Learncurious is proud to introduce
the winning authors for the third annual competition for the




Phyliss J. McCarthy Scholarship
for
Excellence in Writing
2022
 

First Prize

Emily Wang

Runners Up

Emma Boerm

Baileigh Borna

Thank you and congratulations to our 2022 prizewinners! 

Winning entries are featured below along with three honorable mentions our committee wants to recognize

EMILY 

WANG

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Grand Prize Winner

Class of 2023

Prompt: Wacky

Complete the 11 Mad-Lib-style fill-in-the-blanks below, then craft a poem that includes both a secret message* as well as each of your chosen words at least once (in no particular order):

___ (something inherited)  

___ (item found on a nature hike)

___ (random word you like the sound of)

___ (flowering plant)

___ (something comforting)

___ (color)

___ (type of body of water)

___ (animal)

___ (place that inspires nostalgia)

___ (character from mythology or folklore)

___ (something unfinished)

*Secret message hint: 

 

The secret message is the first letter of every non-indented line put together, disregarding punctuation and capitalization. 

Dedication

To every beautiful moment that we must cherish out loud, and to the people who are unafraid to do so.

Bio: 

Emily is a driven student, voracious reader, loving friend and daughter, and (of course) avid writer. She has written short stories and poetry for as long as she can remember, and is deeply in love with the powerful malleability of the written word. Besides writing, she is a Key Club and Red Cross volunteer, and is heavily invested in the biological sciences. Above all, Emily's passion to inspire and be inspired drives her outlook on life.

Notes from Emily: 

I am so incredibly honored to have my work be showcased in this way. Reading my fellow finalists' works and seeing my poem on the website itself has made me even more driven to continue writing, exploring, and creating.

Notes from LearnCurious:

A round of applause for our first mixed-genre poetry submission! What a creative expression of talent, Emily ~ we're honored to feature your work. 

 

I only require you to listen.


Can you enter this realm of new words with an open mind?
And treat each line of lovingly penned poetry the same?
Never assuming a truth without the words saying so?


See, writing is how we poets reveal our intimate truths to the world.
Harken well, grant merely a few reflective moments, and you’ll witness
all the dreams and wit and misfortunes and ideals of a poet
kept bound together into one collection of words,
entire stories brimming behind letters that you must stop to observe.


Obviously, each poet proffers their craft in a distinct package,
framed in humor, in narrative, in fact, in rhyme, in meter;
For poetry is a shapeshifting beast of many aims. Observe.


Enter first the loosely expressed wild wolf of free verse:
Vying for non-conformity, breaking through the smothering collar of traditionality,

endlessly long lines that flow on like infinite cerulean creeks without regard for the comfortable
      embrace of grammar that in truth squeezes. binds. shackles. chains. raw expression, or
      lines that are


really short.


Yet structure and rhyme have been proven by time
to elevate each line with a pomp like aged wine:


He flutters, lovesick, strikingly,
In quatrains rhythmical,
No meter absent carelessly,
Good ballads: a dove’s soul.


And now the haiku
Silent crane amid orchids
Its calm beauty soothes


Well, bawdier the better some say,
Real squirrely with humor astray,
Its rhyme is intense,
Though it’s often nonsense,
Enter the limerick, hooray!


More somber is the mournful raven of lament in parts three:
Yearning first for closure in an outpour of eloquent grief,
Second, an admiration for death and the path to be free,
Only third arrives solace, consolation among debris,
Rhythm doesn’t matter; only the subject is guaranteed:
Required to reflect on tragic loss – it’s the elegy


Onto the graceful stag of woodland fair
Watching so careful syllable and rhyme
Slightly faulty, offbeat, here and there
(Do forgive me Shakespeare this one time)


It continues yet another stanza
So something of substance should now be said
And I greatly need topics to think of
Pinecones? Pancakes? Nothing’s in this head


Perhaps I can just use this moment to
Express the effort put into this piece
A creature for each type of poem too?
Real daring implementing it on beat


Mood changes at the volta, a couplet
Yes, this is a sonnet - are we done yet?


Comes gliding forth a chariot, drawn by a steed of the gods–
Oh, the triumphant majesty of this glistening ivory stallion,
Unto the end of time does his golden chariot cease soaring.
Riding mount’d upon, the mighty hero of legends past,
A billowing sea of unknown monsters thither he goes,
Gods bless’d him with uncommon strength akin to Hercules.
Ever so painfully grand reigns the king of myths, the epic.


In slinks a blessedly more succinct and pithy fox
Shrewd is the epigram, for ever so witty he talks


Regrettably, there isn’t capacity here for more
Except this final one: the devoted dog of ode


Beautiful words spill forth about something to adore
Ode to poetry, to this moment, to this unfinished road
Really, though writing this poem is such a chore,
Never will the thrill of having written it get old


And before we achieve the denouement,
Now I seek to pay homage to the greats: Shakespeare and Poe and Dickinson; and the
nostalgic memories from my days spent in the library,
Every inherited word absorbed into my heart and poured out on this page.


For writing is how I, like many others, have spoken to this world.
Reeling from depression, jubilant with triumph, pensive with contemplation, poetry is
an aching relief from the dysphoria of my thoughts.
Never will I forget that writing is where my life began and where it will end,
Keeping me starved for the next time I let another word escape from my pen.

 

   The night pounds uncomfortably in my ears, stars burning too brightly and wind pressing just a bit too hard against my window.
   I close my eyes, begging sleep to come and steady my breathing. But she doesn’t, and I’m left to twist uncomfortably underneath my quilt.
   A knock comes from the door. I assume it’s Bitterness come to pay her nightly round, so I yell “I don’t want to see you tonight!”
   I know I locked the door, but it won’t keep her from coming in. She’ll still find her way to me.
  “Good evening, my dear.” Bitterness’s words are gentle, but her tone says otherwise. Her shirt is buttoned unevenly, pants hardly tucked into her boots. As if she could barely give thought
to her appearance and just wanted to figure out what to be bitter about tonight. “You’ve missed me.”
   “No.”
   Bitterness lets out a sharply honest laugh as her eyes turn hungry. “What are you upset about tonight?”
   I want to ignore her, but it’s as if she pulls the answer right from my throat. “I’m bitter about the state of the world. I’m bitter that I’m stuck here, alone.”
   She nods. “That was good. Now—”
   Another knock comes from the door, saving me from whatever Bitterness was about to say.
   I make my way to it, a light feeling of calmness filling the room once it’s open.
   “Hope.” I haven’t seen her in months. Her gold cloak is ripped, and as she reaches to close the door, I notice her nails are filled with dirt.
   Bitterness scowls at the sight of her. “I thought you were busy fighting Fear.”
   My gaze shoots up to her. “You what?”
   “Leave us.” she says, her eyes turning to Bitterness.
   “You don’t—“
   “Let me talk alone with her.” The aura of calm grows stronger, and Bitterness finally leaves, glaring at Hope as she exits.
   “You invited her over,” she says. It’s phrased like a question, but her tone says otherwise.
   “I didn’t invite her. She let herself in.”
   “As often is the case.” She hangs her cloak on a hook.
   “What are you here for?”
   She looks at me, the brightness of her eyes turning a shade dimmer. “I’ve been visiting Fear.”
   Something curls in my stomach, dark and new. “Is that how your cloak tore? Why your nails are filled with soil?”
   She nods.
   “I locked him away. How did you get in?”
   “He’s getting more hostile, more powerful by the day. You need to do something. He won’t even speak to me.”
   “That’s why I left him there, locked in. Alone.” There’s a touch of acid in my voice, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s my true emotions or a leftover effect from Bitterness.
   It doesn’t matter.
   She lets out a small sigh. “Soon, the locks holding him back will break, and you’ll be forced to deal with the consequences.”
   “You didn’t come here just to bring bad news.”
   A ghost of a smile flickers over her lips. “No. If you appeal to him now, face your greatest fear before he becomes too powerful, you may be able to put an end to it. I’d hoped—”
   “Of course you hoped! You keep hoping. But you won’t change my mind.”
   I expect her to say something sharp in return, but her aura of calm doesn’t even flicker.
   “I know you’ll make the right decision. I won’t be able to come back until then.”
   “Wait!” I want to—need to—ask her what she means. What secrets she’s holding back.
   Only after she’s gone do I realize that her cloak is still hanging on the hook.
   As the usual unease floods back to the room, I know she’s right. I won’t see her until I’ve appealed to him.


