Palo Alto Weekly 35th Annual Short Story Contest
Teen Honorable Mention

This Is How It Ends

by Kaitlyn Chen

Author Bio

Born in Colorado, Kaitlyn moved to Palo Alto at the age of three and is currently a freshman at Gunn High School. She loves to create, whether it be a story, a new Spotify playlist, or a dance routine. She’s been dancing for eleven years, training weekly in ballet, hip hop, jazz, and contemporary. Outside of dance, she enjoys online shopping, having picnics with friends, and hiking at The Dish.


When my English teacher announced we would be writing fiction stories for our next unit, I knew I wanted to write a 1984-inspired dystopia. Driven by feelings of isolation and frustration from this past year, I decided to create a not-so-unrealistic world in the future, in which the current issues of Covid-19 and climate change have greatly escalated. Rather than end on a happy note, I wanted Robert to feel hopeless and regretful, so readers can hopefully be inspired to take action and prevent his miserable life from becoming our reality.

5:58. He wakes exactly a hundred and twenty seconds before the metal chip sends the alarm to his brain. Sits upright in his bed, gaze glued to the painfully white, blank ceiling. Maybe—just maybe—today will be different.

His name is Robert Greene. He used to have a family, friends, a normal life. But after contracting an incurable strain of Covid-19, he was confined to an eternal lockdown, forced to sever all relations to the real world. Now he lives every day a prisoner to his pod, his only form of connection with Xena-109—his robot companion.

6:00. An electric wave zips through his head. Xena powers on, her cold, metallic voice ringing through the spherical room. "Good morning, Robert. Today is Monday, January 23, 2071. The weather outside is ninety nine degrees Fahrenheit, with an eighty percent chance of acid rain showers. What would you like to wear today?"

Robert thinks carefully. "Surprise me."

Xena’s metal lips curl into a smile. She pulls out a pair of charcoal trousers, a dark red ringer tee, and an army green twill jacket (all made sustainably, of course). His brows furrow. She shrugs. "Something different."

6:36. Robert craves human touch. From his bedside table, he retrieves his most prized possession: a synthetic hand. Xena studies him. "Ten seconds. Only." He nods his head, fingers trembling as they reach for the hand’s palm. And almost instantly, a familiar sensation sparks, trickles up his arm, and encompasses his entire body. His eyes close, rolling to the back of his head. It feels safe, it feels warm, it feels alive.

"Time’s up." Robert tears his hand away and swallows the pain.

7:01. He stares at his reflection in the mirror. Dark circles deepen, wrinkles gash, the few hairs left clinging to his scalp turn bright silver. He’s looked this way for as long as he can remember. Lost. Broken. Hopeless.

Xena appears beside him with a glass of water, filled precisely to the brim. When humans deprived ninety percent of Earth’s water capacity, each citizen was limited to twelve ounces per day. He pours half over his face, fingers carving into the sallow, elastic flesh.

7:23. Pills. Red, yellow, and blue scatter around his plate from the dosette labelled Pod 11. Robert hasn’t eaten a real meal in thirty years. But he believes it’s better this way—besides, life can’t punch you in the gut when it’s already empty.

"It’s dark in here." Xena activates the pod’s windows, piercing Robert’s pupils with an artificial ray of sunshine. He shades his face, groaning.

"I hate sun."

"I know."

She motions toward the small opening in the pod’s wall, shielded with layer after layer of shatterproof glass. It reminds him every day: he’s sick, a danger, never getting better.

"It’ll be good for you."

"I know."

Dragging his sagging limbs to the window, he thinks about his family: Jada and Josy, once his two most prized possessions; Ruthie, his tender, loving, worried wife; and Loki, their husky mix, eyes blue as a midsummer afternoon sky.

He runs his fingers along the smooth glass. They’re out there. Somewhere. Far far far away.

8:23. Still staring. The Outside looks nothing like he remembered—sky smothered with clouds of ash and streaked with fire, a blazing blood-orange orb dangling low to the ground, like a time bomb, ready to erupt. There’s no blue, no green, just miles and miles of barren, desolate terrain.

A single tear escapes down Robert’s cheek. "What have they done..."

Xena shuts the window. "That’s enough for today."

9:01. Every inch of his body aches, immediately triggering Xena’s senses. She rolls out a mat and projects a video hologram. Robert squints to read the title: Yoga For Dummies. "Perfect."

A soft flute melody echoes through the room, accompanied by swishes of ocean waves and the steady pitter patter of raindrops against a glass window. "Let’s begin in mountain pose. Sink your feet into the ground, lift your chin, and relax your shoulders." Robert mimics the yogi. "You should feel proud, stable, calm." He doesn’t feel any of those. "Now raise your arms above your head, bend to touch your feet." His muscles stretch thin as he lowers, tensing as he reaches his knees. He ignores it, pulling just a little further, the knot in his back tightening…

His legs give way. The room spins. And then, pitch black.

11:47. Robert’s in bed, body throbbing with excruciating pain. I wish I were young again.

Xena appears with the half empty glass of water and a newspaper delivered to the pod every month. Robert takes a sip while reading the bold headline: First Ever Female President-Elect Murdered in Cold Blood. He rips out the page, crumples it, and tosses it across the room.


"Yes, Robert."

"I want to go back. All the way back. To when my life—the world—was easier."

A brief silence.

"The chip can play one of your memories. Choose a date."

"June 23. 2019."

11:56. A sharp noise buzzes in his head.

11:57. He’s standing in the middle of New York City.

There are people everywhere. Real, alive people.

Robert knows this place all too well—the rhythmic honks, sirens, and squabbling taxi drivers amidst the jammed streets, the shuffle shuffle of leather loafers and five-inch stilettos on the freshly paved concrete, and of course, the smooth, urban jazz from the street musician behind every turn.

But there’s one sound that lingers especially in his brain. A sound he knows better than his own voice. Her voice.

"Robert! What took you so long?"

He hesitates for a moment. It can’t be.

Her hazel, almond shaped eyes meet his. In one arm she clutches a ball of dirty blonde hair, dressed in a pink frilly dress. Josy. The other has darker, redder hair, and denim overalls. Jada.

Robert forces his feet against the gravel road, faster and faster and faster.

All at once, they’re in his arms, holding on so tight, it feels like they’ll never let go. His fingers brush against Ruthie’s, the one with the diamond ring he had given her decades ago. "I love you all so much," he says, tears gushing down his face.

11:58. A sharp noise buzzes in his head.

11:59. His body no longer hurts. Not as much as his heart.

Xena covers him with a blanket. "You’ll be okay?"

He lowers his head onto the pillow, gaze glued to the painfully white, blank ceiling. "I just wish things could’ve changed earlier. I wish I hugged my family tighter, I wish I’d taken Covid seriously, I wish we took better care of our planet."

"It’s too late now, Robert."

12:00. His chest rises. Then it falls. "I wish it wasn’t."