Presenting the 2018 Milton Literary Festival Young Authors Creative Fiction Writing Contest Middle School Grand Prize Winner
By Roxanna Karim
Northwestern Middle School, Grade 7
He was simply Leo.
Not LeRoy. Not Roy. Leo.
It was simple enough, but teachers still called him LeRoy.
He wasn’t a full name person anyway.
He didn’t think anyone with an ounce of pride would keep the name of a notorious gang leader, but then again, people who did business in the Hood weren’t exactly honorable people.
In ways, he understood why his Mom pulled a Bel-Air on him and sent him into Manhattan to stay with Aunt Tasha. He wasn’t complaining—it beat getting pushed around by Malik and his “friends.” It was easier to be positive, too.
He was lonely though. Leo contemplated this while taking the subway home. It wasn’t as though the junior had no friends, he just preferred to be alone with Drake and his Beats. Breaking him out of his thoughts, a soft, sorrowful melody filled the station. He turned around, searching for the source of the music. Leo, besides the occasional K-Pop rap, didn’t have much of a taste for any other genre, but these notes seemed to speak to him.
It was a girl.
She was short, with thick, mahogany hair that fell just past her shoulders. The tips were a soft pink, tumbling loosely against the back of her sweatshirt.
And she was playing the violin.
It was an odd instrument, slightly bigger than a violin should be, and a dark navy, small, yellow and gold stars dotting the precious wood. Leo never was musical, but he was drawn in by the wordless song. He crept closer, and noticed that the violin case was open, filled to the brim with crumpled bills and rusted pennies.
He added the fifty he had gotten for mowing Mr. Lancaster’s lawn.
It landed with a swoosh.
She smiled at him, hitting the final note gracefully, and Leo saw her eyes.
He had never seen hazel eyes before.
There had been a time in his life when he hadn’t even seen someone with skin as light as the moon. A darkened childhood, his mother called it.
“I think your ride is here,” she whispered quietly. He turned around and saw that she was right. He gave the girl a hurried smile and hopped onto the subway car, slipping on his Beats and letting the sound of Post Malone fill his ears.
Leo found himself humming the subway girl’s nameless tune regardless.
He was doing a book report, so he might as well read the book while he waited.
Again, he dropped a bill, except this time it was a ten, because he didn’t want to ask for more lunch money. Aunt Tasha had just started double shifts, so every extra penny had more sweat put into it. He didn’t have the heart to ask.
Again, the girl smiled at him.
Again, she finished another song, finishing on a quavering, eerie final beat, the bow coming to a gradual stop.
“God bless America.” Leo gave her a puzzled look upon hearing the oddly familiar phrase. Her face fell. “Have you not gotten to that part yet, in the book?” she inquired. He glanced at the paperback in his cold grasp, suddenly realizing what she meant. Shingaling.
“Oh, um, yeah! Sorry, I forgot for a second. It’s a pretty good,” he mumbled. She gave him a knowing look.
“Happens to the best of us. By the way, your ride is here.” Again, he turned around to see that she was right. Leo wanted to ask what her name was.
He sensed it wasn’t a good time.
He got on the subway and went home. The whole encounter gave him a strong sense of déjà vu.
Her name was Rowan.
His name was Leo.
She was thirteen.
He was sixteen.
They became friends.
They planned to meet on the rooftop.
It was mutual. Both of them knew where it was.
Leo came home with a slight skip in his step.
Boulevard of Broken Dreams
“Hey, Leo.” Rowan was sitting on the very edge of the building, which scared him slightly. He noticed that the area around her left eye was red.
That was going to bruise later.
He scooted closer and engulfed the young girl in a hug. After a while, they broke away.
“Thanks,” she mumbled, cheeks red with embarrassment.
The two of them met every Friday on “the roof.” There was nothing special about this building’s roof; it was just there. Even so, both parties looked forward to the meeting.
It was an escape from reality.
