Before the street-wide parades and technicolor cascarones of Fiesta, San Antonio will celebrate a lesser-known annual tradition: the San Antonio Book Festival, hosted by the San Antonio Public Library Foundation, on April 2, 2016 at the San Antonio Public Library from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Along with readings and panel presentations of established national and local authors, young writers from the San Antonio community contribute their own stories through the annual student writing contest.
The 2016 contest asked students between grades seven through 12 to create stories based on the theme, “Not All Heroes Wear Capes.” From the 175 story entries submitted by 40 schools throughout Bexar County, nine winners were chosen. Winning stories were selected from three student categories: 7th-8th grade, 9th-10th grade and 11th-12th grade.
Listed below are the three first place creative writing winners of each grade category:
First Place: Selena Flores, “Here on a Winter Day,” Rhodes Middle School, 7th grade
Their laughter swirled through the air like smoke, the aftermath of every swung foot and merciless grin. The invisible fire was scorching; she could feel it from where she hid behind a dirty brick wall. Hitomi wondered how it hadn’t melted the snow yet. Shouldn’t such fiery words leave a blackened mark? But perhaps that was best represented by the pained and frantic mewls piercing through the dark giggles.
There was a slight shift in the air. Playful faded to hurtful and then back again, as it often and easily did.
“Let’s just leave,” someone with the voice of a child snapped. “It’ll probably die in the cold anyways.”
He spoke of death too easily, Hitomi decided as she closed her eyes. Far too easily. Did the boy know his words applied to so much more than just an injured animal?
There were a few oppressed murmurs in response, and soon she heard the crunch of snow as the group of five walked away. After a sharp bark of laughter, their voices faded completely.
Hitomi counted nine heartbeats before she finally stepped into the sun to look at it.
The blood stained the snow a pretty red, a sickening crimson, and it almost glistened under the hazy gaze of the sun. She could still feel the soft hisses of invisible fire, the sharp echoes of slithering smoke, and each thundered in time with her white breaths.
She crept closer, trying to keep her footing steady and refusing to wonder why it was shaky in the first place.
It lifted its head and looked straight at her, and Hitomi felt her own gushing blood freeze. Not in the way a lake frosts over for a couple’s skates, but in the way a corpse preserves its inside by destroying its outside.
The pain crystalized into transparent tears, each sliding down its dirty fur and probably chilling it further. Even from where she stood, she could see its front paw bent at an awkward angle, hanging limply. Her gray eyes briefly caught sight of a patch of ripped skin before she forced her gaze to snap away.
After a slight hesitation, she continued forward.
The feline didn’t seem surprised, simply dropped its head in either acceptance or relief. Neither thought sat well in her stomach.
The cat gave a soft meow as she settled beside it. Red touched her trench coat, but Hitomi found she could not bring herself to care as she turned to face it.
The obvious got her nowhere. She shook her head and tried again.
“I’m sorry I didn’t stop them,” she muttered. “I… I’m not awfully strong.”
Hitomi offered a bitter smile but soon let it drop. It shifted in the snow slightly in response. With a sigh, she leaned her head back and once again closed her eyes.
The consuming guilt hurt inside her chest, but it was just another side effect of breathing.
“I know them,” she whispered. “Those boys. You could call them enemies, but it’s a bit more personal and one-sided than that. I watched them turn from playground bullies to absolute monsters before my very eyes and leave you behind like garbage. Why? Why didn’t I stop them?”
There was no answer of course, but she didn’t need one. Hitomi knew it was branded in the space between her bravery and her ignorance.
Hitomi had been afraid of those boys, with their depraved smiles and ravenous laughter, and that’s why she had been hiding in the first place. The emotion had settled right into her bones and the consequence of that was bleeding out beside her. Her actions… they made her a coward.
“I’m a coward,” she told it, a slight snarl on her lips, “and that eats me up inside and out. Fear encloses me every second of every day, and I run from it because I know I’ll get hurt. But that’s what’s supposed to happen; I’m supposed to get hurt, and I’m supposed to learn from my mistakes. Why can’t I do that? Is there… why is there something wrong with me?”
The silence was as much of an answer as it was not. She shivered, despite being directly under the sun, and wrapped her arms around herself.
If she was being honest, she was still afraid in that very moment. Of the cat’s health. Of her inability to help it. Of her coward-like nature.
Hitomi smiled at the injured animal.
“I won’t let you die here,” she said quietly. “I’m done being afraid, if this is what comes of it. “
She rose to her feet, carefully lifting the cat with her and gently cradling it against her chest. The blood stains hardly affected her.
“You know, Mother’s allergic to cats,” she muttered thoughtfully, and continued her way home.
