Lee, 12th - United Kingdom
A man, his hair grizzled, his eyes world-weary. A boy, barely teenaged, and yet with the lanky, sallow complexion of a sick, old man. A darkened laboratory; the only light emanating from the flickering monitors and softly bubbling liquids in test tubes: red, blue, green, yellow clouds of light illuminating the room in fractured colors.
The boy sat in the heart of a monstrous machine. Ten feet tall and seven feet wide, the writhing mass of metal and spiraling tubes and hissing steam vents loomed over the boy and his father, casting a dark shadow around the dimly illuminated room. Steel pillars rose up like the pipes of an old church organ; indeed, the shape of the thing reminded the boy of a dark cathedral, wherein a huddled group of frightened people listened to a man with wild eyes scream dark prophecies as the organ wailed. A baby started to cry. The boy snapped himself out of the unnerving fantasy. The machine was going to cure him. Father said was going to cure him.
The man held his finger over a large black button, his tired eyes now holding a sliver of hope as he gazed at his son. His boy. For years, his sickness had plagued him; a mysterious ailment that tore at his lungs, his throat; dulled his eyes and his mind, and dyed his young skin a pale yellow. He would spend nights hacking and spluttering, blood sprays decorating the threadbare carpet like handfuls of sickly red stars in a pale sky, as his father held his trembling hand. From the very first coughing fit that racked his son’s small body, he had vowed to find a cure. Every shake of the head or sigh or pitying look from yet another doctor only fueled his determination, to the point where he had decided to take matters into his own hands.
As a young boy, younger than his son was now, the man had heard a story. Sat around a flickering fire with a crowd of other boys with rumpled hair and wide, curious eyes, he listened to the oldest, most looked-up to of all the boys spin a wondrous tale – a tale of a beautiful woman, cursed by a disease that disfigured her: twisted her slender limbs into gnarled stumps, dried her soft blonde locks into filthy straw… and turned her pale skin a sickly yellow. The man remembered that last detail vividly: the way the older boy had said it, a slight smile creeping onto his lips as he delivered it with relish, the cherry on top of the repulsive sundae of the illness he had described, knowing by the grimaces and sounds of disgust surrounding him that the boys were imagining the woman in all her unholy glory. But the story did not end unhappily: the woman was taken pity on by a brilliant scientist – a scientist, the boy had explained, was what the city men called a sorcerer – who put her in a box of lightning, or an ‘electrotherapy machine’ as the boy had called it with a flourish, and she stepped out of it even more beautiful than she had been before the disease. The woman was so grateful to the scientist that she married him, and they lived happily ever after.
The man still remembered the story, decades later. He himself had become what he’d like to call a scientist, but perhaps in reality he was more of a sorcerer. He had spent his half his life playing around with his strange brand of magic, one that involved metal wands that removed screws instead of evil stepmothers and fairy dust that would melt away your skin if you sprinkled it over yourself. Still, it was magic enough for him, and he thought he had everything he could ever want.
And then his son got ill.
The magic stopped. It all became cold and hard and unforgiving, and the steam hissed and the metal clunked and creaked as the man built the box of lightning that had started it all, all those years ago. But the man slaved on; the machine was the only hope that his son had.
And here were the fruits of his labours. The metal giant seemed to leer down at him, the puffs of steam like scoffing, as if the very thing intended to save his son was ridiculing the very thought. The man abandoned this fantasy almost immediately. The machine was going to save him. He had told his son it would save him.
The boy returned his father’s small, hopeful smile, his heart beating hard in his throat. His father gestured to the slim black button beneath his finger.
The boy gulped.
Clunking. Whirring. A strip of lights brightened in a colored ascension, adding to the dull glow of the room. Silence.