Leo moved his thumb over the swollen area, making Rowan wince. “I’m fine, Prince. It’s okay.” (Prince was Leo’s nickname, after his Bel-Air-esque relocation. Rowan’s was Stargirl, because she liked the stars. Again, it was mutual.)
“Rowan, when are you going to stand up for yourself?” the teen sighed, all joking aside. “He isn’t even your real Dad. Say something!” The girl blinked, and he wondered if he had pushed the boundaries too far. A faraway glaze settled into her kaleidoscope eyes. She gave him a sad smile, the one that meant she was about to tell a story.
“Kameron was my half-brother, the best one you could ever ask for. He refused to be separated from me, so we always had a hard time getting placed in a permanent home. The one time, we did get placed, it was plain awful, long story short. Neither of us ever wanted to go home; we never knew what mood the couple would be in, and let’s just say they weren’t the sweetest grandma and grandma ever. On one occasion, the husband, Evan, I think was his name, got so ticked off because I had come home a minute late or something like that, he brought out his Glock 19 and held me at gunpoint all night.” She paused to take a breath. “I was nine. Kameron had enough of everything that was going on, so he went to the police. They filed a report and said they’d take it up with Child Services and get us out of there in the morning. We had a get-out-of-jail-free card, a one-way ticket to a new life. But Kameron had to sneak out of the house to do it. Evan still had his Glock 19, all loaded and ready, having fallen asleep in his comfy chair. Kameron tripped on a bush. Evan shot three times. There wasn’t even a scream.”
Dead silence filled the frigid November air.
Rowan began to hum faintly. He recognized the tune from somewhere far away.
“Mm hm. ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams.’ It’s stuck in my head. I guess, in a way, it’s fitting. Broken souls, broken dreams.”
Leo let the words sink in a little. It made sense. It always did.
“Hang in there. Pink-haired people are the best kind of people. The world needs more of them anyway.” Stargirl grinned and shoved him playfully.
“You’re so positive! I swear, how do you do it?” she asked incredulously. Prince smiled.
“It’s the way I survive. Feel free to try it sometime.”
“I have. Why do you think I’m still here?”
There was something broken about her words.
Schedule Changes, New Connections
Leo had general music this quarter.
He was looking forward to it, for once.
Stargirl’s body was warm, but a small source of energy compared to any star.
“I’m sorry Leo, I just can’t! It hurts too much. I need to just go…let go…”
He had heard several versions of these statements over the past hour.
It hurt Leo. A lot.
He didn’t know how long they sat there against the electric box, intertwined in each other’s limbs. She would rotate between sobbing, muttering, and silence. Prince said nothing, per usual.
They broke apart, sometime right after sunset. He saw the fresh scars peeping out from under her sleeves but didn’t say anything.
They stared at the stars. He had to admit, it was breathtaking.
“What got you into stars anyway?” She turned to face him. Leo could see the tear stains on her freckled cheeks. Stargirl gazed at her glittering namesakes.
“I like looking at the stars because in the right time, place, and position, when you look up, all you can see are stars; tiny balls of fire in every direction. Nothing else is in your peripheral vision. It’s comforting, I guess, to know that it’s all the same, stars all around you, just stars and sky. I can get lost in them and not have to think about anything changing for a while.”
Leo thought for a moment.
“But Rowan, what happens when you don’t look down? You spend so much time looking up you forget about what happens below the sky. It still matters, doesn’t it?” The girl sighed and locked her eyes with his.
Hazel and dark blue met.
“When all the world, is spinning ‘round like a red balloon, way up in the clouds and my feet will not stay on the ground, you anchor me back down.” Stargirl’s voice was soft and gentle, not robust and sly like it usually was. “You anchor me down, even though you don’t realize it, just being you.”
Again, they sat in silence.
Rowan stood up to leave, then paused, turning around to face Leo. “Same time as before, but this place. I just want to see the stars one more time.” With that, her slim figure disappeared down the stairwell, leaving the teen to dwell on the odd phrase, also attempting to sort out his jumbled thoughts.
