Palo Alto Weekly 32nd Annual Short Story Contest
First Place Teen

New Houses

By Jerry Xia

About Jerry Xia

Jerry Xia is not unlike many 12 year olds. He has myriad academic interests -- robotics and physics included -- and a few sports he's trying out, like track and field and tennis. Jerry, however, has taken the growing pains that characterize the teen years and translated those events into a variety of short stories about his life and those he's observed.

"I just write how I think I want it to be. I try to express that feeling," Jerry said. "Don't worry about the end result."

Jerry sees writing as a free expression, not a process to agonize over.

"New Houses," Jerry's first-place short story, is about his move to Palo Alto from Los Altos in summer 2016. Jerry didn't know what to expect from the move, nor could he anticipate how his life could change.

"I always imagined that I had to leave all of my friends behind, all of my stuff behind," Jerry said. "I would take some stuff, but I would have to clean everything out and throw away all the stuff I didn't need anymore."

He turned this fear into "New Houses," in which a family must deal with saying goodbye to not just a house, but a past lifetime. Jerry has now settled into his new house, but his short story deals directly with a pervasive sense of loss.

Jerry began writing in fifth grade, when he was encouraged by his teachers to write in his free time. Writing was a "a good way to put down my ideas on paper," and it was also a welcome change from the focus on technique that had been part of Jerry's school curriculum previously. He enjoys the process of translating his feelings into writing.

He did not even consider "New Houses" one of his better pieces, and he has a variety of other subjects that he is exploring. "Garage Junk," a new short story, is about a spider in a garage. Jerry also said he is working on a story about flowers.

Jerry wants to pursue other interests like robotics as he progresses through middle school; he hopes to continue writing as an enjoyable activity, not something done under pressure.

"I think it'll continue to be a hobby and something that I do to relax," Jerry said. "It's something I want to do for fun."

— Tara Madhav


Judges' comments

"New Houses" is an eloquent portrait of grief from a young person's point of view. Themes of loss and concerned affection are effectively woven throughout. There's just enough humor to highlight the difficult emotions the writer explores in this well-crafted story.

We were standing in front of a perfectly good house. It was a modern, Cape Cod style with clean white walls and a trampoline in the back. It even came with a new washer and dryer and a massive refrigerator. It had a balcony that overlooked the lake nearby. "This is perfect, Mom," I said, standing in the gravel driveway looking at the house. She was frowning at the front door.

"Why is it red?" she asked the real estate agent, who looked as if she wanted to leave us there in the driveway and speed away, but she had invested so many months into us that we were a sunken cost that she couldn't give up now.

"A coat of paint or a new replacement could fix it," the agent replied.

"I just don't know. I just don't know."

This is how Mom had been since Dad had died and we sold the house. Whenever we found a home that was in our price range and nice, Mom would say, "The grass is too brown," or, "The mailbox looks lopsided," or "The window has a stain in it." All these things could be easily fixed.

Our agent was a middle-aged mother of three who had wasted six months' worth of gas and all her patience driving us around the countryside. I kept waiting for her to say, "You are terrible people, wasting all of my time and finding excuses for everything!" But she never did. The woman was a Prius-driving saint. Besides, we had been looking for houses for so long that Grandma was starting to get impatient.

"I want my living room back! When are you going to find a house?" she would say.

"Mom, this is a great place. It's right next to a park with a lake where we could relax, and it has all new furniture. They're selling it with all that new furniture. I think we'll never find a house as good as this," I attempted to persuade her. I knew because we had been looking for six months and this was clearly the best one.

My mom looked at me with eyes that told me that another house was out there, a different house, one that would make her feel as if she was full again. But the truth was, we missed our old house. I missed the basement where Dad and I used to build model aircraft, and the backyard where we used to grow tomato plants, and the living room where Dad's big leather chair sat next to the bookshelves. I missed the garage where Dad kept the photo albums and where he used to clean his shotgun. In my bedroom there, I had a closet large enough to fit all of my clothes and had a small door inside opening into a set of stairs leading to a nook in the attic where I would read and hide away.