Two giant, rectangular metal clamps with teeth like sharpened knives seized the boy’s skinny arms with two deafening bangs, the ugly sound of metal striking metal echoing horribly around the lab, bouncing off the walls like malicious giggles from entities unknown. It was at this moment that the boy felt panic rise in his throat. It tasted sulfurous in his mouth, and he felt faintly ashamed of his fear. His father had built this machine to cure him, and he had the audacity to… to…
The thought keeled over and died. No, the boy thought. No. He couldn’t convince himself.
He was terrified.
But there was no stopping the machine now. The whirring grew louder, but a faint grinding noise came with it, the horrible, corrosive sound of metal dragging against metal. Two steel rods slowly extended from the body of the machine down to the clamps that held the boy, and he could hear the crackle and fizz of electricity as they slowly descended, coming closer and closer, like a syringe about to be stuck into his arm. The grinding sound grew louder.
The rods were centimeters away.
The boy opened his mouth to scream… and took his last breath.
An explosion, so great that it shook the ground and tore through the lab’s ceiling, allowing the moon’s pale light to seep through, although it was barely noticeable above the orange flames.
The man knelt by a pile of flaming rubble, weeping. His tears evaporated before they could hit the ground. He cursed himself, over and over. He knew nothing. Nothing! He’d built that machine with his boyhood dreams as a blueprint. He’d strapped his son, the only family he had left, to a hunk of electrified steel with the vague idea that it would somehow ‘cure’ him.
Cure him of a disease he wouldn’t have had if it weren’t for him.
If only he hadn’t started messing around with that bacteria.
If only he hadn’t run out of mice to inject with it.
If only his son hadn’t fallen asleep in the laboratory.
If only he hadn’t been delirious with exhaustion.
If only he wasn’t such a disgusting excuse for a father.
If only. If only. If only.
He’d shoved the woman in the box of lightning, but she hadn’t come out beautiful.
The boy’s body lay beneath the rubble. The reflection of the fire, an orange ghost of the one that his father had sat around as a boy, danced in his single exposed eye, glassy and vacant.
E.Chen, 11th - Burlingame, CA
this is an apology to my mother
for forgetting my Chinese name
and the sharp slice of a Mandarin vowel.
mother, i promise you i will learn to mold my mouth
back into its mother form, learn to fold my teeth
until they are instruments for speaking
Chinese. mother, i promised the Gods
i will not erase my mother tongue,
but English is a sharp knife,
thats been honed to dull Chinese,
and so forgive me if my name crumbles like
fireworks at your doorstep, forgive me if my name
totters and tumbles like Chinese checkers.
mother, English is a hard stain to wash out of the jaw, but
mother, i promise you i will climb into my mouth, scrape
the walls of my throat, harden my tongue, until I can
sculpt my name in perfect Chinese.
Ori Sarah, 9th- Berkeley, CA
I woke up as the cold and damp air washed over my body like the sharp caresses of an electric eel. Had I really left the window open again, in this freezing weather? I shot open my eyes. I was not in my bed, instead my body lay against an equally cold and wet ground. I stood up defensively, clenching my fists, and wondered, where in the world was I? It was a place like nothing I’d ever seen before. I shivered in fear. As I looked around, I saw only darkness. I was encircled by a vast dark forest. The sky was grey and clouded, like fog leeching onto a window during a cold day.
I was breathing heavily, terrified of the dark wood. My eyes darted around quickly, searching my setting, and I caught myself murmuring things absentmindedly.
“It’s only a dream. It’s only a dream, you'll wake up soon, and everything will be fine. It’s only a dream, you'll-you’ll wake up soon, and everything will be fine.”
I didn’t even know where I was, only that this place wouldn’t let me understand. I peered between the trees anxiously until my eyes locked on a door.
There was no house attached to the door; it was merely in the middle of the eerie trees, held completely upright by some unseen hinges. The strange door wouldn’t have been my first choice of exits, but I saw no other form of escape. There was nothing. All I could do was walk towards that door. I felt my mind telling me to go towards it.
