Palo Alto Weekly 31st Annual Short Story Contest
First Place Young Adult

The Forgotten

By Christina Hung

About Christina Hung

When she was in elementary school, Christina Hung could be found reading in the far recesses of the old Mitchell Park Library.

"I remember that the ceiling was really low, and the lights were a little bit dim, so if you went to the very back of the shelves, it felt really solitary, which was nice," said Hung, now a junior at Gunn High School. "You could wander around and find the old books that people had kind of forgotten about."

Reading has been a part of Hung's life for as long as she's been able to make meaning out of words.

One of her fondest elementary-school memories was going to the library and to see how many books she could check out at one time.

"My mom usually put a cap on it, before it got to be too many," she said.

Hung gravitates toward fantasy adventure -- stories in which characters go on great adventures, learn magic and end up saving the world. The "Fablehaven" series by Brandon Mull is one of her favorites, and in middle school she was "obsessed with everything Rick Riordan wrote," in particular his "Kane" chronicles, which she said is "kind of underrated. Of course, I love Harry Potter," she said, adding that she liked "Chronicles of Narnia" when she was younger and also enjoys reading manga, Japanese-style comics.

Hung was inspired to write her short story while watching "Noragami," an anime television series based on a Japanese manga series. Hung explained that the show's characters include Japanese deities whose existence depend on whether humans believe in them. If the humans don't believe, they fade away, and they lose their power, and they disappear. One of the main character's biggest fears is that he'll be forgotten, and he'll disappear as a god.

This prompted Hung to start thinking about memory and what it means to forget something. She also turned to her "story document," which she hadn't looked at in years — remembering characters and ideas she herself had forgotten.

Her story document, which she said is "one of the only smart things I did when I started writing," is where she keeps ideas, character sketches and beginnings of stories. It's now more than 100 pages long. Hung, who plays violin and viola and is a part of California Youth Symphony, said that her writing hobby is squeezed between school work and practicing and "everything else."

Hung, who plans to pursue a medical degree in college, said that she is "definitely going to keep writing" and hopes to publish a novel someday.

What inspires Hung to write? "Anything, really," she said.

"This winter was full of storms, right? So, like sometimes I'll just stare out at the rain — you can think about it and, I don't know, I'm kind of inspired by that," she said.

Hung said that she is drawn to write because of the power of words and how they can affect people.

"Words are something that are pretty underestimated in general," she said. "I think as to how much they can influence thought. Words are the basis of communication and language and culture, so I think reading ... (can) influence people more than they might even realize," she said.

— Anna Medina

 

Judge's comments

A wonderful imaginative leap into a world populated with unfinished characters left behind and abandoned by their authors. Witty, thoughtful, and unique, the story is like a visit to a foreign country in which we can't wait to see what awaits us around the next corner. A very talented piece of writing.
-- Mike Nagler

Much of the time, they don't even do it on purpose.

That's the thing about forgetting. It's not a conscious act. It happens over time, something subtle in the mind that isn't ever noticed until whatever they've forgotten is gone. And, by then, it's already too late.

Once something is forgotten, it is as if it never existed in the first place. It vanishes into the ether, not even a trace to ever show it once was real. Thoughts are not tangible, after all. Neither are ideas, or dreams, or half-formed creatures of imagination that will never gain physical form. Except, just because something is forgotten, that doesn't mean that it no longer is.

(I think, therefore I am.)

We are all sentient. Not all complete, no, but we exist. Maybe some of us are missing voices or bodies or barely have the outlines of a personality, but that doesn't mean we're invalid. We had potential, once. We had stories, once. We had characters, once.

We are the Forgotten, and isn't it the highest form of irony that all we want to be is remembered.

"What's your name?" I ask. His form is wispy around the edges, his face indistinct and his clothing a vague blur of dark colors. He's quite clearly new here, as evidenced by how he's been wandering around with no rhyme or reason for close to an hour.

He blinks. "I... Max? Nathan? I don't know, I think — I don't know ..." he trails off, voice hollow and lost.

I heave an internal sigh. Great. "Let me rephrase. What do you want your name to be?"

"Um." I can't make out his face, but if it was defined, I have a feeling his brows would be furrowed in confusion. "I kind of like Nathan?"