                                                                 ♦♦♦♦♦♦


   The morning finally comes, all bright edges and warm beginnings. But I feel none of it.
   Hope’s words keep echoing in the back of my mind.
   Soon, the locks holding him back will break, and you’ll be forced to deal with the consequences.
   I can only imagine what will happen when he escapes. And if Hope couldn’t even hold him back…
   I take a sharp breath. I can’t let him grow that strong.
   Outside, the wind whips the trees, so I slip on Hope’s cloak as I prepare. The fabric is soft and a hint of her calm still remains, quieting my racing thoughts.
   I haven’t seen Fear in years. The last time I did, I was locking him away. He’d been bothering me for too long, making calls at every hour of the day and night. I knew he’d be upset, but this was beyond anything I’d imagined.
   The sun has passed its highest point when I arrive at the metal hatch with its heavy padlock. I spin the dial until it clicks and the lock I’ve used to keep Fear at bay is open.
   The air turns heavy as I begin the descent underground. There’s a gust that whistles in the cracks of the tunnel and flutters my cloak, even though there’s no way the wind above could find its way down here.
   He’s getting more hostile, more powerful by the day…
   Of course. He’s using the wind to get in my mind, unsettle whatever foundation I’ve brought to face him.
   It reminds me why I locked him here.
   The wind grows stronger as I approach the door. He knows I’m here.
   I run my fingers down the soft gold fabric of Hope’s cloak as I reach for the doorknob. This is it. The moment he’s been waiting for.
   The door screeches as I open it, and the storm inside takes my breath away. The wind forms a giant cyclone that fills the room, aimlessly flinging objects I can’t quite see. As I move deeper into the wind, I realize what they are; my old fears. Spiders, vacuums, dozens of things I barely remember being afraid of. I shouldn’t be afraid of them, but as they pound against my cloak, I recall why I was.
   Spiders’ legs move across the wall, bending unnaturally as they reach for their web. I feel several crawling across my arm now, tiny legs sinking into my skin.
   No, no, no. I flinch hard, trying to block him out. The wind grabs my cloak and sends it flying, and any calm I felt at all is ripped to shreds.
   I run after it, deeper into the storm, but it's no use. It's gone.
   He knows how to play this game.
   “Scared, my dear?”
   I know the voice. Bitterness. Her fingers trace down my shoulder.
   “Lost the cloak, I see.”
   “How are you here?”
   She laughs, a broken sound. “You don’t think he works alone, do you?”
   She sweeps back into the wind, gone without another word. A different figure takes her place. His clothes are too big, eye bloodshot.
   “I can see the worry in you. You’re scared,” he says, voice cracking against his throat.
   I pull away. “No, I’m not.” But my voice betrays me. I thought I’d left Anxiety behind years ago, but now he’s here, real as the wind around me.
   His smile droops abnormally. Tears as heavy as the feeling in my bones drip down his face. “It’s okay. Being worried protects you.”
   “Stop it.” Even just being around him makes me want to curl in on myself, to rethink every choice I’ve made up to now. “Stop it.”
   “You won’t be able to defeat him. He’s too strong for you.”
   I feel tears of my own begin to trail down my cheeks. “Go away.”
   He shrugs, moving away. “You know I’m right.”
   I scrub the tears from my face and brace myself as newer fears appear.
   The storm transforms into a college dorm room. I’m staring at my grades, the ‘D’s and ‘F’s outlined on the webpage as bright as the highlighters I’ve used to study.
   But it still wasn’t enough. I’m failing.
   I should’ve worked harder.
   How did I end up like this?

   There’s a knock on the door. They’ve come to evict me.
   I place a hand on the knob and pull the door open, but there’s no one there. I’m in a cemetery now, the air cool against my skin.
   The knob’s gone. Instead there are tombstones, hundreds in neat rows. I need to get out. I already know what’s happening, why I’m here.
   I search for an exit, but there are none. Instead my eyes land on my family’s names, inscribed on stone. They’re sweeping and gentle, nothing like the darkness of funeral attire and broken dreams surrounding me.
   They died in a car wreck.
   From an illness.
   Drowning.
   All scenarios I’m afraid of.
   There’s the sound of screeching metal, heart monitors flatlining, frantic splashing—
   “STOP IT!”
   The cemetery disappears. The storm has died.
   A pair of shined boots stand in front of me, and I know who it is without  looking. Slowly, I meet his gaze. His eyes seem to stare directly into my soul, pulling out every fear I’ve ever had.
   My hands shake. I’m not ready for this. I’ll never be ready for this.
   “You think you can face your greatest fear?” His voice is deep, pulling me down into the furthest depths.
   A “no” scratches against my throat, trying to escape. I swallow it. I didn’t come this far to fail.
   “Yes.”
   He spreads his arms wide. “I’ll let you try, child. Do try not to destroy yourself.”
   With a snap, he's gone and a different person stands in his place. Her eyes are a deep blue, and she fidgets with the hem of her shirt.
   It’s… me.
   I almost laugh. I am not my greatest fear. I get as close as I dare, looking her straight in the eyes. “I’m not afraid of myself.”
   She cocks her head. “Really?” She touches me, and a thousand memories flicker through my mind.
   Looking in the mirror, comparing myself to everyone else.
   Realizing I’d live with the guilt if something happened to my family, even if it wasn’t my fault.
   Editing and editing until my eyes are bleary.

