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Best Left Silent

Robert Rae, England, United Kingdom. First published October 1, 2005

There’s a screaming inside my head. I know it’s me, but of course that doesn’t change anything. It’s
funny, how people always talk of that dry, analytical part of you that just watches while your world caves
in. Always the writers and the poets and the psychologists can say that to you in their smiling voices, honey
rubbed along a wound, but they don’t know that even the ones who watch can scream. Oh, God, but they
can scream so loud that nobody hears them.

Once upon a time, I woke up in bed, and saw a crack of morning coming through my curtains. Two
hours later, it’s impossible to summon the fascination that a chink of light can throw you into, especially
when those hours have seen you burn your reserves of goodwill for the day. After all, smiling takes so many
less muscles, doesn’t it? It’s far easier on the face; not even painful compared to trying to look neutral when
it’s facing you across the kitchen table as if the sunlight means something. Nobody really notices a rictus
when you’re drinking coffee.

School isn’t bad as these things go, which they do. The corners of your eyes get a lot of work,
naturally, and you can spend a pleasant period spying out a teacher’s sad smile: that mouth-up-eyes-down
flicker that manages to lose itself on any other wayward charge. It’s not limited to the masters and matrons
of wisdom, heaven knows; you know the look social services have perfected, the one that wants to help
you, child, but stops just short of moving the body in any meaningful way. As long as she knows you care,
you’re allowed to comfort yourself with thoughts that a girl doesn’t make her real friends ’till university
anyway, and a cup of tea can solve all her problems. Bags, though, not tea leaves – too bitter for children
and adults alike.

The vastly superior Garden wins a battle with the television to hold sway over time and inattention,
though each one clamours in it’s own way. After all, one could watch gardening on TV, but there’s always
the chance of your father coming in, and laughing at the fat smiling men leaning on spades and talking
about how to sow seeds in your own back yard. He has a very loud laugh, my father, and very strong. It
makes his stomach wobble up and down, as if he were breathing very fast, or hard. Or both.

Trees and bushes offer shade to fit the mood and a paradise for the scuttling beetles and centipedes,
chased in and out of sight by every innocent child you can still summon to mind. Most of them look the
same, though none of them look like me anymore. It’s surprising how sad that can feel. Hemlock and
nightshade grow up against the far wall, lustrous green and purple providing too fine a trap for many a poor
cat, intent on stroking their lithe, slender bodies though every patch of the poison they can find. It’ll make
them sick eventually, of course, but for now they look healthy enough.

The sun slides away taking the sunset with it, and a million yellow streetlights spring up for those of
us defenceless enough to miss her. They can’t quite make the dust motes dance the same way, but they
shed enough light to cast faint shadows on the walls, until a real shadow comes to close the curtains, and
leave them that way. I used to be afraid of the dark, like most children, but I had a father who would stay
beside me for a while, until I discovered how misplaced my fear had been. I outgrew it, but he’s always
been there when he needed me.

I’m not afraid of the dark, anymore, and I’m not afraid of the nightmares, it’s the waking up from
them I don’t like. Screaming out in the dark used to bring them running, but I don’t do that anymore, not
even when he’s already there. After all, why would you make life more complicated than it already is, when
you can scream inside your head for hours and hours and be sure that you will never have to stop, that you
will never have to breathe hard or fast or smell the hot humid air all around you, no-one will ever see, no-
one will ever hear. No one will ever know. You can try and sit vigil by the streetlights until the sun saves
you again, but not even they are witness to the things that bump against your life in the night. Cry for me,
if you feel like, if you think your empathy can bring me some pity I don’t need, but don’t leave the light on.
No one will ever know. Don’t leave the light on. No one will ever know. Goodnight.
Shards of Memory
Liana Bruggemann, Washington, United States. First published October 1, 2005

The light steps of John O’Malley sank into the thick, muting cushion of snow without
the faintest snatch of sound. The flakes settled softly in his wake, swirling flurries of a
gentle blindness, slowly, sweetly tucking away all slips of sound in the deep caress of
forgotten dreams. The late hours of evening had yet to pass over the day, and O’Malley’s
worn leather soles, peeling and brown-black from the snow, halted their steady
procession, paused, and settled their weight firmly to both feet, as their owner craned his
head, one hand subconsciously clutching an old tweedy hat to his head, as he stared,
squinty eyed through the snow at the large, red “Condemned” letters spelled out across
the cracked and dusty windows of the old building. Marked out against the expansive white
banks, the fresh new sign peered out from the midst of swirling snow flurries as a trace
of unwanted color, in a world comfortably black and white.

