2021 CBU Creative Writing Contest Winner—Nonfiction
“To the girl who sees dragons in the clouds” is a scrap of poetry I stumbled across on Pinterest. Meagan Spooner wrote the poem for the dedication of her novel Hunted. This phrase is the first and third lines pieced together. I pinned it to my inspiration board.
This Pinterest board exists to collect little particles of genius. It gathers gleanings from Google searches that make me think and explore differently. I paint, pace, and ponder these scraps of inspiration. They molder and then fester into a germ of an idea. Hopefully, they sweep me off into a creative spurring of motivation. This rarely happens. But this scrap of poetry stuck with me. I painted it on a cotton candy skyscape. You know, the puffy Pepto-Bismol clouds that exist in kids’ cartoons. It’s about the only thing I can paint without peering at it after and believing I’ve marred the pristine canvas.
I paint not because I am skilled or necessarily enjoy the product afterward, but because it releases some tension bundled beneath my sternum. Sometimes I need to press my thumb to the tension, to acknowledge it is truly there. The pressure from my thumb meets with the pressure in my chest, greeting each other in a kiss. Somehow this relieves the tension in the way touch always does, like falling back into my pillow, rubbing my face into my cat’s fluffy neck, and pushing myself into the crevice between my mother’s arms. So, among writing in cursive, doodling, tapping my foot, running my hands through my hair, dancing, and steeping in a hot bath until my palms are wrinkled, I paint to alleviate anxiety. All these things disembody me, if only for a moment, from the stifling pressures of existence.
The painting, with the poem scrawled over it, meshes with the sharpie outline of a dragon. Thick, inky wings and a furling tongue of flame spread from the dragon, clashing against the puffy pink sky. The dragon is regal, yet menacing. Its eyes are shaped like lightning bolts.
It’s been hanging on the wall next to my bed for about eight months now—a record-breaking time. I rarely keep anything up for that long. I’ve pondered those words, wondering what they meant to me. Why had I chosen to paint it? Many other snippets of inspiration were left to molder until they disintegrated into my unconsciousness. Why was this string of words any different?
The poem is addressed to the girl who sees dragons in the clouds. It’s supposed to render a whimsical effect as if the author is addressing her book to all those dreamy individuals discovering magic in the world. At first glance, I believed this to be its only meaning. A lovely little thought, letting you know that you’re not alone—the poem celebrating your lofty ideals and your charming quirks. But “to the girl who sees dragons in the clouds” has become more than just a whimsical phrase to me. Its scope spans beyond nostalgia ridden days or times spent cloud watching on grassy hillsides.
Dragons are fearsome beasts. Storytellers of yore labeled them as malicious and greedy creatures. Dragons snatch up whatever they like, hoarding it away or eating it. For eight months, I have left the painting hanging up, pondering the phrase. I now analyze it differently and have discovered the meaning anew.
The other night, I cried. Bawled, actually. Hot tears seeped out and down my flushed face. My breath caught in my chest as I made odd little gasping noises, trying to gulp down oxygen. This kept on for an hour. I rarely cry. It’s so rare for me to cry that sometimes I crave it, especially when the pressure in my chest won’t relinquish its clench. I cried that night because I met a dragon.
You can detect dragons based on the steely glint in their eyes. Sometimes they’re dinosaurs with craggy skin and a shaky voice. They wobble towards you with a cane they would like to bang on your head. Sometimes they’re tiny terrors that scamper about, kicking up insults in their wake. Sometimes they have power over you. Sometimes you give the power to them. This dragon had power over me, but I gave her more power than she had.
I have a grocery store job that I dislike. There are many reasons why I dislike it, but I won’t smear them across this page in a long list. It doesn’t help. But it does help to list the things I like about it, such as getting a paycheck, allowing it as an excuse to step away from homework, and growing. I’ve done a lot of growing in the months I’ve worked there. I never thought that I would cry over my job, yet this is precisely what I did.