   I stumble away from her. “How—”
   “You’re never going to be that, you know. That good, that smart, that successful.”
   “You don’t know that.”
   “I’m you. Yes, I do.”
   The words cut through my chest. It’s as if the wave I’ve kept at bay for so long has just come crashing into the room and I’m being swept away with it.
   I realize at that moment that she’s right. I am my greatest fear. I’m afraid of others not loving me, afraid of not measuring up, afraid of not getting better. I’m afraid of myself.
   I look at the girl, suddenly understanding why Hope sent me here. “You don’t know what I’ll become. I don’t even know what I’ll become.”
   She opens her mouth to say something, but I keep going before she can.
   “I hope it will be good, but even if it’s not, I’ll figure it out. And you know what? You don’t scare me.
   The wind picks up again, and I shield my face. When I move my hand, the girl is gone.
   Instead, Fear waits in front of me, Hope by his side. Her cloak, newly mended, is back on her shoulders.
   “I’m proud of you,” she says.
   Fear nods, and light explodes in the room. When it dies, he’s changed. His hair is gold, shining in the dim light. The biggest change, though, is the look in his eyes; its soft and determined. Nothing like it was a few minutes ago.
   “Courage,” he says, offering his hand. “It’s been some time, child.”
   It has. I haven’t seen him in years. I shake his hand, and it's as though I’ve just reunited with a long-lost friend. He gives me a smile.
   “Are you ready?”
   I nod. Hope drapes her cloak over my shoulders once more, and together, we walk from the darkness.

EMMA

BOERM

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First Runner Up

Class of 2023

Prompt: Narrative

What are you most afraid of? Reflect on your greatest fear and detail your answer in story form: fiction, biographic, or something in-between. 

Dedication: 

Dedicated to everyone who feels as though they aren’t enough—you are.

Bio:

Emma has been writing for seven years and enjoys reading and singing, along with spending time in the Word. She encourages everyone to try their hand at writing, even if they don’t think it will be good. That’s how everyone starts! She’s extremely grateful for her family for always reading her stories, even the craziest ones.

Notes from Learncurious:

To face your emotions is to have the courage to face yourself.

 
 

BAILEIGH JO

BORNA

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Second Runner Up

Class of 2024

Prompt: Meta

How do you define love? Tell a story or describe an experience & what was learned from it. 

Dedication: 

The story is dedicated to my dear great grandmother, Alma Kathryn  Harrison, my Nana Kate who loved for more than a century.

Bio:

Bailey Borna is a junior at River Ridge High School in Woodstock Georgia. she loves creative writing, especially short dystopian fiction stories. She plays the French horn and trumpet but most enjoys playing the mellophone in her school marching band. Baileigh is very passionate about her volunteer service at a local youth shelter and group home in Metro Atlanta where she is currently peer facilitating a student leadership program with juniors and seniors. Baileigh also loves anything about space, astronomy and the universe. She is fascinated by current space research developments and technologies including the initial images from the James Webb Space Telescope, Space Bubble experiments by the University of Notre Dame on the International Space Station and NASA's drilling into soils on the Moon, Mars, and asteroids. With many interests, Baileigh always has a lot to write about.

Notes from Learncurious:

Lessons of love are among our most precious heirlooms.

L   ve Personified

I picture her life, before I knew her, in black and white, like a 1950s classic television show when women washed dishes in pearls, men wore suits and ties everywhere, and children politely answered, “yes, ma’am and no ma’am.” As the years pass, and the photographs in our family albums turn from black and white to color, I remember how fair and beautifully delicate her skin and hair were and how her blue eyes twinkled. Throughout her 102 years of life, Alma Kathryn, my great grandmother, who I affectionately called Nana Kate, was quintessentially LOVE personified. 


Alma Kathryn Harrison (March 2, 1919 – November 23, 2021)


2008       When we were three


Walking into her bedroom, I stand on tippy toes at the antique dresser reaching for the pink jar of cold cream. I turn to see her lying in bed pretending to read a book, but her eyes are “resting.” She is never “asleep.” She is too proud to ever be “asleep.” I scamper to her bedside, as only a three-year-old can, and I begin my favorite spa facial treatment. 


“Here Nana Kate, let me put this on your face,” I say smearing a much too large clump of beauty cream across her cheek and forehead.” I am concentrating. “There you go. Let me just … ok, I put it here… and here. Oh, so pretty!”


Nana Kate tilts her head back and lets the book she is reading fall gently into her lap, “Oh, boy!” she answers, “You are going to make me beautiful!” I clap my small hands and giggle with excitement.


In 1922, Alma was only three when she first walked into the Episcopal Home for Children in Washington, DC. She was orphaned at a tender age by the death of her mother and the abandonment of her father. 


“When I was your age, I didn’t have a big bed like this,” she says tapping the queen-sized mattress beneath her. She leans her head just a little farther back to accommodate my small arm’s reach and I smear more cream on her face. “We slept in a large room with many beds and the older girls were in charge. If you misbehaved or didn’t go to sleep on time, you were sent to the attic steps. It was cold up there, but the coats were stored in the attic, and we put them on to keep warm. Sometimes, we would sneak down the steps to the kitchen and steal crackers and peanut butter.” Nana Kate pauses with her signature chuckle, “On those nights, we drank milk right out of the big silver canisters. It was being naughty that made it exciting. I don’t know how, but we never got caught!”


“The Home” as she affectionately calls it, is where Alma met her best friend, Doris Turner. Her older siblings, Walter and Dorothy, also lived at The Home but being the same age, she and Doris were inseparable.


The Head Mistress was Ms. Duvall, and she was not popular with the children. Alma thought she was too strict and unfriendly, so she kept her distance. But Ms. Etta, the Matron of the boys, was loving and kind, and Alma thought she smelled like pink roses. From Ms. Etta, Alma learned to be attentive and benevolent to others.


2014       When we were nine


“Eat your breakfast,” Nana Kate says, setting a bowl of cinnamon apple oatmeal on the table next to a buttered English muffin. Lifting my spoon, I push the oatmeal around in the bowl. Then placing the spoon back on the table, I choose the bread. 


“In The Home,” Nana Kate recounts, “we ate oatmeal or corn flakes every morning for breakfast. It was always the same. We made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every day for lunch, and dinner was always a meat, potato, and vegetable with milk. Most of the time, I traded my dinner for Doris’ milk, but I always ate my breakfast!” 


Food was important to Nana Kate. It was her art and how she nurtured us. She put a lot of love into her creamy mashed potatoes. And her sandwiches rivaled no other (she used softened butter on the bread). But food was also a trigger from her past. Growing up, no one ever asked what Alma wanted to eat. She lived through the Great Depression with money scarce to put a meal on the table, and she experienced food rationing during World War II.

 

“You shouldn’t waste food,” Nana Kate gently reminds me. “During the Korean War, your great grandfather was stationed in Guam, his Navy pay was often late and one time we were completely out of food except for one small can of Campbell's tomato soup and a half-eaten sleeve of saltine crackers. I prayed for that check to arrive and luckily it did.” But there were other times throughout her life when she did not eat to ensure that her children could. Alma fiercely loved her family, and she learned to be selfless.


2017       When we were twelve


“Nana Kate, I am starting middle school, but mama says I can’t wear makeup until I’m 13. What do you think of that?” I grin and cut my eyes sideways because I know my mom is listening. 

