Joy of the Pen 2021
The Verdi L. Tripp Fiction Award: Leah Siviski for The Sound of Letting Go
Fiction Honorable Mention: Kelsey W. Libby for One Man’s Trash
Margaret F. Tripp Poetry Award: Jeanne Julian for Angel of the Sensual
Poetry Honorable Mention: David Sloan for Flames
Richard F. Snow Nonfiction Award: Michael Tooher for Hit Men
Nonfiction Honorable Mention: Haley Warden for The Hike
Just Write Maine-related Nonfiction Award: John Reinhart for One More Ride
TPL Teen Fiction Award: Julia Viani for The Water Hole
TPL Teen Poetry Award: Piper Staples for The Girl in the Willows
TPL Kids Fiction Award: Lydia Cabot for Ruby and the Magical Violin
TPL Kids Poetry Award: Opal Reinhart for Cat
Verdi L. Tripp Fiction Award
The Sound of Letting Go by Leah Siviski
I will mourn you forever. When the wind turns on my spinster’s garden, shaking the hollyhocks all in a row, I will dig my fingers into the dirt with a special melancholy. When the rain leans in from the Atlantic and pushes its body into the crags of this rocky shoreline, I will walk the forest path to lay down by the water’s edge, pull my knees into my skirt and miss you more against the gray ocean.
When all my tears have spilled their bounty like the quick death of lilacs in June, I will drink from the river so that I can fill my vessel and spill again. My love, I will mourn you forever.
Although you never said goodbye, I will remember when you last kissed me, on my eyelids–left, then right. It seemed an act of tenderness, and I will remember it so, even if the moon rushed in too soon and grabbed you for her own.
Although you let the waves bend and crash over me while you paddled to shore, I will drain my voice singing your praises, letting your name echo against the cave walls, my shelter.
Although your new bride hums and glees at your side, I will dance with your memory under a night sky bright with stars, cracked grass under my feet, bare and ripping at the earth with a wildness so rare and beautiful that even you, now distant, lost, and cold, will gasp for a moment, feeling the slightest breeze on your arms, a rush of blood at your temples. You will melt. And that will be me.
My love, I will mourn you forever.
Margaret Esther Grace folded the yellowed note, its edges brittle from years of re-reading. She slipped it into the left pocket of her apron then picked up a wooden spoon and used the handle to lift the tea strainer from the pot, setting it in the long slate sink to be washed with the other breakfast dishes at noon. Before pouring herself a cup, Margaret toed Miss Sylvia out of the way and bent to add one more log to the wood stove in order to fend off another half hour of early morning chill. Then she settled herself at the butcher block table with an omelet, bacon, toast, and tea. She opened a book of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poems. Miss Sylvia rubbed against her legs as she read and licked up pieces of bacon that Margaret, without looking up from the book, dropped onto the floor. When Margaret felt on her back that the last of the logs had burned out, she held the book to her chest for a moment then closed it. Standing, she untied and folded her apron, laid it over the back of her chair, scraped the remnants of her breakfast into Miss Sylvia’s bowl, and walked out the kitchen door into the June sunshine.
In the shed, Margaret nudged her two chickens, Yoko and Rudy, out of the way and went to the back wall to get the jerry can to fill the mower. Interspersed sun and rain over the past two weeks had caused the grass to grow faster than usual, and she realized that she didn’t have enough gas to mow the entire lawn. She decided to mow just around the flower beds and vegetable gardens, leaving the hundred or so feet nearest the rocky shore to stand tall. She hated to mow that strip in June anyway. The purple lupines were so beautiful.
She hummed as she mowed. Flecks of freshly cut grass dusted her black work boots, and occasionally she stopped to shake grass from the hem of her long skirt, stretch her back, and flex the stiffness out of her fingers. By the time Margaret was done and had stored the mower back in the shed, the sun had just crested the Norway pine in the easternmost corner of her property. She drank from the hose and splashed water on her face to rinse off the gathering sweat.
Stretching again and surveying the garden, she noticed that an animal had scratched a handful of shallow holes in the carrot patch, and an insect had feasted on the leaves of three of her five basil plants. Other than that, the vegetable garden looked good. The first tiny beet greens poked through the soil with the carrots not far behind. The tomatoes, eggplant, broccoli, and cucumbers, all of which Margaret had started indoors and recently transplanted, flourished in the light of real sunshine. The kale and red-tipped lettuce that she’d gotten from her neighbor Gus leafed out nicely, and the garlic that she had planted in the fall had tall scapes that were almost ready to be cut. Her mouth watered at the thought of the garlic scape carbonara that Gus had made last summer and brought over in a vibrant blue and red bowl, thrown and glazed by his wife Ann.
Gus was a good neighbor, a lovely man. Margaret smiled. When Ann was sick, he would sit at her bedside and read to her, holding her frail hand in his large, calloused one. Margaret stocked their refrigerator with lasagnas and casseroles, knowing that Gus didn’t have the energy to cook with Ann bedridden, her death imminent. The week after Ann died, two summers prior, Gus came to Margaret’s door with a bottle of homemade rose hip wine. They drank and talked and cried, telling their favorite Ann stories, until the bright morning fog lit up the windows.
Margaret’s favorite story was the time when Ann went skinny dipping in the cove, only to have her clothes stolen by some teenagers. She walked through town draped in seaweed, standing as tall as her aging body would let her, and when Sheriff Mitchell pulled up and asked if she’d like a ride home, she said, “Think I’m too old to walk, Jerry?” Ann had a feisty personality, a nice complement to Gus’s placid one. Margaret missed her.
She heard the slap of the screen door. White tail high in the air, Miss Sylvia strolled over to the lamppost and rubbed the length of her body against it. Margaret bent down to scratch the top of Miss Sylvia’s head before going to the back stairs of the house to grab her gardening gloves and trowel out of the potato basket. She knelt at the edge of the garden and filled the holes in the carrot patch then pinched the partially chewed basil leaves from their stalks, putting them in her skirt pocket to add to a small batch of pesto. Three or four nests of helicopter seeds from the sugar maple had burrowed into the soil. Using the tip of her trowel, she dug them up, then leaned back on her heels to look at the sky. A light fog had rolled in. Sporadic wisps of cool air washed over her, punctuated by flashes of warm, late-morning sunshine. She could smell the low tide, taste the mud at the back of her throat. Returning the trowel and gloves to the potato basket, she steadied herself for a moment against the stair railing, closing her eyes to let a moment of dizziness pass. A familiar face rose up in her mind. She took a deep breath…in…out… then kicked the dried grass from her boots and went inside.
Humming again, Margaret prepared for lunch. She put her apron back on, patted the left pocket and noticed that the dough she had made in the morning had risen nicely. After slipping the dough into the oven, she turned on the classical music station and washed the breakfast dishes. Shaking the basil leaves out of her pocket, she pinched more leaves from the plant on the windowsill and put them all into the food processor with olive oil, pine nuts, salt, and pepper.
The smell of baking bread filled the kitchen. She glanced at the clock: 11:45 AM. Enough time for a small reprieve. Millay’s book of poems was still on the table. She flipped it open. The first poem she saw, she thought she would have to share with Gus.
SONG FOR A LUTE (II)
For you there is no song… Only the shaking
Of the voice that meant to sing; the sound of the strong
Strange in my hand appears
The pen, and yours broken.
There are ink and tears on the page; only the tears Have spoken.
On second thought, perhaps she would keep this one for herself.
There was a soft rapping at the front door. Gus was the only person who entered at the front, an old habit from when he and Ann had first moved in next door and the three of them were just getting to know each other. Margaret walked down the narrow hallway, straightening the thinning oriental runner with her foot as she went. By the time she made it to the entryway, Gus was already down on one knee fixing the doorknob which had been loose for months. Even kneeling, Gus’s size was unmistakable. He was round at the belly from years of good eating, a tall man, too, one who had to duck under door frames in small, turn-of-the-century houses like Margaret’s.
“Thank you, Gus,” Margaret said. “I could’ve done that, you know.”
Gus looked up at her, his eyes crinkled at the corners from years of smiling. “I know, Maggie, but it was starting to bug me, so I thought I’d go ahead and do it.” He gave the screw one last turn then labored up and surveyed the room.
“Something new in here?” he asked.
“Besides a fresh layer of dust since I saw you last week, I can’t think of anything.” “Seems brighter.” Gus walked to the front window and peered out.
“Oh, I did cut back some branches on the lilac. If I’m not careful, that bush is going to swallow the whole house.”
Gus snapped his fingers. “That’s it! Brings some nice light in here. Really makes the dust sparkle.” His crow’s feet lengthened as he handed Margaret a cloth grocery bag.
She peered in: sliced turkey from Congrove Farms, tomatoes from the new hydroponic greenhouse on Ridge Road, plus lettuce and a small jar of honey from Gus’s own bees.
“Perfect,” she said. “Come on into the kitchen. I’ll put the kettle on.”
When they first started having their Wednesday lunches, Gus would bring over a bottle of wine, a weekly gift from a winemaker who used Gus’s honey. However, Margaret found that on those days, she would be too tired for her afternoon chores, so Gus saved the wine for their occasional dinners with the LaPierres, who lived down the road. Although Margaret still liked to rest after Gus left, she no longer felt like she was wasting the entire afternoon.
Through the open window in the kitchen came the sweet scent of honeysuckle, which mingled with the lingering smell of baking bread. Margaret put on her oven mitt and slid the bread, light chestnut in color and puffed over the edges of the pan, out of the oven. She placed the pan on the windowsill to hasten the cooling then went about rinsing the lettuce and preparing tea. All the while, Gus talked, sitting in the worn tartan armchair by the now-cool wood stove, stroking Miss Sylvia’s long, white-yellow fur. He told Margaret about the two young women who bought the Pearsons’ old place, said they were planning to use the summer to fix it up before one of them had to go back to teaching in the fall. The other was a contractor who hoped to make some contacts in the area.
“Sure is nice to see some of these old farmhouses have life breathed back into them. The Pearson place had been empty so long, those two women probably had to evict a family of rats and a herd of moose before moving in.”
Margaret enjoyed listening to the rise and fall of Gus’s voice as he talked, the intermittent laughter. Ann’s death had brought out a loquaciousness in him. When she was alive, Ann did all the talking. Perhaps Gus was letting out all the pent up chatter that he had pushed aside in order to let Ann be Ann. Margaret paused in thought, her tomato knife mid-slice. Gus and Ann had been so well suited to each other.