I was the only closer that night besides the cashier and manager. This new manager had different expectations than other managers I had closed with. Her expectations were higher and stricter. I became her henchman, scurrying about trying to get the checklist done that usually had three people completing its tasks.
Finally, the night was up. After crushing my toes with a massive steel sign, smashing my fingers, hauling in carts, and scrubbing down all but one check stand, I bid the dragon good night. She interrupted me, mid-sentence, complaining that the last check stand had not been wiped, and adding that I couldn’t leave until it was done, ignoring the fact we were closed, and I was technically allowed to go based on my schedule. With that sharp reprimand still steaming from her nostrils, she whipped away into her office, letting the door smack shut behind her. I hurried and wiped down the last check stand, scampered to the clock, and punched out. I had done what she asked; I was free from the dragon’s clutches.
However, as I headed towards the door, I saw the cashier wiping down the check stand I had just cleaned; the cashier had been in the back while I’d cleaned it. He usually helped me wipe down the check stands, so it wasn’t unusual. Just then, the manager came stomping out and told me that it’s not the cashier’s job to clean check stands. She continued with her reprimanding, telling me I needed her permission to leave and that I should do what she’d asked.
I was near tears. I had done everything she had asked all night, and she hadn’t even bothered to learn my name. Instead, she had referred to me by the term “you” throughout the night. It didn’t matter if the cashier’s job description didn’t include wiping down cash registers. He did it because he was helpful and kind; everything this steaming dragon was not.
Before the manager could finish her rampaging torrent of rebuke, I interjected, “I just cleaned that check stand.”
My voice didn’t shake, and I didn’t sound impertinent. I just stated the fact as clearly as reciting that the sky was blue. I masked the tempest roiling within well. I could tell she felt a little stupid at that moment.
All she said was, “oh.”
I briskly left the store, pounding down the pavement towards the car. I felt that pressure in my chest building until it tore out of my mouth in a sob. I cried all the way home as my dad drove, listening to my story.
“I just want to quit!” I repeated for the third time. “I hate this job, and I just want it to end.”
I didn’t know why she had made me so upset. There were plenty of times when I had dealt with difficult people at this job, including psychologically disturbed customers and disgruntled co-workers. But the way she had treated me throughout the night, in a callous and controlling manner, not acknowledging my hard work or even bothering to learn my name, made me feel empty.
I wanted to feel validated, not downtrodden by the endless pile of work. I wanted to feel free from the worry whirling around me all hours of the day. Most managers said thank you, offered a smile, or bantered to keep us from nodding off that late in the night. Little things like that eased the pressure.
She hadn’t bothered with pleasantries, and that’s what bothered me. I tried so hard to maintain a positive attitude because it made me feel courageous. I put on a brave face, even when the toil attempted to tear me apart. I appeared gracious and good-natured, always ready to help. But she went about her work with a commandeering attitude, intensity emanating from those sharp, dark eyes.
As I collapsed onto my bed that night, I passed by the painting. I didn’t see it in the dim shadows or reflect upon it in the brooding hours after midnight. Yet its truth still hung there. It was scrawled in deep sharpie letters, waiting for me to see, to read between those lines.
In the following weeks, I finally discovered the hidden message. The substance beyond the fanciful. The meaning whose glimmer I’d detected the day I decided to paint it.
To the girl who sees dragons in the sky, take courage. You have a beautiful mind and a whimsical way of peering at the world. You notice that the cracks in the pavement form lightning bolts. That dust is just like gray powdered sugar. How sometimes, between three and five pm, the sunlight streams in through the windows and illuminates aisle one so that it looks like a liquid gateway to heaven is melting into the tiles you sweep. The world is so much richer when you seek out these things, so don’t let them slip away. But the world is also more fearsome because of this gift.
You can spot the monsters writhing in the shadows and detect the pitch of their whispers. Sometimes they morph into a frenzy and feed on your frantic spirit. They feast on fury, or jealousy, or despair. There are times you personify the lumpy shapes in the closet or under your bed. But you don’t have to fear. You have the power to see past it all. Don’t forget about the cotton candy clouds. Violent storms with all their noise and gloominess are just pillowy comforters swirling around in a washing machine. It’s just the way you look at it. It’s the meaning beneath.
