Cary Kelly is an English and English Language Development teacher at Woodside High School. He lives in Redwood City with his partner Kim, who graciously proofreads his stories and redacts his cringiest metaphors. Though he has started many short stories, this is the first he has finished and submitted to a contest. In his spare time, he volunteers as a board member for the Redwood City Parks and Arts Foundation, dreaming about street art and vibrant parks. This summer, Cary will move with Kim to his childhood home of Tucson, Arizona, where he will continue to teach, write, and dream.
Growing up, I witnessed the peace and satisfaction that routines brought my father, whether they involved exercise, biannual diets, or scooping the litter box. Since then, I have been fascinated in routines and ritual, seeking to discern what aspects of my own quotidian life bring me meaning. I wrote "Stones" as my first prose attempt at making sense of ritual, especially its role in our lives as we experience sickness, disaster, or loss. As the protagonist Sarah grows older, she finds power in the ritual she develops, identifying with it so strongly that it predominates her decision making.
Seeking to carve a corner of her life free from her debilitating illness, 11-year-old Sarah goes from observing the daily play of leaves set into motion by a meticulous and elderly neighbor with his leaf blower, to creating her own ritual — cleaning the stones in her own yard — as his health fails. Touching, wisely conceived, skillfully written.
Dan was widely known — perhaps singularly known — for his commitment to leaf blowing. Though Dan was a solitary man, his leaf blowing made him a fixture in the early mornings of the suburban neighborhood, a sign that time was ticking steadily.
Sarah was eleven years old, the youngest in sixth grade. An excitable thinker on the brink of middle school, Sarah wanted, more than anything, to go to school. Unfortunately, she was a sickly girl and spent most days in bed, gazing out the window to the side of the backyard fence and Dan’s house.
Sarah believed that only school could bring normalcy to her life of volatile hospital visits and drug-induced rest. Still, she took comfort in seeing her neighbor each day, catching a glimpse of the orange engine strapped to his back. Sarah prided herself on knowing, better than anyone, how Dan blew leaves. What Sarah wanted second most in the world was to understand why.
Every night, Sarah would triple check her alarm, making sure it was set to 7:45 AM. Every morning, Sarah would wake at the first beep, peel back the curtain, and stare at the far corner of the fence where Dan would start. Sarah wanted to witness each leaf fly up, swirling in a subtly synchronized, enchanting display like the Cirque du Soleil show she had seen with her parents in third grade. She believed there was a message in the way the leaves would scatter and soar, and that if she watched carefully, she could decipher its meaning, mapping constellations to the blurred forms.
She hoped there was meaning in things, just like she hoped there was meaning in the way her blood splattered across her pillow when she coughed, shapes like countries or broken animal crackers. In the way spots would appear across her arms and neck on a dry day, the skin cracking as if the oxygen in her body was desperate to find new ways out.
What Sarah wanted third most in the world was to understand why she was sick. She could recite the long medical name of her illness and explain its origin with haughty precision. She knew on an intellectual level why her body was sick. But it seemed unlikely she would ever discover how she of all people was chosen, especially since her family no longer attended church and her older brother Omar revealed that magic wasn’t real. If she couldn’t divine just cause for her illness, she wanted to at least affect its course, to carve a corner where the sickness could not reach.
And so, she tried to hold the blood in her mouth when she coughed. She tried to hold her breath, thinking it might keep her skin from spotting and peeling. Yet inevitably, her cheeks would bulge and her heart would throb until, in a release of liquid, air, and anger, she would spit into a towel and exhale, the moisture clouding the window glass as she watched Dan from her bed.
Sarah knew Dan was old. She knew he didn’t work, and that he had kids who didn’t come around much. Whenever they did, they certainly didn’t interrupt his schedule.
It didn’t matter the day, week, or season: Dan leaf blew each morning, saint and savior to a religion of removal, of taking the feckless fallen leaves and scattering them from his path. Sarah appreciated the focus with which Dan executed his work. His brow furrowed, his eyes squinted. Though the leaves never posed a challenge, he never lowered his guard. Sarah had no desire to blow leaves, but she had every desire to match Dan’s discipline. His work, she thought to herself, must be deeply important.
One fall morning, after a night of light rain, Sarah woke and rose to the window to see only the jagged horizon of the fence and the shifting branches of the nearby oak, no Dan in sight. It was early fall, and the hardest of winter had yet to strip the trees of their summer coats. Her panic spiked. What if there were no more leaves left? Would Dan blow with no leaves? She would be crushed. She needed Dan to be committed, not crazy.
After a few minutes of intense observation, she sprinted from her room into her mother’s office, squeezing between filing cabinets and boxes of invoices to peer through the slats of the blinds. She knew that, if the universe kept its course, Dan would come out the side gate first.
