Writing Creative Submissions Winner, Anonymous
“If you had a box of crayons,” Ms. Florine starts slowly, “would you want them to all be the same color?” She sweeps her shoulder length blonde hair over one shoulder, revealing a glistening, violet, stone pendant on her collarbone. Her smile is a bright one, almost as if smiling hard enough will shine some realization on the puzzled first graders in front of her. Her hands are clasped so that her knuckles are turning an eggshell white, as she keeps them in front of her periwinkle blouse and jade green skirt. Beneath the edge of her long skirt, her foot starts to tap, punctuating the silence with a steady rhythm. Even the first graders can see the beginning of a smile being worn too thin, a silence growing too empty, and a teacher losing her faith. If a thread fell off Ms. Florine’s impeccable blouse, someone would’ve heard it.
“No?” tried Janice, her head tilting along with the tone of her voice. She couldn’t recall using a box of crayons with only one color.
“Exactly!” Ms. Florine beamed at the cross-legged students. “Just take a look at the classroom!” The tentative children scanned their colorful and diverse classroom, taking in the napping corner overflowing with pillows and quilts, and the game section with board games and educational puzzles. “We wouldn’t want this room to be all the same, now would we?”
“No,” Axel stated firmly, his eyes hardening as he tried to solidify the point of this conversation in his head. “Because that’d be boring.”
“Yes,” Ms. Florine nodded, encouragingly. “And it’d be…”
Silence settled over the first grade pupils. Among the ring of students at Ms. Florine’s feet, Lacy began to fiddle with her lip between a gap of her recently departed baby teeth. She couldn’t quite understand where this was going. She liked colors. So what?
“Unhelpful,” Ms. Florine finished, her enthusiasm deflating as she breathed out the word.
Like this conversation? Jasper thought to himself, substantially annoyed. Why’d she ask so many questions, and get upset when we didn’t know the answer? Wasn’t she supposed to teach us? He toyed with the embroidered badge on the front of his orange shirt, trying to read what it said, but struggling to understand it from his upside-down view.
“Class,” Ms. Florine began slowly again, like she was trying to explain to a dog that peeing on the couch was unacceptable. “When everything, or everyone is all the same, there is no point. After all, if you can’t see a difference between two items, what’s to say the second item ever made a difference?”
First grader heads bobbed up and down, nodding to assert their understanding—even if they weren’t sure what they were trying to understand. Six-year-old Tatiana eyed her twin Thalia from across the Show and Tell carpet. Their parents had dressed them in coordinating, blue sundresses, making them even more identical than they already were. People can’t tell the difference between us, Tatiana thought.
“Tonight, I want you all to go home and make a list of seven reasons why you are different.” Ms. Florine paused, pride for her assignment shining in her blue eyes. “I think this will be an excellent practice of individuality and self-awareness.”
What are we aware of again? Jasper echoed inside his head.
A shrieking, automated church bell confirmed the end of the day, and the students scuffled outside the doors to return home. Ms. Florine let out a breath of relief, and crossed the room to the sink to wash her hands. She gazed out the clear window, her eyes glazing over the multi colored blossoms adorning her flower box. The spring equinox was here and vines, shrubs, and roses were beginning to compliment the sloping terrain.
“How’s your day been, beautiful?” A cheerful, baritone voice spoke across the room. Jack Florine ducked under the doorframe of the classroom, his charcoal suit crinkling slightly as he stepped in. He ran a hand through his chestnut hair, his handsome face tinged with childlike glee.
Ms. Florine smiled at her reflection and turned just as Jack strode towards her. They kissed, soft and sweet, and she could feel her toes curl in her shoes as sparks ran through them. As they pulled apart, still smiling, Jack took his arms from behind his back. He revealed a rainbow assortment of tulips held together with red ribbon.
“Happy seventh anniversary, Wendy,” He smiled, before planting a kiss on her forehead. He bit the inside of his lip, praying he had the right type of flowers. She said some sort of flower with an ‘l’ in it right? Wait, but how many flowers have ‘l’s in them? It’s just flowers, get a grip Jack.