Finished with the tomatoes, Margaret cut four pieces of bread from the loaf, the insides still warm. She spread a layer of pesto on each piece then piled on turkey, tomatoes, and greens. Careful not to cut herself, she halved each sandwich with the tomato knife. Gus moved from the armchair to the table, Miss Sylvia leaping from his lap with a soft padding of paws on the graying floorboards. The sunlight slanted onto the table in four panes. Margaret poured the steeped tea into two mugs, and she and Gus both added a heaping spoonful of honey.
Margaret lifted her mug, clinked it against Gus’s. “To Wednesdays,” she said.
“To Wednesdays,” Gus responded. “By the grace of God and the industriousness of bees, we made it another week.”
As they ate, mourning doves cooed from the roof of the shed, sounding like a couple of old women, their wattles jiggling, exchanging their knowledge of the world. The tide worked itself closer to the shore. “An infinitely healing refrain of nature” Margaret would often quote from Rachel Carson. Gus reached his mug out for more tea.
Suddenly, Margaret leaned forward. “I was in love once, you know.” Gus put down the last of his sandwich, wiped his fingers on his jeans.
Margaret stared at the wall as she spoke, just above the wood stove’s pipe. “It was right before you and Ann moved in. He left. Broke my heart. It took me a long time to come to myself again.” Her eyes flitted up to his. “You and Ann helped.”
Gus put his big hands over his heart.
Margaret continued, “I don’t think I’m well suited to the ups and downs of love. Maybe I’m not equipped for it. This,” she looked around, indicating the open window, the plates sprinkled with crumbs, Miss Sylvia licking her paws, “this feels like love to me.”
Gus took Margaret’s hands. “It is, Maggie. It is.”
They sat together, continuing to talk as the afternoon breeze riffled the gauzy curtains and filled the room with the cool certainty of rain.
After Gus left, commenting with a smile on the excellent functioning of the door knob, Margaret took up her book again and sank into the well-worn armchair. She pulled a light afghan around her shoulders, heard the first drops of rain against the roof. Before she had read even a page, her eyelids drooped. She shook her head and regripped the book, but the urge to sleep was too strong. Just a short rest. The book fell open in her lap, and Miss Sylvia grazed the tips of Margaret’s fingers with her little pink tongue.
A clap of thunder startled Margaret awake. The sky was dark, and she worried she’d overslept. But no, it was only 2:30. Feeling refreshed, she stretched her arms high over her head, slid her thumbs down the length of her spine. She walked to the screen door and peered out. The branches of the maple tree bowed and the green leaves flapped at the whim of the wind. Large raindrops splattered on the stairs. The rest of the outdoor chores would have to wait.
Finishing the cold tea from her mug, extra sweet from the remaining honey, Margaret piled the lunch dishes in the sink. She shut the window as the wind brought rain in through the screen. Returning to the living room, she nudged the end table to discern which leg of the tripod pedestal needed the shim. She had some wood scraps in the basement from when she fixed the porch railing a few weeks ago. The antique table was a gift from her father, a drifter who would disappear for months then return with odd gifts for her and jewelry for her mother. Margaret trailed her fingers over the inlaid walnut design, three interlaced circles of vines.
She didn’t miss her father. His erratic absences and returns had been disorienting. All of his gifts reminded her of her mother, a stable, hard-working woman who never complained about or explained away her father’s behavior. “Your father is who he is, Margaret. I knew what I was getting into when I married him. I didn’t expect him to stick around for long. But he gave me you, and that’s the best gift he could’ve given me.” Margaret’s mother died fifteen years ago, but Margaret could still picture her thick, soft hands and imagine the smell of Yardley’s English Lavender on her neck.
The basement door’s knob was rusty, and the moss green paint was peeling–a job for another day. She descended the narrow staircase, cobwebs skimming her forehead. At the bottom of the stairs, she fumbled in the air for the chain to the overhead light and pulled it. The floor was covered with sawdust and cast off pieces of wood. Using the toe of her boot, she flipped over a handful of pieces to determine their thickness, finally bending down to gather up three potentials. She noticed that the western wall was perspiring, an unfortunate result of the oversaturated earth. Slipping the wood pieces into her apron pocket, she pulled a paint-splattered sheet from the top shelf of the work bench, packed it into a loose bundle, and placed it on the dirty floor under the leak. That would contain the moisture until the drier days of August.
Back up in the living room, the first of the three shims worked. She tossed the others out the front door and noticed that the rain was letting up. Walking to the edge of the porch, she craned her neck to see the southern sky, which was brightening at the horizon, the wind pushing the darker clouds away to the north. Water dripped steadily from the gutter into a pile of pine needles at the corner of the house. Margaret took the steps down to the woodpile, pulled the tarp back and gathered five logs into her arms. As she covered the pile, a cascade of water descended from a shaken pine branch, the droplets hitting her directly at the center part of her gray hair and dripping into her eyes. Without an extra hand to wipe her face, she sputtered and blinked rapidly. Suddenly, her bright world became a sunless dusk, and the sounds of the day disappeared into static. She dropped the wood at her feet, sat on the lowest stair, and hung her head between her legs. The fabric of her patchwork skirt was soft and comforting.
All at once, Adam’s face was next to hers, his hand cupping her cheek. His eyes were sad but determined. He was saying “Come with me” or he was saying “I’m sorry.” The years had dulled the details. All her memories of him seemed cast in sepia tone.
Margaret lifted her head to see a pinprick of yellow sun on the gray tarp. She turned towards the ocean, the garden, and saw a world full of color, heard a world of noise. The lupines rustled in a band of light as the last of the clouds blew away from the sun. The ocean roiled blue. The green grass cricketed. The saltspray rose buzzed. Margaret took a deep breath…in…out. She gathered the logs and climbed the stairs to the house.
After filling the wood stove for the next morning’s fire, Margaret returned to the back yard. She scattered some oats for the hens and put the leftover greens from Gus in the suet feeder. Yoko immediately started pulling the leaves out to eat. Both Yoko and Rudy had laid, so Margaret would have another good breakfast tomorrow. She would come back for the eggs after her yard work was done.
On the west side of the house grew a stand of raspberry bushes. Earlier in the spring, Margaret had cut all the dead canes, but she had not yet discarded them. They lay in front of the patch, tied in neat bundles. She leaned in close to one of the new stalks, now bursting with leaves, and saw that it was beginning to fruit, the feathery white stamens just peeking out from the pale green petals. She imagined putting the first ripe raspberry onto her tongue, the pop of each drupelet as she pressed the berry to the roof of her mouth. Only a month to wait. Hooking an index finger under the twine that bound the bundles, Margaret carried the stalks to the little golf cart that she used for errands that didn’t take her too far from home. She made three trips to get all of the narrow bundles, stacking them vertically in the back of the cart as if they were golf clubs. She slid into the driver’s seat and turned the key. Just before Margaret hit the gas, Miss Sylvia jumped into the passenger’s seat with a dead mouse in her mouth.
“Thank you, kitty,” she said, scratching Miss Sylvia’s head. The mouse dropped with a small thud on the white bucket seat. She would take the mouse to the bonfire site to dispose of along with the canes.
After pushing Miss Sylvia off the cart, she hit the gas and sped down the driveway, gravel kicking up behind her. The Back River Estuary Neighborhood Committee had set up a community bonfire site in Silver Meadow to dispose of yard waste. On the last Saturday of every month from May to November, the community gathered around the great pile of burning branches, sipping coffee and catching up. The meadow was only a quarter of a mile down the road. Margaret drove the cart right through the meadow, sneezing as it tracked through tall grass dusted with pollen. Arriving at the mountain of branches, she took her bundles from the back of the cart and tucked them into a few open spaces at the bottom of the pile, no longer strong enough to heave them to the top. Before turning the cart around, she used the last of the bundles to brush the little mouse off the leather seat. It fell and was lost among the grasses.
When she returned home, she parked the golf cart, releasing the gas to let the cart glide to a stop. She walked around the western side of the house, past the raspberry bushes, and stopped to admire the hollyhocks, not yet in bloom but as tall as she’d ever seen them, that were taking over the cement bird bath in the center of the lawn. Brushing some dandelion fluff off her skirt, Margaret continued to the shed to gather up the eggs. The suet feeder was already empty, so she shook a few peanuts out of her pocket onto the ground.
“A little dessert, my darlings.”
Back inside, she wrapped Miss Sylvia’s monthly heartworm pill inside a piece of salami and nestled the medicine into her dry food dish. Then she set about putting together her own dinner: salami, cheese, pickled beets, olives, another slice of homemade bread. She drank cold tea with a little milk and honey. She lingered over the meal, reading Millay, scratching Miss Sylvia’s purring body. When her eyes ached from reading, she gathered up the dishes and washed them together with the lunch dishes. As she washed, she thought of Gus’s voice, the rise and fall as he told her about the sale of the Pearson place, the renovation of the drive-in movie theater out by Congrove Farms, his niece’s wedding. Her heart felt big, protected from the woes of the world by his friendship.
When the dishes were clean and drying on the wooden rack, Margaret sat back down at the table. She patted her left apron pocket, took the note out. She opened it carefully and smoothed it down against the butcher block. Although she had the words memorized, she liked to read them on the page, to remember not just what the words were but how they looked, how they felt. As she read, she touched her eyelids, one then the other, right at the crease. She folded the note again, took off her apron and laid it over the back of her chair.
“I’m off for my walk, kitty.”
Miss Sylvia sat like a sphinx, paws extended, haunches up. Margaret bent over to scratch behind her ears. Purring, Miss Sylvia closed her eyes into slits, pushed her head into Margaret’s fingers.
“That’s a good kitty.” Margaret straightened, holding onto the back of the armchair as a moment of dizziness passed.
Before leaving, she got a baseball cap (Back River Canoe Race 2001) and a red-checked flannel out of the hall closet. The evening black flies were relentless. She flicked on the porch light and opened the front door, appreciating that the knob was no longer loose. Stepping onto the porch, she smelled a hint of lilac, the petals already browning at the tips of the spikes, and thought about what her mom often said when stepping outside, her Downeast accent strong, nasal: “Smells good out.”
Margaret walked down the driveway then turned to look back at the house. A few cedar shingles needed to be replaced, and the white trim around the windows could use some freshening up, but overall it looked good. A few days after Ann died, the same day she was cremated, Margaret had painted the front door electric blue. Perhaps it was Ann’s vanishing soul that told her to do it, a final gift to bestow upon the world. When Gus saw it, he put his hand over his heart.