To the girl
who reads by flashlight
who sees dragons in the clouds
who feels most alive in worlds that never were
This is for you.
─ Meagan Spooner, Hunted, 2017
The winner of The Dazed Starling 2021 creative writing contest for nonfiction is Amberly Garcia’s “To the Girl Who Sees Dragons in the Clouds.” Contest winners receive a cash prize as well as having their work published in the journal.
Keep an eye out for “To the Girl Who Sees Dragons in the Clouds” in an upcoming blog post.
2021 CBU Creative Writing Contest Winner—Poetry
The winner of The Dazed Starling 2021 creative writing contest for poetry is Harmony Taetz’s “Seasons in Colour.” Contest winners receive a cash prize as well as having their work published in the journal.
Keep an eye out for “Seasons in Colour” in an upcoming blog post.
2021 CBU Creative Writing Contest Winner—Fiction
I skated down the street back toward the house. My board caught air as I popped an ollie up onto the sidewalk of the driveway. My front wheel hit a rock and halted my progress. I bailed, jumping off the board, and stumbled forward a few feet. One arm pinwheeled to keep me from falling, and my other jerked up on reflex to steady me.
I gritted my teeth as pain radiated from my sore shoulder. A few days ago, I had dislocated it for the third time in as many years, and my arm was imprisoned in a sling for a week. After the first hospital visit, my doctor had warned me that the joint would never be the same and was more likely to come out now, so I was supposed to avoid risky activities.
I had popped it out at the skatepark all three times while using the vertical ramp. I had tried to land a 180 rotation, and later a 360. This last time I was going for a 540 and ate it when I bailed, but it was worth it.
The ache in my shoulder lessened, and I jogged after my board as it rolled down the driveway and into the street.
I picked up my board and looked back to where my parents were standing on the front porch. Dad shook his head at me. He’d told me to lay off skating at least until the sling was off, but I’d been at the park with my friends since the swelling went down.
My younger sister, Edith, bounded out of the house and yanked her unicorn suitcase behind her. I hated that thing. Mom had gotten it for her after Dad had moved out and we were traveling back and forth week to week. It left glitter everywhere it went, including all over my stuff.
“You two have everything?” Dad asked.
Edith nodded and skipped to the car. I ignored him and walked through the yard to where my duffle bag sat. As soon as Dad had gotten here to pick us up, I left the house and ditched my bag in the yard so I wouldn’t have to go back inside. I stayed away from him and Mom as long as I could.
I readjusted the duffle bag slung over my good shoulder and waited with Edith beside Dad’s SUV. She grabbed the door handle and yanked a few times before Dad unlocked it. I slid into the passenger side and settled my headphones over my head. Heavy metal blasted in my ears, and I slouched back against the seat. I didn’t really care for the genre or know any of the bands, but it was loud, it was angry, and it kept everyone out.
I messed with the strap of my sling and watched my parents chat at the front door of Mom’s house—our house just six months ago. They were smiling, like nothing was wrong and they were just old friends catching up. I scowled.
Eight months ago, our parents sat us down in the living room. Something heavy was coming, and I had run through all sorts of scenarios in my head. A family death. An incurable disease. A job loss. Moving to another state. I thought I had prepared myself for whatever news they had, but when their divorce was announced, it was like I had been told a math problem in German.
“Huh?” That was the first thing out of my mouth.
Edith sobbed and said a million incoherent things. She clutched both of my parents while I stared at them from my spot on the couch and tried to understand what had just happened.
I had friends whose parents had divorced after years of fighting or even because of an affair. But my parents never fought, and there was no way either had cheated. They loved each other. That’s what they said to each other every day. That’s what they told us. How long had they been lying to our faces?
Things changed fast after that. Dad started sleeping in the guest room. Boxes were packed, meetings with lawyers were held in the dining room. I would sometimes sit on the stairs and listen to them all talk to one another, calm and civilized like they weren’t in the middle of dividing their lives, their things, and their time spent with us.
