First prize winner: Vandana Ravi – “Snapshot”
Every moment in a lifetime is made up of hundreds of others. Sights, emotions, people, and decisions form a chain right up until they reach the present, where you sit unaware of the countless things which happened to bring you here.
My present moment is filled with everything I thought a moment of mine never could have all at once – friends, animals, laughter, and the sound of my own voice. But a handful of earlier moments, earlier decisions, pushed my life into this direction. Those moments, which have come to me through a blend of work and plain good luck, are the center of the story I want to tell.
I’m biking down a new route home from school. My shoulders ache slightly from the weight of my backpack, but the sunshine and the breeze more than make up for it.
For a second, surprise makes me wobble on the bike as I notice something completely out of place on the copse-lined, narrow yet urban avenue: a donkey standing in a fenced-off field to my left. I’ve always been terrified of large animals. But for some reason, my fears and my common sense desert me. Instead of fleeing, I stop my bike.
I swear I can hear my own heart pounding as I take a step toward the donkey. To my surprise, it pushes its head through a gap in the fence, and suddenly I notice its eyes. Something is striking about them – is it depth? Expression? Emotion? Suddenly I realize the truth: what I see in those bright black eyes is a mirror image of myself. The donkey’s version is simpler, more primal. But my mind, trying to probe its, considers the possibility that we might be the same in essence. I smile and my shoulders relax. Believing the human in this animal gives me a kind of peace. Nothing is more comforting than knowing that you are not alone.
After a particularly long day, I lean on the fence and begin to speak, forgetting that the donkey won’t understand me – forgetting everything except that somewhere deep in its black eyes is a soul like mine. “It’s so peaceful here. Like time has slowed down on this stretch of road.” The donkey swings its tail. I keep talking. “It’s a wonder so few people come to say hi to you. This place is always so empty. Don’t you ever get lonely?” There is no response, but it feels good to talk to someone who won’t judge my words. I realize how much I hold back when I talk to my classmates at school. Why is it that I’m so slow to share my opinions? Could that be the reason I am so often left alone? “People can make you feel less than them because you’re different, but you’re not. You’re no less of a good friend because you’re not a traditional pet like a dog or a cat, are you? If people don’t visit you, it’s no fault of yours.” I pause. “Humans are afraid of anything new and unknown. I’ve been in your place, but I’ve also been in theirs. The thing is, you can’t let their fear hurt you. Remember that.” The donkey’s eyes seem to meet mine for a second. Its tail swings.
Suddenly I’m laughing, not caring if anyone hears. I’m laughing at the sheer absurdness of it – me, the one who had always been terrified of animals, trying to comfort a donkey with the thoughts I used to comfort myself – but I’m also laughing at how light and yet powerful I feel after speaking the words. It is as if someone has removed a heavy cloak from my shoulders, revealing wings underneath. And for this I have to thank a donkey.
Are donkeys social animals? I type into Google and scroll through pages and pages of results in blank surprise.
“Donkeys are very social animals.”
“A lone donkey kept as a pet needs a friend of another donkey, horse or other animal.”
“Donkeys like company and develop very strong emotional attachments.”
“If a donkey loses a companion, the stress can lead to disease.”
I suddenly remember the lone donkey gazing at me from behind the fence. Following that memory, surprising me, comes one of myself. I am sitting alone on a long bench during lunchtime break, throngs of students chatting around but not with me. I remember the pang of wistfulness I had felt on that day, and I realize I need to do something for this donkey – not only for its well-being, but for my own.
I secure a manila envelope to the donkey’s fence with duct tape, then bend down and scrawl my email address across the back. The envelope contains all the evidence I could find, photos and print-outs and even a thin manual, supporting my wish to get the donkey a companion. It also holds a note and instructions to email me if I can contribute to the two donkeys’ upkeep in a small way. I’m exhausted, triumphant, but mostly hopeful. With so many articles corroborating that donkeys are happier when they don’t live alone, I’m glad there is something I can do for the animal who has become my friend.
Moment 6 – The Present
A cluster of middle school students has formed in front of the fenced-off field, their sneakers kicking up dust. The sun catches the particles in its rays and illuminates them as they shift in the breeze; the usual sounds of wind rustling the trees and cars honking in the distance are mingled with the chatter of the people whom I’ve come to consider as friends. People I barely noticed in the hallways at school have bonded with me over these two donkeys. I talk and laugh and treasure the moment, remembering that the friend who never answered me in words is the one who has brought me this joy.
Honorable Mention: Aaron Huang—”Neverending”
It pains me when I can’t remember. When I can’t remember the person I once was, when I can’t remember that kid who visits me. And that woman who sits in my room when I go to sleep and when I awake, always lying there next to Mocha.