Later, though much later than normal, Dan came out. He looked down the path, surveyed the work in front of him, and cranked the pullstring for the leaf blower. Dan began in the front, blowing against a few wet maple leaves coating the brick pavers of his driveway. Sarah watched. That morning, there was no dance to entertain her. Instead, the heavy, hand-shaped leaves merely quivered, like fleshy starfish clinging to their coral bed. With a frown, Dan brought the blower closer.
Seconds later, the air galvanized with the potential of change, the blower flung the starfish onto her family’s shrubs, pinning them among the brambles. Sarah was startled, and Sarah was pleased. Dan was relentless. In spite of the sighs of her parents and the snickers of passing teenagers, Sarah knew that there was power in Dan’s routine, like the decorating of houses at Christmas or the placement of the spoon next to the knife. Meaning was secondary to ritual.
She didn’t say anything to her parents. They noticed the changes in her behavior before they noticed the stones.
At the breakfast table, she smiled pleasantly but was more aloof, describing Dan’s leaf blowing factually, with none of her previous fervor. She complained less about her illness, despite her symptoms getting worse. She seemed older, more polished and reserved.
It was nearly a week before her parents caught her in the front yard, flipping over stones in the faux riverbed that ran alongside the shrubs dividing the properties. Her parents watched in silence from the living room curtains as Sarah bent over, cupped a stone in one hand, and washed it off with a small rag. She gave the stone two circular wipes and returned it to the soil, clean surface facing up. Sarah proceeded laterally up the gentle slope of the yard, servicing each stone on the outer edge. When she reached the fence where the river ended, she stopped, tucked her rag in her pajama pocket, and returned to the house.
Her father shrugged. Her mother frowned. Together, they decided it was a phase, yet another quirk of their isolated daughter who, until recently, seldom left the house.
And yet, Sarah continued. Every morning she rose at seven to tend to the stones. Despite their variable size and placement, Sarah had a system for tracking her work. She moved methodically across imagined columns, starting at the street and ending at the fence. She was consistent in her timing, finishing by 7:30 to watch Dan from her bedroom window. She never missed a leaf blowing session; she never failed to wash the stones.
When Dan died, Sarah was the first in the neighborhood to know. It was the beginning of spring. Dan had reduced the duration of his sessions in the winter but had maintained his schedule, his start time a monolith against the shifting seasons.
He died on a Tuesday. Sarah knew that he never took a day off. On some weekends, his daughter would come visit, bringing her two wild-eyed toddlers. Once or twice a year, his son would pull up in a red Mustang. On those days, if his children arrived early, Dan wouldn’t stop; he would simply leaf blow while they made themselves comfortable inside.
That Tuesday morning, there were no visitors. Sarah waited for an hour, granting Dan extra time in case he was unwell. When he failed to appear, she knew. She didn’t cry or run to her parents. She simply lay on her bed and stared at the ceiling. Above, the popcorn plaster arranged itself into a riverbed, meandering rows and columns, the surfaces of the stones still damp.
Her parents found out on Thursday when Dan’s daughter rang the doorbell in the late afternoon. The daughter, nearly forty with long hair and sunken eyes, shared the news with both weariness and apparent relief. Sarah’s parents nodded their sympathy while, behind them, Sarah scowled. They didn’t know Dan.
The daughter gave her parents a flyer with the details of the funeral and left. Sarah’s parents turned to her with consoling expressions. Sarah stared back, her expression distant and cool.
The funeral was at 7:30 AM that Sunday. Dan’s daughter had said something about limited availability and thus the early time slot. Sarah’s parents asked both children if they wanted to attend. Omar said no. Sarah said nothing.
When the morning came, her parents woke up at 6:30 AM. They dressed in silence, putting on the Sunday clothes that they hadn’t worn since Sarah became sick. They left the room and walked to the front door, surprised to see Sarah join them. She fell into step behind them as they walked toward the car, her mother chatting about client appointments for the week. Sarah followed for a few feet but then proceeded left towards the shrubs. Her parents didn’t notice her absence until they were in the car with the engine on. By that time, Sarah had bent over the riverbed.
They waited and watched. Like yesterday, and the day before that, and the last five months, Sarah picked up a stone, placed it in one hand, and cleaned it. Slowly, she returned it to its place and shuffled one step to the left. She didn’t turn to face her family. She didn’t pause, her eyes focused on the new stone in hand.
For fifteen minutes her parents gazed, the street silent in the spring dawn. Ahead of Sarah, the shrubs were sporting the tender green of new leaves. In Dan’s front yard, the maple was shooting out tendrils that would soon turn to supple bulbs.
Eventually, her father put a hand on her mother’s shoulder. They exchanged a long look. After a sigh, her mother pulled the car out of the drive. Seconds later, they were gone.
In the yard, Sarah continued.