Palo Alto Weekly 33rd Annual Short Story Contest
Second Place Young Adult

Finding Ordinary

By Manya Zhao

About Manya Zhao

Manya Zhao is a junior at Gunn High School in Palo Alto. As a writer, she prefers working on personal narratives or short realistic fiction pieces, and her works have been recognized by a variety of literary platforms, including Blue Marble Journal, Lilun Magazine, and the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. Besides reading and writing, Manya helps conduct research at a local hospital and enjoys cooking, doing volunteer work with children, spending time with her friends and family, and, of course, binge-watching hours of Netflix.


If I'm being honest, this piece was initially inspired by my unwillingness to babysit my younger brother over a long weekend. I initially reflected this in my narrator's attitude, but, as I continued the piece and threw in various economic and health issues to spice up the plot, I came to realize how I should be grateful I have parents to annoy me or a younger brother to babysit at all. My hope for the piece is that every reader can relate to some part of the story and have it evoke a sense of ambivalence.


Judge's comments

A typical teenage oldest sister, grumpy about having to babysit so her mother and seriously ill father can leave their dingy apartment for date night, goes along with her siblings' scheme to follow Mama and Daddy and find out where they go on Fridays. Solving the mystery shows how far from typical this loving family's lives have become because of the father's illness, and how observing the ordinary can offer respite.
— Debbie Duncan

I walk out of my room and push past Mama sitting cross-legged on the ground by the coffee table, applying makeup with the help of her tiny crooked vanity mirror. Much like the way everything in our house seems to be mismatched, this table is made of reclaimed wood, with knots and old nail holes interspersed across its ugly surface, making it impossible to set the mirror down flat.

Bright lipstick shades of purples and pinks and reds and oranges lie spread like a tropical sunset around her, as she continues pulling tubes out of her seemingly bottomless makeup pouch. They're all drugstore brands, besides the few she saves for special occasions.

She looks great, as good as a mother of three with fifteen-hour work days can, I suppose, but the bags beneath her eyes look nearly as heavy as the one holding her makeup. Compared to just the week prior, the worry wrinkles already seem to be etched deeper into her forehead. Still, her eyes shine bright at getting a night off.

It makes me feel slightly guilty for moping around. But I do, every week.


Mama finally chooses a shade of lipstick and proceeds to wrap her faded old pashmina around her shoulders, even though it's about a million degrees outside. She always wears it on date night; I'm not sure why. Mama doesn't have many "going-out" outfits, but the ugly old pashmina is definitely anything but a necessity.

She stands for a moment before the full-length mirror as she waits for Daddy, and her nose scrunches slightly with disdain at the reflection that peers back at her. Besides that pashmina, I'm not sure what she dislikes.

Then again, not much seems to make her happy these days.

Daddy walks out of their room in his dress shirt, the one that now hangs slightly too loose off his body. His tie also hangs unknotted around his neck, as his arms are preoccupied with one little hanging off each side, giggling, squealing like monkeys.

He sees Mama and nearly drops the littles as his eyes light up. He reacts this way every single week. He points to her and spreads then collapses his fingers like a fan in front of his face, grinning ear to ear the entire time. You're beautiful.

Mama gives him a little smile, crosses the room, and helps him with his tie. Afterwards, with her arms still around his neck, she leans in briefly for a quick peck. The littles look at one another in mock shock, as they always do, cover their eyes and gag.


They are heading out when Daddy turns to me and signs, Thanks for babysitting again, sweetie, we really need this. But the most I can offer him is a tight-lipped smile and a small nod. It's not like they gave me much of a choice; they never do.

As they leave, I turn to the littles.

"So. What do you guys want to do tonight?"

They pass looks and giggle, nudging and prodding one another to tell me whatever scheme they've come up with. I'm getting impatient by the time Alec finally speaks up.

"Jess, let's follow Mama and Daddy and see where they go every Friday!"

I open my mouth, about to reject their proposal, but then pause. I have wondered where they go every week for awhile now, and I've asked more than a few times, but they're always so tired by the time they come back that my questions are dismissed with the wave of a hand.

The neighborhood isn't completely safe after dark, so we're not supposed to go out, but they did tell me to keep the littles entertained. If this is the form of entertainment they prefer, who am I to say no?