"Okay. Nathan it is, then." I tilt my head at a nearby bench, one that isn't too rusty or wet from the rain. "Want to sit down? You look like you could use someone to explain what exactly is going on to you."

"Yeah, that ... that would be good." He seems more than a little dazed as he wanders over and takes a seat, perched on the edge of the bench with hands fisted on his knees. He's asking questions almost before I can sit down myself, tone edged with the beginnings of panic. "What is this place? Where am I?"

"There's no specific name for this place. It's just ... " I let my gaze wander over the sagging buildings, the washed-out sky, the light that casts pale shadows across bland pavement. "It's a place for the Forgotten. That's all it's ever been."

Nathan still looks confused. "The Forgotten?"

I smile at him, soft and sad. Gentle, I remind myself. "You had a story, didn't you?"

He hesitates for a bare moment. "Yeah. I was supposed to save the world. She was so excited about it, too. Wrote down all the outlines and everything, but 20 pages in she just ... stopped. What happened?"

Saving the world. How typical. I wish I could have been surprised. Well, I've always thought that the best way is the blunt way, and there really isn't any other easy method to break the news.

- - -

"I'm sorry to tell you this," I start, and the words make his spine go stiff like a steel rod, "but it sounds like your story got abandoned, long enough for her to forget about you completely. That's why you're here."

He stares, and I get the impression that he's horrified. That's normal. He'll get over it eventually. "Then, this place is for abandoned characters? But I'm not — "

"Whether you like it or not, you are. You'll learn to get used to it," I say, cutting him off. I can already see that if I let him wallow, he's the type who will stay depressed for an near-indefinite amount of time, and that isn't fun for anybody. "If you're lucky, she might come back one day. If you're not, well. We manage." I give him a small shrug. "You're not the first one, you know. This place has existed for as long as humans have told stories. Believe me, you're not alone."

Nathan shudders, hunching over himself on the bench. A cold wind swirls around him as the skies darken, clouds rolling in with unnatural speed. "No, no, that can't be right. She spent hours on my story!"

"And yet, you're not even a fully fleshed-out character," I point out, giving up on being nice since he's clearly not getting it. Sometimes, the hammer is more effective than the knife. "Seriously, just look at yourself. Maybe your story got developed, but it doesn't look like you did. You do realize you don't even have a clear face, right?"

Nathan doesn't reply, only makes a despondent groaning sound. I keep an eye on the skies just in case, though. It would figure that he has weather powers. Those are often among the hardest to both control and defend against.

"Look," I say, hoping to head off a breakdown, "how about this. Let's go home and you can meet the others, yeah? That sound good?"

He looks up, eyes a pair of vague green shapes. "Others?"

"Weren't you listening earlier?" I stand up, moving two steps away from the bench and turning back to look at him over my shoulder. "We're not the only ones who have ever been forgotten, you know. Come on; you need to get your mind off things. Let's go before you call down a thunderstorm or something."

Nathan jumps to his feet, almost running in his haste to catch up. "Wait! Could you slow down? Where are we even going?"

"Home!" I call back, striding back through the near-empty streets. The city has always been drab and mostly lifeless, one hair shy of a ghost town. Besides the Forgotten, the only beings that live here are the local wildlife. Which, admittedly, can range from pigeons to manticores, but still.

- - -

Navigating the streets with familiar ease, it isn't long before we come to a massive apartment building stuck between rows of others that all look exactly the same. Except, not quite, because while the architecture and layouts might be identical, the denizens of our building have added certain ... identifying marks over the years.

Nathan gapes, wide-eyed. "Is that an airplane hangar? On top of the building?!"

"Dragon's den, actually." I stride up to the front doors, pushing the buzzer.

Almost the moment it sounds, the doors swing open and a veritable horde of children comes barreling through. All of them are covered in some combination of glitter and an unidentifiable pink goop, but their voices are bright with laughter and they bounce around so much that I suspect they must be on sugar high.

"You're back! You're back!" they chorus, exuding a cloud of sparkles with every movement. "And there's a new guy!"

"This is Nathan," I inform them, herding the kids a respectful distance away. "Be nice. He isn't used to you little terrors yet."

Nathan, meanwhile, is wearing a somewhat dazed, rather shell-shocked expression that looks as if someone slapped him with a fish. A rather large one, at that.

"Um. What?" is all he can manage. "Why are there kids?"

