Contest #189 shortlist ⭐️

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Drama

This story contains themes or mentions of mental health issues.

They called him John, because he didn’t have a name. He’d been pulled from the Dusek estate during the raid, where he’d almost been shot because he refused to identify himself. Only later did they find out it was because he didn’t speak.

Still, Ana finds there are plenty of other ways to learn about John and his past. On the drive to the ward, Ana sneaks several glances at him in the rearview, watching as he stares out the windows, wide-eyed, like he’s never seen the city before. When they arrive, he’s shaking so badly that Ana has to call for help getting him out of the car.

It’s then that she learns John reacts poorly to being touched, no matter how many times the attendant explains in a soft voice what she’s going to do and that it won’t hurt. He shuts down completely, eyes unblinking as he gazes out at nothing.

Somehow, Ana finds that more unsettling than the shaking.

That night, Ana goes over his medical records again, a cup of hot chocolate in her hands to ward off the chill from what she finds. The hospital had declared him a non-threat, submitting meekly to even the most invasive of procedures. That, combined with confessions from members of the Dusek family, had ensured his freedom...such as it was.

Ana thinks of the tired lines that formed around John’s eyes as she brought him to his room at the ward. She swallows down another gulp of hot chocolate.

When she gets to the section describing the injuries he’d presented with upon admittance, her hands become unsteady and she’s forced to set aside her mug. After seven years of working at the ward, she’s not squeamish. But the implications still make her shiver.

The last part she reads before falling into a troubled sleep suggests that John’s vocal chords, tongue, and Broca's area in the brain are all undamaged.

The next day, Ana asks John if he has ever spoken aloud or learned sign language.

His face twists, equal parts annoyed and ashamed. He doesn’t meet her eyes.

“Can you write?” she asks softly.

He gives his head a minute shake, the clearest response she’s ever seen from him.

“Can you read?”

Another shake.

Ana pauses, considering. “Would you like to learn?”

John’s gaze flicks up to hers, briefly, grey eyes wide. When he looks away again, he’s slightly flushed, as though he’s done something he’s not supposed to.

“Give me a day to gather some materials, and I’ll start teaching you,” Ana says with a smile.

John doesn’t smile back, but his confused expression is better than what he’s worn previously. Ana hopes it’s an indicator of progress.

She comes back the next day with paper, pens, and a workbook. She sits with John and goes over the sound of each letter. He never repeats after her, but she catches him silently mouthing along. He doesn’t let her guide his hand while attempting to draw each character, but he does trace over the letters she writes with careful, almost reverent lines.

Ana only wishes he was making such progress in other areas.

It takes a week before he’ll eat around other people. The one time the staff brought him to the dining room, he almost hurt himself in his scramble to flee from the small group of people around the table - no more than nine, but clearly too many for John. It takes an hour and a half for Ana to calm him.

In addition to being skittish of crowds, John doesn’t seem too sure about going outside, either. Ana can’t help but think of his behavior as catlike in the way he lingers on the threshold of the door to the garden, clearly entranced but unwilling to take the last step out from under the ceiling. So she waits with the door held open, letting him watch the fountain and flowers and insects and trees from the safety of the ward’s shadows.

Three weeks after John’s arrival at the ward, Ana nearly jumps in surprise when she pushes the door to the garden open and John walks out after her. He stands for a moment in a patch of sunlight, face tilted up at the sky. Then he gives her a questioning look that Ana has come to understand means, “What now?”

“Let’s take a little walk,” she says. “Do you want me to tell you about some of the flowers?”

John nods, as he usually does when Ana offers to teach him something. So she guides him through the garden, pointing out her favorites and telling him what they mean in the language of flowers.

When they come to a stand of milkweed, Ana spots a chewed-on leaf and beckons John closer.

“That’s a monarch caterpillar,” she says, indicating the tiny green-and-black worm as it nibbles on the edge of its leaf. “When it’s ready, it’ll form a chrysalis and turn into a monarch butterfly.”

John looks delighted at the notion. His eyebrows come up as if saying, “Go on.”

“Then the butterfly breaks free of the chrysalis and lets its wings fill out in the sun,” Ana says. “Once it’s strong enough, it’ll fly away. I think monarchs have quite a long migration before coming home and laying new eggs.”

John nods once. He looks back at the caterpillar, thoughtful.

“We could make a little enclosure and bring him inside,” Ana suggests. “He’d be safer with - “

She doesn’t finish the sentence, because John’s face moves from calm to panicked to angry within a breath. He glares at Ana, hands fisted and trembling.

