genius,” she exclaimed. Directing her attention to Roe, Az’s mother began to reminisce. For a few minutes, she raved about all the times Roe had come through for her and Taylor “back in the day.”

“This man right here the best kept secret in the DMV,” Az’s mother proclaimed. Smiling from behind the
TV, Roe laughed softly under his breath at the compliment. Were he not on the job, he might’ve pushed back on the affiliation that had just been made. Roe was from Baltimore, or “B-More” as some affectionately referred to it. And as far as he was concerned, B-More was a world of its own, something separate and distinct from the “DMV” of the greater D.C. area. Resisting the urge to rep his set, however, Roe instead took this moment of affirmation as his cue to take a break. “Thank you, thank you,” he said, getting up to take a bow and then a sip of water.

As Roe returned to his work, Az’s mother looked past her niece and over at her daughter. Az still had not responded to her initial question. What happened over here? Tapping her daughter on the shoulder, Az’s mother was determined to get a response from her child. “Azzy, what’s going on?” she asked, a hint of frustration decorating her voice. Reading her mother’s shift in energy, Az responded quickly, out of respect. “Sorry, ma. I-I’m good. I promise,” Az said while avoiding her mother’s eye contact. With a light irritation returning to her tone, India interrupted to contradict her cousin. “She upset cause I told her to stop asking Mr. Roe so many questions,” said India.

Extinguishing the early flames of another heated argument, Az flatly rejected her cousin’s comment. “No,” said Az, her voice firm. “I’m just trying to answer my own questions for once,” she explained, her eyes fixed on Roe and not India. “What are y’all on about now?” Az’s mother asked, confused by the exchange between the two girls. “What questions you tryin’ to answer, baby?”

Az didn’t know where to begin in answering her mother and so, she remained silent. There were far too many things circling through her brain. If India didn’t want her asking Roe directly about his work, she’d have to answer all her questions indirectly, through observation. And so, Az watched him. Intently. Her mother, beginning to recognize her daughter’s behavior, nudged India to come help her in the kitchen with lunch. Sometimes, Az got lost in moments like these. She’d become hyper-focused on something and lose track of time and space. In the past, when Az “went away” like this, her mother would try to snap her out of it. But, by now, she’d learned to wait for her daughter’s return to reality. She always came back.

Since Az was a child, technology had captivated her in this way. Whether she was spending hours
downloading music onto her MP3 player or going over her allotted computer time in elementary school, she’d obsessed over gaining access to everything. When she was seven, Az got a hold of her mother’s old Blackberry. After weeks of carrying around the SIM card-less device, Az had transformed herself into a woman with business. Suddenly, with that phone in hand, Az had calls to take and meetings to schedule. “Playdates is for the birds!” she’d shout across the small hallways of their townhouse.

Like magic, a smartphone could make a child, employed only by her whims, into a woman employed by a wide set of social and corporate demands. Az relished in this transformative power of technology, for it educated her on a world that seemed so far out of reach. Accelerating her maturation in ways others did not recognize, these gadgets gave Az the tools to build her own world. In return for this education and stimulation, Az always gave her undivided attention to this magic which she could not deny.

Though she didn’t understand even half of what Roe was doing with the router behind the TV, Az
desperately wanted to discover the particular magic of jailbreaking. It was one thing to create technology but another to hijack it. And the difference was life changing. To access that which you’ve been denied is to gain the power to disorder your world. Az had so many things she wanted to undo. Somehow, Roe created this possibility with his bare hands. The TV was back on! In what seemed like a chaotic world of wires, chords, and connections, Roe had quietly and meticulously returned images, sounds, and channels to a screen that had been retired to darkness. What the cable company taketh away, he giveth back without hesitation. Magic man. Miracle worker.

Az stood transfixed by the bright TV screen and nearly cried. While she lingered in her trance, everyone else in the house managed to be quite productive. Roe began to pack up his equipment. Exiting the kitchen with plates in hand, Az’s mother and cousin had prepared lunch for everyone. The sounds of the fridge opening and closing, potato chip bags popping, and plates jumping from cabinets to counter tops had all gone by without Az’s recognition. Though she had not yet eaten lunch, she declined the sandwich India attempted to give her. Az hungered for something food could not satiate. She had just decided that, if Roe’s brain was filled with an assortment of cheat codes, she would need to hack into him to get access to his magic. If she learned how to jailbreak the TV, maybe she could learn how to jailbreak anything.

