July-August 2020 | Short Stories & Essays

A chance for better weather

2020 Short Story & Essay Contest: First Place, High School Short Story Contest

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It seemed that her suitcase was always full. Every new house, every new apartment, her suitcase was always by her side. Sometimes a few things would leave it, clothes she didn’t like as much, the old gray sweatpants with the hole just above the left knee, and the green nature reserve shirt that was a bit too small on her—still wearable, but you could see her bra through it, and the edges of the sleeves were slightly discolored. Those clothes were always put in a wooden dresser, every house seemed to have one, and they were only there for a few months or a year, just long enough for the family to decide they didn’t want her.

It was always the same, the start, the moment when she first entered someone else’s world. She liked to think of it that way, as if everyone had a world that was just their own and she was only a supporting character inside of it. That way it was less empty, imagining that she’d be remembered.

But the beginning was fairly routine. Her new family would ask simple, polite questions. “How are you feeling?” Or, “What do you think of it here?” And sometimes the younger kids in the house would ask ruder questions like, “Where are your parents?” They always meant well, but sometimes they reminded her of all the bad things: that her parents didn’t want her, and she didn’t have a family, and that they were doing her a great service by allowing her to stay with them.

And it was always raining the first day.

That’s where she is now, sitting in the family room of people who aren’t her family while her caseworker, a thin, tightly-wound woman, tries to get her to answer their questions. The room smells of disinfectant and bleach, as if they finished cleaning only moments before she arrived. The furniture is an ugly brown color, not at all matching the large teal carpet that has clearly been freshly vacuumed. She notices that the mother, medium height and bone thin, is rapidly drumming her fingers against a stack of papers. There is also a boy in the room who looks to be around her age. He also looks incredibly bored.

“So,” her caseworker says, tapping her pen against the papers in her hands, “Acacia, this is Mr. and Mrs. Webber. I expect you’ll behave yourself and listen to their directions.” She stood up. “Thank you both so much for taking her in on such short notice. If you need anything, please don’t hesitate to call.” She shook their hands and marched stiffly out the door, leaving Acacia alone with only her suitcase.

Mrs. Webber, looks at her with an expression that Acacia has never seen before, a mix of surprise and disappointment and longing, as though Acacia wasn’t what she had expected. She looks as if she is waiting for something, waiting for Acacia to say something mean and nasty or to ask a question or leave. Thunder booms from outside the only window in the uncomfortable room.

Acacia rubs her now sweaty hands on her jeans. This moment is so familiar to her, yet she never quite knows what to say. It feels as if she’s been in this position a thousand times with only slight variations, but it also feels like the first time. The rain continues to fall more heavily.
Mrs. Webber looks down at her long, bony fingers. “It never rains much here. Funny.” Acacia continues to say nothing. The Webber family is uncomfortably quiet.

She notices in this moment that Mr. Webber is a very large man, not in the sense that he is fat, but just that he takes up a lot of space. His presence fills the room until she feels suffocated by him being there. Looking into his eyes and at the deep lines on his face, she feels that he is a very unpleasant man, maybe even dangerous. She knows that in her time at the Webber residence, she will avoid him as much as possible.
Mrs. Webber breaks the silence. She stands and roughly grabs Acacia’s arm. Then she points to the boy, who this whole time has sat and said nothing.

“This is Cyrus, he will show you where your room is.”

The boy stands, and Acacia sees that he is taller than his mother. He walks out of the room, clearly expecting Acacia to follow. He leads her down the hall to a door with peeling white paint. The hinges are rusted and the door itself looks like it was made out of driftwood. He opens it and she sees what will be her room.

There is a small bed with a quilt depicting seagulls at the beach. The floor is uncarpeted, and the only furniture aside from the bed is a nightstand, an empty bookshelf, and a wooden dresser. Acacia sets her suitcase down next to the bed and sits on the mattress. The bed squeaks when she does, making her worry that it may break in the night. All this time, the boy watches her from the doorway.

