This week, we honor five very talented young writers, all from our summer camp workshops. These five young ladies were selected as the winner and finalists of our 2010 Rose Million Healey Award in Short Fiction, which was founded by Patrick Million to honor of his Aunt Rose Million Healey, the woman who most inspired him to pursue writing.
The contest winner, Keri, is also published in the latest edition of Emerge: Youth Voices in Ink, but you can also read her work here. In the subsequent days, we’ll be publishing the work of our four finalists.
The Song of Words
At the corner of Fourth Street and Elm, an office with glass walls towered over the city. Looming like a great shadow, it glared through its windows at the people strolling down the sidewalk. Bright dresses, paint-splattered shorts, men carrying guitars and whistling as they walked—all these people bent their necks and hurried past the glass building. To them, the air seemed fouler on this block, so thick and suffocating they could hardly breathe. Only suits passed through the building’s flapping doors. Crunching numbers in their heads, the suits rushed to their cubicles, blind to anything but the elevator and the coffee pot.
From her own cubicle, Diana watched the suits hurry in. She leaned back in her chair, fingers resting on the computer keys, and observed the morning rush of business people. At the end of the hall, the elevator doors swung open and another gust of suits scampered into their cubicles, eager to attack their to-do lists. Diana pulled herself toward her computer screen and gazed into its synthetic depth. Layer upon layer of Dianas stared back at her, reflected through the mirror that hung behind her back. Each Diana gazed out with a pair of dismal eyes. Each mouth hung like an upside down horseshoe with all the luck dripping down the chins.
Diana shook her head and navigated to her report on the computer. A long roll of numbers and quantities void of voices gaped out at her. No matter how hard Diana tried to talk to the numbers in the years that she’d had this job, they always remained mute. Most days, she felt talking to a wall would be more productive.
Rubbing the back of her neck, Diana pushed back from the computer. Her head swam, unable to keep hold of a singular concept.
I’ll get some coffee, she decided. After all, it is a Monday.
She hurried to the break room. As she crossed the office, sounds spat out of cubicles like bullets from machine guns. The keys pounding, pounding rattled her ears. The pencils tapping, tapping beat in her head. The people blabbing, blabbing shook her body. They screamed into the phone, coaxing through deals they wouldn’t remember next year. Diana idly wondered if any real words passed through their mouths or if it was only the passionless drivel that most people spoke.
In the break room, she rushed to the coffee pot. Diana poured herself a generous cup and took a long swig, searing the roof of her mouth. Only when she lowered the half empty cup did she notice three other people in the room.
“Hello, Diana. How’s your Monday going?” said a thin, middle-aged woman.
“Just fine Maggie, how about yours?” Diana replied.
“I can’t complain.” Maggie took a sip of her coffee.
“Did you have a good weekend?” asked a man with silvering hair. He rubbed his clean checkered shirt.
Diana pressed her lips together. Why did anyone have to care about her weekend? Why could it not be thrown out with the garbage that it was?
“Oh, it was fine, Peter. Just fine.”
“That’s funny,” said a younger woman with corkscrew curls. “I heard you and Ralph broke up this weekend. What a thought that would be!” The woman laughed at the idea, shaking her hair. When she saw Diana’s stolid face, she quickly stopped. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t think. It’s just that you two seemed to get along so well.”
“That’s all right, Jenny,” Diana said stonily.
“I mean, Ralph’s such a great guy,” Jenny blubbered. “I guess it’s just unexpected is all.”
“It’s all right,” Diana insisted.
“Let’s talk about something else,” Peter interrupted. “Who do you think is going to get the promotion? I heard Mr. Terry will announce it at the end of this week.”
“I know I’d sure like to get it,” Maggie said dreamily. “I’ve wanted a new swimming pool for ages.”
“It just takes hard work,” Peter declared. He thrust his fist into the air as if he was going to build a mountain with it. “If you allow no distractions, if you concentrate on the work, the work, the work, nothing but the work, then you’re sure to get somewhere. Besides, wife wants me to take her on a vacation to the Bahamas, and I’ll need that promotion to do it. Well, I’ll need the promotion if I want to do it the right way.”
Jenny squealed. “Oh, if I get the promotion, I’m treating myself to a day at the spa—manicure, pedicure, and facial!” She sighed with hope. “What about you Diana? If you earn the promotion, what will you get?”
“Away from here,” Diana replied.
Jenny laughed with pig snorts, though she didn’t seem to have really heard Diana, her mind probably still lingering over the future color of her toenails.
Diana collected her coffee and left. She crossed the office, covering her ears to the beating sounds, and deposited herself inside her cubicle. Before her, the computer screen shimmered. Encased within its black plastic frame, Diana found the portrait of hers days, going back years, stretching backward and forward. There was no room for change inside the frame, only regularity and diligence. The cursor pulsed dully against the white background. It radiated no emotion, no excitement, no patience, no frustration. It flickered with that open-mouthed, blank look that comes to someone after hours of watching TV. Diana yawned.
Diana glanced up from the computer. A tall young man with tumbling brown hair leaned over the wall of her cubicle. His eyes swiveled around inside his head as though their screws were loose in the back. They fell on the computer, the coffee, the mirror, Diana. The left side of his face grinned. The right side observed her carefully.
