Once again, we're pleased to announce our teen contest winners. As usual, it was a tough choice, but we hope you love these stories as much as we do. This time, we'll also be adding two runners-up and a list of honorable mentions. So please come back to this page in a week or so to see what new stories we post.
Congratulations again to our wonderful winners and thank you to everyone who entered. We're inspired by the amazing imaginations that all of you have. Keep writing! -- Anne and Ellen
by Paige Solans, age 14
A child and a young man sit in the grassy meadow under a tree that has grown too tall and too old, playing cards. Low limbs swing lazily in the breeze accompanying the warm stickiness of the June air. The child, a young girl whose fresh, childish smile hasn't yet caught up with the rest of her body deals the cards. She is all smiles when she sees her cards, doesn't know she is supposed to hide them but that's what happens when you have a child play a game too old for her.
Across from her sits a man who looks about twenty-four. His eyes are much older, though. They are grey and dead and look like they were a stolen from someone who left this world a long, long time ago. He waits, slouched over, still dressed in his army uniform because he was too tired to change.
Everything is silent, but it's the kind of the silence that leaves warmth in your bones. The girl looks up from her cards to the man, narrows her eyes and surveys him with the sincerity of someone much older. “That’s a nice beard you got there, mister.”
The man looks up, reeled out of his daydreaming by her voice. “Thanks.”
The girl looks down at her cards again, then reaches over to her diminishing pile of poker chips. She doesn't hesitate to pick up a handful of chips and dump them on the grass between them. He on the other hand is careful, walking on a tightrope trying to decide whether to bluff or not. He takes another slow look at his cards before throwing them down. Fold.
She grins and scoops her chips back to their place next to her knee, beginning to deal the next hand. “Do you have to grow a beard to be in the army?” she asks suddenly.
His lips curve slightly, moving into something other than a concentrated frown for the first time today. “No, you don’t.”
“Then why does every soldier have one?”
“I don’t know.”
Silence hurries to fill the air again. The breeze twirls and pirouettes over to where the two are under the tree, running its cool fingers through the girl’s brown locks.
“Is there a war because people are trying to hurt us?”
He lets out a long and exasperated breathe. “No, not exactly.”
He is still very concentrated on his cards when he answers, “The reason is very complicated.”
She on the other hand has grown bored looking at the queens and kings and starts surveying the meadow. The sun was beginning to hide itself behind the giant mountains in the distance and it had left behind a trail of pink and orange. The girl imagined her taking the beautiful picture in the sky, transforming it to fabric that she sews into a dress, allowing her to wear the sunset forever.
She turns her attention back to the soldier sitting across from her and thinks to herself that he could use a bit of the sun on his body too. Maybe then his skin wouldn't look so sickly white. “People say that a lot. They always say things are too hard for me to understand just so they won't have to explain it. Maybe it's because they are scared that if they do try to explain it, they would realize they don’t really understand it either.”
The soldier has realized that the girl is done playing the game of cards. He picks them up and places the deck together slowly and carefully, just like he does with everything else. When he is finished, he leans back against the tree trunk and stretches out his legs. “We are in a war because some people don’t know right from wrong so we have to show them.”
The girl turns to him abruptly. “But how do you know that something is wrong? How does anyone?”
“We know because we were born with a moral compass.”
“Where did we get these compasses from?”
He shrugs. “Maybe God gave it to us or maybe we were just born with it in our pockets.”
“Is there something wrong with the others guys’ compasses, the guys that we are fighting?”
“I’m not sure.”
Pause. “I think the problem is that everyone thinks they are above others, when they are not.”
“What do you mean,” he asks, puzzled, “sometimes some people can be better than others.”
She looks down, and pulls at the blades of grass. “No, they can’t.”
He is sitting up now, staring intently at the young girl in front of him, wrinkling his brows in confusion. “So, if another girl was dumber and meaner than you, you won't consider yourself better?”
She shakes her head. “No, I would consider myself smarter and nicer than her but that doesn't mean I’m better.”
He is surprised by her words. They belong to someone who has experienced a lot more life then she has and they seem funny coming out of her innocent mouth. Thoughts of what the girl’s words meant danced in his brain. Was she right? Could we all just be equal? After all, aren't we just all humans, made from the elements? We are all just hydrogen and carbon atoms, all comprised to create the same thing.
He stays there for a moment longer, staring at the child picking grass in front of him. Then, as quick as those thoughts appear, they are gone, floating away farther and farther from his reach. “Come on, let's get inside before the sun completely disappears.”
