Palo Alto Weekly 16th Annual Short Story Contest
1st Place - 12-14 year olds
by Alia Salim
About Alia Salim
Los Altos High School sophomore Alia Salim is no stranger
to the Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest.
In 1996 and 1998, she won in first and third places, respectively,
for her stories "What Happened on February 29th"
and "Sometimes the Dragon Wins." Not bad for a now-14-year-old
who says she rarely finds the time to put pen to paper apart
from her school work.
"Outside of English class, I don't have a lot of time
to write," she said. "If I had more time, I really
would. Unfortunately, there's not a lot of creative writing
In fact, she wrote "Predisposed" two years ago as
an assignment for creative writing class and never got around
submitting it to any contest until this year. As an avid follower
of politics, Salim wrote the story around the time when Dolly,
the cloned sheep, was big in the news and the science fiction
film "Gattaca" was big in theaters.
"The funny thing is, some people read my story and said
I was against cloning. But it's not a reflection of anything
I actually think," she asserted. "If I were Gareth,
I would not have thrown the baby out the window. I would have
just put myself up for adoption."
Salim says she prefers writing short stories over poetry when
she does find those precious moments to write. Winning contests
with her stories has merely been the icing on the cake.
"It has definitely surprised me every time. There are
so many good writers out there," she said.
-- Bryan Chin
Gareth punched the enter key again.
<<ERROR: ACCESS DENIED>>
His friend Lucas gazed anxiously out of the telephone monitor screen
on the desk. "Any luck?"
"No," grunted the pale boy at the keyboard. He closed
the blinds on the window and the sunshine vanished. "Off, computer,"
he said shortly to the screen, and with a soft mechanical sigh the
light from the programming window faded away. Gareth put his head
in his hands and spoke to Lucas, miles away in Ecuador. "Its
no good. Im sorry." His voice was characteristically
soft and toneless.
Lucas shrugged resignedly. "Its all right. Quite recent
though, your version. One might think
"Yeah." Gareth rubbed his bleary green eyes and kicked
the wall, as was his habit, leaving a smudged footprint. "But
not strong enough to crack the codes on a secure site like that.
Id need the latest one."
"Thats the problem with these things, you know. Buy the
newest and theyll only come out with something better."
Lucas hung up, and as the telephone screen dimmed the room went
Downstairs, the doorbell rang. Mrs. Peters practically sprinted
to the hall. She stretched out one slimly fingered hand on the floral-patterned
wall to stop herself and caught her breath before shouting behind
her, "Hes here Ron, hes here!"
"Im quite aware of that, dear," replied a voice
from the office over the intercom. The normally languid tone had
a hint of excitement in it, which pleased Mrs. Peters enormously.
"Answer it, Katherine," he called.
She already had. A man in a well-fitting navy suit was hanging up
a coat with one hand when Mr. Peters arrived in the hall. In the
other, the visitor carried a large book, and there was salesmans
grin on his flabby face. "Mr. And Mrs. Peters, I take it. My
name is Mr. Woodrow, and Ill be guiding you through the selection
process today. I understand you have completed all the necessary
"Naturally, naturally." Mr. Peters looked as he did during
important meetings, an odd combination of taciturn housecat and
agitated lion. At his shoulder, his wife fidgeted with her wedding
ring. The one from her third husband would have matched her necklace
better, she reflected to herself briefly, but it had seemed rather
inappropriate to wear any other ring, despite the fact that Ron
would never notice her jewelry. She shook herself and suggested
that they move into the sitting room.
The large coffee table was perfect for the enormous book, which
lay open to its first section. "A", the heading said in
block letters, and beneath this there followed a long list of broad
subheadings ("athleticism", "aptitude", "agility")
and also several columns containing words in smaller text ("ambition",
"acumen", "affability"). The dizzying pillar
of "A" traits continued for a good fifty pages. It was
unusual for catalogs of such size to be in books, but as Mr. Woodrow
was quick to point out, the feel of turning physical pages was really
quite homely. Mrs. Peters agreed fervently. She was a staunch believer
in the homely feeling, and had microwaved dinner by hand long after
the intelligent kitchen was introduced.
The representative from the company seemed eager to get down to
business. "Have either of you got any specific questions before
we begin?" he asked. "I know you have a child from us
already, so I imagine the process is somewhat familiar to you
Mrs. Peters appeared decidedly uncomfortable. She looked beseechingly
at her husband from over the rim of her teacup.
our son Gareth was logged a month or two before
you put a finger on the nonphysical trait isolation process
Mr. Peterson made a game effort at a noncommittal air, but fell
short, face drawn tight. "We understand the basic selections
perfectly, but Im afraid youll have to help us through
the newer chapters and choosing compatible personality traits
He finished in an awkward, unhappy rush.
With a quiet sigh, Mr. Woodrow reached for his references. He hated
these cases. They took so awfully long and the parents could be
so bitter about the first product. Tough for them! he though to
himself irritably. Science is like that. Theres no agenda
on the technological frontier.