From her driveway, Margaret turned left to walk towards Moray’s Cliff, her favorite place to watch the sun set. She hadn’t gone a quarter mile when she saw a turtle in the road, a snapper. Although this dirt road wasn’t well traveled, she had an affinity for turtles and hated to see them crushed on the side of the road. Gathering her strength, Margaret bent down and picked up the turtle by the lower back of the shell, under the rear ridges of the carapace. Panicking, the turtle stretched his neck out, snapping back at her, his scabrous feet with their long claws paddling the air.
“It’s okay, Scoot, just getting you closer to your destination.” Her muscles strained, and she held him at arm’s length until she could set him down safely in the leaves on the water side of the road. “Be on your merry way.”
As soon as his feet hit the ground, the snapper pulled his head back into his shell.
Margaret patted the turtle affectionately then stood and continued towards Moray’s Cliff. She hummed as she walked, adding her voice to the chorus of tree crickets.
The crunch of gravel beneath Margaret’s feet slowed as she approached an incline, a curve in the road that bent towards the ocean. She leaned against the trunk of a pitch pine, the bark rough and sticky under her palm. Above her, a chipmunk skittered up the tree, the scratching of its claws disrupting the harmony of the crickets. As Margaret slid down the pine, her flannel hitched on the bark and held her body in a sitting position. She faced west, eyes staring at tree trunks—birch, maple, fir—searching for the water, catching the last of the sun as it dipped into the estuary. A deer rustled in the pine needles on the other side of the road, startled into a sprint when a cardinal darted skyward. Some long-fallen leaves, dark with decay, swirled away from Margaret’s body in an updraft. In the blue-gray light, there was a golden flutter of something like wings near her left hand and the whisper of a breath…in…out…in…out…
Leah Siviski grew up in Aroostook County, where she spent her childhood loving every inch of The County’s forest and farmland. Leah now lives and works in South Portland, where she teaches high school English and romps by the ocean with her husband and four-year-old son.
Leah is a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Program in Creative Writing. Her work has been published in The Drabble and McSweeney’s Internet Tendencies. She keeps a blog where she reviews books by BIPOC authors and others historically left out of the literary canon. https://sites.google.com/view/crackingthecanon/home
Fiction Honorable Mention
One Man’s Trash by Kelsey W. Libby
Dennis O’Rourke lived on lot 17 of Placid Oaks mobile home park. It was just him. He didn’t have a partner or any children. Just Peggy, his goldfish. And his prized single-wide trailer. He’d paid it off three years prior, well ahead of schedule, by picking up as much overtime as he could at the Dunkin’ Donuts in Augusta where he’d worked since graduating from high school.
Dennis often wondered if the person who named Placid Oaks had indulged a taste for the ironic. There was nothing peaceful about it, especially in the summer, when the humid Maine air hung heavy with dust from the unpaved road and the relentless drone of voices. Usually civil when the sun was high, but often escalating into some sort of conflict as the light faded behind the pines. And that’s the other thing.
Not a solitary oak tree could be found anywhere in the twenty acre park. Instead, hundreds of knotty pines towered around the perimeter and in between lots, half of them dead, resembling oversized scarecrows with their dry angular limbs prone to snap when the wind picked up. The other half, very much alive, rained pinecones for much of the year. The pinecones were a constant annoyance to Dennis. That and the dog poop. On multi-poop days, he felt like something in his body might explode, like a vein or minor organ.
It was a Saturday morning in May and Dennis was outside raking up the insufferable pinecones. He had just finished power-washing the siding of his trailer and planting some annuals in his small rectangle of garden. Completing a set of small tasks like that made him feel productive, satisfied. Shuffling backwards, he dragged the rake behind him in a practiced routine. He nodded at the occasional passing neighbor but kept his head down.
No one in the park knew Dennis particularly well and he liked it that way. He wasn’t old but definitely wasn’t young. He was just the nondescript guy from lot 17, meek, thin, unsmiling. A guy who kept to his own business and seemed to occupy as little space and air as possible. Only Dennis knew what he was capable of.
On the last pass, Dennis felt the familiar squish under his right boot and knew without looking that it was a fresh one by the liberal give. After scraping off his boot, he got the shovel, scooped up the remains, and dropped it in the Oscar the Grouch style trash can he kept next to the regular city-issued bins on the side of his trailer.
The offending animal belonged to Tom Lemieux, who had moved into the trailer next door two years prior, followed by a revolving assortment of noisy women who never lasted long. The dog’s name was Killer, and he looked like he would have been just that had he been fed anything resembling a healthy diet. A mix of sorts, he had a thick Pitbull head mismatched atop a long stringy body, ribs and hip bones slippery under brown matted fur.
Moments later Tom emerged from his trailer, followed by Killer, leashless. One set of hinges had fallen away from the frame months ago, and the door screeched to high heaven. Tom himself seemed to personify his dog, if that’s possible. His head was bullish, his face plain mean. And though only in his mid-thirties, two decades of PBR and cigarettes had not been forgiving. He grabbed any opportunity to bring up his reign as a standout point guard in high school, but what was once lean muscle had softened to shapeless dough, poorly camouflaged by a legion of unfortunate tattoos.
Moments later, Killer slinked onto Dennis’s property and assumed the position. Dennis felt the familiar tightening in his chest, but stood and watched, reactionless.
“Sorry man!” yelled Tom. “When you gotta shit, you gotta shit!” He got in his pickup with Killer and was gone in a cloud of dirt. The park owner was always promising to pave the roads, but Dennis knew that would never happen.
Dennis watched them drive away. He shoveled up the new steamer and dropped it in the bin. In his experience, dog ownership was just another opportunity for humans to expose their natural tendency towards laziness and neglect. He hadn’t had one since his childhood mutt had been taken by animal control during a particularly harrowing stint of homelessness. He often wondered what happened to Daisy.
Later that afternoon, Dennis was inside washing dishes when he spotted Tom and three apparent buddies through the window, slouching in decrepit lawn chairs on the patch of brown grass behind his trailer. A small campfire blazed in the middle of their haphazard circle. Bouts of noxious laughter reached Dennis through the cracked window every so often. Since the ground was usually littered with crushed beer cans, among other treasures, he couldn’t tell how much they’d had today. He studied them carefully from behind the edges of his faded gingham curtains, ever the unnoticed observer.
Just then Tom jumped up, as if seized by some sudden urgency, and ran inside. He returned moments later with his pellet gun. Dennis, like everyone else in Placid Oaks, knew to keep his distance when Tom was out with his pellet gun, especially later in the day when he was sure to be buzzed, at best. He drew closer to the curtilage and sidled up to the nearest pine, leaning against it as a brace. At the first rustle from above, he took aim in a theatrical, Call-of-Duty-inspired stance, comical in his intensity, and released a flurry of pellets. The buddies hooted and harassed when he missed.
A minute later, another squirrel jumped onto a branch just twenty feet away from him and paused, perfectly exposed, perfectly still. Tom carefully took stock this time. One pellet did the job and a lifeless gray blur fell to the ground.
“Get it, Killer!” yelled Tom. The crowd whooped its approval. Killer retrieved the dead squirrel, and Tom grabbed a wooden roasting skewer he kept nearby. “Killer, you want your squirrel meat medium or well done?” he said. Terrible laughter again.
Dennis watched the scene from his window, motionless, and swallowed a tiny gag. He knew Tom wasn’t joking. He’d seen him feed Killer roasted squirrel many times.
Turning around, he went to feed Peggy the goldfish. He’d named her after his final foster mom, a lonely woman with no family of her own, who kept the thermostat at 72 degrees and made bottomless vats of heavenly mac n’ cheese. She was dead now, but he thought about her every day still.
He watched quietly through the glass as Peggy chased after the flakes meandering away from the surface. It was her birthday last week (she turned three!), and he decided it was time to take down the streamers taped to her ten gallon tank. He hoped by the time she turned four he’d be able to buy her the twenty gallon tank, which experts say can significantly extend the life expectancies of domesticated fish.
The trash bag was full so Dennis hauled it outside. Unremarkably, there was Killer with his back arched, ten feet away, defecating on the grass. Again. The diet of squirrel meat and Dorito crumbs and who knows what else must be catching up to him.
Dennis watched until he was done. Then he put down the trash bag and walked over to Tom and his friends. He stood at the perimeter, not speaking, until four hard white faces turned to him and went quiet.
“Tom. Your dog just relieved himself on my property again. Please pick it up,” said Dennis. He had made the same request twice before, without success, and had decided to give Tom three strikes. Dennis was an eminently reasonable man. Tom huffed a little under his breath, glanced at his buddies, and back at Dennis.
“Dude, relax. It will fertilize the grass,” said Tom.
“I am relaxed. And that’s not how it works,” said Dennis. Unruffled, waiting.
“I got my buddies over, man, I’m not dealing with it right now,” said Tom, with an uncomfortable laugh. His smile was more of a tight lipped grimace. It was quiet for several long seconds. One of the buddies took a long swig of beer and Dennis could hear the liquid slosh down his throat with a vulgar gulp.
“I feel I should warn you that this won’t end well if you don’t take responsibility for your dog,” said Dennis quietly. The same buddy half suppressed a belch. A swell of wind sent several pinecones to the ground around the inelegant group.
“I feel I should warn you I have a twelve-gauge hunting rifle and a Glock inside,” said Tom, taking a step towards him, hitching the pellet gun up on his shoulder as an apparent preview. “So don’t go acting like you’re above me, man,” continued Tom, emboldened. “We’re all trailer trash ‘round here. You’re no better than me.”
Trash. Garbage. Waste. Peggy (the human) had always used the word “rubbish,” which Dennis had found dusty and adorable at the same time. He felt a hardening in his chest and the air suddenly felt very sparse. Of course, it was not the first time he’d been called that name, but it had been so long he couldn’t remember the last time. With each day that passed, he pictured himself striding farther away from that other person who was trash in a past life. Whose own mother discarded him. And he always assumed he’d eventually reach some distant horizon where he’d finally be free of him. But not yet.
“Well then,” said Dennis, forcing his attention back on Tom. “It seems we’ve both made ourselves clear.” That seals it, he thought. Yes. The time had come, as he knew it would.
Dennis was fidgety, unfocused all through his afternoon shift at work. He was covering the drive thru because Lindzee had called out for the fourth time that month. Dennis had stared hard at her name tag on her first day a few months back, wondering in earnest why her parents would do that to her. At least he’d been given a normal name, if little else.
Dennis never called out of course. He covered for those who did without complaint. He showed up early. He didn’t make excuses. He took care of Peggy. He took care of the lawn. He paid his bills on time and in full. He paid his taxes. And never once, not once in his adult life, did he apply for a dollar of government assistance. Trash? It didn’t add up.
