Palo Alto Weekly 18th Annual Short Story Contest
Young Adult First Place

The Fourteen Club

by Stephanie Wilson

About Stephanie Wilson

Stephanie Wilson has been writing stories and making small books since she can remember.

A senior at Gunn High School, Wilson wrote a play last year titled "Orchard Side" that was performed by Theatre Works.

"It was a somewhat true story about a foster girl and another girl and a farm house," said Wilson. " I took it from a friend's life experience. It was drawn out a lot but it was from a true story at one point."

This year the 17-year-old tried her hand at writing short fiction and found that she enjoyed the genre.

"I liked writing the short story, which surprised me. It was a little hard to do. The saying about how short stories are harder to do than longer stories is true because you have to smush everything into a small space," she said.

At the suggestion of her English teacher, Wilson set out to write an entry for the short story contest. She drew on her family vacations and relatives' experiences on the East Coast. Set in more simplistic times, Wilson wove a melancholy tale about a 14-year-old girl struggling to cope with her fatally-ill mother. Wilson said that the topic of death was something that had touched her life during last summer when a close friend died in a car accident.

"I've lost a number of people, so it's not uncommon for me to think about those things," said Wilson.

An accomplished musician, Wilson plays several instruments including the piano, Celtic fiddler, violin and guitar. She is also involved in the medical explorers program at the Palo Alto clinic and would like to be a pediatric oncologist.

Wilson will graduate in June and is contemplating continuing her education at Middlebury College in Vermont.

-- Lia Steakley

On a night like this I should be out catching fireflies with The Fourteen Club, or sitting with them on Walter Street, pretending to be older than we are by sipping lemonade slurpees out of Margarita cups as college students amble by. That's what I should be doing. Not here at home, sitting on a dark beadboard porch changing tapes and moist washcloths for mom. But here I am.

"Joni Mitchell." She mutters her request from her rocking-chair. My face is so close to hers, but I can barely hear her.

"What song?"

"Chelsea Morning." I fast-forward through the tape, and change the cloth on her forehead for a cool one. She puts her palm on my wrist.

"You're hot, too, Sadie."

"It's a hot night," I say. I look up at the ceiling of the porch. Spiders have slunk to the corners of their webs farthest from the lantern light. I look down at my jeans. The knees have been completely ripped away, and the hems are finally scuffed to perfection.

"Oh Sadie," she says. Hot tears start to slick her cheeks, and I stiffen. "Oh Sadie," she trembles, "I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry, sweetheart." Her sweaty fingers slip from my wrist and she covers her face- turning it away from the light. I tremble to see her like this. What if she dies? What will I do? Doctor Wayland says if she can't push through the next round of treatment he doesn't know what more he can do.

"Fluids, Sadie," he says low to me, every time I wheel her out of his office. "Keep 'er pushin' those fluids, and we'll see what happens."

Mom lurches forward and vomits up white froth into the hot-pink azalea potted by the screen door. We thought the barfing was over for tonight, but I stayed home just in case this happened. I pull her hair back, mechanically. When this started, after the first treatment, I hid in my closet and wept while she barfed alone in her bathroom. I rub her neck instead of crying now.

When she's through, she leans back to the chair, tilting it with her weight. My eyes are so dry they're burning, and I rub one of the cloths over them. Something in that pulls her into the present, where she hasn't been for a while.

"Sadie."

"What?" I'm too sharp with her, and I know it. She coughs, and I hand her some watermelon Kool-Aid. She dips her tongue into the weak green and pushes the glass away. She heaves forward again, and says, "False alarm."

"What, mom?" I ask real quiet, as she pants with the effort of not hurling.

"How's school, Sadie?" she murmurs, dropping her chin onto her sternum.

"Good. Mrs. Adler says I might make a good engineer."

"I thought you wanted to be the first woman president?" she says. No, I'm thinking. That was you. "You know, go feminism." Her tongue stumbles a little bit on 'feminism'. Too many syllables.