“Jack,” Wendy smiled, dimples flashing. “You shouldn’t have.” Tulips… seriously? “What would really impress me is if you made dinner tonight,” she added slyly.
Jack’s eyes widened as he could feel words tangled in his throat.
“Well,” he spluttered “Danny needs you to make his favorite mac ‘n cheese.”
“Oh, you’re right.” Wendy’s eyes widened too, enough that she didn’t notice Jack’s exhale of relief. “The Assessment is tomorrow, isn’t it?” How did I forget?
“Yep it is,” Jack nodded, his eyes having returned to their normal diameter. Among his many charming qualities, the most obvious were his eyes. They were a startling contrast, with one of them cobalt blue and the other an emerald green. He liked to think that his blue eye matching with Wendy’s was fate and not a genetic coincidence. Their ten-year-old, Danny Florine, had green eyes and hair just like Jack’s. Tomorrow was Danny’s Assessment, and also the most terrifying part of parenthood. For many parents, the Outcome was not only a determination of your child’s status, but also the sufficiency of your parenting.
“Then we should get home quickly, so I can start the water.” Wendy’s eyes flickered to the watch on her delicate wrist. “I can’t believe I forgot.” Does this make me a bad mother? She raked her hands through her blonde hair, the waves tumbling in a different direction now. Even a small crease appeared between her brows.
“Hey,” Jack said softly, taking her hand. “It’s been a busy week. You’ve been up every night trying to figure out how to explain the Assessment to these hooligans.” He gestured helplessly at the classroom booming with stickers and drawings. “I have no idea how you handle toddlers all day. You must have some magical capabilities that you’ve been hiding from me.”
Wendy chuckled, wrapping her arms around Jack’s torso.
“I sure hope so.”
“Is it gonna hurt?” Danny asked, green eyes full of fear. Although he’d passed through elementary school with flying colors, he was still worried about the Assessment. He’d been leader of his boy scout troop, founder of the charity Change for Clothes, and had single handedly painted his school’s mural. Yet no amount of good grades or admiring teachers could help him pass, and he knew it. Supposedly he was as best prepared as possible. But then why was he still scared? He turned his face back up to Wendy and Jack, who were cuddled around him on their bed.
“No, not at all,” Wendy reassured. “They’ll plant it right here—” She poked the back of his head. “—so fast you’ll hardly feel it.” They were fully dressed in pajamas, but sleep had escaped them as worry crept in. The Assessment was a rite of passage, a life changing moment, and a stressful situation all rolled into one.
“When they did it for me I didn’t feel it at all,” Jack shrugged his shoulders, trying to assuage the horror in Danny’s face. In reality, Jack’s nonchalance was a cheap facade masking his own anxiety. The whole family was wracked with utter helplessness, as they knew they had no control over the Outcome.
“Okay,” Danny managed a small gulp that did little to swallow his fear. He tried on a smile that didn’t fill out his face as he intended, and hugged Wendy closer.
“Just try to get some sleep, honey.” Wendy hugged Danny back. She made the safe assumption that they’d be spending the night with Danny in their bed. It’d been years since he crept under their covers, but the lurking deadline of the Assessment had provoked the child inside of him. He’s only ten, Wendy thought.
Jack’s eyes locked with hers over Danny’s head. He was afraid if the night got any quieter she might be able to hear his heart trying to leap from his chest. Thankfully, Danny’s inhales whispered in the autumn night, a telltale sign of his slumber. Come on, Jack. Be the man of the house. Women can smell fear. He gave Wendy a silent smile. You can’t be scared, Wendy needs you. You’ve done everything you can do.
There was nothing they could do.
Actually, it hurt a lot. Danny’s head was still throbbing when he slid into the metal booth with the other kids. The lady with the gun had been a grouch and also a liar. On three, she’d said, shooting on two. She’d done it with a smile on her face too. Who does that?