You’re a gem Dennis. That’s what one of his regulars had said last week when he glided to the counter with her iced latte before she could open her mouth. He’d seen her car pull in and knew without thinking what she would want. The praise stuck with him. A gem. The literal opposite of trash. A treasure. But maybe both were true. Eye of the beholder and whatnot. “Dennis?” The manager was saying his name as if he’d already said it a couple times. There was a lull in the drive thru line and Dennis was lost somewhere else. “The trash is full. You mind taking it out to the dumpster?” He did mind a little but did it anyway.
That night, Dennis plodded through his routine as if it were any other night. Ignoring the small quiver in his gut, he had his usual cup of herbal tea with lemon, brushed and flossed his teeth, and blew Peggy a kiss through the glass. Then, he set his alarm for 3:00 am and climbed into bed at nine.
Sleep was elusive at first, so he took out one of the few artifacts he still had from childhood: A copy of Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling. It was one of the last, and only, gifts his mother had given him before she lost the trailer for good, and, months later, lost Dennis too. Ever since, he’d kept the book reaching distance from wherever he was sleeping.
One might think he kept it as a way to remember his mother, but that wasn’t it. He had no attachment to her fading image, little more than ashen skin and yellowed teeth when he thought of her now. Initially he kept it to stay motivated, to keep the terror fresh. And later, once he fully trusted himself, he reached for it any time he felt himself drifting. It was comforting to be reminded of how much space he had put between himself and former Dennis. Homeless Dennis. Abused Dennis. Helpless Dennis. He was an entirely separate person now.
Once he nodded off, his sleep was thick and uninterrupted until the alarm jarred him awake. He dressed in his shabbiest clothes. It would be dirty work out there. He put on a pair of old gardening gloves with rubber medical gloves layered underneath, and tied a bandana around his head to cover his mouth and nose. Then he put on his headlamp and switched it to the dimmest setting.
Once outside, he gathered the supplies: A shovel, a wheelbarrow, and several cubic yards of canine fecal matter. Killer relieved himself on Dennis’s lawn at least once a day, usually more, and he’d started collecting it several months ago. Not only was the metal trash can nearly full, he’d stashed an additional three trash bags filled with the stuff in his shed. Dennis was a long-range planner. A planner with laudable patience and unforgiving follow through. He never broke a promise to himself.
Between a gloomy half moon and the headlamp, Dennis had plenty of light. He filled the wheelbarrow and steered it over to the section of Tom’s property closest to the dirt road. Of course Tom never picked up the pinecones on his lot, so Dennis maneuvered around them to avoid the telltale crunch. Then he got to work shoveling dog waste onto the dry weedy grass, and minutes later a satisfying dung barrier separated the road from the rest of Tom’s yard.
“It’s just fertilizer, Tom,” he said to himself, breathing hard, and almost laughed. Almost. He wasn’t used to the sensation of enjoying himself.
Dennis repeated the process with the next section of yard, striping the grass until he reached Tom’s trailer. His system was methodical. It was no time to start cutting corners. He sprinkled some of it onto the front steps for good measure.
He saved the newer stuff in the garbage can for last. The freshest on top he gathered in his gloved hands and smeared it on the front panelling of Tom’s trailer, then on the pickup. The truck was unlocked, so he lodged a few shovel-fulls into the cab, taking care to rub some into the dingy upholstery. For the final touch, he flung the dregs into the mailbox. The whole job took no more than twenty minutes.
Dennis cleaned up and went back inside, locking the door behind him. After a moment’s thought, he went over to the overstuffed recliner, leaned all of his weight into it from the side, and pushed it across the room and up against the door.
Turning, breath heavy, his eyes fell on Peggy’s tank, its backlit glow offering the only light in the room, and the breath congealed in his chest. She was floating on the surface, motionless. He crossed the room and dropped to his knees, cradling the tank with one palm on each side, his forehead flat against the cool glass. Not Peggy. It seemed no matter how small and manageable Dennis kept his world, he was vulnerable still to life’s ugliness.
“Peggy, I’m so sorry.” His voice was a choked whisper. “I should have done better for you.”
He stayed like that for a long time, watching her drift. Whispering to her about the twenty gallon tank she deserved and the organic fish flakes he couldn’t afford. He’d done the best he could but it wasn’t enough. At first his shoulders shuddered while his face remained dry, but then he lay down on the couch beside the tank and could taste the salty dampness.
Dennis slept again there on the couch and his dreams were Peggy. Peggy the human.Peggy the fish. Then Peggy the human was sitting across from him at a swanky restaurant with crisp white tablecloths and model quality wait staff, actually eating a charbroiled fish that Dennis knew to be the other Peggy. He moved his mouth in protest but had no words, the clatter of heavy cutlery and urbane chatter taking up all the space in the room.
He was still there, drifting in a fitful sleep, when the screech of Tom’s busted front door jolted him awake. The muted light of early morning filtered through his gingham curtains, casting the old furniture in an ethereal sheen at odds with the human hurricane he pictured gathering outside.
He made his way directly to the bathroom and into the standing shower, not stopping to check outside.
It was quiet for several long moments before Tom’s muffled screaming reached him through the layers of prefab building material. Then the giveaway screech again, followed by another screech just seconds later. He’d gotten his gun, Dennis guessed. Tom wouldn’t be one to bother with the inconvenience of a safe.
Dennis’s breathing was steady and even. He heard Tom tear at the locked door with maniacal frenzy. It held fast. The screaming and cursing grew louder. From the sound of it, Tom was pacing the perimeter, plotting his next move like an enraged animal.
Then, after a small intermission, gunfire. Tom was shooting at the door and aluminum siding, round after round in quick, hostile succession. The sound was deafening. It was definitely not the pellet gun. It was the real thing. Then, the sick shatter of glass sliced the air as Tom moved on to the windows, a one-man riot.
In his fiberglass cocoon, Dennis made himself small by crouching down into a fetal position. He’d spent many hours like that as a kid, hugging his knees in the pocket-sized closet, any time his mother’s sometimes-boyfriend got into the whiskey and started slamming around the tiny trailer. The smaller Dennis could get, the better his chances. Both then and now.
He heard the tiny bathroom window explode, and the bullet lodged somewhere above him on the outer wall of the shower. Tom kept ravaging the windows and unleashed several additional rounds at the siding, and then the gunfire stopped. Dennis stood to a crouch and peeked around the corner of the shower. He could see a slice of the front lawn and road, and, through the broken window, could hear voices outside shouting into the chaos. A crowd had gathered a safe distance away.
Tom was stalking erratically in and out of Dennis’s view. Searching for something to stand on? The busted windows were just high enough from the ground that he wouldn’t be able to climb through on his own.
Then Dennis saw Stan, a bear-sized man from two doors down, break away from the crowd and move toward the trailer in a crouch with his arms raised, handgun trained on Tom’s back. He was ten feet away from him now.
“Tom, put down the gun or I’ll put a fucking bullet in your back!” Stan boomed. His granite arms shook with the force of his voice.
Tom either didn’t hear or didn’t care. He’d left Dennis’s frame and came back moments later, dragging a rusted out lobster trap from his backyard junk collection with one hand. He gripped the gun in his other. It was awkward and he stumbled, landing with one knee and both hands on the ground. Stan was on top of him before he finished falling and wrestled the gun away.
Just then, two police cruisers flew into the park, skidding to a stop in front of the chaos. In his bunker, Dennis exhaled deeply when he heard the sirens. He wasn’t sure how long he’d been holding his breath.
After Tom had been hauled away in the back of a cruiser, Dennis was outside being questioned by two officers. A couple dozen people still milled around, the mood faintly celebratory. Placid Oaks was no stranger to law enforcement, but this was something to talk about. When it seemed the officers were done, they exchanged an uncertain glance, and looked back at Dennis.
“Truth be told, Mr. O’Rourke, we’re not sure if we should be summonsing you for this here incident,” said one, gesturing towards the wasteland of Tom’s property. “We’ll check with the Chief, but I wouldn’t be too worried.”
“I’m not,” said Dennis.
As Dennis turned back towards the door, one of the news reporters who had arrived to cover the scene saw his trajectory and zeroed in.
“Mr. O’Rourke, Mr. O’Rourke? May I have a moment?” she called. Dennis ignored her and made his way up the steps to the bullet-riddled door.
“What made you do it? Why did you cover Mr. Lemieux’s property in dog excrement?” she shouted. He paused for a beat with his hand on the doorknob, then turned to face her. Young, probably fresh out of journalism school, her skirt suit looked to be worth more than most of the vehicles parked in Placid Oaks. She was physically flawless in the robotic sort of way that made it difficult to imagine her having a bad day.
“Because….it shouldn’t be that hard to take care of your own dog’s waste,” said Dennis, cool and measured. “Tom has a responsibility.” He shrugged and went inside.
From there, he could hear the news crew through the broken windows as they packed up their equipment.
“This is insane! I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this gets picked up by the national outlets,” said a male voice.
“No kidding,” said the woman who’d questioned Dennis. “America loves a good trailer trash story. Unfuckingbelieveable how these people live,” she said.
Dennis froze and his eyes widened. There it was again. Trash. Garbage. Waste. Rubbish. She wasn’t just talking about Tom. His stomach churned at the thought of being branded the person he spent his life trying to outrun. He wanted to march outside and scream into that woman’s face how wrong she was, but he felt so tired and flopped onto the couch.
Looking around, he took in the faded curtains, the tired furniture, the dead fish still floating in her tank that he couldn’t keep alive. The trailer that was his home. Was that it, then? Were they right?
He glanced at the clock; he had to be at work in forty-five minutes and wanted to rake up the day’s pinecones first. No time to dwell on it now. He was employee of the month for probably the twentieth time, and he couldn’t be late.
Kelsey W. Libby an attorney, mom to two little girls, and proud Mainer. She has devoured books her whole life and finally worked up the guts to try writing creatively during Covid. It has been a life-changing experience and her goal now is to put my writing out into the world in some capacity. She hopes you enjoyed this piece about identity, perception, and what becomes a conflict between the two.
Margaret F. Tripp Poetry Award
Angel of the Sensual by Jeanne Julian
As a child you knew his breath
made the car an oven.
You were furled, a cunning
tender pastry, in the back seat,
picking at a scab, learning
his heartbeat: the ka-tock of tires
crossing cracks between
monumental slabs of highway.
Cool mornings at the shore,
his saxophone voice
wove and shredded fog.
You tried to fly with him
by jumping in a moving elevator,
turning its efficient descent
into zero gravity.
He hovered when you balanced
on the reservoir wall, the wedge
dividing air and water.