 

“Well, you have to listen to your mom,” she says definitively. But then chuckling, she decides to confess, “At twelve, Ms. Duvall required all of us girls to wear stockings to school. It didn’t matter if it was hot or cold, Doris and I couldn’t stand them so in the mornings when we walked from The Home to Alice Deal Junior High, we would stop at a gas station to change out of our stockings and into regular socks. Then after school we would stop at the same gas station and put our stockings back on before heading back to The Home. Sometimes on the way back, the other school kids would throw rocks at us shouting ‘orphans!’’ But we would run like crazy, laughing once we were safe inside.” Shrugging one shoulder, she admits, “We didn’t really care, because
what they said was true.”


But when summer came, Alma cared about everything. The Home took all the children to Colonial Beach for the entire summer. Alma thought the wooden house-like structure was primitive with its disgusting outhouse. She also did not like dipping toothbrushes in kerosene and using them to scrub the mattress seams to get rid of bed bugs. But Alma never let these small discomforts keep her from enjoying what she loved most, and she absolutely loved being at the beach where she could swim, rowboat, and go crabbing. Alma learned to appreciate hard work and she savored the enjoyment of life’s truly good moments. 


2019       When we were fourteen


When Alma’s brother and sister aged out of The Home, they left her behind. Then at age 14, Alma went back to live with her father, but he still neglected to care for her. During senior year, Alma’s father announced his plans to buy a house with Miss Ruth, informing her that she could no longer live with them. Distressed, Alma moved out. Although her sister could not take her in, Walter and his wife welcomed her on the conditions that she get a job, pay rent, and promise to graduate from high school.


“Nana Kate, wasn’t it hard living in The Home” I ask, already knowing her answer. 


“We didn’t know any different. It’s just the way things were.” she replies while brushing my hair and gently tucking a loose strand behind my ear.


“Aren’t you mad at your father? He abandoned you!” My 14-year-old brain just cannot wrap my head around his unwillingness to parent.


“My father did the best he could. Back then he just couldn’t care for three small children on his own,” She explains it to me as if a father giving his children away to strangers is the most natural and acceptable response to the death of their mother. And even though I do not agree, I am struck by her ability to keep anger from filling her mind and her heart. I am in awe of her genuine ability to forgive her father and live beyond all the challenges that his actions have caused her. Nana Kate seeks to see the best in people, and this means she will always see the best in me. Her love and goodness help me learn to be a more forgiving person.


2020       When we were teenagers


“So, who is this boy that keeps texting?” Nana Kate asks matter-of-factly as we float around the swimming pool together. She never feels the need to beat around the bush when she wants to know something and being at the beach seems to empower her even more.

 

“How do you know it’s a boy?” I intentionally deflect the real question.

 
“Oh, I remember that smile,” she mockingly chides. “There was a time when I was a teenager too. I wasn’t always a hundred years old!” That chuckle of hers is so disarming. “I was only seventeen when my brother set me up on a blind date with Joe. I had that same smile on my face when he called for a second date. And he was pretty easy on the eyes too.” 


“Pictures don’t lie!” I proclaim. “Everyone knows that Papa was movie star handsome!” But Nana Kate is still. Her thoughts are drifting into the memories that she once shared with a man whom she deeply loved and lost in another lifetime.


Without her father’s permission, Alma had to wait until she was twenty-one to marry Joe. But when the day came, she wore a blue suit that matched her eyes, and he wore a navy uniform and they exchanged vows before a Justice of the Peace. One year later they had a daughter and then a son. Joe was called back to the Navy during World War II. Two years passed and when he finally came home, his son did not recognize him. Joe was called back a third time to serve in the Korean War, and Alma gave birth to another son just nine months after he returned home. Alma loved married life and she learned that she could be a good mother even though she never really knew her own. 


2021       When we said goodbye


“I’m so sorry girls,” my Nana Jo says over the phone. “Your dear Nana Kate passed away tonight.” 


“We are on our way,” my mom replies with tears streaming down her face.


Arriving at the house, we learn that Nana Kate took her last breath before collapsing into her daughter’s arms. She passed instantly, without pain, suffering, or any warning. I try to go upstairs to say goodbye, but it’s just too overwhelming.

 

After the coroner takes her from us, I stay by my Nana Jo’s side. Yes, it is true that she was 102and she lived a long and full life, but she was the heart of our family and the steward of its love. On her 100th birthday, in a video recording Alma says, “When the entire family gets together, we are all such a happy group and I feel so blessed that they love each other so much and that’s my favorite thing. The love. It’s everything.” 


Certainly, at three-years-old and living in The Home, Alma could never have imagined that she would one day create such a large and loving family. I believe Maya Angelou captured the true essence of Alma’s LOVE in these words, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” For more than a century, Alma persevered to make me, and four generations of our family feel loved and nurtured in a most remarkable way. My Nana Kate was, and will forever be, LOVE, perfectly personified.

Thank you and congratulations to our 2022 prizewinners! 


Phyliss J. McCarthy Scholarship
for
Excellence in Writing
2022
 

Honorable Mentions

Mackenzie Hall

wacky prompt:

The Giant and the Boy

Brian Voetberg

narrative prompt:

untitled

Mingyan Liu

meta prompt:

A Ghost Story

MH - hmw.jpeg
BV - hmn.jpg
myl - hmm.jpg

Mackenzie Hall

 

wacky prompt hint:

 

"My hidden message can easily be found. It is a vignere cipher with a codeword of 'chivalry'. It may require some time to decode; however, I believe that the quote by Charles Kingsley it contains is well worth the effort."

The Giant and the Boy—
a Ballad of Chivalry


Along the shores of Everfar, in land of Chivalry
Where Neptune meets his mother’s sand with crashing waves of foam,
There oft once lived in scattered huts the fishing folk of old;
And therein one doth dwell a sire, aged in his home.


If thou, my reader, dare as I to pierce his hovel low,
Then sit to learn of far off days when courage measured men.
He will recall the days of yore—the days that then once were—
When knights wouldst oft go roam the land, and brave foul terrors grim.


Sit at his feet, and tarry long. Ask him to tell the tales
Of shining blade, and noble maid, and heroes that once lived.
Then list to him recall the story that nevermore will thrive,
A vision of bold chivalry and honor never failed…


The moon shone down upon the wold, a gentle, liquid glow.
Each hill of gray was still and pale—but one! It held a spark.
A lonely house, slumped down with age, lay just beside a road.
A fire from a window shone, gold chasing back the dark.


“You cannot go,” a man reproached, “that road gives naught but death.”
So spake he to the ragged youth who knelt beside the hearth,
Unlikely travelers, one a bard, the other just a youth.
Both sheltered there and hoped to sleep before they ventured forth.


“Upon the morrow,” said the lad, “I shall have slain the beast.”
“With what?” the minstrel asked with scorn. “And why tempt fate at all?
“You quest to kill a giant, who has never yet been harmed,
“And if you risk this fight, be sure a heavy doom will fall—”


“But not on me!” burst out the boy. His eyes flashed vexedly.
I am beholden to my liege and lady both to stand.
“For by my troth, the beast will die—and by my hand,” he said.
“Though lowly born, I canst but seek to free my master’s land.”


