A Stellar Flare of Young Adult Writing and Visual Art
by Emily Yin
Lucy inhaled and forgot to exhale. Lucy carried words in her mouth, stillborn, and never noticed the blood. Lucy watched people leave in trains and coffins. Lucy never knew what she was mourning. She grew up in a world where children and undertakers were on a first-name basis, where memorial events drew larger crowds than birthday parties, and came to inherit its loss.
When Lucy was six, her brother found Auntie Sue hanging from a rope in the attic. Usually Jude never said anything besides ‘shut up’ and ‘go away’, but that day his voice was swollen with grief. Lucy asked what was wrong.
“She hanged herself, honey.” Vera attempted stoicism but couldn’t quite keep her lips from quivering.
“Mom,” Jude broke in, “keep it PG for Lucy.”
Vera shook her head sadly. “We can’t hide the facts of life from her anymore.”
“You want her to be messed up? Huh? Get a hold of yourself and wait until Daddy comes.” The anger suffocated his words, made them hard to understand.
“Okay, okay.” Jude had his hands on his head. He did that when he wanted to concentrate. “Call 9-1-1, Mom.” He brought the receiver to Vera, who talked to someone for a very long time before hanging up. Lucy started to feel pangs in her stomach.
“Mommy, I’m hungry. What are we having for dinner?” She asked.
“Honey, I don’t have time for this,” her mother replied. Jude looked critically at his sister.
“Aren’t you even the least bit shocked that Auntie Sue died? She liked you so much.” Lucy returned Jude’s gaze.
“Auntie Sue lived alone. My teacher says that’s not proper for a woman her age. She also gave silly presents.”
“Oh. Oh.” Vera rocked back and forth. Her bouncy hair flopped, one, two, three times. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Jude said that, being the ungrateful boy he is. But how could you say that? Oh. Oh. I need some aspirin.”
Lucy heard loud sirens and voices outside the house. Within minutes, tall uniformed men had swarmed into the foyer and the adjacent hallway. Vera flitted about anxiously, trying to still her runaway hands and words, but was largely ignored in favor of the serious and boyish Jude. When the medics finally came back down, they were carrying a long black bag. Lucy asked if Auntie Sue was inside, but no one answered.
When Lucy was ten years old, Cousin Ike got run over by a UPS truck. Three major news channels picked up the story, and Ike soon became a posthumous media darling on account of his obscure zip code, nice smile, and tragicomic death. Even the people in Lucy’s town talked unceasingly about poor Ike from Wisconsin until the Next Big Thing came along.
Lucy and Jude had received the news by mail. It was Lucy who found the envelope. The siblings were well-accustomed to these slim packages, since Ike’s mother had social phobia and was dreadfully afraid of telephones. Then her brother had appeared out of nowhere, demanded to see the letter, and taken it without waiting for an answer. As Jude read its contents, his face got redder and redder.
“Ike was hit.”
“What? Did he get into a fight? Oh my gosh, this is big coming from a sissy like him.”
“No, Lucy. Oh, I should have known. He got hit. By a UPS truck.” Lucy couldn’t help herself. She burst out laughing.
Jude had turned to face the house across the street. The evening sun hung like a drop of scarlet liquid in the sky and cast long shadows on his back. Lucy thought that Jude had forgotten about her until he issued a command which would become futile in the following days.
“This stays in the family.”
Lucy had an idea about Cousin Ike’s death, and it went like this: Ike was loitering in the middle of the road, waiting for his dog to finish peeing on a curbside bush, and the UPS truck hurtling toward its next mailbox just couldn’t stop in time. However, an eyewitness account completely debunked her pet theory.
“He saw the truck, alright,” the witness told a reporter, “but he was too slow to get outta the way.” How slow? “Like a turtle on Prozac. Or a deer caught in the headlights. Really slow. It was awful, man.”
Lucy wasn’t sure about the Prozac part, but she liked the image of a deer-in-headlights, and often pantomimed it when no one was looking.
Ike’s funeral was swathed in the dog days of August. Everyone wept when the pastor sang “Amazing Grace”, even Lucy. But Lucy didn’t cry because she realized that her family had reached its expiration date—that it was curdling like milk gone bad. Lucy certainly noticed the signs of a household falling apart: her father had started to work even longer hours, her mother was forgetting PTA meetings and social events, and her brother practically lived with his best friend Rob. But in truth Lucy wept because roguish Ezra down the street had snubbed her earlier that day.
The reception only got worse. Long after “Amazing Grace” had ended, the other mourners clung to each other, mutual anchors in a shifting sea of black. As the pastor spoke, Lucy plucked at the folds of crushed velvet that she never seemed to outgrow. Inspired by Vera, who was unsuccessfully trying to engage her neighbor in conversation, Lucy turned to the girl on her left and whispered something in her ear. The girl giggled.
“Irreverence is a sin,” said Ike’s girl, Lily, from a nearby pew. She prided herself on being a know-it-all, but Lucy didn’t think she knew much at all. Almost everyone had seen that Ike’s girlfriends were displays, and his mother the only audience.
Lily continued to sermonize, and weariness settled over Lucy like a fog. Jesus, she thought, watching her relatives raise champagne glasses and socialize in loose circles. Is this their idea of a family reunion? Lucy closed her eyes but all she could see was a family tree with all its branches cut off.
“Lucy,” Jude shouted from his room. “Lucy. Come here.” Lucy came. Jude, at seventeen, was enlisting in the Marines, a fact which nearly everyone in the town had guessed from his old man’s puffed-up demeanor. Their mother held him at arm’s length as if to memorize his face, but the gesture seemed more reproach than good will. Already she was pushing him away; tomorrow she would no doubt scream and cry, using his affectionate words against him. You said you loved me. How selfish of you to leave. How typical. Such was Vera, forever turning white into black and love into a weapon.
