A quick note from Ben Boruff, teacher and founder of this blog:
Author Neil Gaiman once said that the “joy of being an author is the joy of feeling I can do anything.” If writing is truly an act of limitlessness, as Gaiman describes, then it is a particularly valuable tool for those who feel limited. This is why, near the beginning of the coronavirus-related lockdown, I decided to host a friendly short story contest.
Shortly after the announcement of the Quarantine Short Story Contest, Chautauqua in the Dunes offered to partner with the event. We found some experienced educators to judge the event, and we invited all to participate.
Weeks later, we received many brilliant stories. All contestants should be proud of their submissions. And special congratulations to Kennedy Matchett, the winner of the Quarantine Short Story Competition. Thank you for sharing your impressive story with us!
The competition was judged by a number of teachers and professors. Names were removed from stories, and each story was assessed based on narrative, style, and portrayal of one of the prompt’s thematic concepts. Each judge assigned a score to each story, and the scores were averaged.
Write a fictional short story inspired by one or more of the following thematic concepts:
– the nature of hope
– doors opening
– doors closing
– the nature of fear
– cabin fever
Congratulations, Kennedy! Here is Kennedy’s first-place story:
“Orange and Yellow” by Kennedy Matchett
“Do you like it?”
Wes’s persistent stare was like a laser shooting through my skin. His shoulders were tensed and leaning over the table, his fingers tapping against the stained wooden surface repeatedly with impatience. The sun from the window shone directly onto him, vividly broadcasting his bright green eyes, wide and unwavering from my face. He looked like an absolute lunatic.
I lifted the recyclable coffee cup to my mouth again. I stared at the ceiling while I sipped to avoid meeting his stare. I did my best to seem nonchalant as a stream of the hot liquid slid down my throat, burning my insides. It was unpleasantly bitter, just like every cup he forced me to drink. My initial instinct was to grimace in disgust, but out of care for Wes’ feelings, I instead used every usable muscle in my face to force a smile. “It’s… good!” I said non-convincingly through my teeth. No, it wasn’t. I still didn’t like coffee.
Wes’s eyes narrowed, “You don’t like it.” He said accusingly. The eagerness of his stare vanished and was replaced with disappointment.
“No, I do! I like it!” I lied again.
He slumped deep into his seat and looked dramatically out the window next to our booth. “Oh Carrie, I don’t even know why I bother trying to convert you to a coffee lover anymore.” Sarcastic melodrama infiltrated his tone. “This is the best coffee shop in all of the Valley. I paid $8 for you to waste another cup of literal gold.” He whined, clearly annoyed. The warm sunlight perfectly displayed his easily-recognizable dramatic expression. Wes was a theatre fanatic in our 4 years of high school. He was always granted the lead role for every play production, and rightfully so. He was extremely talented. I never acted with him, but I sat through every one of Wes’ shows. I have seen this same exaggerated face too many times to count. I could always pinpoint when Wes was taking advantage of his talents to derive sympathy from me.
“I don’t understand the hype,” I said, giving up the act. I knew he could see through my lie. I wasn’t an actor like him. “Why drive a half hour and spend $20 for two cups of overhyped coffee when there’s a Dunkin’ across the street from my house?”
Wes looked horrified, his face contorting in disgust. “Carrie, I brought you to a high-quality coffee shop in Scottsdale, and you’re comparing it to a Dunkin’ in central Phoenix? A garbage chain?” I just shrugged. He sighed and threw his head back over the booth seat. “I don’t even know why you’re my friend right now. You don’t appreciate things like I do.”
“I do too appreciate things!” I said, slightly offended. I looked around the dimly lit coffee shop. Fake moss covered the brick walls and indie music played faintly in the background. A huge blackboard was mounted across from where we were sitting, a giant bowl of oranges drawn on it with colored chalk. Written underneath the oranges was a quote, written in cursive, “If the real world is orange juice, then art is like orange-juice concentrate.”
The smell of brewing coffee beans permeated the air. I had to admit, despite not liking the drink itself, the smell was enchanting. While observing the small space, I noticed two teenage girls at a table across the small cafe, both with large iced coffees, their laptops open, and sheets of paper covering their square table. Their display put on the façade that they were here to do homework, yet the work was disregarded as the girls chatted amongst themselves, leaning over the table to gossip in loud whispers. I could tell by their appearances that they were from this area: perfectly highlighted hair, Apple watches, expensive athleisure sets, and 100-dollar sandals. They were rich Scottsdale girls, the girls I had always secretly longed to be in high school.