He stands and dusts nothing off of his pants. He stretches his large hand out to hers and the girl looks up at the sad young man in his uniform with searching eyes. She then places her hand in his and leads them out from beneath the cool embrace of the willow tree and the two walk off into the distance.
by Vivian P. DeRosa, age 13
She liked books far more than people, although she assumed this was usual. After all, she read of many characters who relied only on the waxy smell of dim-lit candles and the worn leather of book spines. In fact, in her novels, there were six hermits for every social, so, if anything, the ever inquiring neighbors were the ones who were on the strange side of things.
However, despite her reputation, she despises libraries. It seemed to her that the very building was an obstacle course, balancing cordial hellos to the college slackers managing the front desk, jumping through hurdles of mothers too tired to enforce rules on wailing toddlers and forty-year olds damaging their ears with headphones whose music could be heard throughout the floor.
So she was surprised indeed when in her mailbox poked out a crisp, purple notification. Eyebrows arched as her eyes scrutinized the Comic Sans writing. “The book The Archer’s Demise is overdue. Please visit your library, return the book, and pay your fees, or contact us through our email account,” she muttered.
She had never borrowed this book.
She scowled, glancing at the hair that fell in her face. What was once thick locks composed of blushing roses, has now had its ruby glow faded to a soft grey, and it's so fine that if she was to twirl a strand around her finger it would surely break right off. A sigh hiccuped out before she could stop it. It said what she dared not: She was getting too old for this.
Seeing as her near ancient computer viewed pressing the power button as a thirty minute wake up routine, she figured it would be quicker to walk to the library. Her feet slipped into ballet flats, although she didn’t dance. Her lips pursed as she walked briskly down the suburban street.
She had wanted to. She imagined it would be like flight. She pretended that swings gave her wings, and if she could get high enough, she’d be able to take off. But her classmates, they tore her wings and weighed her down, like chains. They said that ballerinas were supposed to be beautiful, and she wanted to shout back that maybe beauty wasn’t held in eye color or cheek bones but in grace and ideas, but she couldn’t find the words. And she wanted to say that perhaps she wasn't the best dancer yet, but how could a flower blossom if it’s blocked from sunlight?
It was too late to fulfill dreams now, and it was the fault of those children, the painful consequence of undeveloped minds, that blockaded her.
At least, that’s what she thought standing in line to speak to the head librarian. She stepped up to face the young woman, whose crooked name tag read Maria and whose face held a radiant smile.
She almost had to grip the desk for support, as the sheer amount of cheer was a battle ram to her mind.
“I falsely received a letter in the mail claiming I had an overdue book. I never borrowed it.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry about that! We must have gotten the address wrong.” Maria said, still flashing that enormous grin. She wondered if the librarian had gotten surgery for her mouth to open that wide. “Why don’t you wait on that bench while I fix this?”
She took a seat, noticing a few seconds too late who her neighbor was. A tiny little creature, who couldn’t tie a bow with his shoelaces, so was instead attempting to use a glue stick to make the loops anyways. He took a break from his activity to gawk at the newcomer.
“Are those ballet shoes?” he asked.
She stiffened. “Yes,” she replied tightly.
“I know how to dance.” He boasted. “My mother made me take lessons. Do you know how to dance?” He said the last part of this as a dare, a contest.
“No.” She wanted to be just as abrupt with this statement, but her voice faltered at the end. To make up for it, she added, “But I’ve read many books on it.”
He nodded. “Cool. I used to come and listen to story-time here. But the reader quit.” He continues to try to make his bow. Then, his face brightens, almost to the point of Maria’s. She winced. “Hey, I’ve got a deal! How ‘bout you become the new reader, and I’ll give you dance lessons!”
“Oh no, dear me, I couldn’t,” she said at first. But then, she rolled the offer over in her head. Dance lessons. She struggled to make her decision as her eyes bore into the deep wrinkles that formed her hands. She might not have time for another chance. This was it. Even if it was with a child.
“Wait,” She said. “I’ll do it. But first, let me tie your shoes.”
And so began the collaboration.
By reading in the library she transmitted her fiery passion for books through stories, and proved to be “the coolest reader yet!” by Maria. She still cringed whenever she saw that librarian. The children coaxed first smiles from her, and then replaced her sighs with laughs. And the boy, William was a surprisingly good teacher. She had learned how to do the five basic ballet positions, and was slowly working her way through a song.