First Place: Anaïs Nuñez-Tovar, “Strength for Another,” Providence Catholic School, 10th grade
Speeding down the highway in his Harley, the engine deafened Beck and the ebony sky coaxed negative thoughts out of his exhausted mind. He couldn’t take it anymore. He’d lost his job. His apartment was slowly deteriorating. As luck seemed to have it, someone broke into it last week and stole his electronics. On top of it all, he couldn’t pay his rent in a few weeks, and would have to find a job before that.
Beck’s hands tightly grasped the handles of his motorcycle as he made his way home. Tired of it all, he numbed his mind and tried to forget his troubles. He’d go home, take a shower, head straight to bed, and deal with everything tomorrow. Beck relaxed and let out a breath he was unknowingly holding. As he rode into his parking spot, sleep called to him, and he pulled off his helmet and stumbled up the stairs to his apartment. Taking his time to unlock the door, Beck heard his phone ring as if from far away.
“It’s Beck,” he answered, pushing the door into his home.
“Mr. Emerson, this is Tina Waters from Child Protective Services. I’m sorry to tell you that Marie Douglas passed away two days ago in a car accident. It says here that you are the legal guardian of Eleanor Douglas, daughter of Stephen and Marie Douglas, should both her parents die. Is that correct?” Beck could feel his heartbeat begin to pulse rapidly throughout his body. Hands trembling, he extended an arm to steady himself on his couch.
“Mr. Emerson, are you still there?”
Beck struggled to form a coherent phrase. “Y-Yeah, I’m here.”
“Is this correct, sir?”
“Yes ma’am, it’s just… I – I never thought this would happen. I haven’t seen Ellie, I mean Eleanor, or Marie in a long time. Not since Stephen’s funeral three years ago. Marie was always so busy as a nurse…” Beck trailed off, still trying to make sense of his situation.
“I realize this is hard for you, sir, but we need you here tomorrow at nine a.m. We have to discuss the custody of Eleanor. Is that alright with you?”
“Sure. I’ll – I’ll be there.”
“Thank you. It’ll be a pleasure seeing you.” Then Tina Waters hung up.
Stephen Douglas was the best friend Beck had ever had. Stephen was the only one that understood what made Beck tick. When he married Marie, Beck was happy for the two, but a part of him felt empty and deprived of one of the only things that kept him going. After the marriage, he rarely saw Stephen. Then a few years later, Stephen passed away just weeks after he was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. That empty part of Beck felt like a vast, unending void, and in the moments he was positive it was gone, it never failed to make itself known again. Now, the empty void seemed even more limitless than before.
As he lay in bed that night, Beck couldn’t stop the thoughts of him having to take Ellie under his wing and the many ways in which it could go wrong. In his current living situation, he couldn’t imagine bringing up Stephen’s daughter. She deserved stable living conditions, and if he couldn’t provide that, then… He didn’t want to, but he wasn’t excluding the option.
Riding in to the parking lot of the Child Protective Services main building the next morning, Beck’s stomach twisted into knots. Exhausted from his contemplative night, he dreaded what was coming. Thoughts of letting Ellie go seemed more ideal, though he hated to admit it. He was prepared to do what was right for her, and he didn’t believe Ellie living with him was.
“I’m here to meet with Tina Waters,” Beck whispered to the lady at the front desk once he’d entered. “The name is Beck Emerson.” She looked up at him from over her glasses and pressed her lips together, then turned back to typing on her computer and staring intently at the screen.
Beck looked around as he waited for her response. The lobby was a drab looking area, comprising only a few threadbare chairs and a wooden table laden with brochures. A century passed as he waited anxiously.
Beck jumped where he stood. He looked up to see a tall African American woman with hair cut in a bob and sparkling brown eyes, wearing a dark suit and looking at him expectantly, a clipboard clutched in one hand.
“That’s me,” Beck said. “And you’re Ms. Waters?”
“Please, call me Tina,” she said, smiling pleasantly. “Follow me, please.”
They walked down a white hallway decorated with children’s drawings, and as Tina saw Beck open his mouth to ask about them, she stopped him with the answer. “Even though the
children are elsewhere, we like to remind ourselves why we’re here, who we’re here for,” she said, then opened a door and gestured for Beck to follow her.
“Take a seat, please, Mr. Emerson,” Tina said, making her way around the desk in the middle of the room.
Beck’s stomach knotted itself even more, but he did so.
“So,” Tina began, pulling out two files from a cabinet, “we’re starting with the wills of Stephen and Marie Douglas. It’s clearly stated that you’re meant to be the legal guardian of Eleanor Douglas in both Stephen and Marie’s wills. You’re aware of this, correct?”