A breeze or fingers lifted your blouse,
and he poured a salty nectar into crevices
between innocence and need.
Yesterday a cantaloupe sky split open
with summer’s final sunset, and his wing
brushed the dresser drawer,
painted the wood warm.
It is not aging, it is numbing
that you fear.
Hence one hand gripping your throat
guides you back against cool tiles and
another hand presses forward the base
of your spine, and arched taut there, the hot
shower feathering over your skin,
turning your bones downy,
you hiss into the steam, his marrow,
Jeanne Julian is co-winner of Reed Magazine’s Edwin Markham Prize (2019). Author of Like the O in Hope and two chapbooks, she has published poems in Comstock Review, Kakalak, Poetry Quarterly, Naugatuck River Review and other journals. She reviews books for The Main Street Rag. www.jeannejulian.com
Poetry Honorable Mention
Flames by David Sloan
Withheld on request.
A graduate of the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA Poetry Program, David Sloan’s debut poetry collection—The Irresistible In-Between—was published by Deerbrook Editions in 2013. A second book, A Rising and Other Poems, (Deerbrook), launched in the spring of 2020. His poetry has appeared in numerous journals, including The Café Review, The Cider Press Review, Down East Magazine, The Lascaux Review, Naugatuck River Review, New Millenium Writings and Passager, among others. He received the 2012 Betsy Sholl Award, Maine Literary awards in 2012 and 2016, three Goodreads prizes, The Margaret F. Tripp Poetry Prize, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. After teaching for nearly 50 years, most recently at Maine Coast Waldorf High School in Freeport, he semi-retired to focus on the joys of grandparenting, cycling and more regular writing.
Richard F. Snow Nonfiction Award
Hit Men by Michael Tooher
To preserve Hit Men‘s formatting, you can read it on pdf here: Hit Men
A note from the author:
I had never heard of Creative Non Fiction before. But once I became acquainted with the form, I thought I’d send you Hit Men.
It’s a true story. For a large portion of my adult life, I worked in entertainment. Specifically I was a special effect designer and technician for pyro.
So many moons ago, before starting a family, I was on tour. I did a lot of rock and roll but had a three year stint touring with a large arena children’s show. We had a long jump, Biloxi to Miami and we wound up taking Route 41 thru the Everglades headed for a week off. In the back lounge of the tour bus we drank and traded stories of our lives.
A young wardrobe assistant, who was on her first tour, listened for a long time, then eventually told us this story of her family which I have never forgotten.
It took a long time to figure out how to put it on paper but eventually I settled on play format and it worked for me.
Nonfiction Honorable Mention
The Hike by Haley Warden
Truthfully, I didn’t want to go on the hike in the first place. My idea of camping is sitting in the cabin with a good book, or on its porch enjoying the view, especially since it had snowed the previous day. My husband on the other hand hated being stuck inside the cabin. It was strictly for sleeping and eating. Even then he’d rather fry up some freshly caught fish on the fire pit out front. I hate fish. You know that saying about opposites and all that.
Well, I did need to lose a few pounds, or a few twenty, and with three small children there was no way to get out of going so I laced up my boots and threw on a jacket. Hiking up the mountain was fun I must admit, even though you couldn’t exactly see the trail due to the snow. A few slips and falls by the kids, a few tears, but nothing a snack couldn’t fix. The trail led us around to the front of the mountain overlooking a stunning view of the lake below. I snapped some glorious photos with my phone and looked to my husband to begin our descent. Oh no, we can’t stop now. There was an abandoned old mine shack a mile up the trail we needed to see. So up we continued. The trail however began to narrow, and I could see several rocks ahead that would need to be climbed over and a three-foot gap to jump across. Not to mention, suddenly to my left there were no longer any trees, just a straight drop down into the freezing lake below. Ever so calmly my husband stepped over the gap holding a three-year-old twin in each arm. My heart stopped beating for a minute or two at least. Then he asked for our son’s hand, which he lifted into the air, body attached, and my five-year-old was on the other side. The kids continued to scurry off up the mountain as I contemplated how to get over the empty space. A quick leap, eyes closed, and I’d made it over. Another ten minutes in and the kids were tired of hiking and wanted to head back to the cabin. Giving up on the mining shack we turned back around knowing they’d be complaining the entire hour hike back down the mountain. With my husband leading the charge we reach the dreaded gap. He took one twin across with him while the other waited for her turn. My son and I had stopped a few feet back for me to retie his laces and as we approached, he lost his footing in the snow. His skinny frame, weighed down by heavy boots, snow pants and jacket slid quickly down the rocks. I threw myself at him, lunging for his hand. I caught it. Not just the snow glove but his little fingers inside the glove, clinging to mine as he hung off the side of the mountain; nothing but air and the frozen lake hundreds of feet below. I don’t know if I screamed, most likely. Possibly he screamed as well. How long were we in that balance? Seconds? A minute? More? The life of my first-born dangling from my hand. My hand that held him when he was brought into this world. My hand that stroked his hair as he fell asleep at night. My hand that helped him dress each morning. My hand that waved goodbye on his first day of kindergarten. My hand and his.
My husband reached over, and again lifted him into the air, back to the safety of the narrow trail. He carried him over the gap in the rocks and hugged him. Slowly I crawled into a sitting position and cried. Not soft silent tears, but a raw wailing. My daughter, still patiently waiting for her turn, asked, “Why are you crying Momma?” I couldn’t speak. There were no words to describe the fear of what had just happened. They started back down the trail without me. I sat there, trying to collect myself. And then I did. I made it back to my family and the cabin.
Haley Warden doesn’t fancy herself a writer, more a lover of stories. Sometimes however, there is just something inside that needs to be put on paper and shared.
Just Write Maine-related Nonfiction Award
One More Ride by John Reinhart
Two-thousand miles away, lifetimes ago, in arid land on the high plains, we ventured into a neon world, a universe full of suns, flashing supernova, comets of all kinds. Midway barkers enticed lucky customers to toss the rings of Saturn, to throw darts at underinflated hopes, to race frogs across starstreams of wishes. Whole skeeball galaxies swirled in mystifying colors as the symphony of the cosmos churned out hotdogs, cotton candy, and soft serve ice cream in chocolate, vanilla, and twist.
Lakeside Amusement Park was the primary feature of the town of Lakeside, Colorado, once the speedway closed and the mall fell into disrepair. The police officer mostly sat around the entrance to the park on hot summer evenings in case the roughs got into a scuffle. Mostly they just tried to look intimidating. All bark, no wood, as they say.
I’d grown up going to Lakeside, rickety rollercoasters and impressive neon even then, the same as when my mother grew up going there. Like a chain of family waiting in line for the bumper cars, relatives stretched through time. My wife and I began taking our three young children every summer. Tradition. And it was cheaper than the other amusement park across town, which meant simultaneously easier on our wallets and a much more diverse crowd. People watching and the urinal became my two favorite attractions.
At five, my eldest son looked around the park, already accustomed to the myriad repairs our fixer-upper needed. He saw the peeling white paint on the rollercoaster supports, the abandoned rides tucked away in dark corners, the veneer called just-getting-by all around us. “Papa, we should come here and bring some paint. Look at those dead branches in the tree. We just need to bring our tree saw and then I could help you cut up those dead branches,” he suggested over a drippy ice cream cone.
Already, he knew the price of admission. Descending to earth means taking care of the earth, it means mixing sweat and soil to form a paste so strong it will hold up all eight rollercoaster cars as they careen down the largest hill at 50 miles an hour. I nodded agreement to his innocent wisdom while my daughter repeated her mother’s explanation of the midway games, rolling the new word around her mouth like a pinball: “Ripoffs.”
Fast forward seven years to another amusement park, to another line of family queued up through time. The arid plains give way to salt breezes off the ocean, a universe of sand castles, sand dollars, sandwiches snatched by seagulls. The midway barkers entice customers to launch lobsters into pots, throw darts at underinflated hopes, or race moose across fairy tale forests. Identical twins to the skeeball galaxies have moved here with us alongside hotdogs, cotton candy, and ice cream.
This time the family line is my wife’s, full of memories of visiting lifetimes ago, of summers spent with aunts and uncles, grandparents, and Frenchmen in speedos. Old Orchard Beach has it all, from the Matterhorn to greasy food, sweaty nights, and a neon arcade. Crowd watching is no less intriguing here, though the urinals are harder to find.
There were a couple rides closed the night we went, but everything looked shiny, fully painted. There were no trees to sport dead branches, no obvious repairs needed.
This time, my eldest, now 12, on the precipice of puberty, decided he only wanted to ride the ferris wheel, a full family affair anyway. He strolled with his parents while his two younger siblings raced from swings to Tilt-a-Whirl to pirate ship to bumper cars. We talked Red Sox. We remembered Lakeside. We talked lobster and tourist, summer and school. We played a baseball arcade game until he ran out of money, then we exchanged his tickets for some sour patch kids candy. He even got enough to share with his siblings.
Finally, energy dwindling, we gave the inevitable announcement: three more rides. While my wife went off to the rollercoaster one more time with the younger two, my son asked if he could have a piggyback ride.
For all his thoughtfulness, pre-adolescent practiced indifference, his wandering around with the adults all night, for all my exhaustion, my occasionally sore back, my practiced old man surliness, Old Orchard had worked out that gleam in his eye. Once again there was the little kid looking up at me, asking me to affirm that the price of admission was worth it. When the house needs another coat, sure, it’s a lot of work, but getting up in the morning is a lot of work too if all you see is a long line of suffering. Yes, we’re here to work, to touch up the trees to leave the scene a little nicer than it was before.
And we’re here to take care of each other in the same way.
“Sure,” I said, recognizing the moment, the liminal point where the tide overlaps the sand. Next year I won’t be carrying my son around on my back. I’ll be that much older and he’ll be that much more teenager.
Standing in the doorway between universes, like a cell just before it divides, I saw suns die, reborn with new planets orbiting them, whole nebula gallop by like cowboys riding herd on the plains. The stars shone brighter just for us. We walked through the crowds standing in line, a long line of relatives past and future, dreaming up new worlds, winking at us.
“What next, Papa?”
That’s your job to figure out, kiddo.
