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Education Week Short Story Contest Winner: 'Twenty-Six'

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'Tis the season when literary experts everywhere name the best books of the year. Among the fiction, nonfiction, children's, and YA books on end-of-year reading lists, The Wall Street Journal puts children's fiction such as Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo (Candlewick Press) in their top books for 2016; the children's book editor of The New York Times Book Review suggests picks for K-12 readers; and authors and teachers shared favorite children's books picks for holiday gifts with The Guardian. But we have another story pick to add: the winner of Education Week's first short story contest.

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In November, as part of National Novel Writing Month (also known as NaNoWriMo), we invited educators and students to send us their short stories. We looked for submissions of fresh, original fiction that made us laugh, cry, or think, with one requirement: The story had to somehow tie in education.

The winning entry was submitted by Marit Rogne, a fiscal analyst at the New Mexico Legislative Education Study Committee in Santa Fe, N.M.  She is a former 8th grade language arts teacher and has worked as a textbook content editor, a film critic, and a poet. We were caught up in the story's vivid descriptions and the bittersweet tension of a young student using the power of writing to deal with loss for the first time.

Read the full story—and keep your eye out for future writing contests.

Twenty-Six

Hannah closed her eyes and tried to imagine it. Nothing. Just—nothing. Emptiness, space, infinity. She tried to subtract everything: the moonlight, the bedroom, her pencil, her diary. She couldn't. The moment she thought she really understood it, this nothing, this space before man or even God, something would sneak into her mind and ruin it. 

She opened her eyes. Slowly her room took shape, grey outlines in puddles of liquid black. She counted the pages in her diary that only had a date written in the top right-hand corner. Twenty-four. And the page before all the blank pages read only: Today, Charlie had an accident. Twenty-five.

Propping her pillows up behind her back, she imagined she was inside of a plane cabin, getting ready for takeoff, like she would be in a few days. A month ago at the dinner table, Hannah's father put down his fork and announced the whole family was going to Europe the day after school let out. He said things had gotten far too grim around here.

She slid out of bed, shivering in her thin nightgown. She walked slowly around her room, trying to look at each object as if she'd never seen it before. Sometimes when Hannah was bored in class, she would try to look at her classmates as if she didn't know their names, to see them without words. It was important to just look sometimes. Picking up a porcelain doll from her dresser, she ran her fingers across an almost imperceptible crack on its right cheek. When she was eight and Charlie was six, he had stolen it from her room and ran through the house until it dropped on the floor and its head cracked open. 

"You act like you're my brother," she had screamed at him. From her kitchen window she had watched him in his living room, crying on his mother's lap. His mother rubbed his back as he sobbed, her hand moving slowly up and down his spine. She remembered leaving her father to glue the doll back together, running across the thin splice of lawn separating their houses and through the front door. She remembered kneeling by the couch and patting his ankle, then rubbing the fabric of his corduroys between her thumb and forefinger.

"It's okay," she said over and over. "It's okay."

She pressed her fingertips on either side of the bridge of the doll's nose, closing its eyes manually. With its pale smooth skin and overly red lips and cheeks, the sleeping doll reminded her of Charlie, lying in his box of silk with makeup on his face. Her mother told her that they did this to try and make the deceased look like they did when they were alive, but Hannah thought it made Charlie look almost unrecognizable. The blush did not replicate the way his cheeks flushed when they were racing through their backyards and his lips turned purple, not red, when cold. 

She remembered placing her hand on his sallow forehead, feeling the coldness seep through her open palm. Quickly, she wiped her hand across his cheek, removing some of the blush in the process. She moved to his other cheek, but her mother stepped forward, pulling her hand away. Her mother marched her to the bathroom, where she stuck Hannah's hand under the faucet. Hannah watched the tan base and pinkish blush swirl together, then slide down the drain.

The wind settled and the sound of the crickets thickening the swamp just outside filled the night air. She moved to the window and leaned out slightly, her eyes wide in concentration. The crickets sounded like they were shouting at each other without waiting for a response, their voices overlapping. The loneliness was almost deafening.

Once, Charlie captured a cricket in one of those little netted boxes. Hannah remembered standing on Charlie's front porch, examining the imprisoned bug. The cricket sat at the bottom of the cage in a corner, trying to make itself small as possible. 

"Why isn't he hopping around anymore?" Charlie asked.

"He's going to die if you keep him in there much longer," Hannah replied. But, of course, Charlie named him, tried to teach him to chirp in time with campfire songs, and Mr. Crick was dead by morning.

"We should give him a funeral," Hannah had suggested as they sat on his front steps, looking at the motionless Mr. Crick lying against the netting. Charlie considered this and then shook his head.

"We don't need to," Charlie had said, holding out his closed fist so Hannah could see it clearly as he opened his hand, revealing a corroded penny. "I say we go to the swamp and throw it in."

"Why?"

"So we can make a wish. This is a lucky penny, I found it on the sidewalk," Charlie replied, and Hannah followed him through the woods behind his house to the swamp that bordered her backyard.

Even though she could still see their neighborhood through the trees behind them, looking toward the swamp she could see nothing but cattails and tall, waving grasses. They parted the reeds and touched their feet to the soggy ground beyond it, coated in a thin layer of algae and clover. They could hardly make out where the ground ended and the water began.

