Palo Alto Weekly 35th Annual Short Story Contest
Second Place Teen


by Eine Youn

Author Bio

Eine Youn is currently an eighth grader at Blach Intermediate School and lives with her parents and sister in Mountain View. She loves creative writing, any form of storytelling, reading, listening to music, and watching movies and television shows. She hopes that one day she will be able to accomplish her life-long dream of publishing a novel because she really owes it to her characters to tell their stories.


My inspiration for my story came from my love of music. I was trying to think of an idea for a short story while sitting in the car and realized that I had been subconsciously tapping my fingers to the song on the radio the entire time (which is something I do a lot. My family finds it very annoying). I was also inspired by the current pandemic — the cancellation of events and the struggling of people during this time were the seeds behind the plot of the story. Although I definitely cannot sing like Mattie can, I have always felt an affinity for melodies and harmonies — in a lot of ways, this story is my love letter to music.

Judge Comments

This touching pandemic story features well-drawn characters, brought to life with emotional intensity. The themes of loss, disappointment, connection and the value of sharing creativity are vividly described.

I’m flying.

The notes carry me in the air, and I close my eyes, giddily floating. I let in a crisp inhale as my fingers float on the keys of our grand piano, gently following the intricate but beautifully crafted pattern of the music. Up, up, up I go — the flying never ends, and my heart is a free-winged bird finally let out of its cage.

Music has this effect on me. I can’t exactly describe it — whenever I hear a couple of beats of rhythm or a pleasant melody, it feels like there’s something alive inside me. Music makes me dance, laugh, smile, and feel like maybe the world’s gonna end one day, but everything’s alright for just this one moment.

"You’re not alone, and you won’t ever be," I sing gently.

I open my eyes, but I really don’t need to. I know this song by heart because I’m the one who composed it. I also wrote lyrics to go along with it. They’re pretty cheesy, but I think I finally know what a mother feels for her child, if you know what I mean. It’s mine. My song. My song, out in the world.

Well, almost out in the world. I let out a lofty exhale. I signed up for the talent show impulsively, so I’m terrified, but I’m also spectacularly excited at the same time.

But it might all be for nothing, a sneaky voice says in the back of my head.

I stop playing, screwing my eyes shut and kicking the voice out of my mind. Get out, I think. Everything’s going to be okay by then. Cases are going to go back down, and they’ll reopen school again, and everything’s going to be okay. There’s two weeks left until the planned date. Plenty of time.

Everything has to be okay.

It has to.


"Yeah, Cal?" I open my eyes to see my 12-year-old younger brother standing at the doorway to our living room.

"Mom wants to see you in the kitchen," Callum says, crossing his arms. He looks grouchy, which has been his frequent mood for a while now. No one can blame him. We all hate being cooped up indoors.

"Okay. Thanks." I get off of the seat of the grand piano as Callum scurries upstairs to his room. As I walk out of the living room and down the hallway, my finger traces the pictures that Mom has pelted our walls with. Here’s a picture of Dad when he was in high school. This one has Mom and baby Callum. And — ugh.

I stop, cringing inwardly at my least favorite picture ever. Dad took a picture of me when I was five years old, singing my little heart out on my karaoke machine. It actually broke before I had it, but the microphone still worked, so I was still able to sing on it, unfortunately. My dad likes to joke that I was born to sing, that it’s the only thing I’ve ever known that I can do.

"Mattie!" My mom’s impatient voice blasts into the air, and I scurry into the kitchen as fast as I can.

I dare to look at her face, expecting an angry, or at least deeply annoyed, face. But all I see is… sympathy?

"Mom, what is it?"

"Sweetie, I’m so sorry…"

All the breath leaves my body. No.

Sound blurs out of my hearing, but I detect a few fragments worth of words. Email, cancelled, too risky, cases, sorry, next year…

"No," I croak aloud, backing away from Mom. Her eyes are worried.