John Reinhart is a nuisance and a persistent dandelion growing between the cracks of now and zombies-flying-space-ships-to-Mars-to-have-tea-with-Martian-vampires. His latest collection is called Horrific Punctuation. http://home.hampshire.edu/~jcr00/reinhart.html
Note from Judge:
“The role of a father is to be there and facilitate growing into the person the child will be. The writer chronicles a moment when he focuses on the now. Not tomorrow, not yesterday, but now when his son still wants to do the things that solidly link father and son. This writer shows that he can deliver a story that we can enjoy once, twice, and reread again.” Nancy E Randolph, publisher with Just Write Books LLC
TPL Teen Fiction Award
The Water Hole by Julia Viani
I have a scar on the upper left side of my face. It goes directly across my eyelid, starting about an inch above my eyebrow and ending an inch away from my nose. When people ask me how I got the scar, sometimes I tell them I was attacked by a shark, or got into a fight with Wolverine, but usually I tell them my friend Tim’s cat scratched me. I’ve only told a few people about what led to me having this huge scar on my face, and what actually occurred on that hot summer day so long ago.
It was the summer after my seventh grade year. The day was July 13th, 1988 in Ellsworth, Maine, and the temperature reached 97 degrees. This was the hottest day of the summer so far, so a group of friends and I decided to go swimming. My friend Timmy had found a spot in the woods behind his house with a makeshift rope swing tied on to a tree that we had been taking advantage of that whole summer. I grabbed my swim trunks and started walking to the big oak tree in the middle of town. That’s where we all decided we would meet up before we went for a swim. It was roughly an equal distance from all of our houses: mine, Tim’s, Bug’s, and Scottie’s. Bug was already there when I arrived, putting on a third layer of sunscreen and spraying bug repellent on his backpack. His real name was Brady, but we all called him Bug because of how much of a germaphobe the kid was. One time, we put a beetle in his sandwich when he wasn’t looking, and when he took a bite into it and saw the decapitated beetle he threw up and didn’t talk to any of us for a month. Ever since then the name just kind of stuck.
“Hey Bug, ready to go swimming?” I said.
“Sam, you know how much I hate swimming in that nasty water. Why can’t we just fill up the inflatable pool like we did last summer? It’s a lot more sanitary, ya know. Plus, who knows what has died in that pond?”
I chuckled, “Oh, relax, Bug, it’s not gonna kill you to swim in the pond again. You survived last time, and all the times before that. Besides, the inflatable pool popped when Scottie tried turning it into a sled, remember?”
We both shared a laugh remembering Scottie and his craziness. He was easily the stupidest out of the group, willing to try anything at least twice (including second and fifth grade). A few summers back, Scott thought it would be a good idea to put soap on the bottom of the inflatable pool and take it for a ride down the hill behind my house. It didn’t end too well, clearly. About half way down the hill, the pool hit a rock and popped, sending Scottie flying down the hill like an out of control tire. He landed on the sidewalk and broke his arm in three places. He was in a cast for the entire rest of the summer, but he always said that ride was the best 30 seconds of his life.
As we were laughing, I felt my knees give out and I stumbled forward, catching myself on the tree. Tim’s famous way of greeting anyone was to come up behind them and kick them in the back of the knees.
“Hey, big guy, ready for a swim?” I said, rubbing the back of my leg.
“Yessir, I am. It’s way too hot to be standing outside right now. Where’s Scott?”
Almost on cue, Scott’s mom pulled up to the tree in the old station wagon and Scottie came jumping out of the passenger’s seat. He was a big kid, so he never liked walking anywhere he didn’t have to. His mom made him sign up for the track team one year, in hopes he would lose a few pounds, but he never showed up to a single practice. He would hide behind the bleachers and eat snacks until practice was over, and then he would pour water on himself to make it appear that he had just finished a hard workout when his mom came to pick him up. She didn’t make him sign up the next year.
There’s our favorite track star!” Tim said to him as he was walking over to the tree, already not wearing a shirt.
“Put those away before you get fined!” I yelled at him.
“Hey now, it’s too hot out to be wearing a shirt, I’m just giving everyone a free show before the swim.”
We all laughed and started walking to Tim’s house. It wasn’t a long walk, only about five minutes, but Scottie was sweating and panting asking for water by the time we made it to the house.
“Why didn’t you just have your mom drop you off here?” Tim said, grabbing his swim trunks off the clothing line.
“She said I needed the exercise,” Scott yelled from the kitchen, coming out with an open can of beans and a metal spoon.
“Oh, gross, do you have any idea how many chemicals are in those things? I don’t trust any food that’s in a can. Those things have a better possibility of surviving an apocalypse than you do!” Bug said.
“Well, they taste pretty good. Must be those extra chemicals.”
We all laughed and walked through the woods towards the hidden water hole. It was nearly impossible to find, almost hidden entirely, so we had to follow the white spray paint arrows drawn a few months prior to find exactly where the thing was. It was probably 20 feet across, and dangerously deep. Nobody was able to hold their breath long enough to touch the bottom, and the sunlight never managed to reach down far enough to shine light on what lied beneath the surface.
Scott was the first to jump in, nearly draining the pond with his record-worthy cannon ball. We were all in the water before Bug was done inspecting the ground around him for any signs of poison ivy or snapping turtle markings. Scottie ended up pushing him in anyway.
For hours we would take turns climbing up the tree branches and swinging down into the water, making competitions out of who could make the biggest splash, or who could hold their breath the longest. It was like any other hot summer day, nothing out of the ordinary, but it wouldn’t last that way for long.
It was around five when the incident happened. My fingers resembled raisins and my skin was pink from the forming sunburn. We were all floating in the deep end of the water, talking about what school would be like the following year.
“We are gonna be eighth graders next year, isn’t that crazy? Well, all of us except for Scottie,” I said, splashing him with water.
“It’s not my fault Mr. Con wants me to stay back another year,” he rebuttal.
“I told you I could help you with your math homework, but you never listened,” Bug said. I laughed.
“I’m excited for this year, but I’m sad summer is almost over. I’m glad we found this secret place when we did though–no more public beaches for us,” I said, pushing my arms towards my sides and letting myself drift closer to the middle of the water hole. I was floating there, enjoying the sunlight with my eyes closed when I felt something brush against my leg.
“Knock it off, Scott!” I yelled, not caring enough to open my eyes.
“What are you talking about, Sam?”
My ears twitched when I heard his voice come from a distance. I lifted my head up, seeing that all three of my friends had not left their original spots and were still floating a few feet in front of me. The events that happened next occurred quickly, but would traumatize me forever. A hand from something I couldn’t quite identify sprung up from the water, wrapping its long fingers around my face, digging it’s sharp nails painfully into my skin. I was dragged under the surface, with one painful force around my face and the other around my ankle. It was too unexpected for me to hold my breath. I still thought it was some cruel joke gone too far, but I quickly realized I was in danger when the grip around my ankle began to tighten and I was dragged further and further from the surface. My face stung where the initial trauma occurred. I forced my eyes open, seeing the murky water turn red with blood.
Frantically, I used my left leg to try and pry off whatever was holding on to my right ankle. The deeper I was dragged, the harder it was to see, but I could make out a human-like figure under the water. I used my hands to try and pry off the creature’s fingers around my ankle, but the harder I tried the more intense the grip became. I was running out of breath. Bubbles started pouring out of my nose, and my lungs burned with every inhale of water. I looked up to the surface of the water, watching as the sun rays started to dim. With a last desperate measure I kicked the face of the mysterious predator beneath the surface, finally causing it to release its deathly grip. With the last bit of energy I had, I kicked my legs fiercely as I swam towards the sun.
I popped up to the surface, vomiting up water and dirt.
“Get out of the water!” I screamed, and we all frantically swam out of the water and back to the rope swing.
My left eye’s vision was impaired by the blood mixing with the water dripping from my hair, and my right eye stung severely, but I was able to make out the shapes of my three friends. They all appeared to be examining my wound.
Scott grabbed a towel and pressed it into the deep cut across the left side of my face. As my right vision began to adjust, I could see the panicked look on my friend’s faces.
“What was that all about, Sam? You nearly gave me a heart attack,” Tim said.
Coughing up the last of the moisture in my lungs, trying to push the words out as fast as I could I told them, “Don’t go back in the water, don’t go back in the water, we have to leave right now!”
They didn’t understand at the time why I was so frantic, but they didn’t question me either. We all took off into the woods, abandoning our towels and Scott’s can of beans, running full force to Tim’s house.
Once my wound was cleaned up and I had calmed down a bit, I was finally able to tell them what happened.
“You saw a person under the water?” Scott questioned me.
“Yes, Scottie, I’m not crazy.”
“That’s scientifically impossible, no human would be able to survive under the water for that long, and besides, we would have seen them at the water hole, we were there all day. There’s no way someone else could have showed up without one of us noticing,” Bug said.
“Brady, I promise.” The group’s eyes grew wider. Nobody used Bug’s real name unless we were serious, and it was rule number one in our friend group not to break a promise. They finally started to take me seriously.
It was then that I noticed the red imprints, the perfect shape of a human hand wrapping around my ankle.
As a group, we decided to go back the next day, to put a danger sign next to the water hole, to warn anyone else not to go into the water. The boys were reluctant, but if that creature came back, it would have a harder time fighting all of us than just one of us. But when we followed the white spray paint arrows leading to the water hole, it was gone. Not a drop of water in sight, just a few crunchy towels and the can of beans that started to smell a little funky. We thought we were hallucinating, but the scratch on my face convinced us of its reality. This was something inhuman, and we were all lucky to have been safe for as long as we were. We knew better than to investigate further. We agreed that day to never go back to the water hole, or more precisely, the place where the water hole once was. We also agreed not to talk about the place where we once enjoyed hot summer days, because nobody would believe us when we would tell them that it disappeared into thin air one day. Instead of telling people what actually happened, I told people that Tim’s cat scratched me when I was trying to pick him up. I’m still not sure what was under the surface, but whatever was in there scratched my face that day, it wasn’t just trying to scare me, that’s one thing I am certain of.
My name is Julia, I am a 17 year old student at Central High School who enjoys writing short stories. I originally wrote the piece “The Water Hole” for a writer’s workshop class I am in this semester. After sharing my short story, my teacher suggested that I submit the work for the contest. The piece was inspired by stories my father would tell me growing up, about him and his siblings swimming in a pond near their house in Ellsworth. I am a horror film fanatic, and love anything scary, which is where my love for fiction originates from.
TPL Teen Poetry Award
The Girl in the Willows by Piper Staples
The girl in the willows,
She whispers untold stories
Of many a brave man,
Of women dressed in fine silks
Of treasures lost at sea.
She shakes the cattails in the pond
Listen, she calls
She makes the grass quiver with silent steps
She laughs in the thunderstorms,
Making the water ripple.
She swings on the empty swing set
Invisible to the eye
And when someone turns in her direction,
She put her finger to her lips with a smile
That shows the age of the earth,
And flies away.