“Do you need anything?” she asks quietly.

“My name is Cy,” he says, “not Cyrus.”

Acacia nods.

“How long will you be here?” His eyes look down at her, unblinking.

“Maybe nine months, if I’m lucky.”

“They move you a lot?” His posture changes slightly to a more relaxed, questioning position.

“Well, it’s not really them. It’s more that whoever it is doesn’t want me anymore.” She looks at him very matter-of-factly, waiting for her point to sink into his ears, for his face to change again. But it doesn’t.

“I have something I want to show you,” he says, “tonight.” The door closes and Cy walks away, leaving Acacia to unpack her things in silence.

Into the dresser she puts her old white socks with holes where the big toes go, her yellow shirt two sizes too big, and the old ratty scarf given to her at a home long ago. The scarf is fraying at its ends, and the color in the yarn has faded from a vibrant red to more of a light pink.

Shirts with missing buttons, a dress without its lace, all of the clothes she likes the least, the ones she’s sure she could live without, go into the drawer.

Mr. and Mrs. Webber do not come to check on her once in three weeks. She stays in the room mostly, going to the kitchen twice a day to get cereal or an apple. The Webbers do not invite her to dinner, they don’t even eat dinner together. Mr. Webber eats alone in his office, Mrs. Webber eats in her room, and Cy eats with Acacia.

The Webbers live on a beach, an unpopular, cold beach with freezing water and strong winds that whip Acacia’s hair into her face. The sun doesn’t shine on the Webber house very often, but neither Mr. nor Mrs. Webber seem to notice the constant chill. They just pull their cardigans closer and take more blankets out of the linen closet.

But Cy loves the beach, loves that there’s no one there except him and Acacia when she goes with him. He shows her an abandoned lifeguard tower where they sit for hours and look out at the ocean, roaring and gray. He says he’d like to leave this town, leave the constant dreariness and cold and sadness that surrounds him, find a way to make more of himself. He wants the sun to shine on his face and the warmth to cover his body. He tells Acacia that this beach used to be like that, but the sun left, taking with it the tourists and eventually the people who lived there, and now it was just the Webbers in their house that overlooked the sea, all alone.

Almost all of the children she has lived with have been younger than her. Most have been adopted—people like to adopt young children or babies. That’s why Acacia is moved so much. Older children are harder to take care of and she was already 7 when she entered the system. She thinks this is the first time that a child she’s living with is her age, 16. Cy is interesting to talk to and interested in talking to her. He doesn’t like to be around his parents—Acacia was right about Mr. Webber—but he likes being around her and listening to her talk as they eat.

The first night they eat together, Acacia is alone in the room that doesn’t feel like hers. She’s sitting on the uncarpeted hardwood floor looking at the cracks and wondering what would happen if she tried to pry up a floorboard, if there would be some secret room or basement, or if it would only be concrete staring back at her. She hears a knock on the door, looks up and sees Cy slowly push it open. Without a word, he sits down across from her and starts eating. They eat in silence together, only looking at each other when each is sure the other won’t notice. Acacia is surprised he is there, but is even more surprised when he comes back the next night, giving her half his chicken and salad.

It took four days for them to talk to each other, a week to say anything other than “it sure was cold today.” But then Cy asked her what her favorite memory was. She stopped eating and stared wistfully at her green beans.

“When I was 9, I lived with the Harris family. For Christmas that year, Mr. Harris bought me a bike, and he spent all morning trying to teach me and their son how to ride it. It wasn’t very cold that Christmas, but Mrs. Harris still made hot cocoa.” She unties her shoe and then reties it.

“I loved that Christmas.”

She isn’t looking at Cy, but she can tell he wants to know more. “What happened to your bike?”

“Oh,” she looks out the window and sees a bird fly past quickly, “I couldn’t keep it. I left the Harrises a few months later. They never told me why they got rid of me.” She looks down again.