My cold and shaky hand reached for the knob, fumbling nervously and numb with the freezing cold. The metal touch stung and, as I yanked my hand away from it, a blood curdling scream echoed in my ears. It was coming from behind me. Unearthly. I’d never heard anything like it before. I stopped myself from opening the door. My heart was pounding in my chest, and I spun around, my back to the mysterious door, wondering what was the source of this abnormal screech?
A long black claw crept out from the woods, about ten feet away from me, it’s jagged nails hitting the wet dirt. I could barely see any of the creature, the trees not allowing any light to enter the dark forest. The unrecognizable creature's body began to walk towards the center of the circle of trees, swaying side to side with every step.
My palms were beginning to sweat with fear, and my hand reached out for the cold door knob again. This time I was successful in opening it, no cold would stop me. I fell inside its threshold, shutting the door behind me. Meeting this rabid creature was like having a death wish that I would not honor now.
Instead of feeling the same wet dirt of the forest underneath my feet, I felt nothing but myself falling rapidly into darkness. As I looked up, the mysterious door was nowhere to be seen.
I closed my eyes immediately, landing on a sticky surface that was supposedly the ground. The sudden change of environment sending sharp pangs of pain to my head. It had been freezing in the vast forest; here it was humid and sticky. Once I got my eyes to open, the stickiness in the air providing some difficulty, I looked around at this new location.
Warm, slimy vines trickled down from what appeared to be the ceiling--but, no, there was no ceiling. From where, then? Just coming out of the sky? They dripped a rotten loathsome liquid, like stalactites from a cursed cave. Drip, drip, drip onto monolithic mushrooms that seemed to lurch at me, those same vines tickled delicately around their truck-sized stems. As the green liquid dripped off of the vines, it hit my head with a soft thud, making me shriek and wince in disgust and fear.
I began to run, dodging unrecognizable vegetation, praying that it nor anything else would prove to be of the ravenous predatory kind.
“Wake up!” I yelled at myself, still convinced this supernatural experience was a dream.
As I ran, I turned back and I recognized something. It was the same black claw from the circle of trees. Only this time, the body around it was beginning to form. It was shadowy, ghostly, and abnormally large like a crepuscular bear. I was distracted by the sudden appearance of the creature--one that I thought I’d abandoned, but I somehow kept running, turning my head back in its direction and away from it.
The next thing I knew my body was hitting freezing cold water, filled with algae and other plants that looked and smelled with acrid toxins, bubbles filled with oozing liquid that rose to dangerous crescendos before bursting outwards.
I fell deeper into the water, flailing, and trying to scream, but each cry was stifled by the viscous liquid as my lungs filled with the green slime and the ice cold water.
The world began to turn. Promptly, down, right and left were indistinguishable. Then, my eyes began to feel heavy. I was losing oxygen and slowly fading.
I kept my eyes open in a desperate attempt to identify something--anything in all the haze. A small pink hand was reaching into the water from above me, and I thought I must’ve imagined it. I grabbed the hand, and was immediately yanked out of the water and onto the ground. Sticky with slime, I coughed up the algae.
“I thought you human folk were more knowledgeable!” the creature with the pink hand spoke.
“Who are you?” I asked, standing up on the bank.
“You know, a thank you would be nice.” The creature spoke, its short legs and abnormally long arms giving it a rather interesting appearance.
“Thank you-” I began, but I didn’t even know who I was thanking, and if I really was thankful, when the pink creature cut me off.
“Veqal.” it said.
“Thank you, Veqal.” I played along.
I knew this was just a dream, but maybe if I were to pretend it wasn’t, I’d wake up sooner. Even the thought of all this being a figment of my imagination made the situation no less comforting. I was still petrified of the clawed shadow figure that loomed somewhere in the distance.
“What is this place?” I asked.
“This? This is the Land of Hallucination,” Veqal said matter-of-factly, as though it were common knowledge.
He began to walk away.
“Veqal?” I questioned.