Two months after Dad had moved into the guest room, he had moved out and into the house he’s at now. We had been going back and forth between houses since then, and four months in, the papers were signed, and the divorce was final. Our family had been ripped apart, and there was no going back.
Now, they were talking away on Mom’s front porch. Dad said something, and Mom laughed. I flipped down the visor to look at Edith in the mirror as she witnessed the same exchange.
She was sitting on her heels as she watched our parents, an excitement in her eyes that I had come to interpret as hope. I sighed. I glanced back at the front door and saw them hug. Dad pecked Mom’s cheek.
She saw a romantic gesture. I saw a reflex Dad still hadn’t unlearned. He stepped away from Mom and scratched the back of his neck. He looked red even from here. Mom put a hand on his shoulder and smiled. She must have still been used to the interaction too.
I looked back into the mirror. Edith wrung her hands in her lap, her eyes zeroed in on the front porch.
I pushed a headphone off one ear. “They’re not getting back together, Edie.”
For a moment, she didn’t respond and kept watch for any other signs that would prove her theory right. But Mom headed back inside, and Dad went down the walkway toward us.
Edith’s shoulders slumped, and she kicked her legs out from under her, plopping into her seat. “I know.”
Except, she didn’t. Every week at pick-up, I told her the same thing, and every week our parents would get her hopes up by just being themselves.
I shook my head and repositioned my headphones, turning the volume up another tick. Dad got in and said something I couldn’t hear before pulling out of the driveway. He glanced at me from time to time, but I kept my eyes on the road.
Dad and I used to be close. I could trust him with anything, and he would always have my back. But after that day in the living room, I stopped asking for advice. I didn’t talk about my day on the way home from school anymore. I kept conversations to the bare minimum with him and Mom. They were both liars in my book, and I didn’t want to waste any more time on them.
Edith, on the other hand, was as gabby as ever and had no trouble making up for my lack of conversation. As we drove, I looked back at her in the mirror a few times, and she would, without fail, be chattering on, probably about some stupid thing that happened in her fourth-grade class.
We passed my high school and turned into a neighborhood. We’d be at Dad’s in less than two minutes. Two minutes until I could get back to watching The Office without Edith yammering on about—
I jumped. I spun around in my seat and yanked my headphones off. “What!”
She grinned and fell back against the leather. “Whatcha listenin’ to?”
I glared at her and faced forward without another word, pulling my music back over my ears. It was her new thing to just scream out someone’s name without actually having anything of substance to say. Nine-year-olds just think they’re the funniest people on the planet, I swear.
We pulled into the driveway, and I got out before Dad cut the engine. I let myself in, and Onyx, our all-white cat, scampered into the front room to meet me. She followed me up the stairs and into my room. I set my board by the door and shut it.
I dumped my duffle bag on top of the graded homework littered all over my desk. I had stopped unpacking my things a month into switching between houses. It was easier to just pull from the bag as I needed. Why settle in if you were leaving in a week, right?
Onyx scrunched her paws on the foot of the bed and purred. I scratched her ear and readjusted the strap of my sling. The stupid thing left my neck red and raw if I let it rub against my skin for too long. I sat down on the bed and frowned. It was new, along with all the furniture, and so stiff I might as well have been sitting on a rock. The bedding was new too. I gathered the covers beneath me to try to make a sort of cushion, but it just made the rock feel lumpy.
I hated my room in either house. Before the divorce, I had posters of pro skaters covering every wall and a space dedicated to hanging up my growing collection of boards. It was the same room I had been in since I was five. Now, my posters were divided between two houses, and my walls looked patchy, incomplete. Dad had installed a similar set up for my skateboards in my new room at his house, where I kept half of my collection, but it wasn’t the same. Before, all my gear, spare parts, and boards had been organized together in one place, but since the split, I had to choose every week what to take with me and deal with the frustration if it turned out I needed something else.
