Palo Alto Weekly 27th Annual Short Story
Third Place Young Adult
by Gemma Guo
Ella had short dark hair and bright eyes. Jenny was only eight at the time, but was fascinated at the way Ella used her hands like butterflies, delicately and gracefully, to sign the words she could not speak. With Ella as her teacher, she learned to form the butterflies, too.
Jenny was quiet and withdrawn, eager to spend her time alone at home, crouching in the shadows. Ella was out-going and unafraid, doing rather than thinking.
Ella didn’t usually make any noises, and she couldn’t hear them, either. The other children avoided her like the plague. She was an oddity. She didn’t belong. Still, she was the most vibrant, colorful person Jenny knew. Every day was a new adventure, full of mysteries to solve and treasures to find.
Most days, Jenny found a sloppily folded paper airplane in her yard, containing a letter written in glittery, pink ink. Ella’s loopy handwriting spiraled across the paper, free and unyielding like the girl it belonged to.
Jenny always wrote back with blue ink and immaculate, restricted handwriting. She was filled to the brim with thoughts and stories that she wanted to share, sending her own, neatly folded airplane across the backyard’s fence. Ella would bring it back the next day, her face shining with smiles. They would sit on the lawn in the yard, with its whispering grass full of secrets, dappled by the shade of the oak tree. They’d spend the afternoon making mud-pies and playing with caterpillars until their parents shouted at them for dirtying their new clothes.
We’ll be friends forever, Ella always signed.
For two more years, Jenny and Ella lived in their sheltered paradise of peace and paper airplanes, the world of two innocent children to whom the idea of separation was impossible. Then, middle school hit. Ella enrolled in a special program for the deaf and hard-of-hearing children. Jenny was left alone in her own world, devoid of personality. She and Ella had always been in the same classes. Without her, Jenny was vulnerable, like a turtle without its shell.
We’re still in the same school. We can be friends, Ella signed.
II guess, Jenny signed back, but she wasn’t too hopeful. Around her, she could already feel their fantasy world slipping from her grasp, dissolving into gray dust.
Jenny still remembered one incident clearly. She and Ella were both ten, and Jenny had fallen off of her bicycle. She was ready to cry from the pain when Ella tapped her on the shoulder and made a silly expression. Jenny’s pain melted away into peals of laughter.
Ella had always been the strong one. Despite her disability, she held up the sky for Jenny. Now that they had been suddenly torn apart, Jenny needed to learn to fend for herself.
The other sixth graders leered at her when she walked into her classroom. She was the misfit, the weird, shy girl who was always with the weird girl who couldn’t hear.
Someone shot a spitball at her. It hit her square in the forehead and the rest of the class snickered. The teacher absentmindedly asked them to be quiet. Jenny took her seat and tried not to make eye contact with anyone.
When the school day was finally over, Jenny searched through the throngs of people for Ella. Ella was with her new classmates, signing away rapidly.
She didn’t notice Jenny.
The dirt was firm and tight-packed, scarred by jagged cracks and small clumps of dying weeds. Jenny scraped her heels on the ground and a cloud of choking, brown dust surrounded her. Ella couldn’t walk home with her.
In her backyard, Jenny found a new paper airplane. She brought it into her room, but left it on her table. She wasn’t in the mood for reading such childish letters.
The next day Jenny stayed away from Ella. The cafeteria was a zoo, its once pristine, white floor stained by innumerable mystery substances. She walked through it, trying to avoid being jostled or shoved by the older students. A group of girls sitting in a tight huddle waved her down.
They looked like dolls, all wearing bright, colorful shirts and skinny jeans. Jenny looked down at her own, baggy sweatpants and blushed.
Jenny waved back shyly, hoping they wouldn’t hate her. One girl grinned and offered her a seat. Jenny looked over her shoulder. Ella was waving furiously and pointing at an empty seat beside her.
