Palo Alto Weekly 19th Annual Short Story Contest
Teen Second Place

Death and Goldfish

by Jaya Wen

About Jaya Wen

When talking about her story, Jaya Wen -- a 14-year old freshman at Gunn High School -- describes it as the tale of "a psycho mother and a child who suffers because of things being out of her control."

Wen said she got the idea for her story after reading "I Know Some Things" by Lorrie Moore, a series of short stories written from a child's perspective.

Wen, who is very close to her parents and younger sister, said she was thinking about what it must feel like for a child to suddenly lose her family and have her life unravel.

"I was like -- what's the worst thing that could happen to someone -- and then I made it worse."

Once the idea for her story sparked, the words just poured out , she said.

" It was born full-grown," she said. "My rough draft was the one I sent in."

Wen, who grew up reading "Harry Potter" and Tolkien, has many other interests. She likes soccer and plays clarinet at her high school band, string base at the El Camino Youth Symphony as well as the piano. Despite her musical talent, Wen said she would like to make a living as a writer one day - either on the fiction side or as a journalist.

-- Mari Sapina-Kerkhove

I think it was all guilt. It couldn't have been love. I can't ever remember him showing any affection toward me, or my mother, or even Elizabeth, who wasn't my mother's daughter but was my half-sister. Elizabeth came to us when she was three. Father hadn't been home much for those three years. Father told me that he found Elizabeth at the orphanage. Mother told me he was a g**d*** liar and that "b****" was your f****** half-sister. So I grew up with my biological mother and half-sister that was the child of infidelity. I don't know why my mother even took Elizabeth in. Maybe Father threatened her.

Father was guilty. I'm sure of it now, because of all the misery he put me and my Mother through. He probably thought giving us wads of his money would make him less of the vile, disgusting animal that he was. And yet he didn't seem to hesitate when he flew off to Hawaii with his latest fiancée, a blonde showgirl who wasn't Elizabeth's mother, and obviously wasn't mine.

My mother opened each packet carefully, tugging on the cotton yarn, which was always tied in an impeccable bow, until it came loose. Then, she would unwrap the brown paper and remove the contents, usually, a thousand dollars, all in neat twenties. We would go to the bank that day, dressed in our worst to fool the burglars.

The money went far for us, and we lived in a decent condo that we shared with a young, dog-loving couple. We lived in a good neighborhood, and my mother made me go to school every weekday. Elizabeth didn't have to. She stayed at home, because she was always sick.

I think those long days without me were the worst for my mother. When I came home, she would be on the couch, curled up in a ball with nothing but her nightgown on. I would rush to her side, and then make her tea. She always liked tea, especially with lots of sugar. Then we would sit, she rocking back and forth, and me doing homework, or listening to the radio, or looking out the window in the winter and watching the snowflakes fall down, down, down.

"Elizabeth is in the study." Eventually she would tell me something like this, give me a key, and I would rush upstairs and unlock the study door to find a pale girl shivering in a corner.

"Lizzie," I would say, "are you hungry?"

She would tremble and nod.

"Lizzie, did Mother hit you again?"

Again, the nod.

I would go downstairs and bring up some cereal, and she would sit and eat.
We spent many afternoon together, and sometimes I even forgot to hate her. On those days, we played games like Monopoly or Life. She was the friend I never had, because at school I was always the one that teacher couldn't find at roll, the one that everyone else ignored, or worse, laughed at.

The day before it happened, Mother didn't make dinner, and I opened a can of Spaghetti-O's. Elizabeth and I shared two cans. Mother didn't eat.

When I came home on the worst day of my life, Mother was curled up on the couch. I made her tea, but she laughed.

"Janie, stop it. Elizabeth isn't there."

I didn't understand. Was she at the library, or at the park? "Is it safe to let her wander alone?"

"She isn't wandering."

I didn't want to think about what that meant.

We didn't have dinner again that night. We just ate ice cream from the freezer. Mother never used to let me do that. Tonight, though, she didn't care.