“We’d release him once he emerged from the chrysalis,” she hurries to add.

John makes a short, slashing gesture. Ana blinks. She’s never seen him so adamant about anything.

“Alright,” she says. “We’ll leave him be.”

John nods again, this time firm, as if saying, “Good.”

Ana tells the other staff to avoid disturbing the caterpillar.

After his first excursion outside, John can’t seem to get enough of the garden. He returns every day to check on the caterpillar, but spends most of his time walking or sitting to watch the fountain. Ana holds their lessons outside when the weather is nice. John is a quick study, and soon he’s passing Ana notes with simple phrases. The first one he gives her just says thank you. The next one, a few days later, says water paint.

After a quick round of 20 Questions, Ana figures out what he means. She brings him a set of watercolors and other supplies, and then sits back and watches as John experiments. His motions, while hesitant at first, are purposeful, like a musician tuning their instrument. Watching him work, Ana is struck with the thought that either John has done this before, or he’s a very, very fast learner.

The first thing he paints once he seems sure of himself is the caterpillar on its leaf. Ana smiles at the illustration as it dries, and catches John smiling, too.

Painting becomes part of the routine. At first, John paints the things around him. His room. The dining hall. And many, many pictures of the garden. Ana brings him sticky tack so he can hang them on his walls.

Then, one day Ana finds him with his head in his hands, a page of darkness on the desk in front of him. He ignores her questions about it.

And as the days go by, Ana sees more paintings like it. Dark things, done in greys and blacks. A figure curled up in an empty room. The shadow of a fist against the wall. Sometimes red creeps into the monochrome pictures.

John doesn’t hang these next to the others, but nor does he destroy or discard them. He lets them dry, then shuts them carefully away in the desk. When asked, he writes out, I know where they are now.

Ana doesn’t understand, not fully, but it seems like a healthy coping mechanism. Some days, he’ll take out the stack of paintings from the desk and flip through them, one by one, as if reading a solemn story. This is usually followed by a trip to the garden to see how the caterpillar is doing.

It’s growing fast, and there eventually comes a day when John tugs excitedly at Ana’s sleeve and shows her the chrysalis hanging from the leaf. It’s light green with a golden seam near the top. It’s all John paints for two days.

They’re walking in the garden a week later when Ana sees John go tense next to her. She follows his gaze to the stand of milkweed, where another resident is crouched down. When the man straightens, he’s holding something up to inspect it.

Ana realizes a split second after John does, and she’s too slow to stop him when he lunges forward.

His face is set in a silent snarl as he grabs the other resident’s wrist. Ana has never seen such harsh, rigid lines in his posture.

“John!” she cries, suddenly frightened of what he might do.

When he glances back at her, the other resident jerks free with a curse. He shoves John away and retreats inside, leaving a handful of bitter words in his wake.

John ignores the comments, already crouched down to recover the dropped chrysalis. He lifts it gently, so gently, all anger gone. His eyes come up to meet Ana’s, pleading.

“Bring it inside,” she says. “We’ll see what we can do.”

Ana keeps an eye on him as they return to the ward. His movements are slow and slight, his feet barely lifting from the ground as he walks. At first she thinks he’s just trying to protect the chrysalis, but then she catches a glimpse of his face. It’s blank. Completely empty as he shuffles down the hall, shoulders hunched.

“Are you somewhere else right now?” Ana asks him gently.

John doesn’t seem to hear at first, but then he starts slightly, as though surprised she’s talking to him. He shakes his head vehemently.

They take the chrysalis to the crafts room, where Ana helps John apply a tiny dab of glue and attach a string to the little black stem of the chrysalis. Then, they bring it back outside where John ties it securely to a low-hanging branch of juniper and Ana affixes a tiny sign reading DON’T TOUCH.

“There,” she says as she straightens. “It’ll be safer now.”

John nods, but his expression is distant again. His eyes are glazed and absent. It takes Ana another two hours to get him to look her in the eyes, at which point she sees those tiny, tired lines again.

The next day, John spends hours working on a new painting. He locks it in the desk drawer almost before it’s finished drying, but Ana still has plenty of time to stare at what he’s created.

On the paper, an indistinct figure hides their face with hands and arms mottled with bruises. Around one wrist is a paper bracelet like the ones the residents wear, but this one simply reads DON’T TOUCH.

The paintings over the following days grow darker. Sometimes they are stained with tear-splashes. Sometimes John doesn’t finish them, instead viciously brushing a dark wash over the whole thing. Sometimes he takes out all of the paintings in the desk drawer and sifts through them, expression unreadable.