Whenever I move at night, Mocha tends to me. She claws over and curiously places her paw atop my mattress, nuzzling her snout into my blanket. She’s a beauty, she’s my constant. The one thing I remember that isn’t a blur of memories and names. The guiding hand that steers my boat alongside the rocky shores of life. And for the stories I don’t remember, she doesn’t judge, doesn’t sigh with a look of tired frustration. She doesn’t make me feel it’s my fault I don’t remember.
I do remember some things, but only snapshots, the memories photographs. The VHS tape of life cut and glued back together. The reason? The doctor says… he says it’s my head, “Alz––,” I mumbled, the word sitting lazily there, not wanting to leave my dry cracked lips.
The pleasant breeze from the AC grazes my face as I turn towards the sound. Mocha’s leg itches her neck and collar, as if fleas infest her fur. But there are no fleas, just her. She slowly sits straight, standing and trodding towards my bed. Vaulting over the frame, she lands. Gracefully. Her warm body like a second blanket, sometimes a shield. A way to escape people who question me with questions I have no answer for. Most people look confused, as if I’m imagining everything. As if Mocha weren’t there.
“Murray, sit straight,” the lady snaps. My head straightens. I look up, taking notice of the clock. The clicking sound fills the ever-so-silent room. The sound infests my head like metal fork to metal plate–I can’t stand it. It reminds me of something that isn’t me. A past which isn’t mine, someone I don’t know. Flashes of dates like 1983. When a stray dog sat at my step. Scratching my door, a door with no street, no name, no address. 1:17, the clock reads. Night or day? I wonder. The blinds always closed, the lights always dimmed. The sun–or is it the moon?–reminds me where I am. This room is a prison. My mind is a cell of never ending. As I fade into a daze, a child skips into the room. Trailing him is a man holding a smaller dog, almost the size of his forearm. My mouth turns into a smile, one that I can’t control.
I call Mocha with a whistle. Silence. My eyes peer down to where Mocha is, but there is no Mocha. I call her name. Silence. I look at the woman in the chair near my bed. Her eyes drained from no sleep, tears on her cheeks. Her lips softly open, then stay there. Silence.
“Where’s Mocha?” I ask. No one responds, not the strange man above my bed, not the boy fidgeting with my blanket, not the woman I can’t remember.
“Murray,” her voice trailing off, “Mocha died years ago.”
I chuckle to the sick joke. “Where is she?” I ask again. Silence. No response, no sound. My head slowly comes to the answer. What if this is true? A lady then comes into the room along with the strange man who I didn’t realize left. She then tells something to the woman who is always here. I barely make out the words.
I squint to stop the tears, but the rivers keep rushing.
“To make peace with death, you must make peace with life. You can’t stay in time, because time waits for no one. Murray Miller was a man who waited for no one, not even time. When it was his time, time greeted him like an old friend. I don’t wish he’d lived longer, and neither did he. Murray always told me, ‘When I pass, don’t pray for me to live more, pray that my life has saved another’s.’”
The cold spreads through coats and gloves. Freezing. The weather, suited for the occasion, seems planned. The graveyard, full of the dead, as if the cold were spirits walking by.
“And so, when he passed, I thought of every person he knew, but nobody came to mind. In reality he didn’t save a person, but his best friend. From the day she scratched on our front door, Murray had two choices. Always two choices. No in between, no maybe. When he walked in with a furball with fleas who smelled worse than he did. It was so crystal clear to him, he didn’t stop at just saving one. He started his nonprofit by selling the house with the scratched-up door, which didn’t make Ma too happy. Then he was on a mission, never to rest until it was time. He didn’t think twice about selling the house, and we should thank god he didn’t. From that point the profits and income he made went towards the dogs like Mocha. Strays who were given up, who didn’t have a chance. They were given hope not because of Murray, but because of a dog who scratched up the right door. Murray wasn’t blessed and wasn’t born to be the man he became, but his compassion for a single dog and his hope never to have to see a case like her again is what birthed his peace with death.”
Today’s the day I leave this prison. I’m wheeled to the elevator and a nurse presses one. I’m rolled out to the sun, not a reminder of pain any longer, but of freedom. With the woman who was always beside me, and still is. I look at the hospital sign: Mocha Miller Family Hospital. I chuckle. Beside sits Mocha, and that grin that rarely ever comes, well, now shines. My mouth opens and a hoarse voice gives way to one word:
Honorable Mention: Amara Fernandes—”Cat’s Cradle”
Cambrin, France: February 1918
Sophie stretched lazily, her claws digging up the muddy trench floor. She meowed and wiggled impatiently as she waited for attention. She turned over to her back and yawned. It was quiet, which was rare in an active zone such as this. There hadn’t been much time to rest since
Sophie had been brought here, but now was one of those times. With prolonged effort, she got on her feet and surveyed the area.