“Do you have any objections to having custody of Eleanor?”
“I…” Beck paused, sighed, then slowly stumbled on. “Stephen was my best friend and I know he’d want me to take care of Eleanor, but…I don’t think I can. I love Ellie, but I recently lost my job and the apartment I live in isn’t ideal to raise a child in. I – I can’t do this. It kills me, but I can’t. I’d rather take care of her myself, and God, I wish I could, but I just – I can’t.” Beck’s heart raced as he watched Tina Waters closely to see what she would say.
“I’m going to tell you something Mr. Emerson,” she said after looking at him for a while. “Every day I deal with broken kids who come from abusive households and who want, need, someone to love them, care for them. They don’t have anyone. Can you imagine what it’s like? You have the opportunity to save Eleanor from an even more terrible situation than she’s already in.” She sighed.
“You’d make a great guardian, Beck. Stephen wanted this. Marie too, but Stephen talked about it the most in his will.” She hesitated, but took out the will of Stephen Douglas and read from it.
“‘If Marie and I are ever unable to take care of Eleanor, Beck Emerson shall be her legal guardian. Because both Marie and I have no living family, he is the only one we trust with her. I know he’d take good care of her and cherish her as much as we would.’”
Beck blinked back the tears in his eyes when she finished. It sounded like Stephen, but he couldn’t believe he said all those things. It gave him hope that he actually could take care of Ellie. Then reality struck him and his dream faltered.
“It’s possible,” Tina said. “There are government opportunities, ways to get money to support you two until you find another job. There are options. I really believe you can do this, Mr. Emerson. Believe me, you don’t want Ellie to enter the system. She’d live a much happier life with you.”
Beck inhaled deeply. “I want to,” he said, eyes downcast. “Are you sure this is doable? I just want what’s best for her.”
Tina’s expression softened. “I’m positive. I won’t lie to you, Beck. It will be an extremely rough start. You may even end up regretting your decision, but know that you’re saving Eleanor from a horrible system. Eventually you have to face your reality and responsibilities. I can tell you’ve been stuck in a rut for a while, but you have to do this for Eleanor. It won’t be easy, but you can.”
There were a few minutes of silence in which all Beck did was think about what he was facing, the challenges ahead, about how Ellie needed him, and how badly she was probably
feeling right now, about what he owed Stephen after he was there for him all those years. And finally, he knew. Of course it would be a challenge. Nothing in life would ever be easy. But this was something he knew he was meant to do. With the cards stacked against him, despite every opposing force, he’d do it. For Ellie. For Stephen.
“Where do I sign?” Beck asked.
Tina Waters smiled. “You scared me for a second there,” she said, then stood. “I’ll be back with the papers.”
First Place: Niraja Surendran, “Bear,” Ronald Reagan High School, 11th grade
My mother gushed about how handsome he looked. Even my father, who is usually a taciturn man, joined in on the shower of compliments, conceding that he had never felt prouder. I, on the other hand, looked out of the car. I watched the rain dance across the window, twisting and turning away from each other, traversing then taking different paths and spreading farther and farther away. The raindrops seemed to replace the tears that I was not allowed to spill on this supposedly joyous occasion.
I could see him sneaking glances at me through my peripheral vision, but neither one of us said anything to the other during the strained forty-five minute drive to the airport. There was too much to say, and such little time. I decided that the silence between us offered me more comfort than any futile attempt at conversation, and as he laughed with our mother and father, I began to wander through a pile of forgotten memories.
I am eight years old, he is ten. He is tall and bony, his light blonde hair long enough to fall into his eyes. I am playing in our backyard with the other children on our block, all who are his age or older, eating an orange Popsicle while swinging, the sticky syrup gluing the short, choppy strands of my hair together. “I want another one, Bear,” I tell him. Bear was my nickname for him ever since I could speak. According to my parents, that was my first word as a baby; when I looked over at him, he enunciated his name slowly to me – “Bran-don,” – and I giggled, pointed at him, and shouted “Bear!” Yes, he is my first memory, not my mother, father, or favorite stuffed animal. It was always Bear and me, Bear and I.
Bear went inside to get us popsicles, and when he came back, he saw that all our “friends” were throwing grass and dirt at me. I remember my brother’s reaction vividly, how a violent and unfamiliar blue rose in his eyes, like a deadly storm at sea, that contrasted his usual calm, composed behavior. He seized the main perpetrator by the collar (that awful Tommy whose favorite pastime was burping in my face), pushed him down, and warned his sister that it was in their best interest to stay away from us. Needless to say, they ran home immediately, and we never played with them again. Bear took my hand, led me inside, and handed me over to my mother, who chided him for leaving my side in the first place and grounded him for a month. I stayed with him in his room the whole month, and although he rolled his eyes every time I walked in, I knew he enjoyed my company.