After admiring their perfection, I looked down at myself. I was wearing the only pair of jeans I felt comfortable in, which happens to be the only jeans I’ve worn for the past 2 years. They were fraying at the seams and faded, but not the kind of faded you buy on purpose at an overpriced boutique, they were just, literally, falling apart. With my jeans, I rocked a pair of bright yellow Crocs. Even though they’re obviously not “on-trend”, I loved these shoes. Wes despised my Crocs, which only fueled my desire to wear them with every single outfit. It’s become a joke for me to annoy him with my bad fashion sense.
While looking down, I saw that my hair was shorter than it usually is, reaching just under my shoulders, and I remembered the night before. After sobbing while watching Lady Bird for the 4th time this week with Wes, I felt the unexplainable urge to be spontaneous and change up my look. I then proceeded to cut my long hair that I’ve been growing out since middle school, tears still staining my cheeks, all while Wes simply watched, not sure if he should stop me. I wish he would’ve. The ends of my hair were now uneven, hacked off with kitchen scissors, and served as another embarrassing reminder of my regret and bad sense of judgment.
“It’s not that bad, you know.” I looked up to see Wes staring at my DIY haircut. I couldn’t tell if he was being serious or just trying to pull me out of my despair. His facial expression looked like he was being genuine. I didn’t say anything. I just kept brushing my fingers over the uneven ends. “It’s just hair. Hair grows back.” He said plainly, like there was no argument. It was easy for him to say. He sat there with his hair bleached white, flopping over his eyes. It used to be a dirty blonde, but Wes dyed it unnaturally bright as soon as he got fired from his fancy waiting job that prohibited dyed hair. The impulse decision was initially out of spite, but he’s been bleaching it ever since. I think he looks like an off-brand Jack Frost, but he has never taken my opinion on “fashion” seriously.
“It’s different for you, Wes. Hair for you is like an accessory. My hair was like a security blanket.” I brought up. My hair had been the only thing I liked about myself all throughout high school, and now it was gone.
He rolled his eyes, “Car-o-lin-a!” He emphasized every syllable of my full name, which he did when he was annoyed with me. “I’ll literally shave my head tonight if it makes you feel a little prettier. And you still look great.” I didn’t detect any sarcasm in his tone, which made me feel better. I couldn’t help myself from smiling. This is why Wes was my best friend. If he wasn’t, I probably wouldn’t like a thing about myself.
Wes suddenly stood up, pushing the table between us into my gut. “If you’re not going to enjoy that delicious coffee I bought you, we should walk around the Quarter.” Wes proclaimed. I looked down at the time on my phone. 5:45. Everything in the Scottsdale Quarter closes at 6 on Sundays. “We’re not even going to be able to go into any shops,” I said, despite knowing Wes didn’t care. He was already cleaning up our table and putting on his jean jacket. We are in the Quarter too often, not because we could afford to shop at the expensive boutiques, but because Wes loves to walk around the beautiful area and pretend he’s in a coming-of-age movie.
Wes threw away his empty orange latte cup but refused to let me discard my full cup of cold coffee. “But I don’t even want it,” I protested.
“Doesn’t matter, I paid for it, you’re not about to waste it!” Wes said, acting like my mother. I reluctantly obliged, knowing all I was going to do was carry it around. Wes spent too much money on me anyway. I felt obligated to do him this stupid favor.
A warm breeze hit our faces immediately upon pushing open the café’s doors. The sun was exceedingly bright, piercing my eyes. I stood still for a moment, letting my eyes adjust to the intensity. When I could finally see, I saw that Wes was already several feet in front of me, walking at a fast pace on the sidewalk. I ran quickly to catch up with him, and by the time I reached his side, I was sweating under my sweatshirt. I knew it was my fault for wearing a hoodie in 80° weather, but this wasn’t even hot for Phoenix. I was going to get all the uses possible out of my sweatshirt before Arizona cooks me alive this summer.