As though a raging tempest swirled within his burning soul,
He sprang upon his feet and paced the room with energy.
The minstrel nursed a secret smile, gazing at the youth.
“Thy courage is a noble trait. I tell you verily.”


The boy, abated somewhat, sat again before the bard
And asked him whence the giant lived and whether he was near.
“If thou art set upon this quest,” the minstrel said at length,
“I fain would know the reason why you still have persevered.”


“Twas but a month since home I left and sought the giant’s lair.”
He came upon my lordship’s land and plundered all its wealth.
As wolves descend upon the fold, he robbed our happy land.
Despair has gripped my master’s heart, and drained him of his health.”


“No man has dared the giant’s wrath, and so alone I seek
The place he dwells, that I might cast his evil from all sight.”
So spoke the lad with tightened fists. It was enow to prove
Though vile born, his heart was worth the mettle of a knight.


Well said, fine sir,” the minstrel said, and cast aside his cloak.
The room was shook with thunder as the greybeard took his stand.
The lad stepped back as silver light throughout the room was cast.
“I call thee not a boy,” said he, “for thou are now a man!”


“A full night’s march would lead you hence to where the giant dwells.
“If thou art ready, you might go and reach him in the morn,
“But if you might, I beg you hold, and list to what I say,
For wisdom may be greater strength than just that in your arms.”


“I am the last of all my line, a wizard of this wold,
“And thou hast come in haste to topple down the giant’s throne,
“But caution wouldst behoove you yet, if still you wish to win.”
Then holding out his withered hand, he gave the boy a stone.


“You boldly left all kith and kin, pursuing what was right.
“Now take this stone, twill serve you well when last the battle comes.
“Your chivalry shall serve far more than any spear or sword.”
Then lightning flashed, and he was gone. The youth stood still and dumb.


Clasped in his hand there lay the stone, plain and dull and grey.
He felt a sudden thrill arising deep within his breast.
Strength filled his limbs, exhaustion fled, forthwith he left the house,
And down the road his steps quick led to victory or death!


Fair Phoebus dawned with little light. The clouds all masked the day.
But still the boy with dogged faith kept fast upon his quest.
Across the wold he journeyed swift, his goal was now in sight.
The giant’s tower rose like a knife, the final deadly test.


At last he stood upon the hill where stood the giant’s home.
It loomed above the gloomy moor, vain in its pride and power.
It seemed to trickle rottenly a sense of fear and gloom.
A lonely sign with blackened script was nailed upon the tower.


Face me, ye weaklings if ye dare, and so you will be crushed,
Or turn like cowards, fly away, perhaps you shall survive.
But mark these words, you of bold hopes, who seek heroic deeds:
Of all the men who fought me here, none now remain alive.


A scornful laugh was all the thought the youth gave to the sign.
He shouted out his challenge to the giant of the wold.
A battle to the death, was what the youth had come to find.
Long quiet answered, then the doorway opened with a groan.


Forth strode the giant, full twelve feet. His hands could crush raw stone.
A moving mountain, on he came to meet the challenge sent.
He held a sword and bore a shield, each twice the size of man’s,
He wore no helm, but felt no fear. With joyful wrath he went.


The monster stopped, though, when he saw the challenger’s slight frame.
“Are ye alone, a stripling boy?” he laughed as at a jest,
And here, alas, the boy could feel his fear like keening wind
Investing him with doubts that weighed like iron in his breast.


In fear he clenched his hands and felt the surface of the stone.
What could it do against this creature? What left but now to run?
What could he do against such strength? Was all to end in grief?
But then he heard the wizard’s words: “for thou are now a man!”


He lifted up his voice and spoke. His voice was clear and stern.
“I come to you in challenge, monster. Face me if you dare!”
The giant roared and charged the boy, who stood as still he could.
He felt his fear, but knew his duty—this he had to bear.


The cloudy sky broke all at once into its golden life.
The sun smote through in radiance to light the battlefield.
The youth leaned back—the stone let fly! His die was cast in hope
Though faced with death he still stood firm. He knew he could not yield!


The world stood still, as like a flame the stone flashed through the air.
It burned with noble fury at the evil ‘neath the sun.
Fueled by a soul of chivalry, it struck! The giant reeled.
And with a stone lodged in his head he toppled back in ruin.


Along the shores of Everfar, in land of Chivalry
Where Neptune meets his mother’s sand with crashing waves of foam,
There oft once lived in scattered huts the fishing folk of old;
And therein one doth dwell a sire, aged in his home.


And he remembers every tale of courage well upheld.
Though dangers rise and fear assail, mark well this truth that holds:
There is no age, no night too dark, that shall not end with hope,
And chivalry will always find its home among the bold!

Brian Voetberg

narrative prompt:

untitled

1:00 AM.