She looked back at the girls sitting around her. They were almost glowing with the light of the exotic world they belonged to, a world of acceptance and flawlessness Jenny had never been a part of. Jenny thought about all the times the children in the neighborhood ignored Ella and her, and the spitball that had hit her face on the first day of school. She looked away from Ella, smiling at her new friends. They were a much more secure group to be with. She wouldn’t be bullied anymore.
The girls swallowed her whole. She was one of them.
Years passed. Ella attempted to salvage what was left of their friendship, even learning to speak, but Jenny was swept away into a dizzying world of fashion and popularity. Ella was scorned, while Jenny had emerged from her shell as a strong, independent girl.
High school was a wreck. The halls were crowded, the locker rooms choked with the cloying scent of perfume. This was where Jenny was at her element. She was knee-deep in friends, her two short years with Ella a distant memory that moldered away in the depths of her thoughts. The high school they went to did not have a program for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Ella’s friends moved into a new school district, leaving her alone.
For some reason unknown to Jenny, Ella stayed behind.
On one occasion, Ella approached Jenny, smiling. “How are you?” she asked, her speech halting and unclear. The words were foreign to both her lips and Jenny’s ears and her voice was clumsy, a far cry from the graceful movements of her hands.
Jenny bit back the flood of emotions that hit her, instead trying to remember that this girl was below her. They had switched roles and Jenny was the strong one now. She plastered an indifferent smile on her face as giggling erupting around her at how Ella sounded.
Ella, hurt visible in her eyes, walked away and didn’t look back.
That night, a paper airplane found its way into Jenny’s backyard. It was one of the many that Ella had sent over the last three years, but this time Jenny opened it.
Six simple words marred the blank page.
I wish you were deaf, too.
Airplane after airplane sailed into the backyard. The lawn that they used to play on, once filled with dancing grass, was covered by impassable, cold stone. Jenny never bothered to read the messages, but she kept them in her room nonetheless.
She didn’t ever write back, either. The emotions and stories that used to flow from her fingertips were ensnared somewhere within her, never to be freed again.
Ella left school, disappearing without a word. Jenny asked some friends if they’ve seen her and they all gave her the same responses. Where’d she go? They had no clue. They didn’t care, either.
Jenny laughed along as she and her friends walked home. Dry leaves crunched and shattered under her feet, as the wind stabbed through her thin jacket like needles. She vaguely remembered how Ella used to tell her that autumn leaves were fairies that flew down to earth to sleep. Don’t step on the fairies, she said.
Jenny shook her head, continuing to crush the leaves. That was a different time in her life.
After days of pondering, Jenny decided that there was no harm in opening Ella’s letters. It was late autumn, almost winter. The wind howled outside, causing an almost-barren tree to whip against the window.
She opened the last paper airplane, Ella’s last letter to her. Pink writing sprawled across it, remnants of the colorful girl who lived in a silent world.
It’s been a while since we’ve properly talked to each other. It seems like yesterday we were still playing in your yard. Do you remember the caterpillars that we used to find on your fence? I doubt that they’re still there, but they were cute.
You know, I want to hear things, too. I deeply wish that I could be a part of your world and that we could be friends forever. Now I know we will never be friends like we were before, and that isn’t possible. I’m sorry I’m like this. I wish I could change it.
I’m moving away to another school district. Thank you so much for being my friend. I’ll treasure every memory we made together forever.
Jenny thought of the mud-pies, the caterpillars, and the whispering grass of the lawn. She thought of autumn-leaf fairies and hand motions that looked like butterflies. She thought of the messy paper airplanes that soared openly over her fence. She thought of the days when friendship was pure and unadulterated by desire to conform.
Ella had the ability to make beauty out of nothing and laughter out of pain. She’d painted Jenny’s world into a thousand different, dazzling colors. Those colors were now faded and worn, mere shadows of what they had been.
Tears dripped onto the paper airplane and the pink ink blossomed into butterflies that fluttered across the paper.
Rain pounded on the rooftop and the wind continued to sing its lament. The lone tree outside her window swayed, scraping its fingers against the glass.
Jenny looked into her backyard. There was no paper airplane.