“Yes?” he wondered.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“Why, to the Realm of Clouds, of course!” he stated, again, as though I should’ve already known this.
I caught up with him, and we began to walk in silence.
“What is your name, human?” he asked.
“Ariah,” I responded.
“Ariah...meaning Lion of god, no?” Veqal questioned.
I was surprised at the rapidity of his response.
“Yes. How did you know?”
He didn’t respond and only smiled, continuing to walk.
“We haven’t had a human here in ages,” he said.
“When was the last time?” I asked.
He paused for a moment, and stopped walking.
“I don’t remember.” he finished.
The slimy world with mushroom skyscrapers seemed to drag on forever. My body felt heavy with exhaustion, and I wished to sleep.
“Are you feeling tired, Ariah?” Veqal asked.
“Yes, quite tired.” I responded.
“That means we are here.” he stopped walking immediately.
Veqal reached out his hands, and peeled back the scenery in front of us, as if it were a movie set backdrop, and revealed clouds. Cherry blossom colored clouds that smelled like vanilla. The clouds were shaped like roses, and they were everywhere, all different shapes and sizes, but each looking as comfortable as the next.
“Welcome to the Land of Slumber.” Veqal announced.
My body melted against the soft and fluffy clouds, my thoughts disappeared, and my eyelids grew heavy.
My dreams were like nothing I’d ever experienced before. There was nothing here from the world I’d grown up in. The limitless forest and the otherworldly realm filled with green slime slipped in and out of my dreams.
“No, get away from me… no!” I mumbled, as I tossed and turned on the comfortable clouds.
Suddenly I was back, surrounded by the circle of trees, and the clawed ghostly bear was creeping closer and closer towards me. I gripped the weeds growing from the ground, and found myself breathing rapidly. I felt like my heart was ready to launch out of my chest.
The ghostly bear was right over top of me, it’s putrid breath on my face and it’s horrendous teeth, with jagged ends, made an appearance, when I yelled out in fear, awakening from the nightmare.
The once honey smelling, angelic clouds were devoured by a dark entity, the Land of Slumber becoming completely unrecognizable.
“Veqal! Veqal, where are you?!” I yelled out in fear, when I didn’t see him.
“Ariah!” I heard his voice call.
“Veqal! Where are you?!” I repeated.
“Over here!” he called from my right.
I began to sprint across the fluffy clouds, just as they turned a charcoal black and evil. The shadow was slowly devouring Veqal, and I ran over to grasp his small hands that had once saved my life.
“No! Veqal, hold on!” I screamed, salty tears streaming down my dirty face.
Veqal’s extraterrestrial features looked up at me, his bright yellow eyes like a warm hug goodbye.
“Good-bye, Ariah. You were a good friend.” he spoke, and let go of my hands, letting the shadows devour him.
I fell to my knees, and sobbed heavily.
“NO! Veqal, NO!” I cried out in pain.
I slammed my fists in the dark clouds in anger, making a deep groove. In my rage, I hadn’t noticed yet, being so consumed by sadness, and I kept crying out.
“NO!!!” I bellowed before me, widening the groove into a deep hole, into which I quickly fell through.
The sticky air coated my body, and I was caught on the vines as I fell down rapidly through the sky. There were many opportunities for me to even grab onto one, but I didn’t.
I closed my eyes and wished to wake up, for this all to end. There was nothing that mattered anymore, nothing that made sense. No feeling of home, or belonging, only the recognition of a strange world with its strange creatures.
BOOM. I hit the ground with a harsh thud. I shot my eyes open, and stood up defensively. I was encircled by tall dark trees that seemed to go on forever, looming over me. Where in the world was I?
Eva, 11th- Burlingame, CA
“I think I’m depressed, mom.”
Raindrops dribbling, kitchen water running, she stands at the counter.
“It’s getting harder to wake up, getting harder to do anything really, most of the time, I feel like I’m just dragging an empty body around.”