That was the conversation that started so many more, began the snowballing of Them because they knew it was the beginning of something. After that, Cy never missed a meal.

Acacia has stayed with the Webbers for six weeks when Cy says he loves her. She didn’t expect it, and he didn’t really mean to say it. They were sitting in the lifeguard tower, Acacia with her back to the ocean, picking at the splintering wood on the beam closest to her. Cy was watching her, he did that a lot without really meaning to. He liked the way her hair fell in her face and how her eyes matched the color of the ocean he was currently looking at. He liked the sound of her voice, too, when they were talking, and she would tell him about a place she was Before, with a capital B. That’s the way she said she thought of it, Before the Webbers and Now.

She tells him lots of things, like how if it rained throughout her first day in a place it meant it wouldn’t be a good place. Cy remembered that the day Acacia arrived it was the worst storm in seven years, and it had been cloudy every day since. She tells him that she takes her suitcase everywhere, has always had the same one. That she only keeps clothes in it that she likes. She tells him she remembers her mother and how much they look alike. She says every house has been the same. Most importantly, she tells him everyone eventually decides they don’t want her.

When she says this, Cy feels a deep longing in his chest, right where he’s pretty sure his heart is. It feels like this longing has been there a long time, deep and raw and urgent. And he wants to say something to her but he doesn’t quite know what that something is, but whatever words his mouth is trying to form come straight from his chest and the longing that’s been sitting there like a heavy stone.

And that’s when he tells her he loves her. And he doesn’t really know he did until he says it, but he really means it. He does love her. And she doesn’t know what to say back because she’s not sure she’s ever loved anyone before and she didn’t know anyone could ever love her. So she takes his hand and holds it, touches his fingers and knuckles, and they sit like that in silence.

During the eighth week, while they are sitting in the lifeguard tower, Acacia looks up at the sky. “It’s clearing up,” she says. And it was; the clouds were growing thinner and lighter in color. The sun was slightly visible through the smog, just barely but still there. Cy looks at her and squeezes her hand.

“What if we left?” he asks. “What if you and I got in my dad’s truck and drove far away, started over somewhere else? You’d never need to start over again.”

And that’s the moment when Acacia knows that she loves him, so she smiles and nods and they make a plan to leave because that’s what they both want, to start over in a place where there are fewer clouds, a place with a chance for better weather.

They would leave in one day, taking Mr. Webber’s big red truck and driving as far as they can in the morning, taking off before the Webbers woke up.

As Acacia packed her suitcase that night, she realized this might be the last time, the last time she was ever in a home that wasn’t hers and the last time she’d use a wooden dresser like this one, with cracks and old finishes that were peeling off little by little. It might be the last time she isn’t wanted.

Mr. and Mrs. Webber slept late the next morning; the sun had been up for hours before they woke up. Cy and Acacia climbed into Mr. Webber’s truck just as the sun was beginning to rise, turning the sky red and pink and orange, painting it in long, thick strokes. There were no clouds, and the sun shone brightly as they put their suitcases into the back of the truck.

Cy turned the key in the ignition and the radio started up immediately, playing happy songs from a time before they were born.

“It’s perfect weather,” he said, watching her smile at the multicolored sky. “It’s good to know there’s always a chance for perfect weather.”

Elliott Wagner-Smith

Lives In: Chevy Chase

Age: 16

School: Rising senior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School

Favorite Place to Write: “I like to write in my room after I’ve cleaned it. I keep my window open and turn on the Christmas lights I have strung up. I find it to be very peaceful and easy to place myself wherever the story is set.”

Favorite author: “I love reading graphic novels and comic books, and I love the work of Richard Kirkman. I love his style of bringing characters to life mixed with art.”

How they got the idea for this story: “I’m not sure where I got the idea for this—I wrote it specifically for the Strange Day Books Eyelands 2018 summer writing competition and wrote it with the theme ‘Luggage’ in mind.”