   Five teenagers stalked through the hallways of an old factory, gathering around the carcass of a decrepit harvester. The leader of the group pulled a ouija board from his backpack, placing it on the ground.
   “Why do we have to be in a factory?” The smallest of the group asks the leader. “I’m not saying your idea isn’t interesting, Zack, but this seems overkill.”
   “Oh come on, Tucker. You’re always wimping out on us.” The leader, Zack, says.
   “Ouija boards aren’t something you should mess with… Especially not in an abandoned factory.” Tucker mutters under his breath.
   Another kid joins in, pointing a finger at Zack. “You know Zack, Tucker has a point. Those things are wild.”
   “It’s just a piece of cardboard! You’ve heard the crazy stories, John!” Zack responds. “Do you really think those are true?”
   “That’s what we’re going to find out.” John answers. “Worst thing that happens, something eats Gregory.”
   One of the other kids exclaims loudly. He was tall, but extremely skinny. “I’d be eaten last for obvious reasons. Henry would be eaten first.”
   “It would take them a day to chew through this.” The fifth kid, Henry, laughs as he slaps his thigh. He wasn’t as tall as Zack, but he was wider. Not in the out-of-shape type wide, but in the bodybuilder-type wide, where you appear out-of-shape from a distance until people realize that you’re covered in muscle.
   Zack sat on the ground. “Well, we found the spookiest spot, let’s start!”
   As Zack sets up the board, the other boys begin pulling various items from their backpacks. With mock reverence, Gregory and John placed candles around the board like cultists decorating an altar. Henry and Tucker share amused glances.
   Right before they all sat down, Tucker warned his friends. “So, first of all, this is a stupid idea. These boards do things no one can explain. So if any of you die, I was the guy who told you all not to mess with it.”
   “Blah, blah, blah…” Zack said as he put his hands on the planchette, the device that points to a letter or number on the board. “Who’s gonna go with me?”
   “I will.” Henry said, kneeling next to Zack.
   Once the boys placed their hands on the planchette, Tucker opened a notebook from his backpack, a pencil clutched in his hands. The other two boys, Gregory and John, leaned eagerly over his shoulders.
   Tucker then nodded to Zack and Henry, who were looking at him like athletes waiting for the ref to start a game. “We’re all set.”
  “What should we ask it first?” Henry asked, looking at Zack curiously.
Zack scoffed. “Dude, we have to find ‘it’ first. Then we can wonder about what we’re going to say to it.”
   With a nod to Zack, Henry turned back to the board and asked, “is anyone there?”
   The boys watched with wonder, expecting the planchette to start flying from left to right at any moment, but nothing happened.
   “Well, this is underwhelming.” Zack groaned. “I told you guys, it’s just a piece of cardboard.”
   Henry put his head closer to the board. “Hello? Scary dead things? Anyone?”
   “Yeah, come on, are you guys scared or something? Scared of a bunch of high-schoolers?” Zack taunted the board.
   “Did we scare the ghosts? ……booooooooh!” Henry mocked.
   The planchette shot quickly to the letters ‘N’ and ‘O’. “No.”
  Zack and Henry stopped their laughing immediately, completely transfixed on the board.
   “Well, that’s a start..” Zack muttered.
   “Apologize,” The board spelled.
   Henry started to giggle awkwardly. “I thought these boards only responded when we asked questions?”
   John now had a fearful expression on his face instead of his curious one. “Guys, apologize already!”
  “We’re sorry, ghost man.” Zack said, as sincerely as a scared highschooler could sound.
   “We didn’t mean to hurt your ghost feelings.”
   “Yeah, I’m sorry!” Henry added, his tone much more half-hearted.
    Zack looked at his friends. “What do we do now?”
  Tucker shrugged. John’s face was still scared, and Gregory was rubbing his chin, as if absorbed in thought.
   “Maybe ask it about itself? Show that you’re just trying to learn about it?” Gregory suggested, raising a finger in the air.
   Henry nodded, speaking to the board. “Who are you?”
   Nothing happened. Henry started to whistle and look around, like he was bored, and Zack and Gregory stopped focusing on the board and turned to talk to each other.
   “You know what, this is boring.” Gregory said. “Tucker, how were you ever scared of this?”
   “Yeah, this stuff wouldn’t scare a baby.” Zack added. “We scared the ghost more than it scared us.”
   John shook his head. “Don’t taunt it, man…”
   “What? Is it gonna spell us to death?” Henry snorted.
   “Hahaha.” The planchette started bouncing back and forth from the letters ‘H’ and ‘A’.
   “Henry, you’re so fun.”
   Henry gulped. “Ok, that’s a bit weird.”
   “Do you want to play a game, Henry?”
   The candles suddenly dimmed, and the boys all huddled closer together. Henry had broken out in sweat, and Zack’s joking attitude was gone. John was so freaked out that he was shaking.
   “What…. What.. game..?” Henry stuttered out, terrified.
   “Hide and seek.”
   The boys were petrified.
   “Screw this! I’m going home!” John jumped to his feet, sprinting away through the factory.
   Zack called back at him. “John! It’s a cardboard rectangle, don’t freak out!”
   All that answered him were the sounds of footsteps fading off into the distance. The planchette, which still had the hands of Henry and Zack on it, started to move again.
   “It looks like the game has started. Ready or not, here I come.”
Henry now was the one running away. The boys all sat still, not wanting to move, until they heard footsteps thundering down the halls, heading towards them. They all darted into the darkness, following Henry.
   “Holy crap! Go!” Gregory screamed, as the footsteps got closer. The boys stuck together, but they were now running away from the dim light that the candle provided.

  Soon, their surroundings were pitch-black, and they were still running as hard as they could. Someone yelped, and there was the sound of someone landing with a thud. Tucker turned around to try to help them, but he couldn’t see his hands in front of his face, let alone find a fallen person. Panic took over when he heard footsteps nearing him, and Tucker turned around and sprinted away from the noise.
   “Hello?” Henry whispered, grabbing the person in front of him. “Is this Gregory?!”
   The person turned, whispering back. “This is Tucker!”
  “I thought you were behind me!” Henry answered back. “Who’s behind m---”
    “Henry?” Tucker asked. “Henry?”
    No response.
  The hair on Tucker’s neck stood straight up. Immediately, he sprinted away, going as fast as he could. Miraculously, he found his way back to the candles, which were the only source of
light, and was even more relieved to see Zack and Gregory sitting down.
   “Where’s Henry? What the heck happened back there?” Gregory immediately asked.
   Tucker pointed back at the darkness. “I was with--- I was with Henry-- and he-- he--”
   “Just talk, man! You sound like you had a stroke!” Zack interrupted.   “Spit it out!”
   Gregory took a step back from Tucker. “Dude, are you ok?”
   “Something-- something--” Tucker tried to talk, but words wouldn’t come out.
   Zack scoffed. Gregory helped his friend sit down, and the three gathered around the board. Tucker started to speak again, when the sound of footsteps coming towards cut him off.
   “Don’t run!” The voice of John called from the darkness. “It’s me, John!”
   Gregory let out a sigh of relief. “I’m glad that you didn’t leave us after all.”
   “I almost did.” John heaved when he came over to them. He was panting hard, and sweat covered his face. “But something inside me said that I couldn’t leave you guys here.”
   Zack groaned. “Bullcrap. You did. Don’t go expecting sympathy from me.”
   John didn’t meet Zack’s stare, but instead went and sat down by the board. Suddenly, he looked up toward the other boys. “Where’d Henry go?”
   “We don’t know…” Tucker answered. “That’s why we’re all still here. We can’t just leave him alone.”
   “Let’s ask the board, then!” John was now extremely panicked. He hadn’t expected his friends to start going missing.
   He moved closer to the board, Zack also moving closer. They placed their hands on the planchette, while Tucker prepared his notebook to transcribe the messages. Gregory was staring eerily at the darkness around them.
   “Where did Henry go?” John asked the board, almost reverently.
The planchette answered immediately. “I found him. He lost the game.”
   Gregory raised an eyebrow. “That’s a big red flag. Let’s get the heck out of here.”
   “I’m not leaving Henry behind. You can leave if you’re scared.” Tucker spat at his friend.
   John screamed angrily at the Ouija board. “Give us our friend back!”
   Now you’re being mean. I don’t play games with mean people. The board responded.
   “Give Henry back!” Zack joined in, screaming at the ouija board.
   Fine. One more chance. Ready or not, here I come.
   “What sort of answer is that!?” Gregory screamed. “Let’s get out of here?”
   “Stop panicking!” Zack yelled.
   A voice from the darkness yelled back at them. “Stop panicking!”
Zack stood straight up, his eyes completely wide. He drew a knife from his pocket.
   “Who’s there? I’ll stab you!”
   “Zack! Why do you have a knife!?” Tucker yelled, backing away from his friend.
   “Zack…. Zack…. Zack…. Come over here….” The voice came from the darkness again, this time in the tone of a little girl.
   Gregory had left sprinting down the hallway. He was lost in the darkness in seconds.
Tucker, John and Zack stood facing the darkness. Zack snarled at the location of the voice. “You’re not scaring me! Come on!!”
   “Ready or not… here I come…” The voice said playfully, and the candles immediately flickered into darkness.
   The sound of Zack's scream filled the air, followed by the sound of a metal object hitting the ground. While this happened, Tucker ran like the wind down the hallway, but he knew he had no clue where he was going. It was just too dark. There was breathing next to him, but he didn’t know if it belonged to John, Zack, or whatever had just attacked them. He ran faster, urging himself forward, and tripped on something. As he hit the ground, he heard something dash past him. It sounded like it was John. The noise stopped, and there was a loud crash.
   “Oh no…” Tucker said under his breath, desperately crawling away.  He couldn’t see anything, but he knew that something was close to him. He could feel the hair on the back of his neck standing up. His back hit a wall, and he made himself as small against it as he could.
   For his entire life, Tucker had been made fun of for being afraid of the dark. But right now, his true fear was revealed. Tucker had never been afraid of the dark. He had been afraid of what lurked in the dark. It was this thought that raced through his mind as he heard footsteps
draw near him. Why did he have to use that Ouija board? These thoughts passed through his mind in an instant. In the next, the darkness took him.