This is very important, she’d said, this way the judges will be able to transmit your answers seamlessly. Basically, you could run but you can’t hide. Danny felt like hiding. He’d spent the last half hour struggling to submerge himself in conversation with the other kids. He appreciated the immature jokes and stories, but still noticed the twitching hands, tapping feet, and anxious glances at the clock. No amount of time will help you, Danny thought darkly. He wasn’t wrong either. The Assessment was efficient, final, and in some cases brutal.
The metal door at the end of the hall opened. Reyna Chou skipped out, a smile beaming on her heart-shaped face. Everything about her was glowing. Her beadazzled blouse was drenched in sequins; her satin skirt looked like cream and even her hair was shiny. Reyna had cat like eyes that reminded Danny of milk chocolate, and hair the color of night. Her composure was likewise to a queen’s and she rarely stuttered. There were rumors that she’d been in a movie too, or maybe it was a commercial.
“How’d you do?” Brianna shot up from the booth, failing to hide her awe. Brianna had blonde hair that seemed to have more split ends than actual locks, and it was no secret that her clothes were all from Goodwill. Reyna had asked her one time you wear other people’s clothes?
“Well I’m here, aren’t I?” Reyna giggled as she twirled in a circle. Her joke rendered everyone silent. The first three kids before Reyna hadn’t come back out of the room. Danny could feel his heart crawl into his throat, forming an uncomfortable lump that pricked tears in his eyes.
“Yeah,” mumbled Brianna, her eyes cast down. She passed Reyna, walking down the long hall, miraculously without tripping on her untied shoelaces. Danny watched her look at the mirror lining the hall, and then recoil as if she hated what she saw. The sound of her scuffled sneakers dragging on the floor seemed to fill the room. She opened the door, and looked back, her eyes catching Danny’s. Brianna disappeared into the room.
“Are you next?” Reyna asked Danny, leaning a hand on the booth’s table. This was the first time she’d talked to him. Her feline eyes were wide, as if opening them further would make her more approachable. It didn’t. Danny didn’t talk to girls, and his mom didn’t count.
He nodded, his dark brown hair falling into his eyes. He was afraid if he talked then he’d stutter. Suddenly, he felt glad his hair was concealing his eyes, eye contact was intimidating. For additional distraction he focused on the fraying cuff of his t-shirt. It was olive green and paint splattered, from his weekends spent experimenting on canvas. It was his painting shirt and his favorite shirt. Mom loved when he wore it because she said the green brought out his eyes, just like his father’s.
“That’s a cool shirt.” Reyna nodded back.
You’re still talking to me? Danny asked in his head. He started to nod back, but then realized that would be repetitive. He managed to muster words before his stage fright got the best of him.
“Yeah,” he breathed, sounding more like a squirrel than a young boy. Nailed it.
Reyna frowned, her ebony brows starting to raise on her face.
“Are you nervous?” She leaned a little closer, ironically making Danny even more tense.
“Mmhmmm,” Danny managed, trying not to inhale. He’d heard that cooties could go airborne and he wasn’t inclined to take any chances.
“Don’t be nervous,” Reyna stated firmly. “You’re like the Picasso of our school.” Reyna wondered why she didn’t talk to Danny more. He was really cute. And unlike the other boys he wasn’t all loud and obnoxious. As far as she could recall, he’d never done anything gross either. What a score.
“Da Vinci,” Danny corrected.
“What?” Reyna asked, as the metal door swung back open. The glitter headband she’d been holding hit the floor the same time as her jaw did.
It was Brianna. She walked with her head up now, faster than she had before. Her feet moved confidently, seemingly free of the weight that’d been there before. There was a shy smile on her face too.
“Your turn,” Brianna turned to Danny. Reyna’s face was curled into a snarl of contempt. Her pretty face was rosy now, and alight with anger.
Danny started towards the hall, but something stopped him. He looked back at Brianna, and suddenly noticed how much a smile lit up her face.
“How was it?” Do you think I’ll pass?
“Easy,” she shrugged, her shoulders rising like the level of loathing Reyna was now directing at her.
“Your Assessment will begin in two minutes,” an automated voice hummed. The voice sounded soothing and distinctly feminine. It reminded Danny of the announcements he’d heard at airports. Your flight is leaving in five minutes. Your life is ending in five minutes.