For several years, her hair may not have been the hue of the flower but her life had turned pretty rosy. But then, the library received a letter. It was crisp, purple, and followed two weeks of unexplained absence. It read, “The Last Will and Testament.” The last two lines were highlighted, though they needn’t be. For while the majority of the letter was written in Times New Roman, this was in Comic Sans. “To the Public Library I leave my book collection, for alerting me that happiness was overdue. And finally, to William, I leave my pair of ballet shoes, for teaching me how to fly.”
Our Empty Promises
by Isadora Loftus, age 16
As you stared at me, fear shining in your small eyes, I promised that I would protect you, I promised to keep you safe, I promised I would never let anything hurt you. Before I go on I would like to apologize for making promises that I knew I couldn't keep. I just didn't think you would have to face this decision so soon.
On your thirteenth birthday you asked me to define love and I didn't have an answer. You stared at me, your eyebrows wrinkled in confusion. "But I thought you always had answers. I thought you knew everything," you said. That was the first time I realized I had made a mistake. I wish I knew everything. I wish I knew how to protect you. I wish I could take your place, shield you from the world. I'm sorry. I can't. I can't keep my promises. I can't save you.
On the first day of the hundredth year we all wore blue. It was supposed to symbolize community, to show what we had become. But when we gathered in the greening for the official ceremonies I realized it was meaningless. If anything it showed the opposite, the need for everyone to be the same. There was no community here. Anything that was different from what we knew was shunned and judged harshly.
When this city was created the creators made a long list of strict rules. The rules state what you can do, say, and wear. These rules are often gender and age specific. From our birth we have very little input into our future, it is all already laid out for us. We go to school from the ages of four through sixteen. When we are seventeen through twenty we learn a trade, or apprentice the person whose job will someday be ours. These jobs are chosen for us when we are born. When we are twenty we are required to live apart from our parents and work. The rules control our lives, and I despise them, but this is where I live and the consequences for not following the rules are not worth my freedom.
Scanning the crowd I spotted you amongst the sea of blue. You were facing me. The hood on the back of your navy blue sweatshirt was pulled tightly around your face and you kept your eyes on me. I noticed a piece of white extending from the pocket of your jeans to your ears. Headphones, I quickly realized. Music was forbidden at ceremonies and community events. I pointed to my ears, trying to signal for you to take them off, but you had already turned away from me. A security guard, who had been patrolling the crowd, noticed you. He stepped towards you. I couldn't tell what he was saying, but I knew it wasn't good. I pushed through the crowd, trying to reach you. You tried to tug away from the guard who had a firm grip on your arm. You were shaking your head at him. Then he pulled the hood of your sweatshirt off.
Your hair was gone. It was replaced by a sloppy pixie cut, as if you'd recklessly taken a pair of safety scissors and chopped it off. The security guard yelled and pulled the headphones roughly out of your ears. "I'm sorry," you yelled, "It was an accident, the scissors slipped! Please!" But the guard was pulling at your arm, dragging you across the greening. Tears were streaming down your face. I ran after you, pushing past anyone in my way. Just as the guard was pulling you out of sight you caught my eyes and screamed my name. I'll never forget that scream and the look of utter terror on your face. That was the second time.
The last time was three months ago. You were sixteen. Old enough to make your own choices. I was watching the girls your age from my window as they congregated at the cafe across the street. I asked you why you weren't there with them. You shrugged, looking up at me, "I guess I'm just not like them."
Two hours ago you knocked on my door. I knew. In the pit of my stomach I knew you were tired of pretending. The first thing you said when I opened the door was, "I'm leaving. I don't belong here. I never did. I'm not like these people." You stated this as a fact, your voice never wavering. You were calm, calmer than I'd ever seen you. Then you asked me to tell our parents. I promised I would, knowing that unlike the promises I had made to you years before this was one I could keep.
Our parents loved you, but they never understood you. I knew even though they would be devastated that deep down they would know, as I do, that you never belonged here. You pretended you did, you hid in the shadows, slipped past the questioning stares, and molded yourself to what society wanted. But it was always only an act.
Underneath the faking you never belonged and you knew that. When I made you those promises we both knew that they were promises that could not be kept. We just didn't want to admit that someday we would have to meet this fate.
But here we are with our empty promises saying goodbye for the last time. So I hug you and tell you I love you and that I am sorry. You are brave, braver than I ever was. I stand in my doorway and watch you walk away from everything you know into the unknown darkness of the descending night.
Sullivan's 468th Battle by Kathryn Iseminger age 16
Ten by Sarah Bosworth, age