Mingyan Liu

meta prompt:

A Ghost Story

   On the day I met the boy, the ghosts and I were singing the Chinese folk song, 茉莉花, or Jasmine Flower. Some of us sounded like the blowing of a gentle breeze in the autumn night; some of us sounded like a bell, and I sounded like the soft crackles of a fireplace. The harmonious melody of our voices turned into rats being choked to death when we noticed a boy standing at the gate of the graveyard. At first glance, I thought he was another one of us because of how thin and scrawny he was. But the determination and spark in his eyes couldn’t have belonged to any ghost.

   “What is he doing here?” Yuxin, the blacksmith exclaimed. “He’s going to scare away our audience!”

   “Could he be lost?” MeiWei, the baker asked “Where are his parents? He looks like he’s going to fall over.”

   Visits from humans were rare and we argued about this strange new visitor. But the boy just stood there, with his mouth agape in wonder and staring so intently at us that I thought that he could… see us? I voiced my concern to the others, but they brushed it off. That’s impossible, they said. The boy is lost and will probably go back to his house soon. But my curiosity was too strong to ignore, so when the boy slowly slipped out of the graveyard, I trailed behind.

   I could vaguely remember that I grew up in this place, but I didn’t recognize it at all. New kinds of metal machines sped past us on the road instead of carriages; houses filled every bit of open land and stood next to each other in rows, and people poked at the thin, black bricks they carried around in their palms.

   I watched the boy meander down the stone path to the town and make his way to a small wooden house that looked more like a glorified garden shed. As I slithered into the house, the scent of the living immediately closed in on me. I tried to ignore the urge to zip back to the cemetery as the scent grew stronger.     I felt like I was stuffed in three layers of coats on a hot summer day.

   “Hey!” A woman exclaimed from the tattered sofa, she hung up her phone.  “How was your day?”

   The boy held his hands up and gestured something. His face lit up with a small smile.

   “That’s great to hear.” The woman replied. Exhaustion spread over her like molasses, dragging her eyes and her arms down. But she fought with all her strength to smile at the boy and then handed him a cup with dark liquid.

   “Dinner will be ready in one hour, take your medicine and take a nap, okay?”

   The boy gave her a thumbs up and then hugged her. He hopped away from the kitchen and through a small door. In the room, the boy began to dig around in a giant cardboard box. Meanwhile, I floated around, taking the room in. It was clean and organized; a few toys and books were scattered over the desk.  The bed had some soft pillows on it, but nothing else.

   He finally pulled a ragged notebook out from the other junk; perhaps he wanted to do his homework. I thought back to my living days and wondered if I did homework. But my memories were hazy, like corroded old photographs. There was one image I remembered: a boy -- my son -- crying in the closet of his room while I stood outside of his locked doors, saying something about being too busy and that I had to work so our family could be fed.

 I figured I had a family, but no one in the town ever made an altar for me on Qing Ming Jie, the day of the dead; it was a special day when everyone would honor their passed family members by presenting their favorite food at their altars. It always made me a little sad when the other ghosts could enjoy a feast with their family on this holiday while I had to stay at the graveyard.

   With a flourish, the boy wrote something in his notebook and turned it over. On a piece of loose leaf paper, he wrote I can see you.

   “What?” I whispered. I’d never heard of a human that could communicate to a ghost without using some special device. Why was this happening?

   The boy’s shoulders shook with silent laughter when he saw the shock on my face. He flipped to another page and wrote, You have a nice voice.

   “I know!” I grinned with triumph. “Not to brag, I have the best voice in the chorus. But uh...how is this possible? Are you some sort of spirit medium?”

The boy shook his head and shrugged. He scribbled, And how do ghosts work? I thought you guys only existed in fairy tales.

   “Well, you see, child.” I tapped him on his head. “Most spirits go to 地府 (underworld) when they die to get reincarnated, but those who have an especially strong desire or wish that remained unfulfilled on earth must remain here and attempt, against all odds, to fulfill it. It’s really not all that great.” I glanced over his head, and he started to write his response. “How come you are writing everything down?”

   He hovered over his paper for some time, thinking and staring at a black spider crawling his bed, before finally jotting down the words, My lungs are not working because I’m sick. It’s hard to speak.

   “Ah…” I sat down by him on the bed. “I see, sorry.” It must be hard to live without being able to speak,

   It’s ok, it’s not your fault! Maybe we can be ghost friends in the future

   “But you have to have a really strong unfulfilled desire to become a ghost, ”I pondered. “What do you still have to do here on Earth?”

   The boy pointed at the roof above us. Ugly rusted pipes dangled stiffly; water dripped down through the cracks. I grew anxious watching the boy stand under it.

   I want to fix our roof. The boy frowned. My parents spent all of our money on my treatment. I overheard that it will take a total of 45,000 yuan in order to fix it.

   Talking with this boy was the first real interaction I’ve had since I died. Don’t get me wrong, the other ghosts are nice too. It’s just that no one else died in the same time period as me, so there was little we could talk about aside from our song rehearsals. During the 18 years that I spent as a ghost, I’d grown numb to life. But I missed the smell of a rainy day, the scratch of a phonograph record, and the taste of steamed buns. I wished to live again. Although that was impossible to achieve, at least I could still help the boy. Being forced to spend the rest of eternity haunting the hollow caverns of your grave is an awful fate.

   “You know what, I’ll make sure you fulfill your wish and get to reincarnate. Pinkie promise.”

   The boy’s eyes shone with excitement and he scrambled to write Thank you!!

   “Alright, let’s brainstorm. Do you have any ideas?”

   The boy clicked the pen repeatedly, then wrote, we can start a lemonade shop.

   Of course, a kid would think that. I chuckled. “A lemonade stand is a nice thought, but it would take years before we could even get enough money for half of the roof.”

   The boy nodded. What about a car wash?

   “I don’t think your body can handle that much work.”

   You’re right.

   He was unfazed by these first few misses and so we kept scribbling down ideas: cleaning other people’s houses, tutoring students, selling handmade jewelry. These were all nice thoughts, but none seemed likely to work.

