We had a number of good entries this month in the Middle Grade/Young Adult category of Novel Rocket's LAUNCH PAD Contest: Boosting You Out of the Slush Pile (aka The Writing Contest With the Long Name).
Happily, the judges were in quick agreement as to the winner.
This story is for the YA rather than the Middle Grade set, and it would appeal to those who like their stories dark and strange. We’ve got a sad, strong female protagonist and a thick, juicy thread of romance. Paragraphs and chapters are short and punchy, and the writing is smooth, with skillful word choices and good technique. For these reasons, Moriah McStay Lee of Memphis, TN is the winner of this category, with her novel The Corner of Hope and Fear.
Since, as we said, the chapters are short, we’ll share with you the first 3800 words or so, which is three chapters. So hang onto your hats, and enjoy!
The Corner of Hope and Fear
Moriah McStay Lee
Here’s the trouble with being invincible – when the dust settles and the blood dries, there's only one still standing.
She is always alone.
Or in my immediate case, moving across the country with an aunt I’ve never known.
After two days and three thousand miles, I pull into the driveway of my new life. I remind myself that I chose this – the life with a stranger, the fresh start -- although I've really got no clearer idea of what waits for me here than when we left California. Granted, the Jeep is loud. The plastic windows rattle, the passing road buzzes below the floorboards, the fifteen-year-old engine whines more than purrs, so we had to yell more than talk. And my aunt appears to be as much a conversationalist as I am. All of which adds up to not a lot of conversation. Close enough.
“Thank God that’s over,” Evelyn mutters as we get out of the car.
Everything about her house is square -- boxy frame, symmetrical garden, perfect rectangle of grass. A seasonal flag, stitched with a pumpkin and gold leaves, flutters by the front door. Evelyn wipes each foot three times on the mat, gesturing for me to do the same.
The house is small and uber tidy, with ceilings that hang lower than I'm used to. I stretch my and overhead and cup my fingers over the door's molding. My heart pangs a little for the rounded Spanish doorways and leaded glass back home.
“Kitchen. TV. Bathroom. Patio.” Evelyn says as she walks down the house’s main hallway, pointing. She stops outside a doorway and faces me. "Your room."
I peer through the doorway. Images of flowers are everywhere – roses on the polyester bedspread, poppies on the curtains, mums on the pillows. A vase of dried, dusty flowers too far gone to recognize sits on the dresser. A glass bowl filled with brittle, decaying petals is on the nightstand. The room is an homage to the idea of life.
“Okay. Thanks,” I say, walking through the door and tossing my bags onto the bed.
“We're due at Edith's in an hour. You can meet the boys," Evelyn says, perched in the hallway, watching me.
I nod, and she walks away. I unzip the first bag and rummage through it until my fingers find steel. Wrapping my hand around it, I pull the heavy chunk free and sit on the mattress.
The gun rests on my outstretched hand, and I lay my other hand on top of it – a flesh and metal sandwich. I close my eyes, searching through my skin for something other than steel and plastic - something, anything that feels like my father.
But only cool metal rubs against me.
Bending my elbows, I pull the gun toward me in some semi-automatic prayer. I take a deep breath, smell only steel. Giving a quick glance to the door, I stick out my tongue, just lightly touching it to the muzzle. The fillings in my teeth sting with the tang of it.
The clicking of Evelyn’s shoes against tile echoes down the hall. I sigh and lower the gun to my lap, running my finger along the handle, letting my fingernails dip into the grooved plastic. I can just imagine what my aunt would think if she walked in and saw me in this séance with a Beretta.
But the clip is empty, all the bullets stored at the bottom of bag number two. Dad dedicated his life to keeping me alive. Making me invincible. He made sure I was strong and smart and prepared and tough. That no matter what – an obnoxious middle schooler, a would-be abductor, a guy who just wanted to hit someone – I’d be the one left standing. He really believed that nothing – no one – was more important than my survival.
The least I can do is not shoot myself with the handgun.
Dad would have wanted me to take it. Especially since he doesn’t need it any more. Because he is dead. Gone. Never to be seen again.
And I, Samantha Elizabeth Park, am alone.
When Evelyn calls, I shove the gun in the top dresser drawer and meet her out front. I fish my keys out of my pocket, but she shakes her head and says,
"We're going in my car."
Beige Ford Taurus it is.
I stare behind me before we get in the car. “Don’t you need to lock the door?”
Evelyn looks surprised at the question. “Samantha, this is a small town. No one’s going to break in the house.”
I swear I almost hear my father groan.
While we drive to Edith’s – my dead mother’s oldest sister – Evelyn points out the sights. Mount Gilead High School. Highway Forty-Two. The cemetery. City Hall.
“That’s one of the entrances to Mount Gilead State Park,” she says, her fingers pointing behind her as we pass the park. “It’s about a quarter of the town – it lines up with the southern edge. It’s probably our main tourist attraction. We get a good number of hikers coming to use it. The high school, my house, Edith’s – we all back up to it.”
“The trails are good?” I ask, the slightest glimmer of hope in my chest.
“I assume so. Why else would people come in town for it?”
I look sideways at her. “You’ve never been in it?”
She sniffs and draws her shoulders back. “I’m not an outdoorsy person.”
I watch her a minute and wonder, Who on earth is this woman? How are we going to last two years together? But we pull into Edith's drive before I can spend much time tormenting myself over it.
At first glance, Edith Caine seems the very opposite of her sister. Evelyn Williams is rail thin and fidgety. I have yet to see her in wrinkled pants or unpolished shoes, even during the road trip. So I am momentarily surprised when Edith answers the door, rolling and slow, wearing a blanket of a dress and slippers.
The houses are different, too – Edith’s old and rambling with chipped paint and weed-covered garden. It sits on acres and acres.
But then I see the similarities. Big fake-blond hair with lots of hairspray. Pointed jaw, Evelyn’s a little more so. Pale blue eyes, wrinkles around them filled with makeup. It’s hard to match them with the memory of my mother – all our pictures show her with slightly wavy long brown hair, wide blue eyes, naturally flushed cheeks. Of course, she was so much younger then.
“Well, come on in,” Edith says, waving a beefy hand at me. “Let me get a look at you.”
She puts her hands on her hips and looks me up and down when I step towards her. “Not much of Libby in you, is there?” she says.
It takes a second to realize “Libby” is my mother. Dad always called her Elizabeth.
Edith doesn’t seem to care that I haven’t answered. “No, you definitely look like your father.”
“Did you ever meet my father?” I ask, taking a step back. Looking down at her, since she’s at least two inches shorter.
“No, of course not. Doesn’t mean I can’t tell. The eyes. The skin. The hair,” she says, pointing to each part of me.
Evelyn clears her throat and says, “We’ve been driving for two days straight. Can we please get past the doorway?”
Edith scowls at Evelyn. “Fine. Samantha should meet the boys, anyway.”
“It’s Sam,” I say.
Both aunts look at me like I’ve spoken Swahili.
We walk through a narrow hallway. The house smells like onions and mothballs. Edith’s thighs, sausaged in pantyhose, whistle as she walks. When we get to the back of the house, Edith steps down into a family room, dingy from worn green carpet and old paneling.
“Luke, Jared, this is Samantha, my sister Libby’s daughter.” Edith looks from the boys to me. Then she nods at her sister and says, “Evelyn, come help me in the kitchen.”
I stare at the two boys a second, momentarily shocked.
I have cousins.
For as long as I can remember, it was just me and Dad – a compact family of two. All of a sudden, my family’s exploded.