Palo Alto Weekly 29th Annual Short Story Contest
Second Place Teen

The Skeleton Man

By Tjasa Kmetec

About Tjasa Kmetec

My name is Tjasa Kmetec and I am a rising sophomore at Gunn High School in Palo Alto. I have always loved reading literature, but my English teachers in the past couple of years have really helped me develop a passion for writing and sharing my thoughts and feelings in a clear way. When I heard about this competition I was very excited and after reading a couple of the previous year's entries, I wrote my story in one long sitting on the last day before the deadline. My inspiration for this story was the power struggle in the relationship between the "haves" and the "have-nots," and the fact that the destitute are often voiceless. It distresses me to see the callousness in people and to find the same unkind attitude in myself. I wanted to explore the reasons behind this unkindness; is it fear, embarrassment or apathy?

Thank you for choosing me for this honor. I am very much encouraged by your recognition.


Judge's comments

A topic that has been much written about but this story is told with daring and surprise; great empathy even as protagonist caves in to another person's view; tough, but convincing resolution. The dialogue between friends is hard hitting and well crafted.

Every morning on the way to work, I would stop for coffee at the same coffee shop. It was an old building, and the people that owned it did not try to hide that fact. There were visible cobwebs on the corners of the counter where you ordered. The brown wallpaper was peeling off, so that in some spots, an entire strip gave way to the moldy wall underneath. None of the tables were completely stable and could not be trusted to hold your coffee without a sudden wobble. The coffee itself wasn't bad, though it wasn't exactly good either. Despite the smell of dust, the place had a certain nostalgia which compelled me to stay loyal even though a Starbucks had opened up right across the street.

Every morning I would open the creaky door, and subject myself to the horrors that lay inside.

Every morning he was sitting outside. He sat on tattered cardboard that barely covered the cracked cement. He was always wearing the same ragged buttoned up shirt and dress pants. They would have been considered fancy, if it was not for many stains and holes that beset themselves on his clothing. His pant legs were in tatters at his skinny, pale ankles. His face was old and weather-beaten, his eyes had once been blue but were now a pale grey color. His skull was visible through his pale skin. His hair was in a few white wisps on the top of his head. No matter what the weather, he always had a raggedy wool blanket over his shoulders. He sat in the same position every time I passed by; hunched over his criss-crossed legs, moving his thin lips feverishly, but making no sound.

This skeleton man seemed noticeably out of place in the fast paced street.

I made no move toward him for a few months. Then one day, while I was walking out of the coffee shop (the name was never known to me), I turned my head tossing a strand of hair out of my eyes and caught sight of him, sitting in the same manner he always did. It wasn't the first time I had seen him. But it was the first time I had really taken note of his ever-constant presence. I looked across the street at the new Starbucks that had just been built. There were others like him outside, some holding signs, others calling out in desperate voices. And then there were a few that, like him, sat quietly, seeming a bit out of touch with reality.

I looked back at him. He hadn't noticed me staring. But then again he hadn't seemed to take notice of me any time I had walked by. Feeling charitable, I walked back inside the shop and bought a cup of hot cocoa and a muffin. I walked back out and walked cautiously toward him. When I had reached him, I kneeled down right in front of him. I put out the hot cocoa and muffin in front of him. I tried to look into his eyes, but found that he was trembling so hard that I was having a hard time finding his eyes.

I stood up, cleared my throat, and said, "Enjoy." I immediately regretted my sharp tone and cushioned my harsh statement by gently saying, "The muffin is blueberry, I hope you like it. My name is Elise, by the way." I scolded myself for feeling bitter about him not acknowledging me.

With a newfound sense of self pride in myself, I turned away and started the walk to the office.

- - -

So this is how it went for a couple of months. I would buy coffee for me and something for him and then I would deliver it to him. It got so that sometimes I would stop and sit with him for a few minutes, often having a one-sided conversation (with me doing all the talking and him sitting in his usual way, making no sounds or remarks). He never talked to me or thanked me for my service, but every morning I would find the muffin wrapper, with not a crumb left, and the empty cup I brought for him the morning prior. I started to imagine that some of the color had started to come back to his skin, and that he was looking healthier than before.

One morning, I brought my best friend, Olivia, to the shop with me. I bought my usual coffee and also a biscuit and hot cocoa for the man outside. When she saw my load, she laughed.

"Why are you buying so much?" She asked curiously.

"You'll see," I said. When she looked at me questioningly, I laughed and grabbed my things and walked toward the door. Olivia followed. I opened the door with my elbow and walked toward the man. Nothing had changed today, he was sitting in the same way, his mouth forming silent words. I had begun to see him with a certain fondness. I looked back and saw Olivia with an odd look on her face. She was hanging back by the door. I motioned for her to come over. I gently put down the biscuit and cocoa, and picked up the remains of yesterday's visit. I walked to the garbage cans by the curb holding them in my hands. When I walked past Olivia, she grabbed my arm. When I laughed, she looked at me and I saw her nervous expression.

"What do you think you're doing?" She whispered. She sounded pretty spooked. Her tone scared me and I dropped the garbage.

"I, well---" I started but she cut me off.

"That man right there---" She pointed her finger at his trembling figure, "is where he is, because he deserves it. Don't go spending your hard earned money on a hopeless case." I stood gaping at her. I couldn't believe seeing such cruelty in my friend.

"He's a human being for god's sake! How could you say that!" I raged at her.

"Just look at him, Elise," She turned her head toward him. I looked too. A sort of guilt built up inside me, because I saw what she meant.

"I know it's terrible to say, but just look at him! He's insane! He doesn't even recognize you, let alone thank you, for the kindness you show him! His life is spent already, Elise, you shouldn't waste your time and money on him." She looked away knowing how cruel she sounded. She had let go of my arm and was now standing with both hands clutching the cup of coffee in front of her.

"One of my mom's friends, she did the same as you, she gave money and food to these people. But in the end, they robbed her, Elise! I just don't want the same thing to happen to you!" She looked at me now. Her green eyes were piercing through me. I looked back at the man one last time. In that moment I wished that he would look up and turn his eyes on me. But he did no such thing. He did what he had always done, he rocked himself a bit and whispered to himself.

- - -

From then on I started going to the Starbuck's across the street. I ignored them when they held up their signs or cried out to me. Sometimes I would look across the street and through the crowds of people and the morning traffic, I would catch sight of the skeleton man. But I always turned my head the other way and kept walking, no matter the uncomfortable feeling twisting in my belly. After about a year, I turned my head and strained my eyes to see across the busy street. He was gone. He and his hunched, trembling body were gone. His silent words were absent. The sitting cardboard was now scattered on the street. I looked down at my feet, allowing a moment for silent grief. Someone bumped into me from behind and I spilled my coffee on the ground.

"Watch where you're going!" I heard a voice yell at me. I walked to the garbage can on the curb and absently threw my cup in the trash. I took a deep breath and continued to walk down the chaotic and cruel street.

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