A stray, still form in the midst of bustling bodies, collars up to the chin, cheeks
flushed with cold, eyes beady and black, O’Malley painted a queer picture in the middle of
the shabby street, an oddly clear figure frozen in time, surrounded by the grey-blurred
outlines of rushing passerby. Stepping closer to the building, the sound of his own
footsteps crunching in the snow seemed suddenly more solid, and, as he pressed a
weathered hand to the frozen bricks of the towering old Grand Hotel before him, a shiver
ran down his spine, an empty echo sounded down the street.

Hours, or perhaps minutes later he still sat, hunched against the rough stone wall,
his patched, wet coat drawn up to his ears, his once fine face paled with the cold, tinged
blue around the eyes and lips, pale blue eyes sunken deep into their sockets, fine wrinkles
the only outline of what had once been. He had placed his hat before him, weighted with
rocks to keep it from being blown away, and as he sat half in, half out of the world, a man
who had once opened doors to him dropped a coin in his hat without looking at him.
O’Malley remembered that man, the superb quality of his tailored suit, the look of respect
in his eyes, the way his eyebrows lifted in barely concealed surprise, the quirk of his mouth
as though unsure whether he was permitted to smile. But perhaps it had only been a
dream after all…the days of golden arches , of strings of pearls wrapped around swanlike
necks, of glittering jewels presented for his, the largest, grandest parties, the awed
whispers of his hotel, present under even the most insincere and same-standard
cordialities. Black Thursday as it was called had shattered those dreams…or begun them,
for reality now faded into sublime, and sublime faded away with the snow.

The next morning an irritated demolition worker leapt angrily from his crane to see
what had caused the delay, cursing as he pushed through the small crowd of workers
around the condemned building. He stopped as he saw a man curled and small at the base
of the old hotel, and paused. Soon however, the crowd dispersed, grew disinterested,
resumed their tasks, and with the aid of a couple fellow workers, the body was hosted
unceremoniously down an alley way, and buried in a makeshift grave of snow. As the
building fell in crumbling ruin, and the carefully crafted might of the hotel crashed to the
ground, empty echoes streamed down the snow-muted streets, lost on the ears of the
deaf-toned passerby.
Retirement
Anna Breslaw, New Jersey, United States – Age 18. First published July 1, 2005

A hundred dead and dying flowers occupy the shelves in Alma’s garage. Many sunlit
mornings push past her window and beam in hot amber bars against her curling wallpaper. They
coax her to the nursery, where she meticulously searches for the most colorful, healthy-looking
plants. Petunias, violets, pansies—especially pansies—each blessed with the delightful promise of
continual budding, would jerk and twist in their crates in the back of the car, waiting for their
debut to new soil. Her son decided her future for her, so the foliage will now sit for a bone-dry day
on the shelf; another, another.

Cathy makes her tea at six o’clock each morning. She has never been to England and hates
her “first generation American” title. She speaks with an English accent acquired from her parents,
dead and gone, reads etiquette books from cover to cover, writes on fancy stationery to old
acquaintances who seldom return a word. Her house seeps lace, buckles under the weight of gaudy
chandeliers, drowns in inherited china used once a year when her brother and his family visit for
Thanksgiving. He does not speak with an English accent.

Judy pours God onto the road every morning with rice flower and colored spices in the hopes
of dispelling negative vehicular energy. She powerwashes the house once a month; she prays;
she reads all the important books and follows their words humbly and blindly. She sleeps in a bed
with her boyfriend who never kisses her and three spiders who kiss her often. “And I’ll take this,”
she says, handing the clerk a small wind chime. She picks up peacemakers wherever she finds
them: incense, candles, lavender bath balm, a book of inspirational quotations compiled by Roger
M. Baldwin, Ph.D. She keeps a modest home, whose roof shelters a wild daughter, a growing son,
her boyfriend, and herself. The wind never blows too much around her house. She spends most
of her time as a counselor at the retirement community. She works at the quilt store. Sometimes
she makes quilts inspired by the work of Picasso, whose art she greatly admires. She believes
above all things in happiness derived from the simplest of pleasures: the song of a sewing
machine, brightly patterned fabrics, Mr. Fuzzy the cat, the perfect color of thread. She takes Paxil
to see the colors brighter. The staff of the Annex, the restaurant next door, believes her to be
positively imbalanced. Judy’s daughter is moving to Feather River Junior College up north, she
says. It’s up north, west of some cattle ranching town that no one’s ever heard of, she says. Now
Judy moves all of her quilting things into her daughter’s old room but she forgets one thimble,
which sits in the corner, occasionally illuminated by the headlights of her son’s truck as he returns
from another lost rodeo, or sometimes by the moon.

