Age: 16, Grade: 11
School Name: Chapin School, New York, NY
Educator: Darlene Freeman
Category: Flash Fiction
The stars take refuge in the darkness of the night. One by one, they recoil. Down below, the prospect of a haven eclipses hardship and fuels the steps of thousands. Frayed plastic tarps and torn flip-flops pattern the shoulders of highways as Crusaders trek thirty miles each day, snaking along rugged roads. Carrying the weight of their burden, families brace for another sleepless night. The air quakes with uncertainty. A sudden wail splinters the heavy air, joining the somber chorus. A small girl falters, lurching forward, clenching her stomach.
“A bite to eat always makes me feel better,” says a weathered man, seizing a spot nearby. He reaches a hand into his tattered pocket. “Aquí tienes, pequeña. Here you go, little one.” He tears off a fragment of dry, cracked bread, no bigger than the palm of his wrinkled hand.
“Gracias, señor. My sister and I have not eaten today,” remarks her older brother.
Still holding the morsel in his hand, the man responds. “I have little,” says the man, “but let me share what’s left with you.” He pulls his brown belt one notch tighter around his thinning frame.
The headlight of a passing truck sweeps over the brother’s gaunt face. He could not be more than eighteen, yet his haunted eyes belong to someone much older.
“Please, have some,” the man repeats. “No one can walk on an empty stomach.”
The small girl looks first to the bread and then to her brother. With a encouraging nod, the little girl and her brother devour the old man’s offering, subduing their growling stomachs.
The old man and the brother unfold their blue plastic tarps on the pebbly ground. The old man’s aching knees buckle beneath him. His brittle body unfolds as he stretches out and looks to the stars as if to ask, “Why?”. The brother’s lithe body melts into the ground, enveloped in the brewing inferno. A dry cough escapes the old man’s lips.
“Are you okay, viejo?” the brother asks, then pauses. “Maybe we should all turn back.”
“For what?” counters the old man. “To be robbed? To be killed? To be starved?”
The brother is quiet. He thinks of his father, waiting across the border. The heat rises in his chest.
“No reason to work, nothing to earn,” the old man continues. “They seized my land. I have nothing. Turn back — for what? You have your whole life ahead of you.”
“But where’s the opportunity, being imprisoned in the place we seek freedom? Fearful of stepping out from shadows, is that a life to live?” The brother glances over at his little sister, sound asleep. “Is that the life we deserve?”
The old man holds out his hand as droplets of rain begin to flood the mountains and valleys of his gritty palm. “I used to love the water. Rain once promised life but now befriends death.”
The sister sighs in her sleep. The brother repeats, “Is this the life we deserve?”