She could see someone up on the wooden slats next to the flour bags, a level above the trench floor. He sat with one leg dangling over the edge as he leaned back and stared into the sky disinterestedly. Sophie leaped elegantly from one crate to another until she reached him, nuzzling against his leg. He didn’t stir. Her whiskers quivered as she scrunched up her nose in annoyance. She slowly brought her paw forward onto his calf, calibrating, before swiping in a blur of fur and painfully sharp claws.
“Ow!” he cried, sitting up and rubbing his leg. “Sophie!”
“You okay, Jean?” A man nearby asked. He put out his cigarette and looked over.
Jean waved him away. “It’s nothing. Just a scratch.”
Sophie pattered up to his lap and settled herself in the crook of his knees. Sighing, he ruffled the fur between her ears.
“You’re lucky I put up with all your boisterous antics,” he told her. “You being the regimental mascot means nothing to me. Nothing, I tell you.”
That’s true, Sophie thought, preening. She was the impromptu mascot for their World War I regiment, but as Jean’s cat first and foremost, she felt more of an obligation to bother him than anyone else. He had rescued her from a dangerous area a couple of months prior when her civilian owners had abandoned her. And now here she was, smack in the middle of the war to end all wars.
She sat quietly on Jean’s lap for a while until a few soldiers asked him if he’d like to smoke with them. He declined, looking wryly at Sophie. “I don’t smoke,” he said, nudging her playfully. “Besides, I’ve got to spend those rations on you instead.”
A split second later, they heard a loud bang and an order that sent them into a sudden panic.
“Get down !”
Jean shoved her roughly to the side, more out of necessity than of malice. Sophie regained her composure and looked around. There was repeated noise coming from a ways away, loud and obtrusive, but she ignored it. She sauntered over to where Jean was laying, arms covering his head. There were loud gunshots every so often, but this was to be expected. She had gotten used to this sort of action in the military. It was the nature of trench warfare, after all.
The majority of gunfire died down, and Jean scrambled to attention. He held a rifle tautly against his shoulder, squinting out over the trench wall, the same as everyone else. She leaped nimbly over to him and meowed, staying well within the trench’s dugout. He batted her away subconsciously and she turned, making to leave his side. Then there was a harsh crack, and Jean stumbled backward. Sophie dashed back to him, meowing loudly as he clutched his face. He took his hand down, and it came away bloody.
Before she could get a good look, a shot rang out and a bullet sliced her side. Pricks of blood began to show. Jean’s eyes went wide and he grabbed Sophie and ran to the end of the trench. Climbing out, he sprinted across the battlefield until they were well away from the fighting.
He pushed them into a nearby shell hole, made by the explosion of an artillery shell. Sinking into the hole, he placed Sophie next to him. Blood still seeped from his forehead.
She nudged his head and yowled with all her might. He shushed her roughly, checking her stomach to see how deep the wound was. But Sophie continued to whine, so he took off his helmet.
“It was a rock,” he panted, pointing right above his eye. “Just a rock, see?”
Sophie rolled about, snuggling farther into Jean’s warm side.
“You didn’t have to climb over the trench. What were you thinking?”
She sneezed, dust flying up in irritated clouds.
“See, now, I’m reassuring a cat in the middle of a battle.” He laughed nervously. But as the gravity of the situation hit him, he stopped just as quickly as he had started.
“I’m such a coward,” Jean whispered, his face pressed into the mud. A solitary tear streaked down his cheek, cutting a silver path through the dirt and sweat. “I’m useless.”
Sophie knew for a fact that he wasn’t a coward. She had seen him fight but this time was different. He had run from the crossfire only to protect her. The throbbing lessened and she coughed. It was only a scratch, after all; the bullet had barely even nicked her.
The moment ended when they heard footsteps, heavy boots in the mud.
“German soldiers,” Jean muttered under his breath. “Stay quiet, Sophie.”
They stayed like that for a second, pressing down flat against the bottom of the shell hole. A beat of silence passed. Then Sophie heard words that made her heart sink.
“Over there—he’s in the hole.”
Jean’s face drained of color. He closed his eyes, and Sophie could tell he was giving up. But she wouldn’t let that happen. Leaping out of the shell hole, she screeched at the soldiers with all her might before jumping back to where she emerged from. She winced in pain.
