Contest #101 shortlist ⭐️

10 comments

Coming of Age Fiction Sad

It’s late spring in New England, and the sun is warm syrup pouring down, making hikers sticky and hot. Hair clings to Tessa’s temples like scum at the lake’s waterline. The seventh-grade class vibrates with excitement on their field trip and she scrambles to keep up. They carry logbooks and at the gurgling brook everyone halts to record observations. She writes: “Small fish came to my hand and touched me with their noses and rushed away. I think I scared them.” Then they’re off again tramping through scrubland. When the teacher’s back is turned, some students crack books on each other’s heads and backsides.

Rustling through bushes, Tessa keeps Corey’s purple cap always in view, his oversized Raptors shirt flapping before her. She swishes away spiderwebs and trashes tall grasses. Branches scratching her skin bring her alive. The class pauses at the stinking marsh, where old cattails lie broken and faded, their soft plush plundered by mice and shore birds for nesting material. There’s fresh growth: a standing army of cattails.

She hangs back, swatting bugs, watching Corey, who’s horsing around so much that the teacher threatens to split up his posse. Is it by accident his eyes dart toward hers at the same time, like the small fishes kept swimming together and then rushing apart? This burning in her face, is it just the warm syrup of the sun?

 Like an Olympic fencer, Corey slashes the air with his cattail.

En garde. Tessa pulls a tight dark brown baton from the mushy ground and swipes around her, little tufts of fluff rising, sticking to her face and lips. For a moment she exists only in her sword’s resistance to air. She forgets everything else: the pleading with her angry dad doesn’t echo in her head; the craving to hear her mother’s voice doesn’t scrape at her heart. No, it’s just her and Corey—and she is a couple inches taller, so technically has the upper hand. Boof! She scores a direct hit on his head. Their eyes are darting at each other again, then, inexplicably, she falters. He wins yet she is not disappointed—a strange new feeling uncoils inside her.

On the bumpy bus ride back, she sits moony-faced and quiet, skin slick against the seat. Her friends Michaela and Brianna braid each other’s hair and discuss piercings. She slides opens the window and sits, tongue lolling out like a dog’s, letting the wind parch her throat and sear her eyes, the roar consuming her. Breathing Corey, Corey.

*         *         *

Next day in geography, Mr. Rogal gets on her case. He commands her to point out features on the big map. That long walk to the front of the class, her teeth hurt and, no matter how slowly she walks, her breasts jiggle. The breasts, until now, have been small, well-behaved protrusions, like plump bits of extra skin that she can safely ignore. To her horror, her nipples stiffen under her top, twin peaks arising on her changing topography. For ages she has yearned for a bra. Mom had promised a shopping trip last year, before the troubles with Dad began, and Tessa vowed to keep holding on, hoping to reach a mother-daughter milestone once the lawyers are done. But now she is trapped at the front of the class.

“Can’t you read that?” Mr. Rogal says.

She moves closer to the map, the blurriness clears up into letters, and she points to Long Island Sound.

“Thank you,” he says. “You need glasses, young lady. Tell your mom.” He writes on a yellow sheet, a form marked For Your Immediate Attention. He turns to the class. “Now, who can find Bleck Island?” A tussle breaks out in the back, where the boys sit, a shoving match with Corey in the middle, and she looks at her sneakers.

Glasses? Another thing for the shopping trip that will never happen. She swallows a hard lump, waiting until Mr. Rogal hands her the sheet and she is released.

Later in the lunchroom, Michaela and Brianna surround her like bubble wrap. They swear undying enmity to Ratface Rogal. They know Mom’s gone AWOL and that Dad is being a bastard. “Tell your dad you need things,” Brianna says, lingering on the last word to impart mystery and threat. “Old guys know girls need, you know, tampons and razors.”

Tessa lowers her head just thinking about the impossibility of mentioning such things to her father. Corey passes by with his two wingmen, bumping tables, scraping chairs, upending a tray. She lifts her head, and he is looking right at her. Small fish in the stream: she wants to feel them touching her again.