The girl in the willows
She whispers to me.
Piper Staples is 17 years old. She is currently in 11th grade at a Waldorf school near the coast of Maine. She really enjoys writing poetry and is working on writing a book. She loves to act and travel and spend time with her dogs, cat, and chickens. It has been a dream of hers to go to Africa one day.
TPL Kids Fiction Award
Ruby and the Magical Violin by Lydia Cabot
Hi, I’m Ruby Willows. I live in a house on Poppington Drive with my giant family. I live with my two younger brothers, Nick who is six and Bob who is eight, my two older brothers, Andrew who is fourteen and Joe who is sixteen, my mom, my dad, and my baby sister Millie, who is two.
It’s a lot with four brothers and a sister, so I don’t get a lot of alone time. But I make it work. It’s always nice to have somebody there. I’ve never really been alone. I mean, my brothers never leave me alone, and my sister crawls around following me everywhere.
Sure, my family is big, but it’s really nice that someone is always looking out for you. Someone can always catch you when you fall. Ever since I was a baby, I always had someone there for me.
I can’t imagine what Millie, my little sister, will be like when she grows up, with four brothers and a sister all older than her. I’ll be helping her learn different things, helping to walk her to school, and all that fun stuff. I’m really excited to teach her. It will be a lot of fun. It’s really cool because I’m the oldest and the only other girl in my family. I can really relate to her when she’s older, and I think we’re really going to have a fun time together when she’s all grown up. I’ll get to teach her all about school, and summer vacation, and magic. Lots of magic. There’s magic everywhere, you just have to look hard.
It is Monday. It’s just an average day. I’m on my way to school, and since my dad is at work, and my mom is taking my sister to daycare, I am walking.
As I was saying, on my way to school, I always walk by this big park. There are always a ton of people there, and it’s just your normal park, but today it is kind of weird. I’ve never seen it when there are not a lot of people, but today there is nobody.
It is really weird, so of course, since I’m always wanting to look around, I walk into the park. I feel weird. I feel like I’m really not supposed to be here.
Then I see something even more weird. I take a few steps back. It’s a huge willow tree that was never there before. I walk a little bit closer, knowing for sure that tree was never there. The willow tree is huge, and I’m surprised I never noticed it on my daily walks by the park. Or did I notice it and forget?
I shake my head, knowing this isn’t real. But as I get closer, I notice that there is a hole in the tree. It’s a round, perfectly cut hole, like someone had snipped it with scissors, right in the middle of the trunk.
So I get on my hands and knees, and I look, and I can’t believe what I see. It’s a tunnel, going way back, farther than the trunk of the tree. So I start crawling into the tunnel. It goes back a long way. Eventually, it gets big enough that I can stand up.
The walls of the tunnel are made completely out of wood and the floor is stone. I hear something weird, kind of like water trickling. I come to a little bridge with a small stream running under it. Before I go over the bridge, I put my hand in the water, wanting to feel the sand at the bottom of the stream. But even though it looks shallow, I can’t reach the bottom.
I hold my breath and I stick my head under the water. I see coral and fish. It’s weird because the water isn’t cold like a normal stream would be.
It’s summer temperature. It makes me want to jump right in, but I don’t. Instead I keep walking over the bridge.
As I walk farther, I see green vines snaking around the walls and the roof. But the crazy thing about these vines is that they are glowing green.
It’s like the inside of the vine has a light bulb or something. But that’s impossible, right?
I look back, wanting to see just a glimmer of my park before I go on, but there’s a door there now.
I look in front of me and see another door, also made out of wood. It has little diamonds and rubies all over it. What is going to be on the other side of that door? I am a little nervous, but also really excited. So I grab the handle and push it open.
When I first open the door, I think I am dreaming. But slowly, I begin looking around, and I realize it’s all real. I sit on the grass just looking around and taking it all in. It is crazy. Through the beautiful and kind of crazy tunnel, there is almost like a whole other world.
“Wow,” I say. I am in a magical world! The grass is the greenest of green. There are apple trees, and pear trees, and even trees that are growing marshmallows! There is a river bluer than anything. There are the most unbelievable creatures. There are dragons and unicorns!
“This is crazy,” I tell myself. “I must be dreaming, or maybe I hit my head hard.”
I’m just overwhelmed with all of the beauty.
It’s crazy. I pinch myself, and it hurts, which seems to rule out the possibility that I’m dreaming.
I jump, not noticing the creature that is standing right next to me. Is it a dragon or a unicorn? It has the body of a unicorn with the wings and the scales of a dragon. It has a horn and eyes that are made of fire! I step closer to get a better look at this creature.
“Wow,” I say. “I am Ruby. I don’t mean to be rude or anything, but what are you?”
The creature laughs and it’s kind of startling, because it sounds like a human. “Oh sorry, I didn’t introduce myself,” it says. “I’m Indy, and I am a dragicorn.”
“Cool,” I say, even though I don’t really believe it. “Where am I?”
“What?” says Indy. “You don’t know where you are? But you found the portal. You found the tree. The tree came to you, and you don’t know where you are?”
“No, sorry,” I say. “So really, where am I?” “You are in the Gemstone Dimension,” Indy
“You said that the tree came to me. What does that even mean?” I shake my head in confusion. “Why me? And why is nobody at the park?”
“It’s because the tree travels,” says Indy. “And nobody was at your park because the tree makes sure only the person who is meant to find the Gemstone Dimension gets in the tree. Now, we have to go.”
“Wait where are we going?” I say, running to catch up with Indy, who is surprisingly fast for a half dragon, half unicorn.
“We’re going to meet Autumn and Emmett. They will tell you everything you need to know.”
After a few minutes of walking, Indy stops at the mouth of a big cave. There are vines covering the door. We push through the vines and I finally meet Autumn and Emmett. They’re both elves. Autumn floats in the air in a long green silk dress covered in leaves.
“Hi,” says Autumn. Autumn tells me that she is a nature elf. Emmett stands on the ground in shorts and a t-shirt. He is holding a sword.
“Hello,” says Emmett. Emmett tells me that he is a warrior elf and he can stop time.
“Nice cave,” I say. Inside the cave is all rock, with a little river going around the sides. Autumn’s bed is in one corner and Emmett’s is in the other.
We’re standing on a big rug that is shaped like a gem.
“Okay, I’m here to get everything straight. I don’t know why I’m here and I don’t know where I am,” I say. “I’m really confused. It’s all weird. I mean you guys have marshmallows growing on trees. How is that not weird? And kind of awesome,” I add as an afterthought.
“Well,” says Autumn, floating a few feet above the ground, “it is all really confusing. You see, you’re the chosen one. You have to find the magical violin to make people happy, so that our dimension can still live.”
“What?” I say, pacing back and forth. “What?!
“Yep,” says Emmett. “Like Autumn said, it is all really confusing. I’m just glad I don’t have to do it.”
“ Emmett !” says Autumn, nudging him in the ribs with her elbow.
“Is this really happening?” Autumn, Emmett, Indy, and I are all sitting at the bottom of a giant waterfall that’s at least fifty feet high. At the bottom of the waterfall, the water forms into a big pond. It’s so blue.
I see something splash in the water. I say to Emmett, “Was that… a mermaid?”
“Yep,” says Emmett with a little grin. I stare at him with my mouth hanging open.
“I can’t believe it,” I say.
“I know. It’s so crazy,” says Emmett. “You guys have mermaids?” I say.
“Yeah, we also have fairies,” says Emmett, “and gnomes, and elves, and around Christmastime we have magic flying reindeer.”
I look at him, my eyebrows raised.
“I’m joking,” he says, “at least about the reindeer.”
“Wait, so let me get this straight,” I say, starting a new conversation. “I’m the person who found the magical portal inside of a tree. So what am I missing? Why is this such a big deal?” I ask. “It’s such a big deal because you have to find
the magical violin and bring peace between the unicorns and the dragons,” Autumn says to me kindly.
“I am supposed to do what?” I say. They both look away. Autumn is concentrating very hard on a falling leaf, and Emmett is vigorously cleaning his sword.
“Okay, this is way too crazy. Really crazy.
Like really, really, really crazy!” I say. “Yeah we know,” says Emmett.
“Okay, well if I’m doing this, which I’m not saying I am, but if I was, where’s the magical violin?” I say.
“It’s on the other side of the forest,” says Autumn.
“Oh, that’s not too bad,” I say.
“Yeah, well she didn’t tell you that it’s in a tower in the middle of a giant pond, guarded by dragons and the worlds biggest troll,” says Emmett.
“Oh brother,” I say, rolling up my sleeves. “Well we better get going.”
“What, you’re doing it?” says Emmett, setting his sword down and jumping up.
“Yay! Yay! Yay! I’m so excited! I mean, cool, okay, let’s get going,” says Autumn.
So we start walking. I see crazy things, like dragons, unicorns, and more elves. Some of the elves are even harvesting marshmallows off the trees. Autumn and Emmett seem to know all of the elves, but I just walk along with my mouth hanging open, taking it all in.
It takes a really long time to even get to the forest and by the time we get there, it’s already sunset.
“Oh my gosh,” I say all of a sudden, “I forgot about school. And my parents, what are they gonna say when I don’t show up for dinner? What is the teacher gonna say when I don’t show up for school tomorrow? Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh.”
“Don’t worry about it,” says Emmett, smiling. “Do we have to walk all the way across the
forest?” says Indy, back on track already.
“No,” says Emmett. “Indy, you’re forgetting you can fly.”
“Oh yeah,” says Indy with a laugh. He flaps his wings and flies ahead of us.
“The rest of us,” says Emmett, “can ride these.”
“Wow,” I say. Out of the forest comes a fiery red, flying dragon and a giant blue swan.
Autumn hops on the swan and Emmett hops on the dragon.
“Oh my gosh,” says Autumn, slapping her hand to her forehead. “We forgot one for you.”
“It’s fine,” I say. “My brothers forget stuff for me all the time. It’s no big deal.”
Just then, I see something in the forest moving between the trees. I squint, trying to see what it is. It looks like a unicorn, but with wings.
“Wow!” says Autumn. “What is that?”
“I think it is an alicorn,” says Emmett. “Those are extremely rare.”
I walk up to the alicorn. It steps into the moonlight and I can’t believe my eyes.
It’s beautiful. It is white like the snow with a mane and tail that are pink, purple, and gold all spun together.
“Wow!” I say. “This is amazing.”
The alicorn bends its head and I just have a feeling that it wants me to get on its back, so I do. We all ride into the forest.