I turned off my music and set my headphones on the nightstand beside my alarm clock. I untied my shoes and kicked them off towards the wall before laying back against the pillows. I shifted and moved the blanket around beneath me to get comfortable to watch my show.
The wall space opposite my bed was empty except for the drill holes that had once held my TV mount.
I gritted my teeth, shoved off the bed and onto my feet. Onyx jerked and widened her eyes but kept kneading the blankets. I yanked the door open and made an effort to stomp my way down the stairs.
Edith was in the living room, watching some sitcom from the couch. She eyed me. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Nothing,” I said. I was afraid to say anything more and end up snapping at her. I didn’t care how I talked to Mom or Dad, but the last thing Edith needed was me being a jerk to her for no fault of her own. I was her ally, and she was mine, and no matter how much she grated on my nerves, I was never going to make her an enemy. Someone had to look out for her, and if it wasn’t going to be my parents, then it would be me.
“Are you sure?”
I nodded. She opened her mouth to say something more but thought better and pressed her lips into a line. She returned her attention to the screen and smiled as a laugh track played.
I looked around. Dad wasn’t in the living room or the kitchen, which meant he was already in his office. I walked down the hall and, without knocking, pulled open his office door. His head snapped up from his computer screen.
“Ethan, I told you, you have to knock before coming in. I have meetings—”
“Where’s my—” I glanced around the room and groaned. “Are you kidding me?” Mounted on the wall opposite Dad’s desk was my flat screen.
“What? The TV? I needed—”
“It’s my TV. Mine. And I want it back in my room.”
“Actually, it’s not yours. I paid for it, so it belongs to me, and I’ll put it wherever I want to.”
“That’s a load of bull—”
“Watch your mouth, young man.”
“This is ridiculous! You can’t just reclaim my TV.”
“You’re living under my roof—”
I scoffed and walked away. I had heard that tired line from both of my parents every week.
“Ethan, do not walk away from me while I’m talking to you.”
I started up the stairs. I was in a constant war with my parents, and everything I did seemed to be a crime. I headed to my room. I was going to be sent there anyway, might as well just skip the lecture.
I stepped into my room and slammed the door, rattling the frame. Onyx leapt off the bed and sprinted beneath it. Before I could even bend down to check on her, Dad barged into the room.
He pointed to the bed. “Sit down. We need to talk about your attitude.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, am I not allowed to be mad?” I stayed standing and looked around. “Let me write that down or—”
“Ethan James. You best believe you’re already grounded for a week. Do you want to make it a month?”
“Make it two, see if I care.”
“Let’s go three, tough guy.”
“Fine. Now could you get out of my room?” I turned away and reached for my headphones sitting on the nightstand.
“I pay the bills around here, and I’ll stay in whichever of my rooms that I want because this is my house.”
I clenched the headphones in my good hand and stared down at them as if they could become an anchor to steady me as his words echoed in my head. Both of them kept saying that. Every week it was like they were staking a claim and making sure I knew I had no say in anything. They made the decisions, and it didn’t matter how those affected me or Edith. I glanced at my sling. They tore everything apart, and it was like they expected things to be fine just because they were in charge. But things were and would always be out of place now. I set my headphones down on the bed.
“Ethan, listen to me when I’m talking to you.”
“I’m listening, Dad. And you know what? You’re right. This is your house. Just like the old house is Mom’s. Edie and I don’t have a house. We don’t have a home.”
He shook his head. “What are you talking about? Of course, you have a home.”
I whirled around. “Really? Ever since the divorce, all we say is Mom’s house or Dad’s house—you know what we used to say? Home. And it was ours. Now everything is split between you and Mom, and nothing belongs to me anymore.”
“That’s not true—”
“Yes, it is! We used to have a home, now we don’t, and it’s your guys’ fault. We don’t live anywhere. We just stay places. I don’t even have a room that’s mine. You just said it yourself.”
Dad sighed. “Ethan, that’s not what I meant.”