“I don’t understand why you parked so far away from the coffee shop. I’m dying here.” I complained, out of breath. Wes looked down at me as if he was just now noticing I was walking beside him. He narrowed his eyes. “Will you just shut up and enjoy this beautiful walk? Look at how gorgeous it is here. Look at the mountains in the distance.” He said and proceeded to look around the Quarter, smiling. I looked. The sun was getting ready to set, the sky turning into an ombré of warm oranges and yellows. Mountains stretched across the skyline in the distance, adding to the magnificence of the scenery. We were the only ones on this sidewalk, excluding the business owners closing up their shops, pulling down their gates. It was quiet, but it was peaceful. I could hear the flowing of the Quarter’s fountain in the distance, then upon turning the corner, we saw it. The fountain was huge, lights flashing from the bottom of the pool a combination of rainbow colors. My eyes stopped on a young couple sitting with their feet dipped in the water, splashing each other and giggling amongst themselves. I smiled, then looked up to Wes. He was looking ahead of him at the scenery.
“Today is orange,” he said, without looking down.
I stayed silent for a moment, expecting him to explain, but he didn’t. “Why?”
Wes stopped walking, so I stopped. Then he looked around. “It’s orange because it feels orange. Because the sunset is warm. And the sun is bouncing off your hair, making it warmer than usual. It looks auburn in the light.” He was staring down at my hair. I looked down, then twirled a short strand with my finger. It did look brighter.
“Today feels like warm colors, like happiness, like orange. I like orange.” He paused, then smiled. “Oh, and I’m wearing orange shoes.” He concluded his speech by looking down at his orange Vans.
“But my shoes aren’t orange, they’re yellow,” I said jokingly. I stared down at my yellow Crocs.
“Yeah, and they’re really ugly.” Wes reminded me, laughing. “But, do you understand what I’m saying, Carrie? Do you ever feel colors? I think days have colors. Orange days are the best.” Wes said confidently. “People have colors too.”
“Why is everything like a deep piece of art to you? You should be a poet, Wes.” I said teasingly. Wes rolled his eyes and shoved me.
“Well, what color am I?” I asked, secretly intrigued by Wes’ weird, poetic color-coding system.
“You’re yellow Carrie. And I’m red. That’s another reason why today is orange.” Despite not fully understanding what he meant, I smiled. At least it sounded like a compliment.
“Red screams adventure, and I think I’m pretty adventurous. Also, red symbolizes passion, and I’m super passionate about a lot of stuff like-”
“Wessy?” A high-pitched voice rang behind us, interrupting Wes’s explanation. Startled, I looked back and saw a tall girl with curly blonde hair speed walking behind us, her heels clicking with every little step. Wes’s eyes grew huge, his mouth taking the shape of an O. “Lily!” Wes exclaimed, grabbing the girl for an embrace.
Dots quickly connected in my head as I recognized the stranger. Lily graduated in our high school class. Pictures of her face flashed through my mind; her giving a speech at our graduation as valedictorian, on the homeroom TV screen reading off announcements, and dressed up in stage makeup at every play production, often beside Wes as a lead. She was the typical overachieving, A-plus student. She was also breathtakingly beautiful. I hadn’t seen her since we graduated.
Wes and Lily excitedly chatted back and forth while I watched slightly off to the side. Lily began eagerly sharing her liberal arts college experiences with Wes. She went to some artsy, fancy school in Chicago, but I wasn’t invested enough in their squealy conversation to remember the name of it. Apparently, she was back in town temporarily for her mom’s birthday.
“Where do you go to school now?” Lily asked Wes. “Did you end up choosing Emerson College? The one in Boston? I remember you posting about how excited you were when you received their acceptance letter.”
In that instant, Wes’s giddy expression began to fade. The smile he wore dropped and he looked at the sidewalk, the excitement in his eyes disappearing. He nervously laughed and brushed his hands through his white hair. “No, actually I ended up staying in Phoenix. I just couldn’t leave home. I go to college locally.” Wes said slowly.
Lily looked shocked. “Oh, what college? ASU?” She asked.
I saw Wes’ jaw clench. “No. Community college. We both go to the same one.” Wes said through shut teeth, gesturing to me.
Lily glanced at me as if she just noticed I was standing there. “Oh, hey. Katie, right?”
