“The sunlight hit him like a wave, crashing over his skin, irritating his face. He shielded his eyes from the wave, squinting, and pulled his hood over his head. When he disappeared within the security of that hood, shading his eyes and looking at the ground, the world faded away, smearing into a big blur.”
The sunlight hit him like a wave, crashing over his skin, irritating his face. He shielded his eyes from the wave, squinting, and pulled his hood over his head. When he disappeared within the security of that hood, shading his eyes and looking at the ground, the world faded away, smearing into a big blur. He took a step forward, then another. Shifting the weight of his pack on his shoulders, he set off down the sidewalk, staring directly at the flat concrete.
As the boy took flat, silent steps, people whispered, almost inaudibly. They stopped and stared at him, giving him suspicious looks. But, inside the hood, he didn’t hear anything, and he just kept walking. Inch by inch, step by step, mile by mile, he walked. One foot in front of the other, like a tightrope walker. His face was shielded by the hood, and all he saw was his feet, moving over and over.
Finally, he looked up, and the smeared world began to come into focus. A bright red object, thin as paper and quiet as the teardrop of a mouse, fluttered to the floor.
He picked it up, the flaming red leaf, and turned it over. It was beautiful, and it gave him the shivers. Beautiful things weren’t his style. But as he looked back down, looked forward to keep walking, he saw the sidewalk was covered with the things. Orange embers fell from the trees, coating the ground, and the flames licked up the side of his black sweatshirt and jeans, coating them in flames.
He sighed, sank to the ground, and closed his eyes. He would stay here a while, letting the trees cover him in fire, and once he was aflame, he would go back.
And his eyes closed, and he leaned against a tree, and he was asleep.
Almost effortlessly, Chloe floated through the hall on dainty, light feet. As she swooshed past, her hair a gleaming black river, every head in the hallway stopped and stared. Her beauty she resented, with her pale skin, soft pink cheeks, and dark eyes.
She had wished for shorter hair, for when it was cropped up by her neck, it hid her face from prying eyes, and she had wished for less freckles, for when they were effortlessly splattered across her face like they were, they shone and gleamed. She also wished for darker eyelashes to hide her dazzling brown eyes. She didn’t want to be noticed like she was. Chloe didn’t want to be known for being beautiful; she wanted to be known for her intelligence, her strength, her kindness.
As she dashed lightly across the hallway, she caught the eye of a boy, mid-class. He stopped writing and stared, mouth agape. She crossed her eyes at him and kept going.
She threw open the doors and sang to the world, charming skeptical faces with a dazzling smile and wave. As she flitted along the sidewalk, almost sprinting but not quite, she looked around and saw the tree grove, fiery and perfect. She went towards the grove, where she hugged her favorite tree and watched as a flaming leaf fell off of it. She picked up the leaf and stuck it into her shirt pocket, close to her heart.
Chloe walked along the tree path, marveling at the trees. What had once been green was aflame with bright oranges and yellows, and it looked like the branches themselves were on fire.
Her long hair swished down her back with every step she took, and the leaves on the ground were nearly crunching, but not yet. As she took ginger steps among the sidewalk, coated with beauty, she sighed. These leaves were beautiful, she knew, and she’d love to take one home, but she couldn’t bear to press it under pounds and pounds of dictionaries, letting the beauty become a flat picture whose memory was gone; nor could she bear seeing it on the fireplace and letting it shrivel up until it was nothing but dust.
The fiery leaves were in the most dangerous place, and she’d better do something quick: conserve it forever in a realm beyond reach, or toss it over her shoulder and forget? Both options seemed awful to her, and she found herself thinking about how the leaves got stuck with such an unfortunate fate. It isn’t their fault, she thought, marveling at the leaves. Why does the fire deserve to be quenched?
She re-pocketed her flaming treasure. It doesn’t matter now, Chloe thought, standing up from a sitting position she didn’t know she’d taken. It doesn’t matter. Now, the leaf is there, and it’s tangible, and I can enjoy it; and I will cross that rickety, creaky, dangerous bridge when I get to the cliffside.
She stumbled; a pile of leaves, deliberately placed, was in front of her foot, tripping her and sending her sprawling. Chloe regained a standing position, brushing herself off flusteredly and coming back to poke the pile of leaves. The heap was heavy and, when the leaves shifted, she caught a glimpse of dark gray.
So it was a rock, then. But it was an awfully big rock to be lying in the middle of a sidewalk like that, even one that was covered by leaves.
Chloe began to prod, then tug at it. As the leaves shifted, it revealed not only a rock, but a shoe… she smiled satisfactorily. Someone must have lost their shoe. But as she began to walk away, she remembered the heaviness of it; it couldn’t have been just a shoe. And indeed, when she went back and peered at that shoe, she saw the smooth white curve of a sock.
And the sock joined into a leg and, as she stepped back, she saw an entire sleeping person, concealed by the tongues of fire that fell from the branches.
As she took her hand and brushed leaves off of the contour of the head, off of the face and the arms, she gasped.
And she grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him.
Caleb woke with someone shaking his shoulders violently.
It was not the most pleasant of ways to wake up.
As his vision came into focus and pinpointed itself on a stunning face that portrayed a perfect frown, his mouth twisted into a grin, then a frown, then a grin again.
Before he could speak, though, she stomped her foot and shook her perfect head angrily.
“You know you’re not supposed to be here.” She glared at him until he squirmed.
Caleb relaxed, took a few deep breaths, then said icily, “You’re not, either.”
Her face contorted visibly with surprise, then parried his response, “People are looking for you!”