As we’re riding, the trees are almost like a tunnel. I can barely see the sky. But the little red berries on all of the trees give off a glow. I see fairies in the trees. I sit on the alicorn with eyes wide, just looking at them. There’s a stream, and just like the one in the cave, it’s super deep and I can’t even see the bottom.
On the other side of the forest, we reach a big pond. The water glitters in the moonlight. I see a castle in the middle of the pond on a tiny island.
It’s made out of stone with the same vines I saw in the tunnel curling around it. I see a tiny window at the back of the castle, and inside, I see something glittering.
But beneath the castle, I see something terrifying. I gasp. There are giants, ogres, and dragons all standing in front of the castle.
“I have to get through that?” I say. “Yup,” says Emmett.
I stop. I think about what I’m about to do, and if this is really worth it. But then I also think, this land is depending on me doing this, and if I stop, then the land won’t exist.
I climb to the top of a tree and walk out on one of its branches. Then I jump. I land on the tiny island behind the castle so none of the creatures can see me. And I start climbing the castle.
I reach the back window, trying to be as silent as I can, so the creatures don’t hear me. I put one foot on a rock that is poking out of the wall and I grab one of the vines snaking around the castle.
Immediately, when I grab the vine, it starts pulling me upward. I gasp and then clap my free hand over my mouth, hoping that the creatures didn’t hear me. The vine pulls me up, and even when we reach the top of the castle, it doesn’t stop. The vine throws me up and then drops me. I’m falling in the air. I grab onto one of the branches of a tree and I stop falling. I scramble up to the top of the tree branch and just lay there, catching my breath.
Back on the other side of the lake, Autumn and Emmett are watching.
“We have to help her!” says Indy.
“She has to do this by herself,” says Emmett. “We’re not the guardians of the magical
“Can’t we do something?” says Autumn.
“I wish we could, but we can’t,” says Emmett. “Like I said, she has to do this by herself.”
Back on the branch, I decide how I’m going to get into this tower. It isn’t going to be as easy as I thought, but I can do it. The tree chose me, I think.
I jump from the branch onto the roof. Then, breaking a loose twig off the tree, I poke one of the lower vines under the window. The vine comes shooting up to the top of the tower. I grab onto it, and as it comes rocketing back to the ground, I jump and get my hands on the window frame.
Gasping for breath, I climb inside. When I get inside, I see it: the violin standing on a stand in the middle of the room.
I pick it up and I begin to play. The sound of violin music fills the tiny room. It’s weird because I never knew how to play.
I sit on the window frame with the violin in my hands and I wonder how to get down. Just then, one of the vines comes snaking up to the window. I jump back in, afraid of it. But then I see it wants me to grab on. I think because it knows I’m meant to have the violin, it’s being nice to me. I hop onto the vine, and it brings me gently to the ground. Surprisingly, the giants, the ogres, and the dragons all leave me alone. They know I’m there, but they don’t seem to mind.
I go back across the tree branch, back down the tree, and onto the grass.
“I can’t believe you got it!” says Emmett, jumping around
“Our land is going to be okay!” Autumn says. “Well, bye,” I say, turning around and starting to walk off.
“Wait, what are you doing?” says Autumn. “I’m going home,” I say. “I mean, now that I have the violin, can’t I just go home?”
“That’s not exactly how it works,” says Emmett. “See, you have to play the magical violin on the top of Mount Gemstone. And then, and only then will our land be able to survive.” “Okay, where is the mountain?” “Right there,” says Emmett, pointing up. I look up and see the biggest mountain I have ever seen. It is made completely out of gems, so it’s almost see-through, but I can see tints of red, purple, and pink.
“Oh brother,” I say, rolling up my sleeves.
And I start climbing.
This is by far the highest I’ve ever climbed. It takes me an hour to get barely halfway up. I think I’m never going to get to the top.
It’s morning now, and the sun beats down on me. I’m sweating like crazy. Just when I feel like I’m about to melt, I feel a cold breeze, and the sun almost disappears.
It’s my alicorn, flapping her wings, and urging me to jump on her back. She flies below me and I let go. Even though I know she’s going to catch me, I still let out a little scream as I jump. I land with a thump on her back.
As we fly to the top, the cold breeze feels good on my hot skin.
When we get up there, I hold the violin and I start playing. Streams of golden, pink, and purple music stream out of my violin. I don’t know what song I’m playing, I’m just kind of making it up, but it’s amazing. Everything pours out of my violin and I feel peace for the first time since I came here.
Once I finish my song, I feel so happy. I put down my violin and I look below me. The dragons and the unicorns that had been fighting stop. They walk away from each other, and slowly all of the unicorns and dragons are at peace.
Everything that I knew was beautiful becomes more beautiful. The sky gets lighter, the water gets bluer, and everything is just glittering. It’s gorgeous and I never want to leave, but I know I have to go home.
I walk to the edge of the mountain and jump. I fall for a few minutes, but I’m surprisingly calm. If I was falling at home, I’d be screaming. But my alicorn catches me in a matter of minutes and we fly safely to the ground.
Once we land, I say to Autumn and Emmett, “I’m really gonna miss you guys.” I smile sadly.
“Yeah, I’m gonna miss you too,” say Autumn and Emmett at the same time.
We all hug. And then I feel feathers on my back. My alicorn has wrapped her wings around us too. And then I feel Indy’s cold scales and know that he’s hugging us as well.
I suddenly pull out of the hug, remembering, “Oh no, my parents! They’re gonna be looking for me!”
I hop on my alicorn and we fly like the wind back towards the tree. We travel through the forest, not even paying attention to the fairies. We go past the elves picking marshmallows, and the dragons, unicorns, and the waterfall where we saw the mermaid.
But when I finally get to the place where the tree appeared, it’s not there.
“Where is the tree?” I say, panicking and walking around the spot where I thought it was.
“Oh, about that,” says Autumn, shuffling uncomfortably, “Indy and I were playing by the tree and we accidentally pressed the invisibility button.”
“There’s an invisibility button?” says Emmett, “and you never told me about it? Oh come on!”
“As long as the tree is still here, that’s okay,” I say.
I feel around, and after an hour we finally find the tree.
I say, “I’m really gonna miss you guys and I don’t know when I’m going to see you again.”
Autumn gives a sniff.“Are you crying?” I say.“No,” says Autumn.“Wow, I can’t believe I actually have to leave,” I say sadly, walking towards the invisible tree.
Just then, I see the most amazing thing. Where the invisible tree is, it starts to glow and then we start to see it. When we can finally see the tree, outsteps a floating fairy.
“Hello,” says the fairy. “I’m Penelope and I am the guardian of the Gemstone Tree. I have decided to leave the tree where it is so that Ruby can come back whenever she likes.”
“Really?” I say. “Yes,” says Penelope.
I hug Emmett and Autumn. As I step back from the hug, I say, “Well, I really should get going.” “Will we see you soon?” asks Emmett.
“Of course.” I say.
“I hope you can figure everything out with your parents,” says Autumn.
“Me too. Bye!”
I go through the portal and back across the bridge. This time, I think I see a mermaid in that magical stream. I go back past the magical vines, which I think wave at me. Finally, I go back through the other end of the magical portal.
I climb out and I feel sad all of a sudden. I sit there in the park for a few minutes, just looking around.
Everything seems so different. There are no marshmallow trees, no dragons or unicorns, no elves, just grass, and the playground equipment that is usually at the park.
Eventually, I get up and start to walk home. I look at my watch, and I see it’s exactly 8-o’clock in the morning.
That’s weird, I think. I look on my phone. It’s still May 18th, which is exactly the same day I left and went through the portal.
It’s 8-o’clock on May 18th , I think again. No time has gone by. It’s the exact same time that I would usually be walking to school.
So I walk to school.
“Sorry I’m late,” I say to my teacher, Mrs.
Turkey, when I get there.
“What do you mean?” Mrs. Turkey says. “You’re right on time!”
The entire day at school, I think about the dimension, and what Emmett had said when I asked about my parents and school. He had said don’t worry.
When I get home from school, dinner is on the table. My parents, brothers, and sister are all sitting in the living room watching a movie, like they always are when I come home.
“Hi guys,” I say.“Hi sweetie,” says my mom.
Later that night, I sit in my bed thinking about everything. I guess that Emmett stopped time for me or everything just went in slow motion. But nothing has gone by, at least in my world, so nothing changed.
But I know. I know that everything is different.
The next morning is another normal morning, just like the one when I went through the portal. I wake up, brush my teeth, get my uniform on, and I go to school.
When I get there, the teacher is just announcing that there will be two new students: a brother and sister.
“Now class,” says my teacher, Mrs. Turkey, “we should all be nice to our new classmates.” When the two kids walk in the door, I almost shout. It’s Autumn and Emmett! I would recognize them anywhere, even without their pointy ears, Autumn’s floating and Emmett’s sword, and no magical animals. They just look like normal kids now.
“What in the world are you doing here?” I whisper when they sit down next to me.
“Oh yeah, so the guardian of the tree put a disguise on us so we’re real kids now for school. We’re going with school now,” says Emmett. “I am so excited! You do know it’s to school
“Yeah, I knew that,” says Emmett.
“It’s all really confusing,” Autumn says, leaning into the conversation. “We’re not really used to being, well, human.”
“I get it. It must be a big switch,” I say.
And for the rest of the school year, and the rest of the summer, and the rest of my life, I always have my two best friends that are even more mysterious than the Gemstone Dimension itself.
A Note From The Author
Hello person who is reading this book. Thank you for reading and I really hope you enjoyed it. It took me a while to write this book and it was all really, really fun and exciting.
The characters Autumn and Emmett are actually real people. They are my neighbors and I wouldn’t have thought of this book without their help.
I thought of the different realm because I go to this place where there is a huge tree that looks like it’s pretty magical. I’m convinced it is. And there’s a big pond and pretty trees, so I thought, why not put that into my book? Of course, I twisted it a little with the animals, and the magical creatures, and the marshmallow trees, but it was all based on something real.
Finally, I wanted to do a magical violin because I play violin, and I really think it’s a magical instrument.
So thank you for reading my book. I’ll keep writing and hopefully you’ll get to read my next one.
Lydia Cabot is 11 years old and lives in Brunswick, Maine. She loves to write, bake and is the the founder of Cat Scouts, and organization dedicated to raising money for homeless animals.
TPL Kids Poetry Award
Cat by Opal Reinhart
A cat came to me —
so slow he went.
But winter came.
I never saw that cat.
Not even in spring.
Opal Reinhart likes gymnastics, reading, writing, and her bunny, who her brothers nicknamed Bump even though his name is Peter. He’s a real cutie.