The end of a knife hits a cutting board - a piece of apple drops to the floor and slides by my feet. She bends over, tucks a grey hair over her ear, and mumbles “There is no such thing as depression.”
A rhythm returns to the kitchen: apples slicing, water boiling, rain drumming.
“I think I’m depressed, mom.”
I grip my knees closer, until I am buried in myself, until I am as small as an ant. A pair of burgundy scissors lie across from me, with strands of leftover hair poking out.
I feel the uneven fringes of my new haircut brushing along my shoulders; they stab at my skin. I catch a glimpse of the bottom half of her body leaning against the doorway, her cotton slippers swimming in an ocean of blonde.
“What did you do?”
The question hangs in the air, sour and dry.
“My hair felt heavy. I cut it off,” I choke out.
“Are you done?”
“Get going then, it looks good.”
It’s still raining and I count the number of times the rain hits the window… then I count the number of footsteps it takes her to leave, then I count the number of days since I last told her I was depressed. Twenty-two.
The walk to the car feels heavy, like the weight of my body has been multiplied by a million. I sit in the back seat, cold black plastic crunching beneath my palms.
She turns the rear mirror, and I hold her stone gaze from a distance before breaking it off to study a seagull soaring in the sky.
The report card slips out of her hands, rows and rows of C’s and D’s stain the car seat.
Only one B. It’s in P.E.
“What is this?”
The car keys are still left in the ignition slot, a group of friends walk past, their laughter leaving a trail of echoes behind them.
“He told me you often fall asleep in class, most days you refuse to do any of your work. What happened? You weren’t like this last year.”
Did “last year” even exist? Last year feels like a fever dream, like all the memories and days are blurred and blended, lost in the pool of my mind. Was there really a time where everything didn’t feel so vacant, so grey?
“Are you even listening? Lia?”
Her words are stiffer now, each question packing a punch.
“... I think I’m .. depressed.”
Silence is now the loudest thing in the car.
I roll my hands into a fist, aching for the gaggles of the teenagers to return - longing for the squawk of a seagull or the crack of a branch to break the tension.
Instead, all I get is the tapping of the rain,
then the moan of an engine,
and we are off, on an empty road, the silence louder than ever.
She says “You don’t even wake up anymore.”
We are back in the kitchen, with the low heat of the stove crackling and the soft whisper of the water boiling.
I read this in a book once - symptom one of depression: where sometimes your bed becomes both your best lover and toxic girlfriend, where sometimes the sheets feel as warm as home but if you stay for too long your bones begin to mold and whine like wind chimes.
Before I can respond she lets out another long sigh,
“You don’t even write poetry anymore either, or bike, or read, or do anything really.”
This time, I let myself melt into a weak smile, my face wavering behind the sounds of eggs frying against the pan.
The funny thing is that this is exactly what happened to Amy from English, who used to eat with her mouth wide open and juggle jokes around in class, who slowly began sleeping through Algebra and fading to grey. Amy, who the teachers started dubbing “special” after she began disappearing the fourth week in.
My name crumbles out of her mouth like rocks, stiff and hard.
“Lia .. I’m … sorry.”
The whistle of the kettle halts to a stop. The fire from the stove flickers.
“I think I was .. wrong. I’m sorry .. for not listening to you. I think you might be depressed, like you said. It’s hard watching you sleep through dinner and your body looks like it’s shrinking too. I heard you Lia, I heard you last night -- how you cried, how you wished for tears but they never came. I want to help Lia .. I want to get you a therapist, is that okay?”
There is cotton clogging my throat now. I feel something burn against my skin and I realize that I’m crying.
Instead of responding, I stare more.
I stare until my head taps out a small nod. I stare until I unfurl the sea of emotions caged inside my body, until I cough up a quiet “yes .. yes please.”
I stare until mom is in my arms, until the heat of her body sinks skin deep, until the rain finally stops pouring.
Students 6th-12th Grades