"Adults aren't the only characters in a story," I remind him, snagging one of them by the collar when she tries to dodge around me. "Watch your pockets, some of them are tiny thieves. Stay here for a minute while I go find today's designated babysitter."

"Hold on, what?" Nathan panics. It's kind of hilarious. "Wait, you can't just leave me —"

"Only for a few minutes!" I don't bother to disguise the wicked grin behind my words, laughing when the kids take that as an invitation and swarm him.

He'll be fine, I'm sure. The main character hero-types always are.

The sun, for once, is shining. The sky, for once, is blue. It's oddly cheery, to tell the truth. The last time the weather was this nice was ... years ago, perhaps. Maybe longer.

I suppose there are some benefits to having a weather mage around.

"Ow, ow, ow. Watch the hair! The hair!" Nathan cringes, head bowed at an awkward angle as he gingerly extricates himself from sticky fingers.

The toddler giggles, patting Nathan's face and nearly poking out his eye. "Hair!"

- - -

Sitting beside me, Wildfire, another of the Forgotten, smirks. "He seems to be settling in well."

I lean back, grass cool beneath my fingers and earth faintly moist. "Eh, well enough. He broods if he's left alone for too long, so I'm pretty much just keeping him busy until he gets over it."

Wildfire snorts, sparks dancing on the ends of her hair. An idle toss of her head makes them swirl like fireflies in the daylight, settling to earth as burnt-out ash. "Isn't that your solution to everything?"

I let out a short, barking sound of amusement. "What, like the therapists worked so much better?"

"Maybe they would if there weren't so few of them and so many of us," she points out. "And, y'know. If anyone actually agreed to therapy."

"Fair enough," I agree, and she does have a point. Most of the Forgotten, the ones who are self-aware at any rate, are main characters. A few of us might be supporting cast with a relatively large role or characters that our creators were particularly fond of, but on the whole, we're main characters. Everyone else, the generic citizens who live out on the city and are little more than faceless, shapeless automatons ... they're the background, the civilians, those unnamed villagers the hero saves. Those aren't people, not really. They don't think like sentient beings. If anything, they're closer to robots.

Consequently, as main characters, we're often more stubborn than is probably good for us. And, depending on what type of story we came from, have a few too many issues that can't really be handled by any normal therapist.

A little ways away, Nathan turns, trips over a little dog that's too short to notice but just tall enough to be annoying, and goes down in a mess of flailing limbs. He's instantly buried under a mass of kids, who seem to think that once he's on their level he's fair game. I would feel sorry for him if it wasn't so funny.

"Okay, I gotta admit. It's really nice being able to foist babysitting off on the new guy," Wildfire admits, sunlight turning her eyes to gold. "Why in the world are there so many kids, anyway? I could've sworn there weren't that many last month."

I grimace, mood dropping. "I think a bunch of stories got abandoned, probably around the same time. Maybe by the same author, even. Half of them are all related in some way or another."

" ... Ah." Wildfire goes silent at that. "That really sucks."

In a sense, this makes the children the most tragic of the Forgotten. They will never grow up, not here. This place is timeless, a sort of limbo stuck in some endless cycle of night and day that exists without age. The younger ones will never understand what exactly they had done to be forgotten, never understand that it wasn't something they could have controlled.

Sometimes, I think, it would be all too easy to hate our creators for what they have done.

- - -

It is months before Nathan comes to terms with things enough to be happy here. He settles in as the new favorite of the children, spending his days watching them and spending time with the rest of us. He befriends a few others, even, their personalities and abilities complementing his. Just yesterday, the group of them pooled their magic and called up a hurricane, which followed by what felt like half an ocean's worth of rain and sleet. The reason, apparently, being "to see if they could."

(Wildfire ... is not thrilled with him right now. I suspect that's why he's been hiding on the outskirts of the city for the past few hours.)

Still, life continues. The world moves on. Time heals all wounds, or at the very least reduces them to fading scars. Every so often, another newcomer joins the ranks. Sometimes I find them first, sometimes not. Some of them remain in denial for what feels like forever. Others adapt quickly, already harsh and jaded and having half-expected abandonment long before it really happened.

Inevitably, they will always ask my name. Nathan did, several days into our acquaintanceship. Inevitably, I will smile, shrug, and tell them that I don't remember.

(I was the first, after all, and it has been a very, very long time since I was created.)

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