Danny shook his head, hoping his undesired thoughts would disappear. Where had that come from? He shouldn’t have been nervous. Mom had told him he was as best prepared as possible. But how could he prepare for this?
Danny tapped his foot as he waited in the dark. He couldn’t gauge the size of the room because he could barely see his hand in front of his face. There was no telling what else, or who else was in the room with him. Yet he didn’t feel ready to find out what was in the room, let alone face it.
Despite his silent prayers, the harsh light of a projector cut through the dark. Every hair on the back of Danny’s neck electrified. He could now see the sharp corners of the rectangular room he stood in. Seeing them, he noticed the room’s vastness and its emptiness. A single beam of light shone from the back of the room, it’ brightness concealing its location. Yet not a single painting, window, nor light fixture decorated the walls. He was alone. The walls and floors were bare and snow white, making Danny feel like a small stain on a tablecloth. He felt imperfect and foreign. He felt like a traitor.
The projected light revealed two figures. One was considerably taller, and a boy that looked about 14 years old. He was built densely with muscle and the only hint detailing his young age was his face. It was pudgy and mean, with eyes in a glare and a jawline that seemed to weld into his neck, creating unflattering rolls. His forehead was also unnaturally flat, and sizable enough that Danny could imagine landing his toy airplanes on it.
The other figure was petite, and had pigtails. She was definitely younger than Danny, and smaller. Everything about her reminded Danny of a snowflake; she was fragile, with thin wrists, ankles, and arms. She was dressed in a yellow hued sundress, making her look like a fresh sunflower. The boy looked antonymous to her, wearing stained denim and a ratty shirt.
As Danny’s eyes adjusted to the boy and girl in front of him, the projector began to click, and with it the image turned to snapshots. Shot by shot he squinted, watching the boy and the girl engage in a conversation. He strained to hear, but there was no sound. Danny watched as the boy’s face became uglier, and discolored with hatred. Faintly, Danny thought of the expression Reyna had worn outside. The boy’s face was definitely angrier. Danny squinted harder, noticing that the girl was actually shaking. In fact, her entire body was quivering like a rustling leaf, her head shaking along with the rest of her.
Danny knew it. Something bad was about to happen, he could feel it. He felt sweat pool into the hollow of his neck, but he hadn’t even realized when it collected. Droplets grew on his forehead, as he felt the temperature inside his head elevate. His hands clenched, fingernails carving deep crescents into his palms.
The boy stepped towards the girl quickly. His mouth opened into a final growl and his arms shoved the girl. Danny recalled cartoons where characters fell off cliffs, and he could remember their comical faces and pinwheeling arms. But the girl weighed nothing, and her body flew back without pause. She fell backwards into a dark puddle, water the color of grease spoiling her dress. Her blonde pigtails were drenched darkly, and her small face recoiled as though the puddle might protect her now that she was in it. It didn’t. The boy kicked the dark water, sending waves into her spluttering face, mingling saltwater tears with splashes. A second kick connected with her side, and she recoiled again, like an ingredient shriveling in a pan.
“Hey!” Danny yelled, forgetting they couldn’t hear him. “Stop it! Leave her alone!”
“How will you stop it?” The automated voice returned, making Danny’s head swivel to the projecting light. “How will you fix this?”
Danny’s mind flooded with voices. But he needed to focus, this was the Assessment. Danny had to offer the first idea in his mind. It wasn’t his choice, but it was what they wanted. What the Assessment wanted, they got, and they wanted to know how his mind worked. The projected story froze, giving Danny some comfort.
“I yell at him to stop hurting her. I tell him to pick on someone his own size. And I say ‘if you’re so tough, why are you beating up a little girl?’” Danny supplied quickly, exhaling what little breath he had left. That’s the right answer, right? Danny turned his head around the room, trying to find the voice, or any sign of validation. Instead, the room flooded blue. Numbers in white illuminated the wall, and the automated voice chose to address him again.