We hopped back into the car, and the agent drove us to the next house. It was awful with paint peeling off of the walls and mold filling every crevice. The kitchen window had a view of the garage and the refrigerator was strangely placed in the laundry room. We spent all of two seconds before we drove to the next one. Meanwhile, I kept telling my mom, "The Cape Cod house, the Cape Cod house." The next house was positioned in between two rivers — one in the front yard and one in the backyard.

The agent said, "I'm pretty sure you'll need to have flood insurance for this house." The next house smelled as if it had housed nothing but animals for 50 years and all of them had died in the living room. The final house was perfect, but I walked into the living room and looked out and saw the cliff that dropped 400 feet.

"The Cape Cod house probably won't be on the market for too long," the agent said. "Your son seems to like it. We could put in an offer and tie it down before someone else gets it, and we could always back out during the due diligence period if you change your mind."

My mom was sitting in the passenger seat and her dark hair looked wavy and indecisive.

"I still think that we could find a better house somewhere else. There are so many options out there," she said, but I knew that she meant we would never find the perfect house.

That's when the agent turned a corner and then another corner and brought us smack in front of our old house. Looking at it was like looking at something that had been stolen from us. It was our house. It looked small from the outside, but it wasn't small. It was painted white with a brick chimney and had four windows in the front with a garage door.

My mom told the agent, "Stop!"

As the car abruptly slid to a stop, we both stepped out of the car and stood in the street in front of our old house. The grass had grown long, and somebody had put an ugly chair by the front door and a kid's tricycle was overturned and lying in the driveway. Looking at the house made me feel as if I jumped into ice water. I hadn't been back the house since we moved away. I looked over at my mom and she was standing there, staring up at the window to the master bedroom. We stood there for a full minute, looking at the house and saying nothing, and I think the real estate agent must have thought that we wanted to buy our house again.

"This one's not for sale," she said. Without a word, my mom and I both reluctantly stepped back into the car, looking at the house through the window before the agent drove away.

That evening, my mom, my grandma, and I sat at the dining table eating what my grandma had prepared. The meal consisted of mashed potatoes with gravy, steamed vegetables, a pot of rice, and tomato soup.

As we ate, I told my mom, "Mom, we should buy the Cape Cod house. You haven't made a decision in so long, and it seems like the perfect house for us."

My mom stared at me for a full minute before responding, "I think there will be a better house somewhere else. Besides, the Cape Cod house has a terribly red front door."

I knew that my mom always found silly excuses to reject each house that she visited. I was tired of living in my grandma's apartment for six months. I was tired of driving around every day to try and find a house. I was tired of my mom complaining about each house.

"Mom, I think we need to buy this house. The red front door can be easily fixed, and everything else is perfect," I told her.

"The Cape Cod house is nothing special," my mom said. "I think there are plenty of houses out there that are as good, or even better. Those houses might not have any problems with them."

"You know we are never going to find a house as faultless as this one is. We need to buy it before it is sold."

My mom stared at me as if to judge whether I was being honest about the house, and finally relented.

"I think it's time to make a decision."

My mom and I bought the house at a final price of $1.5 million. Two weeks later, we stood in the driveway, all of our suitcases and bags around us.

"Well, that's the last of them," my grandma said as she lifted the final suitcase out of the trunk and set it on the driveway. My mom stood there, on the driveway, with the bags in her hands and the suitcases behind her, staring at the front door. Before the sale, our agent had replaced the front door with a large, white wooden door.

"Come on, Mom!" I shouted. I ran towards the front door, eager to go into the house, but still, my mom stood there, staring at the front door.

"Are you ever going to go in?" my grandma asked. There was no reply from my mom. My mom's eyes were staring upwards at the front door hopefully as if waiting for something to happen, as if not quite ready yet to enter the house.

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