After the ice cream, Mother acted strange. She began packing things into her travel suitcase, things like underwear and pants and shirts. Then she made me wear five layers of shirts and a skiing parka. We hustled out the door, locked it behind us, and buried the key in the dying petunias in front of our house. I heard the neighbors' dogs barking as we left.

Mother used one hand to pull the suitcase and kept one hand locked on my arm. I never realized how strong she was.

"Where are we going?"

Mother kept up the quick pace, and the question was left hanging, joining the restless ghosts of unanswered problems.

We stopped under a quiet highway bridge. There weren't many cars. The occasional Ford sedan whizzed by, driven by a father working overtime, dying to get home and eat dinner with his wife and kids. Did Father ever eat dinner with us? Maybe, but so long ago I can't remember.

Mother put the bag along the concrete wall, which was covered in explosive adolescent graffiti. She unrolled the sleeping bag, which had been tied awkwardly to the suitcase, and wedged it underneath a low overhang.

"That's your bed. The concrete isn't bad. Get used to it."

I crept into the warm, dry darkness of the sleeping bad and lay, wide awake, unable to sleep for the rough asphalt below me. Where was Father now? Sipping martinis on a sandy beach?

Mother lay down beside me, not needing any cushion because of her cocoon of clothing. She used the suitcase as a pillow. I knew she wasn't sleeping, because her breathing was too soft, softer than the sound I used to hear when I was a little girl, when I would press my head against Mama's back at night when the closet-monsters came.

We spent the night under that asphalt-concrete-steel shelter, basking in the neon flood of jaundice-yellow streetlights, watching the Fords bringing the tired fathers home.

It wasn't a Ford that brought my father home. And he wasn't tired. He was angry.

The police found Elizabeth a few weeks later, because the dog-loving couple were worried about their neighbors who hadn't come out for two weeks. The police squad got a warrant to enter, and when they did, they found the body of a young girl locked up in the upstairs study. All the evidence convicted Mrs. Elane Brown, formerly Wentworth, who had disappeared two weeks ago with her daughter, Janie. They called the next of kin, Mr. Wentworth, who had been vacationing in Hawaii. He came home immediately.

They made me and my mother get in the back. Mother was very quiet. I was scared. Was I in trouble? I remembered all the things I had done wrong. Was it the time I killed my goldfish by accident? Was that murder? I remembered the limp bodies, spiraling in the toilet as we disposed of them.

The police kept my mother at the station that night. I waited in the lobby, too tired to notice anything. I dozed off, dreaming of Elizabeth's dismembered body, spiraling down.

I'm an orphan now. They killed Mother. Murdered her. I cried for a month.

They said she deserved to die. They said she killed Lizzy.

During that month, Father tried to make me eat. I didn't want to eat. I wanted to shrivel away, and hide from the pale ghost of Elizabeth, huddled in a corner, hugging her knees, rocking back and forth. She was always there.

Now Father is gone too. There is a man behind me, the police chief. He is squeezing my shoulder, and we both stand in silence as the windy fall air buffets out hair and scarves and the white lilies on my father's grave.

Stroke. You stroke a cat. You stroke your hair. You don't die of something smooth and soft. But Father did. He shuddered and moaned and then- gone. He just fell.

The ambulances came. They were a blur, just like the Ford sedans, just like the police. They carried my father to the hospital, but it was too late. He died of tissue damage before we got there.

I think the chief is going to adopt me. It's ironic, that now it's me, not Lizzy, getting adopted. The chief's wife died a long time ago, but he'll be a much better parent than any of my real ones.

His house is small, and he has a dog. Her name is Moss. Moss' fur is soft and smooth. Soft and smooth. Like whole milk poured into Earl Grey tea. Like my mother's breathing, warm against my cheeks.

Sometimes I think that I'm living in the wrong condo. That I am trapped, somehow, in the condo with the dogs and the happy couple. I've cheated fate. I don't belong here; I belong with the deserting father and the mentally unstable mother, with the police and the ambulances.

During the day, I am happy, but when night falls, sleep doesn't come, only visions of pale girls shivering in dark corner, and the dead bodies of my parents, my sister, and my fish, swirling away, into the darkness.