“Daniel William Florine, observe the statistics on the wall. Thirty-two percent of the Assessed chose not to respond, instead running with the hope of escaping. Twenty-eight percent of the Assessed decided to respond with violence, and inflict pain upon the boy. Exactly twenty-percent chose your decision, creating a diversion for the girl to escape. Fifteen percent screamed for an adult to help. Five percent pretended not to notice.”
Although her voice was robotic, Danny could almost hear the disappointment in it. He was in a portion of twenty percent. But what choice did he have? He had chosen the best option, hadn’t he?
A new image flashed before his face. He shook his head again, trying to empty the doubt clouding it. He didn’t have time for uncertainty, not when he needed answers. The image was the world, but it wasn’t. It was a planet that resembled Earth, blue green masses beneath swirling white. Yet there was a bigger problem, or he should say a darker problem. Charcoal dust fumed around the surface of the Earth, temporarily blending in and out of the edges of space. The fumes were tangling above the surface, souring the land below it, like a toxic stench wilting a flower.
Danny didn’t know how, but he knew what was happening. He could feel the death in the image, like a knife in his stomach. Somehow he could sense the people that were dying by the second, choking on the thick fog of pollution. He had to stop this.
“How will you fix this?” The voice asked, sounding exactly like before.
Danny did not hesitate. “Stop the burning of fossil fuels, the production of gas-fueled transportation, the vast production of red meat, and prohibit pollution of any sort.” Danny gulped, feeling like a fish that had let go of its last breath underwater. He felt impatient. His answer had left him feeling exposed — a feeling that clashed with the empowerment that knowledge was supposed to obtain. Whoever came up with the saying ‘knowledge is power’? All he felt was weak.
“Is that right?” He spoke again to the empty room.
Statistics poured onto the board, filling the room cobalt.
“Sixty-three percent suggested to cease burning of fossil fuels. Twenty-six percent answered that all pollution should be illegal. Ten percent suggested increased production of eco friendly transportation. One percent suggested all of the above, and recommended an alteration in food production, particularly industries that produce methane.”
Danny could feel the relief unwinding his body. He exhaled a sigh that seemed to fill the room like wind. He was in the one percent! Producing the top answer within the thinnest percentile was the most prestigious achievement he could hope for. He felt like a proud and rare bird, happily flying in the sky. Mom would be so proud.
Danny smiled, ignoring the use of his full name. He was busy wondering what was waiting for him at home. Hopefully his mom had cooked one of his favorites, like sweet potato fries or grilled cheese. He wondered whether she’d hug or kiss the top of his head first, the way she always did when he painted something beautiful. Danny already wanted to know what joke his dad would make. The chances of hearing him say like father, like son would be highly probable.
“Now what will you do to convince them?” The automated voice had returned.
“What?” Danny’s voice sounded an octave higher, and his eyebrows shot up in the dark. “What do you mean?” The fear had returned, as well as the doubt. Danny could feel it prickling up the lengths of his arms, wrapping around his stomach, squeezing him with a stone grip. His throat ran dry, and so did the drop of hope in his mind.
“How will you convince them to take care of the world?” The voice sounded apologetic, almost like it was sorry for Danny. It then occurred to him that there might be a woman speaking to him, not a simulation. Danny wondered pointlessly if she enjoyed her job.
“I…” Danny’s eyes searched around the room. He felt like a mouse that had fallen into a trap, and was scrambling for escape. Every wall around him was opaque darkness, and he couldn’t even find the one he’d entered through. But no door, staircase, or exit could help him. He could try to run, but he knew he wouldn’t get anywhere.
Because in a world of survival, the fastest animal does not prevail. Nor does the strongest, smartest, or the most beautiful stand a chance. In fact, no amount of these valued strengths could provide the slightest hint to the answer he needed. Because in the real world, the animals that live the longest are the ones that are different. It’s the animals that are born changed and mutated, that can bridge survival to permanence. After all, what gift was more essential than improvement, innovation, or diversity? An animal’s flaws needed to be corrected should they ever become strengths. And without difference, how would an animal evolve to the changing world around it? Quite frankly, without change there is also no ability, and without ability no hope. And why would this world provide room for the hopeless?
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