   The boy gave a frustrated huff and gestured to the outside. He seemed a bit down, so I figured that getting a breath of fresh air would lift his spirit.

   As we wandered into a plaza, the sense of the living got more and more suffocating. The boy wheezed from exertion so I told him to rest on the bench. When I looked around, there were vendors selling hot dogs, fried rice, people chatting and laughing, and musicians playing well-polished instruments.

   Musicians? Musicians!

   That word lit up my world like a brilliant firework. Why hadn’t I thought of it earlier! All my worries were lifted from my body and I knew exactly what to do. I hovered over the boy and linked a part of my soul to him.

   Suddenly, I could feel the wind blowing against my face and the sunshine touched my skin instead of passing right through it. It has been so long since I tasted fresh air and I gulped down as many breaths as I could. But it was difficult to appreciate being alive again when I felt like my lungs were being compressed by all the living presence next to me.

   Okay, you can do this, I said to myself and placed the boy’s hat in front of him. You’ve performed in front of audiences much larger than this one. Just breathe.

   I closed my eyes and started to sing. When people turned to look, they saw a boy in torn jeans singing in a voice that sounded like a dying fire; the partial link between our souls only allowed a narrow strand of my voice to travel through him. The air grew increasingly heavy and my voice wobbled when the slightest wind blew. This is as far as partial possession could get us. Yet a complete link between our souls would endanger the boy’s health, and that is the last thing I wanted. Still determined, I clenched my fist and sang through the feeling of suffocation.

   And it happened. People started tossing change into the hat. At first it wasn’t much, but soon there was more and more. We were a sensation.

   Later, back in the boy’s room, he rested. That was amazing! He gestured at his notepad wildly. He rolled around in his bed while I sat on the window sill. I smiled. It was wonderful to have an appreciating audience, especially when my singing was also helping him get him what he needed.

   “Let’s see how much you’ve got.”

   The kid scattered the money and coins onto the floor. I helped him organize the spare change and found out we had made almost 200 yuan. It was a small dent in our goal, but it seemed to cheer up the boy; he danced around the room while I laughed. Glancing at the sunlight outside the window, I remembered a moment when my son was joyous like this too. I could see him now in my mind’s eye running through our living room, holding a toy train over his head, and screaming the way only little children can.

   We were excited by our success, but we both knew it would take a lot more work to reach our goal. We traveled back and forth from the town and the house every day. I spent many evenings learning new songs and often worried about the boy’s health. I tried to take care of him as best as I could by reminding him to keep warm and to eat. We watched the green leaves turn into brilliant shades of yellow and red. We trampled around in the snow, and fed the birds that came back to their nests in spring. I learned that his favorite animal was the giraffe because of its long neck. I even managed to learn some sign language!

   When the seasons shifted back to summer, We had raised a little more than 40,000 yuan! The boy was still as bright and optimistic as he was when I first met him, but he was also thin and worn looking.

   “You look really tired.” I asked one night. “Are you all right?” The boy sat on the bench at the plaza. He smiled weakly and nodded before resting his head gently against the back of the bench, falling into sleep. And it was that moment when I realized what I was doing. I felt a twinge of guilt. I’m wearing his body down; I’m killing him. Why hadn’t he said something about this?

   The boy woke up minutes later.

   “Listen-” I began. “Maybe there is another way we can finish raising money for the roof. We only need another 5,000 yuan. You aren’t looking well.”

   The boy frowned and opened his mouth as if he could speak, but his eyes rolled to the back of his head and he fell onto the ground.

   “Somebody help!” I screamed in horror. People swarmed around us and a lady picked up the boy. A child screamed. Finally, a man called for help. There were noises and people rushing here and there. I could only watch as the boy was finally hoisted into an ambulance and driven away. Another memory of my past life flashed before my eyes: my son’s funeral. It was a gray day. The trees were barren. The air was cold and stung my cheeks. I felt like it was me going into the grave instead of my boy. Every breath felt hollow. A careless driver was all it took to end both of our lives.

   At the hospital, the boy had changed into a patient’s gown and he had tubes running into his nose to help him breathe. I paced around the room aimlessly, trying to find something to distract me. I attempted to look at the birds outside the window, but all that I could think about was that another son was going to be taken away from me.

   After some time, the boy slowly opened his eyes. “Thank god you’re okay.” I exclaimed and the boy signed hello back.

   “This was my fault, I don’t know what I was thinking, putting you at risk like that.”

   He found his notepad and his hand shook as he wrote. It’s okay, I am going to die soon.

   The boy’s words chilled me.

   The doctor said... he paused to think before writing, that I have one more week.

   “You should focus on getting better. You should spend the next week with your parents and doing the things you love. We’ll stop the performances for now.”

   The boy shook his head violently. We still don’t have enough money.

   “I know, but you should enjoy your last moments with your family.”

   I can’t die peacefully without knowing my family can be happy, I will never forgive myself! I don’t want to be a ghost. Please.

   We stared at each other in silence. The boy had a point and, after all, I was the one who had turned his back on his family all those years ago. At least the boy had the courage to bring joy to his one last time.

   “Fine.” I sighed “What do you need me to do?”

   A full possession. His eyes were filled with determination. Our last concert in this hospital, one final time.

   I walked over to him, taking a deep breath, before connecting our souls once more. This time, the pain was much greater. I let out a murmur, surprised to hear that our voice was now stable, ready for the performance of a lifetime. I placed the boy’s hat onto the floor. His soul was jittering with nerves and excitement.

   The clear sound of our voice rang through the entire hospital. It punctured the walls. I decided to sing 茉莉花 (Jasmine flower) for our first song, in memory of our first meeting.

   One by one, people stopped in our doorway to look. The boy’s parents gasped at the sight as tears filled their eyes. I could feel the boy’s soul laughing and dancing. I sang all the songs I had learned in the past year, bringing more and more spectators. An old lady cried and another boy stood there in shock. Reporters quietly came by the doorway and recorded us.

   These reporters put us on something called the internet where we quickly became a star. People joined our singing in their own homes, talking about their sorrows and their stories. They joined together to raise money for the boy’s treatment and his illness.

   Yet the boy’s soul got weaker and weaker. When the fourth day came, I was ejected from his soul, a soul that was no longer glowing with joy or dancing. I looked back on the bed. The boy’s breathing slowed and his eyes dropped.

   “Sleep well, buddy” I silently whispered, trying to brush the hair from his eyes. Sorrow gripped me tightly as I slowly drifted out of the room. The hat was filled with money, yet I didn’t feel the same joy that I’d felt at our previous performances.

   When I got out of the hospital, there was no boy to follow me. Once again, it was just me. Trapped forever.

   But then, darkness surrounded me except for a soft light glowing in front of me, radiating warmth. The boy stood inside the light, waving goodbye, and wrapped his arms around my transparent figure in an attempt to hug me. I looked up at him, puzzled. What was happening? The boy smiled and pointed behind my back. There stood my son, staring at me in disbelief. He wore the brand new red shirt I had bought him the day he’d died. His hair was sticking out in every direction.

   I kneeled down and took him into my arms as the warmth slowly dragged me into an eternal sleep.