“Carrie.” I said shortly.
Lily lost interest in me quickly and looked back at Wes. “Well, that’s… exciting!” She said with an unsure tone. “I know you would’ve loved the liberal arts experience, but I’m sure you’re doing great,” Lily said as she began to slowly walk away, slightly brushing past us. She looked almost sympathetic as she looked back at Wes and me. “Keep in touch, Wes! It was nice to see you.” She yelled, turning the corner. Then she was gone. I decided then that I didn’t like Lily.
Wes and I stood silent for a moment as he looked at his shoes. He didn’t say anything. I waited, unsure if I should comfort him.
After a few moments, he pulled out his keys and clicked a button, a familiar beep sounding beside us. I didn’t realize we were already at his car. I hadn’t been paying attention to our surroundings. My mind was preoccupied with my annoyance for squealy Lily.
Wes parked in the same spot every time we came to the Quarter: in front of the little cupcake shop, shaded by a line of palm trees. Making my way around the vehicle, I eagerly pulled the chipped white handle and practically launched myself into the passenger’s seat. I was immediately hit with the familiar dingy smell. Wes was my chauffeur almost everywhere. We carpooled to school every day in high school, starting when Wes got his license our sophomore year. Now, we drive to our college classes together. I’ve put off getting my license, despite almost being 20. Driving has always intimidated me. This old car felt like my car too, and I loved every grimy bit of it, even the old stuffy smell. This passenger seat was my seat.
Wes sat in the driver’s seat, looking down with concentration as he intricately put together a music cue for our drive. This was a necessity to him, even if our destination was a mile down the road. As his familiar playlist began to play through the speakers, I blasted the AC to its capacity. The leather seats were burning me through my jeans. Wes pulled out of our signature parking spot then stopped at the stop sign, but switched his blinker signaling left instead of right.
“My house is to the right, Wes.”
He glanced at me from the driver’s seat. “I know,” he said, his voice quiet. “We’re not going back to your house.” I didn’t protest. Wes liked to make up plans as they came to him. Everything we did was usually spontaneous. I was used to it.
We sat in silence while we drove, but it wasn’t an uncomfortable silence. Wes looked thoughtful beside me, and I didn’t feel like invading his thoughts. I pushed a button on my door and my tinted window lowered. Wes copied me, rolling down his window too. I sat, listening to the music as the warm air blew my hair in spirals around me. My hair blew in every direction, hitting my face, but I didn’t care. I sat back and shut my eyes, embracing the warm Arizona air.
Suddenly, I felt the car incline, my body falling back against my seat. We were driving upwards. I opened my eyes, confused, and saw that Wes had started to drive up a mountain. “Why are you driving up here?” I asked. Wes didn’t say anything, just looked straight ahead as he continued to drive up. The car rumbled as we drove up the rocky path carved in the mountain. I watched as the peak began moving closer in front of me. Suddenly, the car stopped bouncing, the ground below us smoothing out as we drove over a pretty stone road. I glanced to the side and noticed a large, expensive-looking building emerging into our view. My memory was jogged as the fancy-looking building suddenly became familiar to me, and I recognized where we were.
The hotel disappeared behind us, Wes driving up the brick road that wrapped behind the building. Wes pulled into a small parking lot near the top of the mountain, expensive cars taking up almost every space. Wes parked in front of a familiar iron railing at the end of the lot. Behind the bar was a steep drop off the mountain, a sign posted to it reading Danger! Drop-off! Wes turned the keys and got out of the driver’s seat, leaving me. I quickly unbuckled, following him.
He walked to the iron railing and sat on the gravel, putting his long legs through the bottom of the railing, resting his arms on the top bar. I mirrored Wes’s position and sat at the railing. The bar felt cold through my clothes as I leaned my weight against it.
Carved into the iron bar in front of me was a “C” and a “W”, several tally marks scratched beside our initials. This was our old spot. After discovering this spot on a random adventure, we made it a routine in high school to sit at this railing, for no purpose other than to talk while we looked down at the city. Each tally represented a time we snuck onto the fancy hotel’s property and sat at this cliff. After several trips, we self-declared the cliff and railing as ours, and carved our initials in the bars. The last time we sat here was after our high school graduation, still in our caps and gowns. We sat there talking all night, eventually falling asleep on the dirt. That was the night Wes and I promised we would stay home for college, after ugly tears and desperate pleading. That was almost 2 years ago.
