Rotary/Summit Daily high school short story contest: A true hero’s light (first place)
June 20, 2016
The following piece was the first-place finisher in the 6th annual Rotary/Summit Daily high school short story contest.
A sea of white flooded into my fingertips as I clutched the book. My heart knocked against the inside of my chest, and I got closer and closer to the climax. I sat up straighter and my eyes widened and then. . .
"Zeke, are you okay?" A voice spilled over from some universe next to me, jerking me toward it. The book folded closed, locking the adventure inside. I nodded, running my fingers across the smooth paperback. I guess I had gotten carried away again.
I lay my head back as the slight turbulence of the plane and the familiar creamy feel of the book cover pushed me into a gentle fall back in time. This was the same book. I remember sitting on the edge of my bed, feet kicking, smile too impossibly big for my face, with this book. I must have been 8 or 9. I had the whole world in front of me.
I had gotten the book from a friend. Dad didn't know I was reading it, and I knew he wouldn't approve. He never believed in this kind of thing. He would always say he didn't want to fill my mind with lies, and that was that. Dad didn't believe in happy endings, and I knew not to argue with Dad.
Yet, I had gotten this book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Every day, I would read a couple pages between school and Dad's return from work. When the slam of the door and the patterned thump of his heavy footsteps sent a ripple through my blood, I would stow it carefully under my pillow.
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I was almost done. If Dad had just taken a few more minutes getting home, I would have finished it. I was right at the end. Maybe that's why I didn't hear the door. Maybe that is why I hadn't felt the footsteps in my bones. For whatever reason, I was still reading as the door to my room shrieked open, and Dad thundered in. Of course, he took the book. I never knew what became of Harry.
The memory invaded my mind for the first time in what felt like forever, and I shoved the book into my backpack, my hands shaking with the turbulence of the plane. Did I really need to finish it? Of course Harry saved the world, and of course he was a hero. What was the purpose of reading it if I knew it ended like every book I had ever read?
Maybe I craved that cliché ending. I always adored storybook characters and people in movies. Heroes. Individuals who encapsulated the world in their hearts. I envied them. They made it look so easy to be just like them. They made it look like second nature to grow above us. And here we are, half blinded by the sheer brightness of their light, yet we continue to stare up at them.
All my childhood, I had aspired to join them, to spend my days sailing through the clouds and my nights resting on the moon. But that night …
I had traipsed behind Dad into the kitchen. He closed his eyes as if the straight sight of me disappointed him. I looked away, too, only to find the book waving in front of my face a split second later.
"Why, Zeke … ." He clenched his jaw, "Why would you read this?" It was hard to see through the kind tone and down to the core of his harsh words.
The life drained out of me. I stared out the windows, resting on the sight of the stars. I knew why I desired to read it. It wasn't in spite of him. It wasn't to fuel the butterflies I got in my stomach whenever I knew I was making him mad.
"Because he is a hero," I found my voice, using all I had left to build myself up again, but Dad was already put together.
"And … " he urged me on, and I knew I shouldn't say another word but. . .
"I want to be a hero." I finally looked Dad in the eyes, and, for a second, I swear I saw him smile, and I smiled, too. But, like everything in Dad did, it turned to anger. The rainbow faded, and a storm rained over me, heavier than before.
He locked me out of his eyes once again. I searched for an opening, a way to twist through the hatred and into his heart, but it was hopeless. He bent down closer to my little eight-year-old face, "A hero huh?" He got more intense, yet still I searched for a way to penetrate the lock that kept me from him. Dad scoffed, threw the book at me, then collapsed into his lazy boy.
Years passed, and I began to see my dreams of heroism as pointless attempts to be noticed. Dad was right. A bearded man would never come to my house and tell me I was a wizard. I would never be given a magical ring. My name would never be called out of a reaping, sending me to a fight for my death. I would never make a difference. I just had to live life by example of the other little people in the world, live by the light of the true heroes. If Dad had taught me anything, it was that.
