Age: 14, Grade: 10
School Name: Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, New York, NY
Educator: Donna Steffen
Category: Short Story
She woke up to the cool morning air rattling through her bones at the early hour. She opened her eyes and was met with the sight of a broken beam bent at an awkward angle coming from the ceiling. She shifted her body and felt the soreness in her body immediately, her joints so tight beyond the point of release. She sat up and cracked her back, releasing her breath in a deep sigh, her loud breath echoing off the abandoned walls of what she had to call home.
She forced herself to her feet, bracing her hands on the floor and pushing up, and waddled over to her little cart full of disarrayed clothes. She sorted through the mess, looking to see if there were any clean clothes but finding none, so she kept on her stained white shirt and white skirt. She grabbed a hair tie off of her wrist and tied her hair up, her fingers passing over the knotty and ratty clump on top of her head.
She grabbed her cart and set off, stooping through the broken window of the abandoned building she was in and hobbling down the precarious fire escape steps. She reached the end of the stairs and stood for a second to catch her breath, admiring the sunrise of a city that didn’t belong to her.
She looked down, before she could feel her heart pang with a sadness too unbearable for 5 AM. So she actually set off, walking towards the subway station on Jerome Avenue. Her callused feet rubbed in the worn soles of her sneakers, forcing her walk to become uneven and strenuous. She reached the station and had to use the railing to help her down the steps, letting her cart clang behind her recklessly. She reached the bottom and dragged her cart to the turnstiles, the rusty wheels squeaking loudly in the empty station. She stopped at the turnstiles, turned to her cart, and began fishing through her unfolded clothes to find her metrocard. She stuck her hand blindly in, but within thirty seconds of not finding it, she stuck her face in the cart and searched harder. She wrinkled her nose, smelling all the sweat and dirt accumulated on her clothes, when at last she found the card and swept her head up and out of the horrid cart. She breathed to catch her breath, swept her card, and stepped inside the station, walking down to the end of the station. She placed the cart in front of her and placed both of her hands pleasantly on the cart, looking up at the old tiles while waiting.
The train came thundering in, hurling air in her unphased face while slowing to a stop. The train doors opened.
“This is Mosholu Parkway, Jerome Avenue,” said the robotic voice.
“Thank you,” she said, dipping her head in gratitude as she entered the empty car.
She sat down, back straight, hands still placed evenly on the cart handles, and started humming the beginning to A Change is Gonna Come by Otis Redding. She closed her eyes, bobbing her head to the music and its beat, singing it over and over again until her stop came.
“This is 149 Street, Grand Concourse,” said the robotic voice. “Transfer is available to the 2 train.”
“Thank you,” she said, standing up and walking out of the car. She walked across the platform to the other side and waited, placing her hands on the cart’s handles in front of her, head lifted to look at the tiles she sees everyday.
Again she waited, and again the train came charging in, whipping her face raw. And again she stood there, unphased, waiting for her next train’s doors to open.
“This is 149 Street, Grand Concourse,” said the robotic voice. “Transfer is available to the 4 train.”
“I just came from the 4 train!” she said, chuckling under her breath. “I’m going to Times Square today,” she said, to no one in particular.
She stepped into the train and immediately saw a shirtless man sprawled out on the seat in front of her in a deep sleep.
“Oh no, not today,” she tut-tutted, walking down to the end of the car. She sat down in the seat farthest away from him, giving him a sidelong glance before neatly placing her hands evenly on the cart’s handles. This time she didn’t close her eyes, no-no, she sat with her head tilted up, observing all of the peeling ads on the “ceiling”. She read every last word on every ad she could see, until finally came her stop.
“This is Times Square, 42 Street,” said the robotic voice. “Transfer is available to the 1, A, C, E, 7, N, Q, R, and W trains. You may additionally take the Shuttle to Grand Central.”
“Thank you,” she said, dipping her head as she walked out of the train car.
She started walking up the stairs and felt her stomach rumble with pangs of hunger, while dragging her cart up the steps. She reached the top, exhaled, and set off for the closest entrance to the next train.
“Hello 1 train, I suppose I will be singing for you today,” she said, entering the uptown 1 train track.
She wheeled her cart down the station until she reached the first set of stairs, then stopped and placed her cart neatly in front of her.
She could see the first handful of early travellers beginning to arrive, lightly tip-toeing down the steps of the hot station and settling into their waiting stance before the train arrived.
She reached into her cart and found her bottle of water, unscrewing the cap and gulping down the last of last night’s lukewarm leftovers. She stuck her tongue out in disgust, then placed the bottle back in her cart.
She breathed in and smelled only the stuffy air clogging around them, and faint hints of the cologne coming from the man in the suit standing a couple of feet from her.
“Bless this heaven and bless this earth,” she muttered, bringing her hand into a fist at the side of her waist.
And with that, she started singing.
By that time more people had come into the station, all of them impatiently waiting for the train while silently perishing in the exhausting heat of the summer.
“I put a spell on you,” she began. “Because you’re mine,” she finished the phrase, her raspy voice filling out every inch and corner of the contained space.
“You better stop the things you do,” she continued, “I ain’t lyin, no I ain’t lyin.” Her voice came out of her body like a phoenix rising from the ashes, only there was no smoke, just dust and dirt on the ground around her.
“You know I can’t stand it,” this time closing her eyes and nodding her head along to the beat. “You’re runnin around,” digging into the first note of “runnin” and then riffing at the end of “around,” causing the people around her to look at her, bewildered, wondering where this sound was coming from.
“You know better daddy,” she started the first phrase, but people still had their headphones in. “I can’t stand it cause you put me down.” This time people started taking out one headphone, but still leaving their music on. “Yeah, yeah,” riffing the whole way through, closing her eyes and letting the melody just slide its way through her mouth, letting it takes its place and form.
Now people were listening. They pressed pause on their phones but left their earbuds in, too afraid for people to see them giving their attention to a subway singer.
“I put a spell on you,” she continued, this time her voice louder. “Because you’re mine,” she sang, all gravelly and raspy in its mighty glory. She sang the chorus again, this time raising her arms up and bending them, making fists in the air.
Her eyes were still closed.
“You’re mine, you’re mine,” she repeated the end phrase, lingering on the last notes of “mine.”
“I love ya, I love you” she sang, over and over again, her voice full and whole, waking your whole body and lifting it higher with hers.
“I love you, I love you,” she sang again, her voice bumpy but smoothly running over your ears.
“I love you, I love you,” she finished the verse.
“I put a spell on you,” she’s almost at the end. “I put a-”
“There is a 1 train to 242 Street, Van Cortlandt Park, 2 minutes away,” said the robotic voice, overriding her song.
She kept on singing.
“Spell on you,” right where she left off. Final verse.
“I put a spell on you,” now she was swaying to the beat. “Because,” she sang, stretching it out and enveloping you in a warm embrace.
“You’re mine,” she finished, holding the last note into infinity until the train came thundering in, whipping the sound away and out of the station.
Scattered applause underneath the rolling tracks.
“This is Times Square, 42 Street,” said the robotic voice. “Transfer is available to the 2, 3, A, C, E, 7, N, Q, R, and W trains. You may additionally take the Shuttle to Grand Central.”
The doors opened and people whipped their gaze away and lined up, ready to push in to the long-awaited air-conditioned car.
They walked in, away from the woman who just sang for them, rolling away and never remembering.
“This is my heaven and this is my hell,” she muttered.