The sun was almost fully set. The sky was growing darker, turning from yellows and oranges to a light purple. The view was amazing. Thousands of little lights illuminated the city of Phoenix, silhouettes of distant mountains behind them. I looked over at Wes, who still hadn’t spoken since our car ride. He stared straight ahead, his expression unreadable, his eyes gazing over the skyline. It was rare that I couldn’t read Wes. He is usually overly animated with his emotions, but his eyes were clouded. His expression was soft. He looked deep in thought.
“Sometimes I think we forget how beautiful it is here,” Wes said suddenly, his head slightly tilted toward my direction. “We’re numb to it, I think, since we’ve been here our whole lives. We’re literally sitting on a mountain, looking at the lights of the city, and it’s normal.” He sighed then closed his eyes. “Sometimes, I want to go somewhere else and appreciate its beauty for the first time. I want to see new beauty. Then, maybe, when I come back to Phoenix, I’ll see its beauty in the eyes of someone who’s seeing it for the first time again.” He looked at me, waiting.
“You wouldn’t do that though,” I said. “We’ve lived here all our lives. It’s where we belong.”
“Yeah.” He looked away. He leaned deeper onto the bar, holding up his head with his hands.
I pulled my phone out of my jean pocket and clicked onto my music app, selecting a playlist Wes had made for me last week. I could tell Wes didn’t want to talk, but I was sick of this loud silence. Muffled music began playing through my broken iPhone speaker. I laid down on the gravel, my short hair tangling with the rocks and dirt. I listened as the music played next to my head:
You’ve got me tied up,
But I stay close to the window
And I talk to myself about the places that I used to go
Hope that someday I’ll just float away
I’ll forget every cynical thing you say
When are you gonna hear me out?
Man, you really bring me down…
I jolted awake to a bright light flashing in my eyes. I shot upright, terrified, my head hitting the iron bar above me. My eyes adjusted to see a hotel security guard with a flashlight standing two feet from me.
“What are you doing out here?” He demanded. “Drugs? Are you vandalizing our property?”
I took a couple seconds to process my surroundings before I answered him slowly. “No Sir, I was just looking at the view. I’m sorry.” I said with a wavering voice.
He lowered his flashlight. “Why are you out here all alone?” He said. The urgency in his voice was replaced with concern. All alone? My eyes widened as I frantically looked around me. Wes was gone, his car was still parked beside me. I felt my breathing increase rapidly. I was filled with shaking nerves, my heart beginning to pound. “I— my friend was just here.” My voice cracked, filled with fear.
The next thing I knew, I was on my feet, stumbling up the road. I could hear the security guard shouting at me, demanding to know where I was running, but I ignored him. I quickly spotted a trail off to the side of the parking lot, then ran towards that. I stumbled up the steep incline, bushes and sharp plants scratching my legs. I shouted for Wes as loud as my body would allow me. No response.
I looked up and noticed I was near the peak of the mountain. The dirt pathway disappeared, no trail leading to the top. Without thinking, I began to grab handfuls of dirt and sharp rocks to pull myself up. The edges of the jagged cliffsides pressed into my hands, but I didn’t feel the pain. My arms began to shake as I lifted myself up, grabbing rock after rock.
Finally, I saw a bleached head of hair peek into my sight. I pressed my foot against another loose ledge, and as I was raised slightly higher, I saw Wes sitting at the peak. I pulled myself to the top, the rocks crumbling away from beneath my feet, and fell in a heap of exhaustion. My lungs were burning. My eyes were full of dirt. I couldn’t think about how dirty I looked. I couldn’t even cry. The only thing I could do was look at Wes.
He was sitting with his legs crossed on the rocks, looking down at the lights. He didn’t move, not even to look at me as I laid there, gasping for breath.
“You left me!” I choked out, my voice cracking. I felt tears fill my eyes.
Wes was silent. He didn’t react to my broken words in any way. He remained motionless, looking in the distance. It was as if he couldn’t hear me.