Ana becomes unsure if the paintings are still helping John or if they’re perpetuating a cycle of rumination. John shrugs off her questions.

A week passes. The chrysalis outside shows no sign of change, while by Ana’s count, it should have darkened by now. She elects not to tell John.

And then one day, she walks in to find John painting a monarch butterfly that sheds light on its dark surroundings.

“What brought this on?” she asks, pleasantly surprised.

John looks up, eyes dancing.

Dream,” he finger-spells. “Garden now?

When Ana brings him outside, he makes a beeline for the hanging chrysalis. Ana’s mouth drops open when she sees the darkened exterior and the faint impression of a monarch’s wings within.

“How?” she asks John. “How did you know?”

Dream,” he spells again with a shrug.

Ana decides not to question it.

On the day the butterfly emerges, she and John spend most of their time in the garden. John frets a bit - about the weather, Ana thinks - but the overcast sky clears up nicely for the big event.

They watch in breathless anticipation as the butterfly wriggles free and begins to sun itself, fanning crumpled wings. Slowly, they begin to fill out, and the butterfly starts wandering from the chrysalis to the juniper branch.

“Would you like to hold it?” Ana asks John.

He tears his awed eyes from the butterfly long enough to spell out, “Safe?

“As long as you don’t touch the wings,” Ana assures him.

Cautiously, John places a finger in the butterfly’s path. It readily climbs aboard and flicks its proboscis against his skin.

Ana watches the astounded grin come over John’s face with an ache in her heart.

The butterfly twitches its wings. In a flutter of motion, it makes the short leap from John’s hand to his nose. His head jerks back in surprise, but he seems to recover quickly.

And then he starts to laugh. Softly. Carefully. In bits and pieces, as though he’s afraid of startling his passenger.

Ana covers her mouth as she stares in delight. It’s the first voiced sound she’s heard from him.

The butterfly jumps again, drifting down to the path. It spends a few seconds fanning its wings, then flutters over to a cluster of red flowers for a long drink. From there, it darts up, hovers for a moment, then flits away up and out of the garden.

John watches it go, and while Ana expects to see some sadness in his expression, there’s nothing but joy and a fierce, desperate pride.

Ana lets the moment linger, her heart full of light at the scene. At last, she lets out a breath. “Wasn’t that something?”

John doesn’t respond, eyes still fixed on where the butterfly disappeared. His expression is softer now, pensive. Ana worries he might be headed back into his head. She gently prompts him.

“John?”

And he says, “Call me Ciel.”

March 12, 2023 23:03

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8 comments

Amanda Lieser
23:52 Apr 11, 2023

Hi Jay! This was an utterly outstanding shortlisted piece that told of the incredible human nature of kindness. I loved that his story was so vivid in its description, because it helped us identify with this character whose mind we could not open. I also really enjoyed the way that you chose to capture Ana’s point of view in this one. The choice to use the butterfly as a symbol was beautifully done. My favorite line was the one right at the beginning about the hot chocolate. Congratulations! You deserved it.

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Jay Wayne
02:20 Apr 14, 2023

Thank you so much for reading and letting me know your thoughts! I really appreciate hearing what worked for you about the piece.

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Wally Schmidt
05:12 Mar 25, 2023

What a beautiful, well-told story. It would be a wonderful world if each "John" had an 'Ana' who had the love and patience required to bring them out of their shells, but I'll settle for this fictive one. I assume you know this and that it was not just a case of serendipity inspired by your keyboard, but in French 'Ciel' means 'sky', so you really couldn't have given your MC a better name. Congrats on the short-list. Looking forward to reading more of your stories.

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Jay Wayne
18:30 Mar 25, 2023

Part of what drives me to write stories like these is the desire to find or be my own 'Ana'. I take great joy in writing about topics like this, as long as there is a hopeful ending to be found. And yes, my choice of Ciel was intentional; I'm glad you liked that detail! Thank you so much for reading this piece and encouraging me. Comments like this make my day!

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Mary Bendickson
20:20 Mar 24, 2023

Congrats! Well deserved. Am guessing Ciel can spread his wings and fly now.

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Jay Wayne
23:40 Mar 24, 2023

Thank you! And yes, I imagine he can. Thanks for reading!

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J. D. Lair
23:31 Mar 20, 2023

I loved this story. So heartwarming!

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Jay Wayne
02:00 Mar 21, 2023

Thank you so much! I really appreciate you letting me know.

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