So we run — Alec, Katie, and me — down the wobbly stairs of our complex, flip flops slapping the concrete almost to the rhythm of cricket chirps, just loud enough to send my heart into frissons of anxious excitement.

Worried they may have already driven away, our legs move at speeds incomprehensible for normal people, until Alec stops so abruptly that Katie slams into me, and I nearly slam into him. He turns to us and points, eyes wide with a poorly-suppressed thrill.

Mama and Daddy sit with their backs towards us, not two hundred feet away, on the corner of the street, overlooking the sketchy skatepark they regularly warn us never to go to. Daddy hands Mama half of a footlong subway sandwich and a can of Coke, and she smiles at him. I can visualize her crow's feet even from where I'm standing.

Neither of them say or sign anything. Just sit, eat, sip their cokes, and watch the skaters go up and down, up and down, up and down the ramps. Mama in her billowing almost-prom dress, Daddy in his tie and dress shirt.

Mama's pashmina slips off of her shoulder when she links her arm through Daddy's, and she doesn't bother to fix it, just leans her head against his shoulder. I wonder for the hundredth time why she always wears it.

We stand for awhile in silence, just watch them sit there, when Katie turns to me and whispers, as if they can hear us from that far away, "What are they doing, Jessie?"

"Date night."

"Date night looks kinda boring."

"It's not boring, it's ordinary."

"Is ordinary good?"

"Not really."

"Why do they go there?"

"I'm not sure," I answer, but, in my mind, I wonder if it's because Daddy can't walk much further than the corner of the street anymore, and neither of them wants to waste gas money.

Katie opens her mouth to ask more questions when Alec nudges my foot.

"Look, look, Jess, they're walking away."


We all know Daddy's previously confident and quick-paced gait has significantly slowed in the last few months, but, on the wide open street, with just him and Mama, the difference is even more noticable. There aren't any cars in this part of town at this time, so they walk, hand-in-hand, down the middle of the road, even though there are sidewalks on both sides.

The littles and I stick to the sidewalks, relying on the safety of the shadows. We stick and creep, so close to the walls of buildings we can smell the seemingly ever-present, sickly-sweet chemical scent of undried graffiti paint.

It takes us half an hour to walk maybe three-quarters of a mile, if that, when Mama and Daddy make an abrupt turn at a corner. We're lagging a block behind, so it is only then that I realize we're at the hospital. Katie comes to the realization around the same time as I, and I watch as her eyes widen to the size of saucers. Alec claps a hand over her mouth before she can express her surprise and blow our cover.

Mama and Daddy turn into the hospital bay as we watch from the opposite side of the street.

It scares me how natural they seem to be walking into a place meant only for the ill. My legs suddenly feel much more tired than they had been a minute ago, and I sink to the ground. The littles sit with me, and Katie rests her head on my lap.

And now we're the ones watching, watching and waiting.


It's nearly an hour later when Mama and Daddy reemerge from the hospital.

Daddy now has one sleeve rolled up to reveal a thick bandage wrapped around the crook of his arm. He looks sick, almost jaundiced. It's ironic to me that someone can walk into a hospital relatively fine and walk out the opposite.

It takes them even longer to walk out of the hospital bay than it did walking in, and they have to stop at the corner for a moment for Daddy to catch his breath. He must be shivering, even though it's warm and humid outside, because Mama takes her pashmina and wraps it around his shoulders, and I finally understand why she brings that ugly old thing every time.

And then I decide we can't watch anymore, so I grab the littles' hands, and we run.

They don't complain, just run with me, because we're all running from the same things. We're running from the Daddy that looks yellow with gallstones, even though there are none; we're running from the prospect of getting caught for being out, even though the chances are near-zero; most of all, we're running from the goddamned mass that has invaded our entire lives — the one that has consumed Daddy's laugh, his voice, Mama's time, her happiness, my Friday nights, the littles' childhoods, and everything in between.

So we run the entire three-quarters of a mile, full-speed, and we don't stop, not once. And we're all panting, ready to collapse from exhaustion, by the time we burst through our battered old door.

I look around our boring, dingy little apartment, one that has been a source of my embarrassment, I look down at my little siblings, whose hands are still clutched in mine, I look at our reclaimed wood coffee table, full of its knot and holes.

I find that I'm grateful for what little ordinary we have, and I pray we can find ordinary everywhere.

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