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

Hunger

by Anna Hartley

About Anna Hartley

When Anna Hartley began writing her short story, "Hungry," she thought about the summer fiction class she took at Stanford. She remembered her teacher telling the class to "write what they know" and with that small piece of advice she wrote about a teenage girl coping with a less than perfect home life.

"I started with an image that I liked. This image of a girl sitting on a fire hydrant and the story developed from that one image," said Hartley. " None of it is stuff that I have directly experienced but its stuff I understand because I am young. It's kind of a commentary on people in my generation that others don't understand."

The girl on the fire hydrant transformed into a character named Samantha who wears black lipstick and carries around a well-worn copy of Jane Austen's "Mansfield Park." The story chronicles the few hours between the time Samantha is picked by a friend from school and when she falls asleep that night and provide a glimpse of a girl who hungers for a more stable life.

A student at Palo Alto High School, Hartley has written other short stories in the past and serves on the editorial board of the school's magazine, "Verde."

Outside of school, she stays busy by playing soccer for her school and the Palo Alto Soccer Club.

Hartley is toying with the idea of making a professional career out of writing.

"I am thinking that I want to major in writing. I think that I'd like to do something in the literary field when I get older," said the 17-year-old.

Hartley will graduate in June and wants to attend college on the East Coast.

--Lia Steakley

Sam is sixteen and likes to sit on the fire hydrant on the corner with a cigarette hanging out of her pouting mouth. She lets it hang like this because she likes how it sticks to her black lipstick so slightly that she forgets that it is even there. She never lights it.

Today she is sitting there; it is four o'clock and she knows it by the sound of the bell ringing at the elementary school down the street. Her cutoff shorts are tickling the back of her legs but she does not scratch, instead she leans her head back slightly and holds her pose. A gray van pulls up in front of the hydrant and the world is accosted by the incessant howl that issues from the horn of the outdated vehicle. Sam looks at the car, unperturbed, grasps her backpack in her fingers and climbs in.

"Jesus, why are you always sitting there?" Jess asks, leaning over the steering wheel. "It's creepy you know." Jess is Sam's best friend, perhaps because they share the common bond of misfits. They met in third grade crouched under the play structure when the other kids started calling them names and pelting them with red rubber balls.

"Yeah, I know it's creepy. I've gotta prepare those little kids for the real world." Sam gestures to the tousle-haired kindergartners who troop out of the chain link fence that surrounds the elementary school. She glares at the ones who peer in the car window, frightened.

"Missed you in fifth."

"Yeah, well, you know." Sam adjusts the numerous black rubber bracelets that cling to her fragile wrist.

"No, I don't. Please, elaborate." Characteristically, Jess rolls her eyes and pushes her cropped hair behind her ears. "Enlighten me."

"I had better things to do."

"Like what? Read?" The car halts suddenly at a red light and Jess grabs Sam's backpack and rips open the zipper, a pile of books toppling out and landing in a heap on top of the emergency brake. "You know, nobody will ever know you're so smart if you don't come to class. I mean Jesus who reads this?" She picks up Mansfield Park by the spine as if it were toxic.

"Some people. It's Austen. It's romantic."

"Never woulda pegged you as the romantic type. I think it's your hair." Sam's hair falls down in black chunks in front of her eyes, dreadlocks in the making.

"Gotta fly under the radar screen. Thanks for the ride."

Sam jumps out of the car in front of her house, slamming the door and watches as the dust particles are released from the fibers of the seat cushion. She sets her teeth sardonically in a "Miss. Teen USA" smile, waving as Jess drives away. She is left in the overgrown grass of her front yard which crumples and breaks like brittle threads of hair when she steps through it. Grabbing her backpack and pulling the zipper closed she climbs the fence and makes her way along the side yard before pulling open the sliding door to her room. This form of entrance is advantageous in two ways: Sam doesn't have to worry about her mother's stream of invasive questions, and she is certain to avoid her mother making out with her most recent boyfriend. Sam has never figured out how these men seem to see past the chipping fingernails, thinning hair and inexpertly applied lip liner (the one dead giveaway of her mother's desperation, Sam thinks, that she is starting to wear makeup for the first time this late in her life.) The men are equally sad, but in a different kind of way. They are more like used car salesmen than anything else -- they wear polyester pants and everything.

"Sam? You home?" A light knock on the door indicates her mother's anxious presence on the other side of the partition. Sam cringes knowing that her mother will enter in hopes that they will have a meaningful mother-daughter Oprah-inspired talk. She hates that look of expectation in her mother's eyes. That's what too much daytime television does to you, Sam thinks, imagining her mother watching the Women's Entertainment channel with one eye and collecting the toll money distractedly as she tries to memorize the Ten Essential Tips for Embracing Yourself and Your Loved Ones. Jesus.

"What?" Sam asks, opening the door, the flimsy wood bending as it catches on the rug.

"Oh, I just wanted to say hello, you know, and to introduce you to Mike. We met at work."

Oh God, Sam thinks, it should be a sacrilege to allow two toll-collectors to date. The prospect is just too depressing. "Hi," she smiles, sticking out her hand as the man steps shyly into the frame of her doorway. He is shorter than her mother with hair that is either very blonde or slightly gray, a developing beer belly and terrible white and blue shoes that Sam thinks should also be a sacrilege.

"How are you doing?" He is overly formal and she can tell that he is made uncomfortable by her black fingernails, her expression and the music that is blaring from within her room.

"Oh I'm just dandy."

"Sam, no need to be so sarcastic. Mike and I are going to get some food. You're welcome to come, although I expect you would rather sit in you room and listen to Alanis Morrisette for hours."

"You know me too well," Sam says disdainfully, pushing the door shut. It catches on the carpet again, and through the crack she can see Mike taking her mother's hand in his as they walk out the door. The gesture would be endearing, but Sam's mouth curls scornfully as she thinks of the photos of her father, an Adonis compared to this sad excuse for a man. They all are, really, those car salesmen.

The photos of her father are gone now, stuffed angrily into the back of drawers when her mother realized that he wasn't going to come back. Sam used to spend her evenings at the local truck stop hoping that he would come through some time. She stopped going the day that the waitress had leaned in and whispered hollowly "He ain't never comin' back, hon. I've seen this a thousand times. Just don't keep comin' here, you're breaking my heart."

Too bad, Sam thinks, trying to dispel the thought, that's life. She catches a glimpse of her face in the mirror as she turns back into her room. Approaching it she pushes the clumps of hair back out of her face and reaches compulsively for the black lipstick, carefully concealing the soft pink of her mouth. Maybe next week she'll go and get her nose pierced. A nose ring would really freak out the next guy. Sam smirks as she walks back to her bed, but her face is softened as she pulls out her novel and quietly turns to the dog-eared copy of Mansfield Park that she has read fifteen times. Sam reads hungrily, passionately until her eyes are weighed down and the song of crickets fills her room. Her mother returns later, turns out the light, gently removes the book that is clutched so desperately in her daughter's youthful fingers, and sets it on the end table.

Sam wakes soon after to the empty sobs of her mother who is crouched on the other side of the thin walls that separate their rooms. Sam pushes her sliding door open and walks out into the velvet night, refusing to accept this world, this house, this life, and the familiar coldness that enters her chest when she is awakened from dreams.