"Thats quite all right; Ive worked with many couples
in your situation. Lets take a look at your preliminary choices
"We want a blonde baby, this time," said Mrs. Peterson
brightly to stir the atmosphere. "Fair girls are so nice, especially
with the green eyes. Were keeping the green eyes."
Mr. Peters grunted his approval. "The muscle typing is important,
too. Wed like her the dancing or gymnastic sort, you know.
weve already got a runner
albeit not a very
passionate one." His small, pig-like eyes clouded.
"And thats the beauty of the new forms!" exclaimed
Mr. Woodrow abruptly, eager to halt the parents rambling before
they got carried away. "There are no guarantees, you understand,
but now you can predispose your daughter to passion, predispose
her to cheerfulness or obedience! Genetech is the end to disappointment."
The couple smiled openly for the first time. "Its so
wonderful," Mrs. Peters said as she opened the book to the
table of contents. "We can offer her everything we never had."
The Veronica Millicent Peters that was presented to the household
a mere four months later by Genetech representatives was a rosy-cheeked
cherub with the dainty feet that her mother had requested on a whim.
Despite having once been given too-hot milk when the temperature
gauge on her self-heating bottle malfunctioned, she had yet to shed
a tear at any point in time. Mrs. Peters lived in a day-to-day state
of euphoria and no longer put dinner in the microwave herself. She
spent every spare second sitting with the baby as Mozart played
softly in the nursery. Veronica had been predisposed to musical
talent at exorbitant additional costs, much to Mr. Peters
distaste. "All right then," hed said crossly at
the time to his groveling wife, "but Im not about to
let it go to waste." Mrs. Peters understood him well enough,
and prioritized accordingly.
The morning came, however, when the devoted mother was forced to
return to her post in an accounting firm to help with an orientation
for new employees. Her numerous protests fell upon deaf ears. Yes,
she was needed and yes, she was needed in person. Mr. Peters was
in Chicago. Gareth was upstairs.
With Veronica tucked securely under her arm, Mrs. Peters climbed
the stairs and knocked on the door to the bedroom on the right of
the landing. The pulse of music playing from within quieted, Gareths
angular profile appeared in the space opened between the frame and
the door. Upon seeing who it was, he stepped out into the hall and
stood with his back to the wall, fiddling with the drawstrings on
his gray tracksuit top. How distracting, his mother thought with
mild irritation. The boy seemed to radiate nervous energy any time
he was at home.
"Honey, sweetheart," Mrs. Peters began finally, ignoring
the offending drawstrings. "I havent seen you in ages
when did you come from the track last night?"
The boy flinched visibly, then gathered himself as if preparing
for one of the physical hurdles he faced in the evenings at the
stadium. "Late, I suppose. Im sorry mother he
had a whole new relay team that only just formed, and my timeslot
got pushed back. Whatever he said when he called isnt true,
you know. I am doing my best." His grip tightened on the white-painted
doorframe and he added as a strained afterthought, "I enjoy
His efforts at a satisfying answer seemed to go unappreciated. "Actually,
Gary, dear, I was more interested in asking you a little favor
got to go down to the office for one of those silly orientations
would you mind awfully keeping an eye on Veronica for the morning?
She wont be any trouble." Here she looked down at the
perpetually grinning infant. "Will you, sweetheart?"
Her sons expression was unreadable, and she half expected
him to refuse. He was so touchy on the subject of the baby, she
reflected to herself distantly. Veronica did enjoy the spotlight
around the house these days, she supposed, but he had the track
to keep him busy, as always, and the way he was always in his room
in the evenings hardly seemed to suggest hed enjoy the attention
himself. Such a reserved child, Gareth, and such a shame they hadnt
been able to plan him out differently, fifteen years back. Veronica
was predisposed to sociability.
The baby smiled and held out her hands to Gareth as if to further
her own cause. The boy pushed a strand of mahogany-colored hair
out of his eyes and took her in his well-muscled arms. "All
right," he said finally. He turned and reached for the volume
knob on the stereo with his free hand. Mrs. Peters interrupted quickly.
"Just Mozart if shes in the room please, dear
know how your father is about her." She offered her son a disk
and a pleading smile.
"Yes, mother," he replied evenly.
"She should go to sleep quickly, darling. Ill see you
in a few hours."
The door closed, and a few moments later the sound of the high heels
click-clacking on the kitchen tiles died to silence.
Gareth slotted the disc in to the machine. A soft whirring came
as the song was read, and then the slow, mournful whine of a lone
violin filled the room from floor to ceiling. He sat the baby on
the window-seat and watched the neighbors cat move stealthily
across the brick path in the garden below. The cat vanished behind
the trees and a second violin joined the piece. A duet.
The pale boy watched his sisters dainty feet move in time
to the quickened tempo of Mozarts two violins. Predisposed.
Her smiling green eyes met his.
As the second violin dropped out of the piece again, Gareth noticed
for the first time the distance from his window to the path below.
Veronica never cried.
The story takes the reader immediately into a high-tech world.
The writer takes what is known about genetic engineering, pushes
it to its logical extreme, and gets it absolutely right. The ending
was unexpected and very powerful.