A visiting singer would have thought that the weekly carolers were the highlight of Alma’s
week, but nobody knew for sure. “Page 33!” she would plead, and the high school good-doers
would dive into a bland and overdone rendition of “Red River Valley.” Toward the beginning of
their visits to the Acacias retirement home, she would ask only once. But days and their magic,
miserable work forced her to ask twice sometimes. The second time through, the students would
only sing the first, third, and last verse. To the singers, the shortened version always sounded
funny and cheap, and maybe it sounded funny to Alma too. Maybe that was the taste in her mouth
on the rainy night that she didn’t wheel out into the entryway to hear the singers. The singers
didn’t know that she felt hung up by the dwarfed version brought-to-you-by-Alzheimers-by-old-
age-  maybe-just-by-wanting-to-hear-the-whole-song- twice-to-hear-the-whole-song-just-once.
In fact, when the wailing ambulance pulled out into the rain, they didn’t even know it was Alma.
Tranquility
Laura Ann Kauffman, null, United States. First published October 1, 2005

It is early in the morning when I rise. The light of day has yet to grace this side of the earth
with its presence. No longer do I need my alarm; my very instinct, something deep within, tells
me when it is time to awake. Gathering my surfboard, a swimsuit, and other necessary equipment,
I step outside and pause at the bottom of the stairs. Listening intently, I realize that the shouts
from the amusement parks have not started, and the noise of civilization has yet to arrive.
Everything is virtually silent save the waves crashing in a location just beyond my view and the
summer gulls trying to collect their food for the day.

I smile and begin to walk. Up ahead, the boardwalk comes into view, and memories abound
within me from childhood summers spent on that walk: bike rides I’ve shared with my family, trips
up to the shop in the evenings for ice cream, chasing seagulls and even learning how to fly a kite.
This boardwalk defines my past, each individual board somehow tells a part of my life story. As I
make my way up the steps and onto the worn, splintering boards, I look down both lengths. The
numerous stores that line the expanse are closed. Their lights, once welcoming and bright are off,
as if they need a rest themselves. As I make my way across and finally off of the wooded walkway,
the undeniable and easily recognized smell of the beach, a combination of salt and seaweed,
overwhelms me. I pass through the dunes, covered with ocean grass and the most beautifully
natural sight greets me.

“Tranquil,” I think to myself. If any word could possibly be fitting enough to describe the
sight before my very eyes, tranquil would be the word. It might even be something beyond that,
to some it could even be considered spiritual. It is a beauty recognized or at least acknowledged
by the common person, but only truly appreciated by those like me.

We’re more than surfers. Our love of the single sport that binds us is built less on our own
skill than by the secret we share, that the ocean is mystical. It heals inner wounds that nothing
else can and is capable of consuming your very soul. Respect for the ocean, the result of the
driving force of nature and our communion with it, define who we are.

As I sit on the sand, still cool from the previous night, with my board by my feet, I realize
beyond a doubt that I am the luckiest person on the planet. The waves are breaking in perfect
sets of four, some splashing into the jetties, while others make their way to greet me on the shore.
I take a moment to close my eyes, and everything is free and completely at rest. Like the pieces
of even the most intricate puzzle, everything just fits.

Then it starts to happen. This is something I have been a witness to on countless occasions
before, yet it still never ceases to amaze me and never will. The sun, the very light of the world,
begins to make its appearance over the distant, ever-present yet mysterious horizon. It is almost
as though a giant light switch has been flipped on as glorious rays of silken purples, radiant pinks
and delicate blues shine bright. The sun’s likeness reflects off of the vast ocean waters in front of
me, and, despite its blinding qualities, it is mesmerizing. I do not blink at all, for fear I will miss a
single second of the sight that is far too beautiful for words: something beyond mere mortal
comprehension.

Now, almost as quickly as it had begun, it fades away before ceasing. The moment in time
connecting the opposites night and day is gone. The sky shines clear and blue and the coolness of
the night before vanishes. The day has brought its life and night has been chased away under its
vanishing horizon to bring darkness and mystery to the rest of the world, before making its return.
As I grab my board and head for the ocean, the wholeness of day and with it, reality returns. I
face it with excitement, regardless of the unknowns because this one thing I know with certainty.
Tomorrow, that marker in the space of time will return and once again I know I will be awed and
captivated by a secret known only to those who fail to take it for granted and remain humbled by
it.

An ocean sunrise, tranquility at its best.

Washington Square
Ben Carr, Pennsylvania, United States – Age 18. First published July 1, 2003

A cigarette butt lies next to my foot, still emitting a trace of smoke. Nearby on the dusty
asphalt a pigeon waddles self-consciously, bobbing its head as if pecking the air for some invisible
food. A squirrel churrs a threat to his brother, challenging him to romp.