"Mom, ERA is so over. People gave that up when Reagan got elected." She sighs a little bit, and grumbles about how she most certainly did not vote for Reagan and that soon the American People would regret electing him, too. Time for a cloth change.

"How's the Fourteen Club?" she asks suddenly, turning to me by the big porch column.

"What?"

"How's the Fourteen Club?"

"How did you find out about the Fourteen Club?" I'm startled. Her hands flop on the arms of the chair casually. "I don't know..." she mumbles, "Sammy's mom, maybe, told me a while ago..."

"Sammy's mom knows about the Fourteen Club?"

"I think." She's getting better as the night gets cooler. Fireflies drift into the porch screen and she smiles. "I love those little guys."

"Yeah..." I say. Then, shyly, "We catch them still, sometimes, in the Club."

"I know," she says. "I used to watch you four... you girls have been friends since you were cutting teeth." Something about her so wrapped up on such a hot night, so forgiving and helpless makes me want to make her part of the Club. The Club hardly even exists anymore, but she and I could have our own club, maybe even make it a feminism club... no friends, no boys; just us.

"You can be part of it." I say it quickly, and she turns her head to me.

"No honey. It's your club." I twist in my seat and look out at the street. Moths are fluttering stupidly around every tangerine light. Natalie's mom drives by in the powder-blue Cadillac that her dick-of-a-husband just bought her. I know he's a dick because Natalie told me on one of our Club Camp-Outs at our Headquarters. She was cryin' hard that her dad would leave her mom and they'd get kicked out of the church and her mom and she and her little sister would never be able to make it on their own, because no woman can make it without her man, and then she looked to me like a hare caught in a rifle scope, realizing what she had just said, and to whom. "Aw Sadie," she said, her face blotchy and drippy, "I didn't mean-" I dipped my head and said, "I know, Nat, I know it just blurted out cause you're so upset. It doesn't matter." She said sorry again, wiped her nose on Sammy's sweatshirt and we started talking about boys and our upcoming eighth grade graduation dance and had us a real good sleep-out, up high enough to be above the mosquitoes. Actually, the Fourteen Club HQ isn't really secret, because Annalise's older brother helped us build it up high -- real professional -- so we wouldn't get eaten alive by alligators or bad men. A girl's club out there in Virginia swampland is a vulnerable thing, and we know it. We all've been brought up to know that. That's why we asked Annalise's older brother to help us build it so secure- we just finished when he got drafted and went to go save democracy in Vietnam, or something. He left angry, 'cause he and his steady girl had a big falling out. Annalise said, "Well, I never liked her anyway. That girl was always getting him to do bad things, that a tree-hugger whore." Sure, Annalise acted all proud and mean but we all saw her sniffle when we put up a picture of him in our HQ, because it was a nice thing to do.

"You know about our swamp tree-house?"

"What kind of mother would I be if I didn't know about my only daughter's secret Club tree house?" she rasps, eyes smiling.

"Oh." Suddenly time seems very short, and I get a little panicky.

"Sadie... honey... you go get a jacket. You got goose bumps on your arms." I rise and bang through the screen and grab my puffy ski jacket. It's quick to turn from hot to chill in these swamp towns.

When I pad back out she reaches out her hand. "Sadie, you have your Daddy's eyes." This is strange, I think, because she never talks about Dad, and I follow her example. Fathers are a sore subject in our little family. I twist my I.D. bracelet uncomfortably, but it pinches my wrist. When I turn my eyes to her face, she leans back and fingers a lady-hair fern. I hand her some more Kool-Aid, and she laps at it like a cat. My heart sears a little bit... but she sips up half the glass before setting it down. She wipes her mouth on her sleeve.

"I'm so glad you have those friends, honey... They'll never desert you. You all'll be friends for life... I've known that all the time..."

"Oh, I don't know..." People desert each other all the time, I'm thinking. They grow apart. Maybe the Fourteen Club has just grown apart. You and Dad did, anyhow.