I am ten, he is twelve. I am sitting in a tent, feet curled up to my chest, anxious as twilight approaches. It is the first time I have gone camping, and so far I have been living a ten-year-old dream, complete with hiking, canoeing, and s’mores. But now it is nighttime, and Mom and Dad are in the tent right next to the one Bear and I are sharing, but it feels like they are miles away. I feel trapped underneath my sleeping bag. Its warmth offers me some comfort, until I start thinking about large insects, wild animals, Big Foot, and other creatures that could harm me in the middle of the night.
“Bear,” I whimper.
“What, Chelsea?” His tone has the hint of annoyance in it, as if he already knew what I was about to say.
I inform him about my fear, he insists that nothing could eat me (the tent is zipped shut and my sleeping bag hides my delectable human scent), I argue that in my sleeping bag I would seem like a big, juicy sausage to a bear, he tells me to sleep on the floor then, I say that I will get
cold and die from hypothermia, and he banters that I’m a baby and a scaredy-cat. But in the end, due to my adamant refusal to sleep, he stayed up as my watchman until I drifted off, gently stroking my hair and swatting flies or mosquitoes that approached me.
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I am twelve, he is fourteen. He is in high school now, which means that associating with a seventh-grader like me would be detrimental to his reputation. I am also not allowed to call him “Bear” anymore in public, and when his friends come over, I am to stay in my room or he will ensure my suffering. I am not sure if I like the new Bear, err, Brandon so much anymore, who has transformed from the awkward, gangly middle-schooler with a select few friends to the widely-adored football player who is constantly chased by girls. After a particularly rough day of middle school, I came home, went to my room, flopped onto my bed, and wept. Bear was in his room with a bunch of his friends from football, both my parents were at work, and I had never felt so helpless and lonely.
“Dude, I think your sister’s crying in her room,” one of his friends snickered.
Another one laughed in agreement. “God she’s so immature. How do you deal?”
I began to cry even louder than I had before, unable to control my sobs. I knew that I had embarrassed Bear, and that he would kill me once his friends left. I just hoped Mom or Dad would come home before then so I would have someone to defend me. However, I was wrong about Bear. Sure, he had changed, yet there were still remnants of the old Bear in him, the kind- hearted and protective brother I have had my whole life. He walked into my room with a bowl of ice cream, sat down on my bed and asked me if I wanted to talk. I blubbered to him for almost an hour, and he listened the whole time.
I am fourteen, he is sixteen. Finally in high school, I believe that I am now cool enough to be able to hang out with Bear and his friends. I am wrong, of course, for I am a freshman and he is a junior. Associating with me would still be detrimental to his reputation. Nevertheless, Bear was beginning to mature now, which meant his provincial fourteen-year-old mindset had somewhat disappeared. He drives me to school and nods at me in the hallways, and his friends know of my existence. I do not think I have felt so appreciated by him in the last few years. I make it onto the varsity tennis team, a rare feat as a freshman, and I am as happy as can be until the day I forgot my racket and work-out clothes at home, the day of our final district tournament at another high school. Mom and Dad are at work, and there is no way I can walk home and back in thirty minutes, the time I have left until a bus arrives to take us tennis players to the tournament. So, I call Bear, my only option, and beg for him to leave football practice and get my equipment for me. He does, sprinting to the parking lot, speeding to our house, and sprinting back. I am rewarded with a trophy for placing second in singles; he is punished by his coach for missing practice, having to do fifty push-ups in addition to warm-ups. He is my protector, my savior, my friend, and my hero.
I am sixteen now, and he is eighteen. He looks older, though, as he pulls his luggage out of the trunk of our car. I feel younger, the burden of a noble brother who has enlisted in the military resting upon my shoulder and pushing me down into the Earth until I am nothing but the impression of my skeleton, the trace of a human being.
Bear and I are raindrops, drifting further and further apart, each with a different purpose in our life. That is how all siblings are, but in the end, I know that he will be the one person that I can count on for the rest of my life. Friends come and go, along with neighbors, pets, and boyfriends, but family is forever.
That is the only thought left in my mind as he engulfs me in one of his big, Bear hugs and whispers that he will miss me, that I better keep in touch with him, into my hair. The million miles between us will not matter. The fact that I do not know when I will see him again, or even if I will ever see him again, will not matter, because I know the truth.
Family is forever.
*Top Image: Niraja Surendran, Ronald Reagan High School, 11th Grade, Principal Brenda Shelton, and SABF Executive Director Katy Flato. Courtesy Photo.