"Mattie, I’m so sorry…"

That’s all I hear before I run out of the kitchen. Down the hallway. I don’t care where I’m going, just not here. Not here, where "here" is filled with dreams and imaginations and fantasies…

I grasp the knob of our front door before I realize what I’m doing and twist it open. I shut it behind me — not caring what force I use — and run down the street, panting.

Tears slip down my face, and I stop. Angrily, I wipe at them. How was I so stupid? Stupid to hope, stupid to think that there might be a chance that "normal" might happen.

There’s a small rock on the sidewalk. Letting out a yell of frustration, I kick with it all my might. It’s not fair! I want to scream as the rock tumbles into the blacktop street.

Stupid pandemic. Stupid virus, stupid quarantine and masks and solitude. Stupid 2020. Stupid song, stupid talent show. Sitting down on the edge of the sidewalk, I bury my face in my hands, and the tears start to come again. My shoulders shake as tears tumble and slip through my fingers.

I’ve looked forward to this for so long that it feels unreal that I’m not going to be able to do it anymore. It feels like there’s a hole in my chest. Breathing is suddenly difficult. What more is there to look up for?

Have you ever had something you were living for, for so long? And then that thing is snatched away from you?

"Hey, are you okay?"

I lift my wet, swollen face up to see the person who spoke. It’s my neighbor, Christian. He’s, like, 18 years old, so he definitely towers over me (who is 14). I haven’t seen him in a while, but he looks even taller than I remember.

Then I notice he’s wearing a mask, which suddenly makes me self-conscious.

"H-hi, Christian," I stammer before covering my mouth. "Sorry. I forgot to wear my mask."

By the way his eyes wrinkle at the corners, I can tell that he’s smiling. "Stay six feet away," he says teasingly. Then his face turns more serious. "What’s wrong?"

I try not to laugh at his familiar tone. Christian and his family have been living in my street for as long as I can remember, and he has always been like an older brother for me. Callum and I used to play with Christian, his brother, and sisters all the time.

My mind tries to think of what happened in the last five minutes. I open my mouth, but nothing comes out. "I, uh—"

"It’s okay," Christian says. "You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to."

I wish I could. But the hole has turned into a huge rock that’s weighing down my chest. My eyes glance at him, trying to distract my mind. For the first time, I realize he’s wearing a cashier uniform.

"Christian… what…?" I say, frowning. "You never worked at the supermarket before. I thought you were focusing on school and basketball." I remember his voice telling me years ago, when he first started high school — I barely have time for anything anymore. I wake up, go to school, play basketball, eat, then sleep. Can’t afford time for anything else.

For the first time, my neighbor’s eyes flare with something I barely recognize within him. Fear. Shame. Remorse. And a little bit of fury, frustration.

"Oh. Um, I’ve been working there recently," he says, not looking at me. "I quit basketball. Can’t go to practice anyway. I dropped my AP classes, too, because I need to work. My family’s kind of in a tight spot right now."

My mouth falls open. "Christian… I had no idea, I’m so sorry…" The meaningless words slip past my lips, but I can’t stop them, because I don’t know what else to say. Basketball is Christian’s life. He loves it more than anything. He’s really, really smart. Ivy League-smart. He struggled through the AP and other advanced classes, but in his eyes, I could tell that he really loved them. Loved the challenge, the ever-coming learning.

Christian’s father owns a small business. His mother is a social worker. They’ve never had any problem with money as far as I know, but the pandemic…

I’m so stupid. How could I be so stupid, not to know or even wonder?!

Christian shrugs. "I’ve gotten used to it." He sees my face, sees my worry and horror and everything else, and he does something that almost wants to make me cry — he smiles.

"It’s okay," he says softly. "It’s what I have to do." My heart is cracking as we stand there, silent.

"Well, I should… go, uh, home," Christian says, pointing his thumb at his house, which is two blocks away. "It was nice to see you, Mats. Take care of yourself."

"You, too," I whisper as he gives me one last sad smile and walks away.

When he disappears through the door to his house, I turn on my heel and start walking back to my own home. My head barely has any memory of what happened with the talent show now — it’s so small compared to what Christian and his family are going through.

I have to help, I think. Somehow. Somehow.

