Palo Alto Weekly 32nd Annual Short Story Contest
First Place Young Adult

The Queen of Lost Things

By Christina O'Konski

About Christina O'Konski

Christina O'Konski, a rising senior at Palo Alto High School, used to invent little stories as a kid while playing with toys. That imagination still propels her writing as a young adult.

Three years ago, when she lost a piece in a puzzle she was putting together with her family, she suddenly thought of the main character for her bittersweet, nostalgic short story, "The Queen of Lost Things."

Although the single piece seemed unimportant on its own, when the puzzle was all put together, she realized the piece, by its absence, had become the most important part of the puzzle.

"When you lose something, it matters in a different way," she said. "The satisfaction and relief of finding that thing you really needed ... that's kind of like getting visited by 'The Queen of Lost Things.'"

As a student heavily involved in community theater, O'Konski said her experience acting has been helpful for her in her own writing. She's both acted in and written school plays and has also worked with kids at the Palo Alto Children's Theatre.

"(In) acting, you are the character. ... That definitely helps as a writer -- really getting into another person's head," she said enthusiastically, making her energy on stage easy to imagine. "I think acting's really good at helping you be empathetic."

Besides acting and doing puzzles, she enjoys spending her time reading, singing, playing the piano, going on hikes, and playing Dungeons & Dragons, a fantasy role-playing game. With so many different interests, she doesn't have any specific goals for her writing, although she hopes to explore it more in college.

"I'm ... figuring out what I wanna do with my life. I love writing ... I love nature a lot, and it'd be cool if I could combine both of those things," she said. "I want to stay open ... be ready for unexpected stuff to happen."

She advises fellow writers to be fearless in sharing their own work and to write stories they would want to read.

"Get your story out there. Don't feel like what you have to say isn't important," she said.

— Christine Lee


Judge's comments

Move over, tooth fairy and Santa Claus, and make room for the Queen of Lost Things. She is the keeper of an eclectic assortment of things lost and forgotten, from a single puzzle piece and missing socks, to witty comebacks and staring contests. "The Queen of Lost Things" is an imaginative story about a lucky lost traveler that is wonderfully told and worth remembering.

— Debbie Duncan

She appeared like an ancient memory, half-washed away by the tides of time, faded and yet brighter than you knew she could have been.

Her dress was made of everything. Bits of fabric from shirts and dresses and scarves, pieces of clothing that had caught on thorns or ornate fences and torn away, lost forever. As I looked closer, I spied socks with no mates, half-finished knitted hats, lone squares from patchwork quilts. Woven through her hair and her eclectic dress and wreathing her head like a crown gleamed a treasure trove of gears and coins and scraps of paper, buttons and shoelaces and plastic toys still crusted with sand.

It took me a few moments to realize who she was, but I remembered eventually. We have all met the Queen of Lost Things. But, of course, we must always forget her again. For how can she be the protector of all that is lost and forgotten if she is not one and the same?

I found her the way we all do: by becoming one of her own. I stood by the side of the road under a dappled-green canopy of trees, looking at a map that was much too big and intricate, struggling to find where I was, and where I was going. My car, parked nearby, was useless if I did not know which direction to drive it in.

When the back of my neck started to tingle, I turned and found her perched on a nearby rock. She smiled, her mouth a conglomeration of teeth that others had lost, whether from fisticuffs or falling or swallowing them as they ate breakfast.

As we all are, I was quite startled at first. For, as we all do, I had forgotten how intricate and textured she was, so much so that I could not look at her all at once.

When she spoke, it was in a long-forgotten dialect that could be understood by all, as long as one didn't listen closely enough to discover that the syllables she was uttering did not match any they knew. She knew my name — for who hasn't forgotten theirs at some point or another? — and she called me by it. I knew I needn't be afraid of her, but at the same time my heart was pounding a bit harder than necessary.

She was covered in dust — for what lost thing isn't? — and her eyes were every color whose name has long been forgotten. She laughed at my shock, as she does at everybody's, never seeming to tire of the same old joke. And then, as I realized I had been expecting her to, she patted a spot on the rock beside her. I sat and lost all sense of time as she regaled me with her stories of all the places she'd been to and all the things she'd found. She was a magnet for anything lost, and, she remarked, what didn't come to her she would seek out, even if she didn't really mean to.

Unlike most, I did not just allow her stories to sweep over me, becoming so lost in her words that I forgot everything else. I pulled back just enough from her endless tales to remark upon her pendant. It was a single puzzle piece, lined with gold and hanging on a fine chain around her neck. I wondered aloud why such a simple thing held such a place of honor. The puzzle piece did not even contain a discernible image. It was green and black and blue and grey, a texture that could have been the leathery hide of a dinosaur, or ripples in water, or a tree at night.

It was then that she truly smiled, a smile so bright and good that the whole world sang. This was not just a curling of lips or a crinkling at the corner of her eyes but an expression of such pure joy that I felt it settle into a corner of my heart, where, though it would be forgotten, it would remain, glowing warmly.

She eagerly explained that the puzzle piece was so special to her because it was her purpose. In a completed puzzle, the piece was nothing special or important. It was hidden in plain sight, gracing the edges with a little more space. It was not the eagle's talons or the dragon's fire or the maiden's hair, just an added bit of texture. But, once that single piece was removed, one's eyes were drawn to where it should have been. That expendable piece was suddenly the most important one of them all.

And so it is with all things. One will only truly notice and appreciate something if it has been lost. Otherwise the world would be flat and predictable, with no hidden corners or secret passageways into which things could slip, never to be seen again, or emerge, to be greeted with relief and appreciation.

I asked her if she ever returned the things she found — fixed the broken puzzles and one-eyed stuffed animals. And oh, how her eyes sparkled. Wordlessly, she withdrew something from the endless folds of her dress. I looked down, and my eyes were greeted with an enormous, carefully organized bundle of everything I had ever lost.

Speechless — at a loss for words — I stared at all my baby teeth and lucky pennies and old T-shirts, all my shoes and stories and staring contests, all the ingenious thoughts and clever jokes and witty comebacks I'd lost hold of at just the wrong moment. All of it was there, held gently in her arms like a swaddled baby. I could have looked forever, eyes darting from treasure to treasure, hoping that I would remember even a fraction of what I was seeing.

After an endless instant, she drew the folds of her infinite cloak around her gift, and it was gone. But it truly was a gift, even if it was only mine for a short while.

Then, her gaze grew sad as she explained that some lost things can never be found again, and those that can, she could not give back to me. To do so would be to revoke her title, to renounce all that the puzzle piece around her neck meant. However, she instructed me to search carefully for my lost things in the future. For while she could not give them back directly, when she could, she tried to place them in spots where they would be found.

I hugged the Queen of Lost Things tightly, thanking her sincerely and deeply, though for what, I could not remember. Nor could I remember why I was sitting by the side of the road when my path was so clear on my map. As I walked back to my vehicle, I noticed a single sock lying on the dashboard — a perfect match for the one I had at home in a chest of drawers and was unable to wear.

As I picked it up, I could have sworn I heard a laugh that seemed as close and impossible as a just-forgotten dream, and I thought I caught a glimpse of an infinite dress twirling away through the trees. Of course, like anyone else would have, I shook my thoughts away, my lost memories drifting like cobwebs to the ground, where they would no doubt be collected once I was gone and subtly returned at a later date.

For how can someone be the Queen of Lost Things, the protector of all that is lost and forgotten, if they are not one and the same?

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