Charlie rubbed the penny between his thumb and index finger, and then brought it to his mouth, almost kissing it. He closed his eyes for a brief moment and tossed the penny beyond the reeds. The penny entered the water with a plop. When it broke the surface tension the algae separated, making a little circle in the water at the point of entry.

Charlie turned around and tiptoed across the damp ground. He began to run, so fast Hannah could barely keep up. Her feet sunk into the moist ground with each step, while Charlie seemed to glide over the surface. When they reached Charlie's backyard, he accelerated into a full-on sprint until he arrived at the front porch. Hannah, slowing to a walking pace, sauntered over to the front porch. Charlie was in the same position he'd been in the morning, kneeling over the cricket cage, tears cleaning trails through the dirt.

"It didn't work," Charlie had said, his face crumpling inward, "It didn't work." 

*

The next morning her mother took her grocery shopping so they would have snacks to bring on the airplane. Hannah wound her fingers around the cool metal bars of the shopping cart, watching her mother as she scanned her list.

"Do you want to help me pick out some juice boxes?" her mother asked. Hannah looked up at her mother, smiling down at her from behind her thick bifocals. When she was a little girl, she'd loved running her finger across the tiny line in the middle of the glass. She used to make glasses for herself out of pipe cleaners, complete with a bifocal line. 

"Sure," Hannah replied, taking her mother's offered hand.

"I thought you hated apple juice," her mother said, as she examined Hannah's choices. Hannah surreptitiously bit into her nail bed, concentrating on peeling away the dead skin in a neat line. She remembered the way Charlie used to drink gallons of apple juice on those hot summer days. Her mother bit her lower lip and began to push the cart forward. 

"Will you teach me how to pick out the perfect tomato?" Hannah asked. Her mother glanced down the aisle at the produce section behind them. Small sprinklers at the top of the shelves sprayed thin layers of water across the fruits and vegetables.

"We don't need any tomatoes, but we do need apples," Hannah's mother replied as she turned the cart around. They walked over to the apple display, a large wooden box divided up into different sections for each type of apple. The apples were displayed on a ramp so you could see the ones at the top and the bottom equally. Hannah decided she wanted golden delicious apples because she liked the name best. She watched a line of ants on the ground, crowded around a smashed strawberry.

"First, you pick up an apple that's the size you want and inspect it for spots," her mother began, but Hannah could only concentrate on the ants beneath her feet, carrying almost indistinguishable bits of strawberry over their head, one after another.

Even though Hannah could barely see the pieces of food they were carrying, she'd learned in school that they could carry more than twice their body weight in food. An invisible burden that was twice as heavy as they were, and this was all Hannah had ever seen them do: walk back and forth, carrying food.

Her mother stepped closer to the apples, reaching for a clear plastic bag to put them in. Hannah held up her hands in alarm and gently guided her mother away from the line of ants.

"Be careful," Hannah whispered.

Hannah carefully ran her fingers over the metal belt buckle as she peered out the plane window. She glanced at the stewardess standing in the middle of the aisle going over the safety procedures and then looked back outside. After drumming her fingers on her lap for a minute, she bent over and pulled her backpack out from the seat in front of her. She pulled out her diary and a pen and wrote the date in the upper right hand corner of the first blank page. Hannah paused. Then she closed the diary and put it away, as she had now 26 times.

"What's wrong?" Her mother asked from the seat next to her. Hannah shrugged and turned back toward the window.

Her mother paused for a moment, crossing her hands over the book she was reading before carefully dog-earing the page and closing it. She reached out and touched the back of her hand to Hannah's cheek. "I love you," she said.

"I love you too, Mom," Hannah replied and turned back toward the window. The plane was beginning to move slowly down the runway. Hannah watched as the airport buildings became more and more of a blur as the plane sped up. She felt a small jolt beneath her seat as the wheels lifted from the ground, and her head pressed back in her seat as the nose of the plane lifted upwards. Turning toward the window, she felt for her mother's hand and squeezed it, gently. She felt lighter somehow, like she left half her body weight behind in the airport.

Touching the diary in her lap and thumbing the blank pages, she thought of the pages with only a date at the top. They weren't blank pages, she realized, just the act of writing the date, the day simply passing by, had changed that. Out the window, the control tower below grew smaller and smaller, like a penny disappearing into the water. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, feeling the plane moving her body through the darkness, and made a wish. Even though they sometimes don't come true.

Again, she opened her diary. I've been stuck, she wrote. I've been stuck without words somewhere inside of myself I don't know how to describe. I've always been a writer and then Charlie died and, just like that, I wasn't. I always thought I was a good student and could find the way forward and just like that, I couldn't. Hannah felt tears spring to her eyes, and, just like that, she had it.

Maybe if I write things exactly as they are I can make meaning of the meaningless. Maybe that's enough. Maybe not, but maybe it's a start, she wrote. 

The plane rocked gently as it continued its ascent, but Hannah didn't even notice the turbulence because she was writing. She didn't even need her tray table; she bent over her lap like a prayer, scribbling words without warning. Even though it had been a long walk to water and not a miracle at all, she still felt it. 

Twenty-six.

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