The enemy soldiers stopped, startled, and then began to laugh. “It’s just a cat,” they told each other, “And nothing more.”
After they left, Jean took Sophie into his arms and climbed out, heading to the rest of the regiment back in the trench. She smiled, satisfied. Where would Jean be without her?
Honorable Mention: . Macy Li—”Searching for Rainbows”
Thick clouds clog the sky, gathering in dark, heavy clumps.
“Can’t you stop being so annoying?”
The first droplets leak out, starting a drizzle of rain.
“Just because you got complimented doesn’t mean you actually deserve it.”
The soft drumming of water on concrete accelerates to a fierce, rapid thumping.
“You’re never going to be good enough.”
The full onslaught of the downpour comes crashing down. The whole world seems to be drowning in the storm.
“We hate you.”
Lightning rips through the sky, tearing through the mask of clouds, and thunder boils in the heat of the moment. Pure energy ripples through the air.
The storm passes, and all that remains is the aftermath—the weak raindrops falling softly from the sky, the anger and raw emotion dissolving into nothing but resignation and hopelessness.
Outside, the rain continues to fall, just like the tears rolling down a broken girl’s face as she stares into a mirror, the words of those people echoing again and again in her mind. They reverberate throughout her whole body, leaving a hollow space inside.
Her eyes pierce the mirror, begging the torn apart girl on the other side to see the hurt brimming inside, the pain fighting to be unleashed. You’re never going to be good enough. Everyone hates you. She whispers those words over and over, etching them in her mind. They crack open her heart, and they eat away her confidence. With every time she replays them in her mind, another piece of her self-love chips off. Every time she thinks about them, she hates herself even more. Every time, she tells herself it’s her own fault, again and again, until nothing is left in her.
She throws the mirror to the floor and walks out of the room, into the rain outside. The cold air hits her face, weaving through her hair and lifting it up in billows. She closes her eyes and turns her face towards the sky, letting her salty tears mix with the raindrops on her face. She slowly collapses onto the ground, laying her cheek against the cold, wet pavement, listening to the sound of rain infused with tears. And she sees the scene playing through her vision, clear as a night sky, vivid as a daydream.
First, the rumors. They spread like wildfire, burning through crowds of students eager with thirst. It took just one to destroy her reputation and turn her friends against her. She was no match for fighting fire, and then became an outcast. She tried to keep on a smile and to never let go of her bubbly personality, but slowly, the words wormed through her walls. She began to hate herself.
The bullying got worse, with the mounting remarks fired at her. She never spoke back or fought for herself…she only stood and took it all, using all of her willpower to keep a smile on. Today, her glass walls finally shattered under the blow of words, and all the emotion she had hid gushed out like a dam broken loose…her friends only laughed, calling her weak.
Less than a mile away, the distant rumble of a car sounded. The car door was flung open, and small puppy was grabbed by the neck and tossed like a faded memory out into the rain. The puppy crashed onto the concrete and lay there, too weak to even move. His dark fur hung limp, and his form was almost lifeless. Still, his round, black eyes held the faintest traces of hope, even as his past danced hauntingly in his mind.
First, it was rejection, his first memory, the feeling forever imprinted in him. His breeder had thrown him out, only seeing a broken failure, never the life left inside. Days were spent stumbling through streets, clinging onto life. Sometimes, he collapsed and counted the people passing by…one…twenty…fifty…gone. Zero…zero…zero stayed.
Just a bit apart, the girl and the puppy were crumpled on the ground under the weight of rejection and a crying sky. Slowly, the girl rose and began to wander alone, the rain calming her.
Perhaps it was luck, or maybe chance, that the girl’s sadness brought her to the puppy on the street. Lost in her storm of sadness, the girl wandered the sidewalks of the neighborhood aimlessly. Through her vision blurred by tears, she saw a limp clump of matted fur on the road ahead of her, and she was brought back into reality, as she walked towards it.
She gently stroked the puppy’s limp form, even as the puppy recoiled from her, the ghost of trauma still haunting him. The girl carefully scooped the puppy into her lap, and looked into his round, black eyes. In that moment, in the girl’s arms, the puppy finally found sanctuary and love. The puppy found the first person willing to stay for him. Using his last bits of strength, the puppy wagged his tail, finding warmth in the girl’s embrace. The girl saw the puppy she cradled and found hope. In him, the girl realized that she was no longer alone—she had found a friend. And in both of them, they gained the power to continue. They saw the brokenness in the other and learned to mend their hearts. As sunlight broke through the clouds, painting a rainbow in the sky, they had each other…and that was all they needed.