“What do you want? I’m reading a book.” Lucy sensed the hurt in her brother’s eyes and backtracked. “I’ll miss you. Really. But if you’re asking me to help you pack…”
“No,” he said wryly. Then: “Do you have any idea why I’m leaving?”
Lucy thought. “I can guess. You’re doing it because you want to defend our country.” All the townspeople were Episcopalian on the census, but most children found ways to miss Sunday church. Not that the parents minded, for religion wasn’t in their blood. Religion was to the town what Auntie Sue had been to the family: the red headed stepchild, not completely wanted. But Jude was always different. Lucy had never known what he’d seen in hymns and prayers. She glanced at the crimson Bible slanted on his bookshelf, now nearly swallowed by dust.
As if he knew what she was thinking, he asked: “Do you know why I stopped going to church?”
To this question Lucy also had an answer, although she didn’t want to admit it. Lucy had seen him talking to Rob’s sister outside her house. They were standing by the open window, deep in some discussion. At some point Jude glanced out and seemed to see Lucy, said don’t give us away, for God’s sake, don’t give us away.
“Look. I think you know, and you’re just in denial.” Denial? Lucy thought. “It didn’t start with Ike. Do you remember Ida and Maisie? They were our family friends.”
“Yeah. Something happened. Hah. I tried asking Mom what happened to Ida in kindergarten and she pretended that nothing was wrong.” Lucy remembered how it had been, could see the sun-soaked upholstery in the living room and hear her mother’s quick laugh, and she was happy.
“You were young then, so you wouldn’t remember the funeral. But I do. Do you know how they said she died? They called it an accident.”
“An accident,” Lucy echoed dumbly.
“The two liked to hang out near a bluff. The one behind the school–it’s been cordoned off since then. They were the best of friends, you know, for the first fourteen years of their lives. Then something happened, and they started arguing a lot. I won’t call it a rift, because that’s too dramatic. Probably just boy trouble, right? Or some other rivalry; at least that’s what I thought in the beginning. But it wasn’t boy trouble.” There was something dark in Jude’s emphasis.
“Anyway,” he continued, “one day they got into one of their customary shouting matches, only this time the arena had no rails. Maisie shoved her sister, and she fell.”
“An accident,” Lucy rejoined quietly.
“Why are you saying these awful things? Mom will get angry.”
“She doesn’t get angry anymore.” He sounded almost sad.
Lucy ran down the stairs and plunged into the family room.
“Mom–” Lucy stopped. Vera’s eyes were glued to the TV set. Every once in a while, she laughed shrilly or attacked her bag of chips; other than that, she hardly moved. Lucy stared in wonder at the large woman slouched in front of the television. The mother she remembered had died long ago, forgotten and alone.
Jude’s a good kid, Uncle John liked to say, the finest boy I ever saw. At some point the praise stopped. He never started criticizing his nephew, would never lower himself in that way, but the silence was no weak condemnation. One day Lucy was thinking about a conversation that had taken place between her brother and Rob just hours before Jude left. Don’t go, Rob had pleaded. For God’s sake, why are you joining the military after everything that’s happened? I’m sick of counting bodies. But her brother hardened then, said, I thought you of all people would understand.
Jude. When was the last time she’d heard from him? Why hadn’t she seen him off? An argument. No, Jude had taken many things with him, but not hard feelings. Lulu had wanted to go to the movies, that was all. A movie she’d been waiting forever to see.
The summer Lucy turned seventeen herself, she molted into long slinky dresses. The tank tops and denim shorts of her childhood lay in a forgotten laundry room heap. She also sought out the neighboring girls’ front porches, freshly-painted clapboard oases in the heat. Her new friends had feared Jude nearly as much as their mothers despised Vera. But they accepted Lucy, for she had become one of those exceptionally beautiful girls in her adolescence, red-haired and bloodless in complexion. Day after day they talked about boys, looks, and gossip, and were regarded as the nice girls in town. Often Vera would look out the window, and what she saw made her misery easier to bear.
One midsummer day, Vera waved Lucy into the house to tell her that she would never see her brother again. As Vera spoke, Lucy’s pale eyes looked beyond her mother. What she hadn’t seen before: Ida haloed in blood at the bottom of the bluff and Ike so disfigured that the casket was closed. The images came like a phantom pain. So here was the price of apathy; apathy, whose ghost had finally found her. Jude called me this morning, Vera continued, eyes wet and bitter in the unseasonably bright day. Says he’s happy where he is. He’s got a…friend he’s real happy with. He won’t be coming back.
Lucy turned toward Rob’s small house across the street, remembered late-night Morse code, open windows, tears brewing under Jude’s shuttered eyes when he said goodbye to the person he’d loved the most. Outside the sky was a bruising scarlet wound. Lucy felt sick. Say it, she told her mother, why don’t you just say what we all know. Jude and the others, they were different. Lucy felt a tightness in her ribs, vertigo, and realized that she was holding her breath. The truth rose like steel in her throat, came out as a whoosh of air. The next day she apologized, sick of the futility of it all. Lucy retreated to her friends’ houses and forgot her unhappiness soon enough. But she always went home after sunset, so she wouldn’t have to see the red.
Emily Yin is a 12th grader at Acton-Boxborough Regional High School.
She lives in the small town of Acton, Massachusetts. Her work has been nationally recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and is forthcoming in The Riveter Review and The Eunoia Review, among others.
An excerpt and announcement of this story’s place in the contest was also published here, on Hypertext Mag, the site that hosts this contest and sister site of Hypernova Lit.