Az scoured her brain for the right question to ask Roe before he left. He was packing up his things and taking the sandwich her mother had made him to-go. He had a long drive ahead of him and he wanted to get going. Interrupting Az’s brainstorming, her mother called out to her from the dining room table. “Az, baby, go get my purse,” she shouted. For all his hard work, Az’s mama wanted to make sure she paid Roe whatever little bit of money she had. As Az ran up the stairs to her mother’s room, she racked her brain for the right question to ask the magic man. While searching for her mother’s purse, Az ran through potential questions. Where did you learn how to jailbreak? How long did it take? Is it illegal? Each one, she thought, was worse than the last. Defeated, Az made her way back down the steps with her mother’s purse in hand and without a plan.

Slowly walking into the living room, Az passed her mother the purse and looked at Roe as he packed.
Rummaging through her bag, Az’s mother worked to find her money in a sea of receipts, lip glosses,
customer cards, and loose change. Finally, when her hand emerged from the bottomless pit, she pulled out two $50s and a $100 dollar bill. Unable to commit to another monthly payment system, Az’s mother paid Roe with a lump sum of $200. “It’s not much,” she explained regretfully, wishing she could do more. “But, I wanted to make sure I gave you a little somethin’.” Roe took the money and shook his head. “Let’s call it the family discount,” he said, leaning in for a hug. Az’s mother stood up to hug him back and proceeded to walk Roe to the door.

“Alright y’all,” Roe yelled out to the girls before he left. As he walked out, Az’s mother moved to close the door, when her daughter suddenly appeared behind her, trying to get through. “Hey Mr. Roe!” Az shouted out the front door as the man was pulling out of the driveway. Looking in her direction, Roe stopped his truck and stuck his head out the car window so he could hear. Taking her chance, Az ran out the door to speak to him. Her puff of dark brown curls bounced in the air as she bolted toward the truck. Catching her breath, Az put her arms up on the car and blurted out the first questions she could think to ask. “Why won’t anybody let me ask you questions, Mr. Roe?” she asked. “Why can’t we talk about what you did?”

Roe’s gaze fell. He put the car in park and stopped to think. He tried to explain, as best he could, that
discretion is integral to a marriage of complicities—that jailbreaking requires us to steal together. In exchange for illicit access, his clients were made to accept certain terms and conditions. To be the customer of a jailbreak is to know that you are on borrowed time. In a few months, or if you’re lucky, a year, your connection will inevitably be disconnected. Soon the channels will disappear, and the screen with go back to black once more. The cable companies always catch on. And they do not take kindly to these attempts at evasion.

As he rambled, Roe struggled to convey the stakes to Az. Unsure of how she would make sense of it all, he went on to explain the nature of his work. Though the world says we are not supposed to have TV unless we have gone through the “proper channels,” men like Roe bypass these rules to give people their lives back. To give their remotes something to control, children something to occupy their minds, and mothers the escapes they deserve.

Az listened to Roe without interrupting. When he finished speaking, the man looked at the girl to gage how well he’d answered her questions. Az’s brown eyes were bright as she processed his words. After a few seconds of silence, Az smiled. “Thank you, Mr. Roe,” she said as she turned to head back inside. Roe turned his key in the ignition and backed out the driveway once more. This time, he drove away.

After running back inside, Az sat on the floor in the living room. Looking up at the TV, she thought to
herself that maybe there were such things as good secrets, that they were kinda like how Uncle Taylor would slip her a few dollars when her mama wasn’t watching. Her mother didn’t like to ask for money or help, so Uncle Taylor often aided them in secret. An accomplice in the conspiracy, Az would use the money he gave her to take care of things before her mother had to. Replace the batteries. Get more eggs. Buy a new uniform for school.

Though she suspected her mother knew about the money, Az never discussed it with her. She figured there was no harm in certain kinds of evasion, but that the exposure of small secrets could unravel her mother’s world. So, whenever Uncle Taylor’s hand found hers at a birthday party or cookout, Az would repeat the same routine. She’d hold his hand for a second, wrapping her fingers around the cash in his palm, so as to conceal its green. Then, as her hand parted from his, she’d keep a tight closed fist, and wait until it was safe. Safe to transfer the bills into her pocket. Safe to release her grip.