“But you’re right, Dad. It’s not my house, so why would it be my room? I don’t have one anymore. I’m always packing, always moving. I can’t even sleep in a decent bed for more than a week before I’m leaving again and relearning what’s in the fridge and double-checking if I have all my stuff. But I mean, you paid for it, so I guess it’s yours.” I grabbed the headphones and tossed them to Dad. He fumbled to catch them. “So, I don’t have to worry about keeping track of my things because nothing’s really mine. I’m not allowed to have anything, and whatever I do have, you two just rip it away whenever you please.”
He set the headphones back on the bed. “Ethan, I understand—”
“No, you don’t! And I wish everyone would stop saying that. You don’t understand, you could never understand. Your parents didn’t just decide one day, out of nowhere, that they weren’t in love and that their family wasn’t good enough for them anymore.”
“And you know you two are screwing with Edie’s head?”
“You guys act like everything’s fine between you two, and you’re laughing, and she sees you, and she thinks you two are going to get back together. Not that you two care at all about either of us—”
“That’s enough.” His level voice softened. “Your mom and I love you two more than anything.”
My chest stung, and my throat grew thick. “Then, why did you lie to me?”
His eyebrows scrunched together. “What? When did I lie to you?”
“Christmas. Edie and Mom were already asleep, and we were watching a movie. The week before, Aunt Wendy said she and Uncle Bill were getting a divorce, but they’re like the happiest people I know. So, I started thinking about you and Mom, and this idea got in my head, and I was so afraid—” I swallowed the tears that clogged my throat. “I was so afraid that something like that would happen to you two, so I asked you—Dad, I asked you if you and mom would ever get a divorce.”
“And you told me there was no way. You said not to worry about you two. You said you loved each other too much and that that would never change.” I shook my head. “You lied. You lied to me, Dad.”
“Ethan, your mom and I…we grew apart.”
“Then you should have tried harder! You should have done something, anything, but you just gave up, you both just gave up. You didn’t fight for each other. You didn’t fight for us. If you love us so much, why did you let our family fall apart? Why—” My voice cracked. “Why did you guys give up on us?”
He held my gaze as tears clumped together my eyelashes. He reached out and planted a hand on my good shoulder, and I was reminded of the pain in the other. I tried to turn, but he held his grip. I looked away. Onyx was stepping around on my desk, making her way over to sit on my bag.
“Ethan, look at me.”
I counted three breaths before meeting his eyes.
“I’m sorry, Ethan. I’m so sorry that things didn’t work out like—”
“Dad—” I stepped back, and his arm fell to his side. I couldn’t look up from the floor. “Would you just leave me alone?”
“I love you, Ethan. Please,” he ran his hand over my hair and pressed his palm to my cheek, “don’t ever believe that your mother and I don’t love you and your sister more than life itself.”
I turned away and grabbed my headphones off the bed. I slid them on and cranked the volume up on my phone. It blared and hurt my ears, but I didn’t want to hear anything else he had to say.
I looked back when the song had ended and found my door closed and Dad gone. I paused the music and laid back on the bed. I stared up at the ceiling and curled my trembling fingers into the back of my hair. Tears raced down my temples, rolled over my ears and onto my pillow. I let out a slow, shaking breath to keep from sobbing.
Despite every part of me screaming not to believe him, not to trust, not to open up that door again after everything that’s happened, I couldn’t stop hope from lifting its head.
In a whisper, I prayed, “Please. Don’t let him be lying.”
The winner of The Dazed Starling 2021 creative writing contest for fiction is Mariah Mooring’s “Disjointed.” Contest winners receive a cash prize as well as having their work published in the journal.
Keep an eye out for “Disjointed” in an upcoming blog post.
This year, the BFA Creative Writing at CBU is pleased to announce a new award for an outstanding senior, The Starling Award. The recipient is chosen by the creative writing faculty as someone who has contributed significantly to the writers’ community at CBU and who embraces a spirit of artistic excellence in his or her personal work.
This year’s recipient is graduating senior Jacob Haffner. Jacob’s work can be seen in both the 2020 & 2021 Dazed Starling.
Keep on eye on upcoming blog posts to read his short story “Past Tents.”