"Oh, you will." She's so sure... . Sammy's been so wrapped up in her boyfriend, what's-his-face, that I haven't seen her since we had the Easter young-folks picnic. Annalise is busy trying to become the best girl basketball player in the county, and Natalie is trying to raise her little sister and pretend that she doesn't see what's going on between her parents. We haven't visited the HQ all-together, or sat outside and flirted with college students on Walter Street for such a long while... and they don't like to just come visit anymore. Does Mom being sick bother them, or something? I never expected that... but then, I didn't expect a lot of things.

She picks up on something in my silence and she sighs wisely. "You will." she says softly. "Just give them time. If it were one of them, you would want time, too, I think. Oh..." she trails off. I drain my own glass and change her cloth. They're heating up so fast on her forehead...

"I'm sorry Sadie."

"Stop saying that." I avoid her gaze. I have a hard time calling her mom now... but she always calls me Sadie. I want to call her mom. Another car drives by, and the phone rings. I go inside to answer it, but I'm too slow and the rings stop. I bring out a box of Saltines to the porch.

"I can't eat those, Sadie." She says it firm, so I set them down on the rail. The rails of these houses are all worn shiny from so many hands that just ate Aunt X's Famous Fried Chicken.

"You're such a lovely, Sadie." I whisper thanks, and settle into my chair. "The air helps. It's so fresh to breathe," she says.

"Yes," I say, and I start to look at her and imagine her dead and all our friends come to visit her laid out in the living room, as is the Southern custom. All the blood drained to the back. Delivered home, and finally at peace? We stopped going to church a while ago, so all my ideas about the after-life are fuzzy. I am imagining that people will flicker through our house with bakery eclairs and thirty different potato dishes, and I will sit in the living room at the head of the casket, and look at the woven rug. Maybe I'll twirl a rose in my hand dramatically, and look stricken. Maybe I'll even pluck the petals from the stem and wave them over her cold body dressed in her most expensive clothes.

I wonder if I'll cry, or if I'll stare at her face, with the cheekbones striking and the nose pointy and the mouth sunken. Will I hear voices, or see angels come and take her away? That would be a little bit exciting, I think, but then once it was all over I'd be sent to my father and his family. This makes me cough, and I swerve my thoughts to starting high school and steady dates and football games.

"You're so young, Sadie," she says. All I can say is, " Well, are you sure you won't even try a Saltine?" which she does, and writhes when it goes down, but she holds steady and swallows. "That damn Dr. Wayland." I nod, and swap the cloth, steamy when I take it from her face.

"Things now are so different from when I was a teenager," she says.

"Did you have your hair all curled like the Andrew's Sisters?" I tease softly.

She smiles and murmurs, "Only for a little bit... But your Aunt Lorna did for the longest time..." Her long fingers play piano on the arms of the rocking-chair.

"Damn Dr. Wayland," I say.

"You shouldn't swear, what would your friends think?" she mumbles. I whisper,

"I don't usually," and then more softly, "I doubt they'd really care."

"Oh Sadie," she sighs. I want to say real quickly, "Mom, you can't leave me yet. This isn't right. What happened? I don't understand. I still need you for a long time, and there hasn't even been a woman president yet! There should be one soon... it is the Seventies after all," but I know that my voice won't make those sounds. Fireflies drift around the lawn, little cutouts of lantern glow bobbing on the humidity. "Sweet little guys."

I want to tell her that it's just lemonade Slurpees that we drink out of Margarita cups. I want to tell her that even though if we did it now, we wouldn't be breaking our vow, none of us four in the Club have done what we swore we wouldn't do until we were all grown-up ladies and fourteen.

I want to tell her that I'm not all grown-up just because I'm a real teenager now. I want to tell her that she means more to me than the Fourteen Club, even if I did complain that I had to stay home and sit up with her instead of maybe giving each other makeovers at a Club sleep-over, so that I could maybe have my best friends back when we start high school in the fall.

I want to tell her that I don't blame her and her feminism and stuff for making dad leave us back when I was just little-bitty. I want to tell her that I think it's better this way, just us two, raisin' each other up in this big old Civil-War house, a few minutes from my middle school.

I put on "Chelsea Morning" again, and we both sit softly and smile at the fireflies.