They never met on Wednesdays.
After all, it was a lot to make sense of.
Heights and Better Places
It struck Leo in fifth period.
Tapping his foot anxiously, all he could think was that he needed to get out!
At last, the final bell rang, and he fled like bitten prey. Leo never stopped running. How could he, when he finally understood her words. She’s going to do it, God, she’s going to jump and I’m going to see it, I’m going to be the one to feel it first, HURRY! How could he have not noticed, the way she was talking, the words she uttered right before she left. ‘Same time as before, but this place. I just want to see the stars one more time.’ Why didn’t he say anything, knowing what hid underneath her sweater paws?
Why didn’t he care more?
His feet rarely touched the sidewalk. He felt as though he were walking through quicksand, though the wind blowing in his hair told him otherwise. A loud, vibrating shrieking told him he was in the station, and he scanned the area wildly, his eyes never landing on her pink hair.
Someone was tapping him on the shoulder.
Breaking him out of his daze, an older man tapped Leo on the shoulder.
“You lookin’ for that little girl who plays here?” Leo nodded. The hobo smiled.
“Aye, t’was on the roof earlier, but she left. Said they were puttin’ her in a new place with new folks and she gots to get there quick. But she left this for you.” The leathered hands picked up a small box from the bench he was supposedly sitting on and handed it to the boy. “’Tis for you, lad. Open it.”
Prince took the box.
Inside was a miniature violin, dark navy with tiny, golden stars, bow included. He drew a breath.
“Alive? Very much so lad. She wanted to see the stars, I believe. Bright little thing.”
Leo stared at the box.
This doesn’t make sense.
“Hey! Did she ever—” Prince started, but the man was gone. “Ugh, so cliché.” He muttered. Closing the box, he hopped on the train, but didn’t put on any music.
He only wanted to hear Stargirl.
I think I was a little ominous when I last saw you.
Okay, let me rephrase that: I was ominous. Sorry about that.
And sorry that I had to leave so abruptly.
They told me this morning that I had a new placement with a family all the way in L.A! Ramón C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts has a lottery, and this couple fosters kids who like performing and stuff and they enter them and if you win, it’s all paid for and you get to stay with the couple!
I hung in there, like you said.
Yeah, I was going to do “it.” I’m truly sorry about that.
That’s a lot of apologizing so early on for this type of letter, but I guess it’s okay.
I met the couple (surname Grace-how ironic) over Skype (they seemed nice), and then the social workers shoved me onto the plane, so I didn’t get to say bye to you. This is my way of doing that, I guess. It’s a great opportunity. I mean, I do have to be homeschooled for the rest of eighth grade, because it’s a private high school, but still. I’m still going to miss you a lot.
It’s not worth it, in a way, but I’d be crazy to pass up on an opportunity like this.
I hope you like the little viola-yes, it’s not a violin. J.K, I just play a full-sized violin, and I’m kind of tiny for one so it looks big, but does it matter? I got the wood guy down the street (Dave) to carve it out.
It’s not much for all the trouble I’ve given you.
I bet you’re mad. No, not mad, fuming with fury, most likely (too poetic for you but whatever).
I’ll do this. They’re giving me an iPhone (latest model too!) and they gave me the number for it over Skype if I want to give it to any of my “friends” before I left, and I’m pretty sure that means you. If I’m wrong, you don’t have to use it. I get it.
Closing these rather stupid formalities,
P.S- You know that sweatshirt you lent me a few days ago? I still have it. Tell me if you want it back.
Leo glanced at his phone, holding his breath. He waited, the phone hovering not even an inch away from his ear. He exhaled. There was a click.
“You can keep the sweatshirt, Stargirl. Just wear it when you look at the stars. If you’re going to be surrounded by stars, you can be surrounded by the scent of my infamous au cologne.”
Prince heard a faint chuckling on the other end of the line.
“Peripheral vision. It’s a great thing, you know.”
What ominous situation has had a happy ending for you? Tell us in the comments.