It was a lie, and they both knew it. He knew by the way she sounded defensive and turned away from him. But he sighed and slid down the trunk of the tree until he touched base with the ground. He tossed his head like a horse, flipping the hair out of his eyes, and sighed huffily like a teenager would.
“I appreciate your concern, Princess.”
As soon as the words escaped his mouth, dripping with sarcasm, he sealed his lips. Even he knew that was the wrong thing to say. Chloe’s face flushed with anger, and she simply took him by the arm and dragged him. For a princess, she sure is strong, he thought and was about to voice his concern for his throbbing bicep before he remembered he should probably shut up.
But he couldn’t help himself from wondering why he’d never noticed her strength before. Sure, they’d spent lots of time together, and both had dark hair, almost black. But other than that, they were nothing alike. Their eyes were both a dark brown; but as hers shone light, his reminded people of a swirling black hole: cold, and unforgiving.
And he tried to remind himself as he was being pulled along by the “princess.” That was his nature. He didn’t want to be warm and bubbly. He was himself: cold and dark and distant. Also, he didn’t care about things, which is an extremely hard thing to keep your mind on when you are being dragged by your best friend to meet your demise. He tried to think about being cold and distant. He thought about cold, distant things, like stale cornbread or frozen pancakes.
And then, his posture became cold and distant. Instead of being dragged, he tried to make it look like he was being gently guided, and it took a long time to find a position that portrayed a confident image. She tossed her head huffily, and he noticed how her hair rolled down her back as she adjusted her grip to squeeze tighter.
Chloe burst through the door of the school, lugged him in like a heavy package, and shut it, sealing them inside. She simply dragged him through the empty halls—Caleb thanked his lucky stars that class was in session—and into an empty classroom.
A blur of loud yelling, insults, and anger occupied the next few minutes. He noticed how her cheeks burned when she was angry or insulted, and he made a pact to notice things like that in the future.
And then, as the flames of the argument died down, each of them became lost in their own world. He looked outside and remembered only a few hours earlier when he had arrived at the tree grove and how, secretly, he had loved the fire that engulfed the trees, had loved the fall colors and how they swirled around him. How could someone cold love fire? How could someone dark love color?
He resolved to answer this question, and he knew there had to be a way. There had to be a way to be both cold and hot, to be both dark and light.
A glance at his best friend confirmed this theory; as she clenched and unclenched her fists, her blood seemed to run both cold and hot at the same time. He wondered how this was possible. He knew it was possible, as he had experienced it; he just didn’t know how.
He liked how the trees had engulfed him in flames. But he wanted to be an ice cube, too. It was hard to be in-between.
She stared into his face and sighed. She could feel herself heating up to the boiling point. She loved him as a friend, of course she did. How can best friends not like each other?
And then, she thought the better of it. Many best friends don’t like each other, she thought. But I do.
It was hard sometimes, though. He was like a dragon. The reptile was cold-blooded; sometimes icy and distant, sometimes warm and affectionate. He seemed to adapt to whatever was around him, like how a dragon lying in the sun was warm and easy to please, while one shivering in the snow was cold and irritable.
Yes, she thought, a dragon. He’d like that. She opened her mouth to tell him so, and her best friend shot her a look that could slice through a dragon’s hide in seconds.
She turned away and stood up, looking at her leaf one last time. It had already begun to darken, taking on a brown hue, but it was still undeniably an ember in her hands.
She pocketed it and set off for the tree grove again, trying to bury herself in fire.
She knew the risks. How could she not? She had just rescued her own best friend from the fiery flames of school-less life. But, she remembered as she ran back towards the grove, that moment before she had found him, when she thought she had been alone, had been one of the happiest moments of her life.
When she arrived, the leaves were still falling hard, and a soft, orange carpet had already begun to form beneath her feet. It was comfy, and she curled up on it, and tears began to fall from her face.
Instantaneously, she was asleep.
He ran. Oh, how he ran. And, as he ran, he thought.
His mind, like a compass, pointed him toward the tree grove, so that’s where he would go. But why? There wasn’t a reason in the world why he would be chasing after the very girl who dragged him by the arm twenty minutes ago. He stopped, only to rub his bicep. It still throbbed, but dramatically less.
Caleb had no idea why he ran. But he did. And he found himself not caring; I run because I run. I go because I go. It’s quite simple really.
And he ran towards the furnace of burning wood. He knew she would be there.
And at that moment, he perfected his theory: It’s impossible to be both cold and hot at the same time. But, he thought, you can be one and then the other.
Yes, he was an ice cube. The flames melted him, and he became a puddle, which soon thereafter became a frozen puddle. The cycle of cold, hot, cold again made him smile. That was right. It felt right.
He arrived at the grove, and he saw her hair, a black river that fanned out beneath her. She was curled up, like a wolf sleeping in a den.
He wanted to shake her awake. Chloe! Chloe, come in, Chloe!
But for once, he ignored what he wanted. He did what was right. He did it because of his heart, because of the sudden surge of love he felt for the sleeping Chloe, helpless and confused.
And he curled his fingers underneath her, and lifted her up, and carried the sleeping girl all the way home.
This is absolutely awesome! I cannot believe it was written by such a young student. What an imagination and a gifted command of prose and delivery! She will certainly go far as a writer and hopefully we will see her work again on an even higher level. Congratulations to you for this selection and for your work with these gifted young prodigies!
Amazing – such good use of simile and metaphor while setting the mood. As C.T. says, so imaginative! It’s a good thing I subscribe to The New Yorker – I will be looking for a Leila Jackson story there any week now.