“What is it, Ralph?” Diana said. She did not to remove her hands from the keyboard.
“I just wanted to stop by to tell you good morning,” he replied, “and to apologize for anything I said this weekend; anything that might have offended you.”
Diana gave him a withering glare.
Ralph’s grin quivered a bit. “Look, Diana,” he lowered his voice, “I know I shouldn’t have had that much to drink. That was a mistake. But I promise I’ll never do anything remotely like that again. You know that’s not me.”
Diana took hold of a pen lying beside her computer and rubbed it absentmindedly with her thumb. “It’s just that—I don’t know, Ralph. I’ve been very confused lately.”
“Oh, really? How’s that?” Ralph asked, tilting his head in concentration.
Diana stared into a blank wall. “I don’t know, really. A few weeks ago, I started getting the feeling that things have not turned out the way I wanted them to.”
Diana sighed and put a hand on her forehead. “Everything, Ralph. One morning, I woke up and realized all of the dreams I had for myself when I was young are completely opposite the life I live in now.”
“Aw, Diana, you’re just being too hard on yourself. Everyone’s childish fantasies fade out when they get older. People have to grow up, you know?”
“I guess so,” Diana murmured. She turned the pen in her hand, over thumb, under pointer, over thumb, under pointer.
“You can bet on it,” Ralph said, smiling. He pushed himself away from the cubicle. “Well, I’d better be getting to work. Can I call you tonight?”
Diana’s eyes fell into her lap. “I don’t know, Ralph. Have a good Monday.”
He left, mumbling under his breath.
Diana turned back to the computer, pen still in hand. The noises of the office whirled around her, boring themselves through her ears and wheedling into her head. Suits strode past her cubicle, their shiny shoes tapping on the tile, their mouths muttering promotion, promotion. Next door, somebody sneezed, and a monstrous explosion shook Diana’s face. A voice yelled into the telephone across the room: “I will not take no for an answer, Mr. Frank! You will have those papers on my desk this afternoon, or tomorrow you’ll be searching through the classifieds!” The copy machine squealed as someone stuffed paper down its suffocated throat. The water cooler gurgled in protest as yet another person drained life out of it. And the numbers. People picked them up and hurled them against walls where they dropped limply to the floor. The businessmen would keep a few numbers encased in manila folders, neat and organized for the presentations they had next Thursday, then they would throw them into the wastebasket when the inanimate things were deemed useless.
Diana dropped away from the keyboard. Planting her elbows on the desk, she let the pen’s tip fall onto a piece of notebook paper. In her distraction, she scribbled words like an artist doodling flowers. She scratched into the page, turning her ears away from the sounds of the office. Even now, the walls seemed to be growing. The cubicle expanded and stretched towards the ceiling, which, at this point, seemed a galaxy away.
Suddenly, with a lurch in her gut, Diana realized the walls were growing. The space, once so cramped, reached out like its own vast world. The mirror and the computer screen, wide windows into nothing, stared at each other from either side of her. Her feet rose through the air until they brushed the edge of the chair’s seat, while her head slid down its back. The pen, suddenly the size of a cement truck, rolled from her hand and landed beside her on the chair. Diana could see every curve of the black pen as it rolled closer and closer. She heard the sound of her breath. She saw the point of the pen, coated in ink. Her mouth opened as the point rolled towards her shrinking form.
Diana squeezed her eyes shut and slapped her hands over her face. Any second, the pen would barrel into her, knocking her to the floor. She waited for the impact, waited for the crash. She felt something enormous passing over her. The smell of ink penetrated her nostrils. The tip of the pen prodded her chest.
A moment later, a breath of wind puffed into Diana’s face. She stood still and trembling. A sweet, twinkling sound tickled the insides of her ears. Thousands of voices sang out to Diana, a symphony with too many instruments to identify. From all around her came the music—from behind, from in front, above, and below, the music leapt and pirouetted. Tentatively, Diana opened her eyes.
Her breath jumped out of her throat. All around her, anywhere her eyes could see, words danced across the air. Spinning, running, crawling, strolling, the words moved through the world at such intensely different paces, Diana was alarmed they did not ram into each other. Beside her nose, she saw words laughing in hysterics, leaning over each other with long arms, while just beside her toes, other words wept with unmatchable agony. Some words screamed and shook their fists, and some words blank and cold. Others streaked by on slippered feet like gay children, and some simply floated past, watching everything with mild contentment. They spun around Diana, singing, singing, singing, raising a wind that brushed her hair.
Diana burst into laughter. These rushing, whirling words called out to her from their cloud of music. Their voices, even though they said a thousand things at once, all contradicting, together spoke a reason she had never before known. Suddenly, the world was graspable. She felt she could pluck it up with one hand and wield it.
With these words, these things of power, suddenly Diana felt an urge for living she had never known existed. Who cared about the promotion? Who cared about Ralph? These things did not sing to her the way the words did now. These things, she suddenly realized, were as mute as the numbers. But the words, with their many tongues crying and their many feet running, held out their hands to Diana. And she, lips smiling, eyes more open than ever, took hold and sang along with their voices.
Keri, eleventh grade, Lake Travis High School