My brain conjures up the stories I heard on the news — the stories of kids, teens, or adults helping their community doing all sorts of things. Chaotic thoughts overlap and clash against one another and I can’t think straight.

What can I do? What’s something that I can do, something that…

I stop in my tracks. An idea has started to form. It’s crazy. It’s absurd. It’s ridiculous.

It’s the only thing I know I can do.

I haul the karaoke machine outside, my heart thundering. This is stupid. This is stupid.

No, I tell myself. This is for Christian.

For his family, for my neighbors, for anyone who can hear me.

"Mattie, what are you doing?!" Callum says, running out the door behind me. "Why are you getting out your karaoke machine?! I thought you hated that thing! Mattie, what—"

"Trust me," I tell him, pressing the on button and gripping the microphone.

You can do this. It’s okay. It’s okay. But even my reassuring self-words aren’t enough to calm my still-pounding heart.

I crank the volume on the machine as high as it can go. I let in a crisp inhale. I let out a lofty exhale. I face our street, my eyes staring at the two rows of houses closing off the edges of the path.

"I know you can only see the darkness." Pause. "The lingering black-ness around you." The words are so automatic in my mouth that my lips form them like they’re my first words. I’ve practiced these notes a billion, trillion, zillion times.

I keep going.

"There seems like, there’s no way out — and you can’t help but be filled with doubt."

The volume seems to be working, because some of my neighbors have poked their heads out of their doors. I hear the shuffle of feet behind me, and I know it must be my parents, but I don’t turn back.

Too late to turn back. I close my eyes and sing.

"I know you’re afraid

to hope.

To imagine a future when everything’s normal,

or that you will be able to cope

until then.

You’re afraid of falling

again and again and again.

‘Fraid being knocked over

again and again and again.

But you needn’t be afraid

because you’re not alone.

Look up, and see that

you’re not alone, because I

will be right here for you."

By now, the words and melody are freely flying out of my mouth. I feel a smile on my face. I can no longer feel my previously-thundering heartbeat. All I can feel is the music lifting me up, the steady rhythm of my song echoing throughout my brain, and hopefully, the air.

"So when you feel like you can’t get up,

when you feel like there’s no way out,

look up,

look up,

for I will be there with you.

You’re not alone,

and you won’t ever be,

because look up,

look up,

we will always be with you."

I peek my eyes open, and there they are — everybody. All of my neighbors, everyone I’ve ever grown up with, everyone who have watched me grow. There’s Mrs. Vellen and her husband; Mr. Kim and his dog; Alyn and her family; the Goldsteins; Miss Honey; Madam Guame; the Cabrees, and —

The Songs. I see Christian, his parents, Jolie, Benjamin, and Ruth all watching from their doorstep.

Christian’s eyes meet mine, and something flies across them. I think that’s… joy. Gratitude. Pride.

I pause for a moment, smiling, before entering the next stanza:

"I know you’re going through;

I’ve been there too

you fight and you fight

to claw, get through.

But who says you’ve got to do it alone?

Look up, to your right

and to your left

and all you can see is


So when you feel like you can’t get up,

when you feel like there’s no way out—"

I open my eyes. My ears must not be working, because there’s no way that this is happening.

But when I see my neighbors, I see that it’s true.

They’re singing. With me. They must’ve gotten the hang of the chorus…!

"—look up,

look up,

for I will be there with you.

You’re not alone,

and you won’t ever be,

because look up,

look up,

we will always be with you."

A final, exhilarated breath leaves my body. Shocked, I look up to see all my neighbors, whistling and clapping.

"Yeah, Mattie!" I turn back to see my parents and my brother, clapping with everyone else. I give them a grin.

Softly chuckling, I close my eyes for a moment. How on Earth should I describe this feeling? There are so many names for it. Unity. Strength. Support.


I laugh. Well, whatever the feeling it called, I know it’s radiating possibly everywhere on our street. The feeling was the aftermath of how my heart feels free. How the caged bird had broken out of its cage, spreading its wings and lifting itself in the air.

We were flying.