“Wes!” I yelled, anger fueling my body. “Why did you leave me alone?” I yelled louder, pleading. As the words left my mouth, I broke down. Tears were now flooding down my cheeks as I collapsed in the dirt.
“Carrie, I’m leaving,” Wes said softly, still staring in the distance. He closed his eyes.
“W-what?” I spat out, shocked. My head was spinning with confusion. I couldn’t process what he just told me.
“I’m leaving. I’m going to move to Boston. I’m doing what I should’ve done after the last time we were on this mountain.”
The raging fire I felt was hailed on with raw hurt and betrayal. “What about our promise? You said you wouldn’t leave me!” I choked out, my voice cracking with every word. “I need you, Wes.”
I expected Wes to look at me and say sorry, to change his mind, to say that I was right, but he didn’t. He turned and looked at me with desperation in his eyes. His mouth began to quiver.
“Carrie, I need to do this. I need to grow.” He said, tears entering his green eyes. “You need to grow. You don’t need me to grow.”
“Yes, I do!” I shouted. “I’m not good at anything. I don’t have potential like you. You can’t leave me here to be nothing!” I said through a broken cry. I looked up at the stars. I felt so worthless. I could feel the moonlight shining down on me, displaying only my worst flaws, reflecting off my insecurities for Wes and the whole city of Phoenix to see. I had never liked who I was, and I surrounded myself with Wes to forget that. His red fire has always diverted any attention away from me. I felt like an inconvenience to this world, purposeless, worthless.
“What if I’m not meant to grow? What if I was made to be in the shadows? I’ve always hidden behind you.” I said through my tears. The stars above me began to blur.
“Carolina, I am not your identity,” Wes said, standing up and walking towards me. Despite my yelling at him, his voice was soft. “I never wanted to hide you. Stop hiding. Stop acting like you’re grey when you’re yellow.”
I stood up, pushing off against the dusty rocks with shaking legs. I slowly walked over to Wes across the uneven mountaintop and looked him in the eyes, my face and sweatshirt drenched with tears. This time, I was silent. I just looked.
“You’re yellow, Carrie. You’re like the sun.” Wes said, looking down at me. I wiped the tears from my eyes and Wes’s face became clear again.
Wes continued, “You’ve illuminated my whole life. There’s so much about you that makes you bright. You wear those yellow Crocs everywhere, even if they’re the ugliest things I’ve ever seen.” He said, smiling at me through his tears. “You used to bring me yellow Peonies to my plays. I remember performing, I could spot you all the way from the stage, even through the blinding spotlights, because of the bright smile you wore while you watched me. No matter how nervous I got, that’s what kept me performing. You were so proud of me.” He now had tears streaming down his face, his eyes glimmering. “You laugh at every joke I make. You tolerate my absurd and crazy ideas. You watch movies over and over again with me until the sun comes up.” He took a shaking breath.
“You think you’re not seen, but you are. You think you’re not worth anything, but you’re like gold to me. I could spot your smile from a mile away. Yellow is happiness. You’re the brightest yellow I’ve ever seen, and it reflects onto me. You’re the one who lights my way.”
I was stunned. I looked at Wes, open-mouthed. I had always thought that I was the background character in Wes’s extraordinary life. I have never seen myself more than a dull, uninteresting girl that Wes brought under his wing. No one has ever given me a second glance, yet as I stood there, covered with dirt, gravel in my hair, and tears staining my cheeks, Wes made me feel bright. I felt seen, for the first time. Could I be seen without Wes here? Could I be on my own? Could I shine without him?
I couldn’t think about that. I felt myself fall onto Wes. He wrapped his arms around me as I buried my face into his shoulder, my tears and dirty face staining his shirt. I grasped him tightly, weeping softly. I let myself form into his embrace. Wes stood there and supported my weight.
The mountain felt still. The rushing traffic of the city seemed to halt. Everything else melted away. All that existed in Phoenix was Wes and me, standing at the peak of the mountain, both completely seen. As the moonlight shone down on us, we reflected the warm colors of red, yellow, and orange onto the city of Phoenix, our colors swirling together to create a vibrant orange. We were brighter than any of the lights in the skyline below us. We looked down at the city together, my smile wide. Despite the cold wind blowing, I felt warm. I felt happy. I felt yellow.