The walkway before me never becomes silent. A buzz of voices blends with the city
soundscape of cars driving and trucks backing, swingsets squealing and sparrows chirping. A
toddler, holding tightly to his sister’s stroller, yells “Achtung! Achtung! Achtung!” at a squirrel that
crosses two inches from his foot. His mother comforts him, in German. A man sits down on the
bench across from me, eyelids dropping on his creased red face as he stirs his cup of coffee.

The bench I sit on is green, painted over years of dents and names scratched in wood. My
backpack sits to my left with its main zipper opened just wide enough for me to extract my
notebook and pen. At my right is my suitcase. Its pockets are crammed full like the subway this
morning, barely room left to breathe, creaking and complaining of the overburdening load.

The subway. A couple of hours ago it brought me here, and soon, I will hike the blocks back
to the station, shoulder chafing from the suitcase, and it will bring me to the train station. I’m
going home today.

At home, the mountain overshadows our farm in the same way that the thirty-story
apartment building a block north overshadows this park. They both recede as they rise, shadowed
places standing out against sunlit sides, seeming to hold themselves back from too much
involvement with their surroundings. This building stands behind a wall of brick rowhouses like
the low hill of alfalfa fields blocks a view of the lower reaches of the mountain.

The rowhouses’ potentially beautiful façade is marred by rusty air-conditioner units and a
high trim of metalwork, corroded to a bright green, contrasting with the clean brick and the white
window frames. Trees obscure my vision slightly, holding onto their last few dirty-brown leaves.
A puff of air, cool enough to make you shiver but too warm for a jacket, rustles them.

Strains of harmonica waft from the park bench opposite me. A street musician of sorts has
opened for business, a blue-green flowerpot at his feet. His nearly empty bag is next to him on
the bench, surrounded by his array of harmonicas. A contented Labrador Retriever disinterestedly
glances toward him, not missing of beat of his lazy gait. “Swing low, sweet chariot…” The man
plays each line of music, then sings it. “Coming for to carry me home…”

Two benches to his left, a couple of students eat their lunch. One feeds pigeons that strut
in a semicircle around his feet. A sudden crash from a nearby construction site sends every pigeon
in the park into flight. Their wings create more noise than the blast that scared them.

A lady sits down next to me, lighting up a cigarette. The noxious gray fumes begin to flow
from its burning tip. I think it’s time to leave.
You’re All You’ve Got
Brenna Durkin, United States. First published April 1, 2001

In middle school I’ve learned many things, but the two most basic are you have no friends,
and life’s not fair. Don’t even try to say I’m wrong, because I know. You may think that you have
a friend, maybe one you’ve known since kindergarten, but eventually you split up and never talk
to one another again. Of course no one will admit this but it’s true. When I say that life’s not fair,
that’s because it’s not! In middle school you get dealt a bad hand, and there’s no way out.

Being in middle school is like being a lemming in a cage. The lemmings follow each other,
and are trapped; there’s no way to get away from it. No matter how hard you try to get away
from the other lemmings it never works. Friends are like lemmings, who follow the head lemming.
As soon as they find someone better, a faster better-looking lemming they totally forget about
you. Many times you think this person, or people, will be there to confide in forever and would
always have a shoulder for you to cry on. Then one day your best friend finds a more perfect
lemming and slowly begins to drift away from you. Slowly at first, then faster and faster until one
day you look up and you’re alone. Then you begin to think, and you realize, they weren’t really
my friends in the first place. You’re alone, alone, alone, and there’s no one to pick you up when
you fall.

This is because life’s not fair. In a way you’ve always known that because you didn’t always
get the color Popsicle you wanted, but now its because of real things. Life’s not fair because you
don’t get along with your family, and they cut you down and insult you all the time. Life’s not fair
because your so-called friends betray you and there’s no one to turn to, and whenever you have
a bad day there’s really no one to turn to. Life’s not fair because after missing the bus, failing a
test, getting a referral and pulling a muscle you still have to go home, do three hours of homework,
take out the trash and listen to a lecture from your parents. Life’s not fair because many times
you feel like no one loves you and feel as if you can’t go on.

I may sound like I’m whining and complaining, but that’s because I am. I’ve learned that
sometimes, well a lot of times, whining and complaining make you feel better. Most of the time
you get yourself nothing except people sick of and mad at you but you feel better. Since you have
no friends and life’s not fair you might as well do things that make you feel better because you’re
the only one you’ve got. I don’t know if it will stay that way forever, I sure hope it doesn’t, but if
it does then at least I learned two important things in middle school, and I know I will remember
them always, true or not.

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