*         *         *

Next morning Dad is already cursing when Tessa ventures from her pink cave. It’s usually email from the lawyer, or rather Mom’s lawyer, that brings on the cursing. His scowl deepens as he watches her squiggle honey on toast. Greasy butter, she craves it—although her chin is stippled with acne. Sweet honey, she craves it too—although her teeth are porous with neglect.

Dad says, “Stop doing that.”

“What?”

“That. What you just did. That’s exactly like her.”

“What?” Tessa stands, puzzled. Eating, that must be it. She takes her plate to her room. The better to close her eyes and gather the dream fragments of Corey.

*         *         *

Miraculously, it’s a P.D. day: the teachers have “professional development” sessions, and Dad is totally clueless. The three amigas roll around Brianna’s bedroom for hours, interrogating their feelings about boys, bands, and everything in between. After lunch they ride their bikes to the ravine. It’s like a field trip except that the ravine, being in the city, has rubbish, feral dogs, and homeless encampments. The boys, Corey and buddies Jeff and Paul, appear out of nowhere and try to race their bikes on too-steep paths. Clouds darken the sky, and a surprise shower sends everyone running under the bridge to stay dry.

Sooty bottles and cans ringing a pile of charred wood indicate they have stumbled onto a gathering spot. Joking and faux insults between boys and girls pepper the humid air. The boys are passing around a mickey and dare the girls to take a swig. They start talking about building a fire in the “firepit,” a patch of gravel surrounded by rocks and concrete chunks.

Michaela keeps nudging Tessa toward Corey. “I dare you.,” she murmurs. The flames are exotic and hypnotic and everyone draws closer to see the small flames consume the kindling. “Go find a big branch,” Corey says, and the others disperse, looking for dry wood or cardboard under the bridge to burn. Tessa and Corey remain at the fire’s edge in a strange face-off, their noses moving together until their lips touch. They press close and closer, grinding mouths until she feels blood against her front tooth.

Her first kiss and her eyes flicker between the bridge shadows and his body, all angles and tangents. His hand travels under her shirt and his fingers, sweaty and darting, find her breasts. The bridge shadows start to move and it’s the others back at the firepit. They are half-jeering, half-cheering and all-curious. Tessa and Corey push apart and claim separate concrete chunks to sit on. Tessa notices Brianna tugging at the shirttail of Corey’s friend Jeff, who pretends not to notice.

The sky clears as rapidly as a thought and soon the band of six straggle from under the bridge. Tessa hungers for more of that sensation, faces pressed together, Corey’s hand exploring her contours, but Jeff punches Corey and the boys run off. The girls climb back to where they left their bikes, still drying after the rain, and ride around, branches tearing at hair and faces until the ravine ends and the shopping mall parking lot stretches out before them, a desert of asphalt.

She returns home later than usual, and Dad asks what happened at school: was it detention again?

“Uh… yeah.”

“Well, hand it over.” He holds out his hand.

“What?”

“The god-damned form I have to sign.”

She rummages in her knapsack, playing for time, hoping he’ll stomp off to all the other work he complains he must do. But no, Dad is paring his nails and looks ready to wait all day.

She pulls out Mr. Rogal’s yellow sheet, the one about the eye test, and points to the signature line, hoping Dad won’t read anything else.

He signs with a flourish. “Better organize your knapsack. You’re just as messy as she is.”

She flees to the pink cave, lined with posters of Dylan O’Brien and Gandhi and the canoe wilderness. Tessa group-chats with Michaela and Brianna, who are already squabbling over who gets which of Corey’s friends so they can all “be together.” The talk makes her impatient for Corey, for the second kiss, and soon she looks up videos showing kissing: the mouths press and open. Open, yes, like starfish sucking in the brine: how could she have missed that? She practices on her arm and it’s not so gross.