Eventually I graduated high school and moved out, heading to college, hardly a goodbye from Dad. I barely passed my classes, and I wasn't seen as the popular kid, either. I was awkward and dull. It began to feel as if I was the furthest from a hero of anyone. I was dark enough to blend into the background. The heroes couldn't even see me.
The years rolled by, and, eventually, it was almost time to graduate. It was the last week of my final semester in sociology class. I was watching the clouds swim through the sky outside when Professor Evans' sharp clap called me to attention.
"Daniel and Katie have an announcement before we get started." Her red curly hair spilled over her shoulders as her piercing voice washed over us.
Daniel and Katie walked to the front of the room, clipboard in hand. It turns out that they were leading a service trip to India. They would spend their summer days building schools for unfortunate villages and uneducated children.
I was about to write off the idea when a warm feeling splashed over me, then leapt into the depths of my mind. I chased it, panicking as I looked through the crowded files of memory. I needed that feeling. It was the best I'd had in a long time.
"Is anyone interested in joining us?" Daniel's voice drew me from my search. My hand shot up. I gawked at it, surprised at its sheer force. What had driven me to do such a thing?
That was the question I asked myself as the turbulence dragged on, and I looked outside the plane window to see the Indian coast drawing near. Nervous thoughts seeped through to my mind as we descended to the ruins of life below us.
I knew when I stepped out of the plane that I would see poverty. I knew I would see starving faces and beautiful landscapes torn apart by miserable souls. What I didn't know, however, was how much I would be affected by it. I didn't know as I watched my group dribble out of the plane that the faces I would see would bury their way into my hollow heart and find a way to fill it again.
Really, it was the first day. It was the first makeshift town that we visited, and the first face I saw that would steer me away from my selfish mindset forever.
It was a small dusty village lying in the outskirts of India, but there was a strange density in the air that suggested this place had many stories that, if told, would cause us to squirm.
The strange atmosphere was capped by the Indian Sky. Bright rays reached in every direction as the sun dissolved into the sand beyond us. Warm colors smeared across the sky, a great contrast to the darkness below them.
Tents and poorly constructed lean-tos were scattered across the dry earth, as layers of dirt rolled in the wind, clouding my vision. The desert echoed with chattering voices speaking heavy words as we made our way to the town, but all sounds, save for the slight hiss of the wind, ceased as we emerged from the dust. A million heads poked out of tents and turned from their work. Women, men, children and elders pointed their gaze in the direction of my group. My eyes swept over the crowd, scanning the sun worn faces of the people before me. Suddenly, my gaze caught on one face like a loose string on a sweater gets caught when it is run across something sharp. I stopped in my tracks.
She was young. Her legs short. A small head sat boldly on narrow shoulders. Curly hairs peeked rebelliously out of a loose cloth that tried to confine them.
But I was continuously brought back to her eyes. Portals into an ancient world sitting on such a young face. What had these eyes seen? What horrors lay beyond the surface of the dusty landscape? How many had fallen in the presence of this sharp gaze? How many starving faces had these eyes seen? How many broken hearts? These kind of eyes should never belong to such a young soul. These kind of eyes belonged to war veterans; they were reserved for the people who had seen such misery in their long lifetimes.
I stared at her, and she stared back at me with an unbreakable intensity, her eyes deep crevices carved across her face, calling me forward. I eventually had to look away for fear that I would fall in.
As I stared at the dusty ground, I saw two skeleton feet trudging toward me. The little girl reached up and pulled on my sleeve. I looked down and confronted her gaze.
"Are you going to help us?" she peered up at me, stumbling over the English words.
As she stared at me, I grew brighter. I shot up into the heavens and beyond the clouds. I was making a difference. And that is when I realized that everyone gets a shot at being a hero. A big, bearded man will come to everyone's doorstep and tell them that they are a wizard. Everyone will get some form of a "magic ring." This was heroism. This was changing the world. This was what it felt like to mean something.
"Of course," I answered. She slipped her small dusty hand into mine, and we got to work.
Calliope Cortright was a 9th grader at Summit High when she won the story contest.
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