Dinner is under-baked fish sticks and over-done home fries, devoured in the pink cave so as not to anger her father. Michaela and Brianna have gymnastics that evening, lessons the old man is too cheap to pay for. She runs outside and hops on her bike to ride ride RIDE. She meditates on Corey, who wears a small gold chain. His hair is short on the sides, long and wavy on top, a wave that always seems to bounce when he gets fired up. He wears bright orange sneakers, top of the line on the bottom of his feet.

Her favorite path is along the greenbelt, and she rides until her thigh muscles burn and her ribs ache. Sundown stains the sky and slowly thickens to a navy blanket thrown over the suburban tract. She gets back when it’s dark and her father is already yelling as she enters.

“Riding my bike,” she yells back, stopping in the kitchen where she chugs cold milk direct from the fridge.

“For two hours?”

“Yep.”

“Meeting your little friends?” he sneers.

“No, I just wanted to ride,” she says, ignoring the tone. “My bike.” She trudges to her room and just as she closes the door, she hears him say: “What a lil liar.”

*         *         *

Tessa continues to flunk geography. It’s not just the eyesight, it’s the bad associations with coastlines and meridians and lines of latitude. Mr. Rogal calls her dad at dinner time, asking when the eye test will get done, “the one you signed for.”

Dad handles the call in his tight, polite voice, the same one he uses for lawyers and his boss.

Call ended, he blows up. “You’re running me dry just like she did. You need acne meds. Your teeth need straightening. Now what’s this? The school says you need an eye test. Well, sit up at the front of the god-damned room. Glasses cost hundreds of dollars.”

Tessa remembers the coaching from Brianna and decides to go for broke. “Yeah, so I need things. I need a bra and new jeans, too. Can’t I get a part-time job?”

He recoils. “And where are you going to work? And who will have to drive you back and forth? And what idiot would hire a clumsy, lazy… girl?” He says the final word like it’s the biggest insult he can think of.

Head held high, Tessa escapes to the pink cave and tries the last known number for her mother. No answer. She looks for hugs and consolation via group chat.

*         *         *

The firepit in the ravine becomes their hangout. On weekends Tessa and Corey sit on the same log and Jeff, the taller of his two pals, sometimes sits with Michaela, sometimes with Brianna. Paul is a distant third. Corey always has a lighter to start the fire. Hard to say which kid can smuggle out alcohol, but somehow someone always manages to plunder a parental liquor cabinet. When the boys get into shoving matches, the girls disappear.

*         *         *

A couple weeks later, Dad marches Tessa to the optometrist’s, adjacent to the discount eyeglass store. He will pay for lenses, but she must select from the “free frames” collection, an exercise doomed to failure because she is too nearsighted to see what she actually looks like with the available choices. Only much later will she realize her frames are a greenish-beige atrocity guaranteed to clash with every outfit she owns.

But first, the new eyewear brings revelations. Trees are not just a fog of greenness; they are collections of individual leaves. Street corners often have street signs, not just blobs on poles. In the hallways at school, she recognizes people from great distances and so can leave or linger, finetuning her social availability. Her friends are attentive and pitying. “You don’t have to wear them all the time,” Brianna says.

“But I want to,” Tessa says, mildly surprised, gently touching her frames. “Everything’s so …sharp.”

“Contact lenses,” Michaela says. “That’s what you need.”

“You can even change your eye color with contacts,” Brianna adds.

Tessa pushes her frames up. The glasses hurt where they weigh heavily on her nose and her ears. Her friends don’t wear glasses. Maybe she’s dumb to like them so much, so she takes them off for a while.

*         *         *

Tessa bikes to the start of the ravine path, slowing to where the gravel becomes treacherous. Today, wearing her glasses on the outing, she marvels at the undergrowth and the wildflowers—now visible from her bike seat—and almost does not dismount in time, scraping her arms as she emerges from the shrubs.

Under the bridge Corey is lighting the fire, joshing with his pals about the Raptors’ big win last night. Her heart lurches at the sight of his dirty T-shirt and she can read the Calvin Klein band peeking above his low-slung cargo pants. He does a double-take and it’s only then she remembers she’s still wearing her new eyewear.

Michaela shoots her a look. Tessa slides her glasses into a side pocket of her cargo shorts. She gazes in Corey’s direction, hoping he’ll look up and see her again, like the day when small fishes kept swimming together and then rushing apart.

He does not. The hard beak of doubt pecks at her confidence, jabbing until it draws blood.

The fire gets going and Corey stays close to the pit, brow furrowed as he concentrates on the small flames like never before. She draws closer and sits on the usual log, their log, patting it, hoping he will sit beside her. Paul has brought Jägermeister and the bottle gets passed around, causing moaning and spitting, followed by choking and laughter.

She takes Corey’s hand, but it manages to slip away. His eyes keep darting to the underpinning of the bridge. When he finally turns to her there is a flatness in his eyes that chills her. The others keep jeering and cheering as each one tries to take a hit of the Jägermeister. The bottle comes to her, and the bitterness overpowers her. The teasing and insults continue, and Corey keeps shifting away.

Shadows are lengthening and they must leave before the true firepit guardians return. Before parents start calling other parents. Michaela is putting the moves on Jeff, and Brianna is eyeing Paul. Tessa decides to go for broke and boldly puts her arms around Corey. He slips from her embrace. At first she thinks it’s the awkward angle so she tries again. That, too, fails.

She takes his face in her hands, forcing him to look her in the eyes.

“Don’t you get it?” he whispers hoarsely as he wriggles away, back to staring at the bridge’s underbelly, rusted rebar and broken boulders. Rejection punches her in the gut. Her throat swells with hurt; her eyes sting. Already she’s pretending it’s just the smoke. She rises abruptly and goes to puke in the bushes. Already she’s pretending it’s just the drink.

She stumbles and falls heavily on the pocket where the glasses hide. The snap is the sound of a wishbone breaking.

She curls near the firepit, cheek pressed on the gravel, and weeps.

July 10, 2021 00:38

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

10 comments

Karen Kinley
16:35 Jul 16, 2021

Beautiful story, VJ! This deserves the shortlist, if not a win!! Heartbreaking yet so true to life. You are a master at sprinkling in dialogue for maximum effect. Well done! (My only issue is that I don't see three lines repeated, but that doesn't take away from this gorgeous story.)

Reply

Vj Hamilton
00:47 Jul 21, 2021

Thanks, Karen. I did repeat the "small fish" motif -- but it was pretty subtle, lol.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
17:56 Jul 25, 2021

What a beautiful well rounded portrayal if seventh grade feelings and inner turmoil. Your dialogues are a class apart and really add substance and direction to a superbly written story. Congratulations on a very deserved shortlist. I am going to read all your other stories. Your writing voice and choice of phrases and visual imagery is quite real and unique. Aside: would like it if you critique any one of my stories, or more. My latest submission is Tories No Second Chances.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Fiery Red
07:09 Jul 22, 2021

Wow!! Amazing storyline. You created a realistic story of teenage straggles, feelings and their routines through Tessa's eyes. Thank you for writing this piece.

Reply

Vj Hamilton
21:57 Jul 24, 2021

Thanks for your feedback!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
N K
08:26 Jul 21, 2021

This is so beautiful! I think you did a really good job of creating a realistic and captivating story and I was quickly invested in Tessa. You fleshed out her character so so well. Congratulations on the shortlist and great job! Looking forward to reading more of your work.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Amanda Lieser
17:00 Jul 19, 2021

Oh my gosh! You captured 7th grade so beautifully in this piece. I thought you did a wonderful job of providing an example of all of the complications of 7th grade and I appreciated how you explained the needs that the main character had that both her parents needed to meet. Thank you for writing this piece and congratulations on getting shortlisted!

Reply

Vj Hamilton
00:48 Jul 21, 2021

Thanks, Amanda. Feelin' all the feels, yep!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Petra Starkus
19:34 Jul 18, 2021

Wow!!!

Reply

Vj Hamilton
00:49 Jul 21, 2021

Thanks, Petra.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply