Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Gray Sky Days

When the sun appears to be in hibernation, the days are ripe for reading.  That's why Sevenatenine editors bring you two longer pieces this month -- including a poem, an essay on the bipartisan system, and a Stephen King style horror story -- to get you through the depths of winter and into the spring.

Artwork by Emily K., Grade 9

Let’s take a journey,
Into the unknown.
Where the destination,
Is never really shown.

Let’s take a boat,
Or a bird or a plane.
Where only this ride,
Will never be the same.

It’s like running away,
Having a clean start.
No path to take,
Only tearing you and your sections apart.

Or it could be in your mind,
Drifting off to thoughts.
Or sucked to space.
Where there are only dots.

Wherever this destination is,
Surrounded by people or completely alone,
It’s will always be a journey,

Into the unknown.

by Anonymous, Grade 9

Artwork by Emily K., Grade 9

The Bipartisan System
       In his final address to the American people as President, George Washington said, “However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion." Quite frankly, I don’t care what your personal political beliefs are. You are entitled to your own beliefs and so am I. Whether your beliefs align with my own or not, I can tell you one thing: If you are not willing to have a conversation with someone about your beliefs and defend your opinions, then you are not a free-thinking individual. You are simply another casualty of the partisan war that is polarizing our nation, blinded by the leaders sowing hatred into the fabric of our democracy.
       Our nation’s democracy was designed to allow the people to be represented, with the idea that every individual would be heard through their vote. George Washington condemned the idea of a bipartisan system due to the divide it had caused between the nation with the first two political parties, the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans. Even at the end of the 18th Century, those from different political parties would distance themselves and avoid eye contact; it was clear that the nation would destroy itself through political parties. Realizing the fatal mistake the nation had made, Washington used his farewell address to inform them of the dangers of political parties but to no avail. This issue has evolved over the years, with the political parties changing names and ideals upheld, yet the theme is still the same: one half of the nation pitted against the other. The bipartisan system has further polarized the nation, leaving voters with a feeling that they must pick one side or the other. Especially in modern day, the parties can come to no consensus or compromise, leaving Congress locked in a stalemate yet to be broken. With our democratic process at a standstill and change unable to occur, the democracy we value so dearly has become ineffective.
       There was a period in which the bipartisan system was effective. Throughout the middle of the 20th Century, the Democratic and Republican parties were forced to be centrist in order to find common ground and have Congress function. In recent years, politics have been degraded to a savage game of tug-of-war between the right and left – with each becoming more extreme as time wears on. This leaves many voters with a feeling that the candidate representing their party does not share the same views as them, and the truth is that many do not share the same extremist views as their party depicts. Mind reeling, heart tearing, the average voter will make a decision at some point in their life to what party they pledge their allegiance. Despite not sharing their party’s views, many will blindly follow them simply because they wish to be a part of something.
       Political parties have warped the democracy designed to represent the people into a system where you are one or the other, with no in-between. Don’t get me started on the media. Demonizing politicians – both left and right – of being either Stalin-loving communists or white supremacist Neo-Nazis. The media, powerful and cunning, are simply another weapon in the ongoing war between the Republican and Democratic parties. They have increased the divide, brainwashing the American people into hating politicians who may not be so different from themselves.
      The American public act as if third parties don’t even exist, or they may genuinely be oblivious to the fact. It isn’t simply a decision of red or blue – there are plenty of other parties vying for recognition that are simply treated as a joke by most. The parliamentary systems of many European democracies are admirable for their myriad political parties, that aren’t simply right or left, but with more selection to choose from depending upon your personal views. The very colonial powers we broke free from over 2 centuries ago have overtaken us in the very political system we pioneered in modern day. I therefore stand with President Washington, forever condemning the bipartisan system, no matter what parties are the dominant two now and in the future. . .

by James S., Grade 9

Sweat Stain
            Sitting alone behind his desk in his private office, Howard was sweating. As the vice president in his branch of the accounting firm he worked for, Howard was a very busy man between the hours of nine to seven every day, with a thirty-minute break at one-thirty for lunch, and a two five-minute bathroom breaks. The rest of the day was spent hunched over at his desk, working like a dog; he would consistently bounce back and forth between working on his computer and filling out the masses of paperwork that were delivered to his office daily. When he transitioned to working on paper, he was sure to put his computer into sleep mode to save the valuable and expensive resource known as electricity. Completely absorbed in his paperwork, it was not until he was finished signing his name on the corpses of lord knows how many trees that he looked up, and in the reflection of the black screen in front of him, he saw a small dark circle forming on his shirt under each of his arms.
            The bluish circles, small and barely noticeable, were a rarity for the man behind the desk. The last time he broke a noticeable sweat was about six months ago when Ashley asked about, well… he didn’t quite remember. No matter, it wasn’t that important. Dismissing the thought of the sweat with a physical wave of his hand, he simply flicked on the fan that he kept on his desk, which was usually reserved for the summer.
            As he turned his gaze to the corner of his desk to turn on the fan, his eyes caught the picture he kept on his desk of himself and Ashley. He allowed himself to observe the picture of the smiling duo that was taken on the Ocean City Boardwalk three years ago. He looked into the eyes of his former self -- the free-spirited man who vowed that he would not ever allow his career or his work to take over his life. He had promised himself that he would make time for Ashley, who he held in his right arm in the photograph, both of her arms around her beloved father’s neck. He allowed a smile to spread across his face, remembering the good old days. He noticed that the beginning of his left arm was visibly stretched outward, and the remainder of it was extended out of the photo, holding onto something.
            Upon noticing this, the sweat circles on his shirt began to expand, and he became aware of small beads of perspiration appearing on his face. Something was missing from the photo. He just couldn’t put his finger on it. Now taken by an overwhelming yet weary curiosity, he picked up the frame and examined the picture. After about a minute of searching, at last he noticed a manicured hand around his right shoulder in between the space between his body and his daughter’s.
            Hands trembling, he desperately racked his brain for the answer as to what – or who – was missing from the photo. His hands, now shaking at a mile a minute, told him that his brain did, in fact, know the missing piece, but it was buried in the deepest depths of the id.
            For a moment, he closed his eyes, took a few deep breaths, and decided to calmly search his brain and his past for who could be missing from that picture. Slowly, he inhaled, and exhaled, in and out.
            In and out.
            In and out.
            In and – his eyes flew open in a flash. He bolted up in his chair, which he had been slumped in as he meditated, and the picture which he had been grasping flew from his hands and crashed against the far wall of his office, sending shards of glass flying all over the place, with one piece nicking his left palm and drawing a bit of blood, just a little more than a papercut would provide. When the frame hit the wall, the photo was released from its glass and wood prison, and descended slowly to the ground, like a freed bird savoring its first glide after being released from a cage.
            The small circles under his arms had grown even larger, and Howard, who was now trembling all over, rose from his chair to clean up the wreckage. Trembling with fear, his heart beating fast enough to worry any doctor, he moved the anvils on the end of his legs where his feet should have been one in front of the other, growing ever closer to the sight of the mess.
            At last, he reached the site of the wreckage, and looked down to survey the damage. In front of him on the floor were perfect concentric circles of broken glass shards gradually getting smaller as they moved towards the focus point of the wreckage, with the picture lying upside down on top of the physical frame. As he surveyed the damage, he noticed the very thing that he had feared: There was a fold in the picture. 
            He bent over and gently picked up the picture with his index finger and his thumb, nicking a few of his fingers on the glass as he did so. With the precision and care of a surgeon performing an open-heart surgery, he turned the picture over in his hands and unfolded it to reveal the memory he had put so much effort into erasing from his mind.
            Standing on the boardwalk were Howard, his smiling daughter in his right arm, and his happy wife standing on the other. This was the last picture they had taken together before what happened.
            One week after that photo was taken, the day was just like any other. Howard would get ready for work while having his morning smoke (he allowed himself one cigarette every morning so he could fulfill his craving daily but wouldn’t appear unprofessional); his wife was getting ready to take their daughter to preschool, and their daughter was watching The Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. Then, Howard would wait to leave for work until his wife had returned from taking her daughter to school (it was only a ten-minute round trip) to kiss his wife goodbye and leave for work.
            On that day, when his wife returned, he snubbed out his cigarette, tossed the butt in the trash bin that they kept next to their bed, kissed his wife goodbye, and departed for work. His wife was alone in the house.
            At work, he had called home to alert her that he would be able to come home early tonight but was met with no answer. Fair enough, he thought, she probably just doesn’t have her phone on her right now. I’ll make it a surprise then.
            He proceeded to drive home, whistling all the way at the prospect of having a nice early evening away from work. On the road home, a scarlet firetruck, speeding and sirens blaring, barreled past him. Poor soul, whoever’s house that is, he mused, that kind of thing can just sneak up on people when they least expect it.
            Irony is a cruel thing.
            He pulled onto the street on which he lived, a bouquet of flowers that he had picked up as part of the surprise sitting on the passenger seat, and his eyes beheld that same firetruck that had passed him on his drive home trying to save the house of a poor soul. His poor soul.
            Frantically, he stepped out of the car, and ran up to one of the firemen stationed around the house to keep people from staring at the business that was going on at the house.
            “What’s going on here?”, Howard asked the fireman.
            “Nothing to see here, just carry about your business.”
            “I live here!”, Howard shouted in a near hysteria, “This is my house! What happened here?”
            Howard was then informed that earlier in the day, a neighbor had made a 911 call to report a house that was on fire. They had not discovered what had caused the fire yet, and nobody was reported injured or killed.
            Once again, irony demonstrated its cruelness. At the same instance that Howard was informed that there were no casualties, a fireman emerged from the inferno, carrying the limp body of his wife. As the fireman walked out of the house, Howard turned his head to see what was in his peripheral vision – as is the natural human response – and screamed a scream so heartbroken and hysterical that it sent the neighbors running to cover their children’s ears.
            Later, Howard had woken up in a hospital bed, a cast around the foot he had broken while straining against the firemen trying to hold him back while he tried to rush back into the house; he thought that his wife could still be in there, and that what he saw was just a twisted joke played by his imagination.
            While in the hospital bed, he was informed that the fire had most likely been caused by a cigarette butt that had been improperly disposed of. Howard took a moment to process this information, then the waves hit him. He started shaking with uncontrollable guilt and grief. He was kept in the custody of the hospital for three days past his scheduled release due to his unstable mental condition.
            The doctors reported that while in the hospital, Howard suffered from hallucinations. Based on what they could make out from Howard’s random screams and near incoherent sleep talk, he was seeing his wife, burned and charred from her untimely passing.
            Despite his doctor’s almost pleading recommendations, Howard refused to speak with a therapist about the day that he lost his wife. He had committed to locking the memory out of his conscious mind and bringing up the memory lying on a couch in a shrink’s office wouldn’t do him any good. It was just too painful to remember.
            So, he forgot.
            When he finally was released, he arranged for the best funeral that he could afford for his wife. After a two-week period of mourning, Howard continued removing the painful memory from his mind. He busied himself with his work to keep his mind off of what happened, he grew distant from Ashley and hired a nanny to look after her for the most part because she reminded him too much of her mother, and he made a point to remove his wife from any and all photographs he had of them.
            So, he forgot.
            He forgot his wife.
            He forgot about the bond he once shared with his daughter.
            He forgot how to be happy.
            And now, standing in his office, the memories of his wife flooding back to him, he was snapped out of his semi-conscious daze by an abrupt ringing that echoed throughout the building. That could only mean one thing.
            Fire. Again.
            After a moment of hazy confusion, Howard dropped the photo and flung open his office door, certain that he had to get out of the situation as quickly as possible. He ran out of his office, broken glass crunching under his feet as he moved, and into the long hallway with large, windowless doors on either end.
            “Hey!”, Howard yelled into the hall, “Is anybody there?”
            He had been out sick on their last fire drill day, and as a result was unsure of the mandated escape routes in the building. Hoping that he would find someone who did, he started banging on office doors, hollering for someone to come out and show him the way. After doing this on about six or seven different doors, he realized a shocking truth: The hallway was deserted.
            Alone, Howard’s fight or flight response kicked in, and he began sprinting down the hallway towards the door closest to him, desperate to find the quickest escape route possible. As he was running, he asked himself, where in the world is everybody?
            Then he noticed the circles of sweat under his arms, rather large now, and had a pretty good guess as to where everybody went. The fire alarm had been blaring for a good while now, and Howard must have missed it in his confused daze.
            As Howard approached the door, he stuck out his hands to shove the door open when he collided with it, allowing for him to escape without stopping. He lowered his head like a bull, and collided with the door in front of him, opening it to reveal a wall of roaring flames.
            In his momentum, he was carried about two feet in, feeling like a ten-foot tidal wave of heat had collided with him. In fact, the heat hit him with such force, that he was thrown onto his back and halfway back into the hallway in which he came. With the frantic speed of force only a man in danger can muster, Howard scrambled backwards into the hallway, doing a less elegant version of the crabwalk. The door slammed shut behind him, leaving him lying on his back in the hallway, with his pant legs on fire.
            Remembering what he had been taught in elementary school, Howard stopped; he had already dropped and rolled to put out the small flames on his pants. Wasting no time, he rose to his feet and began running to the door on the other end of the hallway. He was still sprinting but was more careful this time and was not charging like a bull.
            Stopping in front of the door, he took a deep breath, and pushed the door open with just the force of his arms. In front of him was a sea of oranges, yellows, and reds, seeming to stretch all the way up to the ceiling. The wave of heat hit him once more, just as powerful in its temperature, but did not knock him over this time. He stood there, mesmerized by the fire, which possessed a sort of twisted calm despite the danger it represented.
            Standing there, watching the fire, a hand suddenly shot out and gripped his shoulder hard. The hand was just as hot as the fire, if not hotter, and Howard opened his mouth in a silent scream, but no sound came out. The hand gradually increased its pressure, causing Howard to sink in pain until he was on his knees.
            On the ground like some sort of prisoner, Howard watched as two legs emerged from the fire, followed by a torso, followed by the face of Howard’s late wife. Howard stared up into the face of his wife, beautiful in its youth, just as he remembered her.
            But as he watched, the face began to change. The chiseled and smooth skin began to bubble and blister, with parts charring black and falling off onto the ground in front of Howard, sizzling as they hit the ground.
            Howard’s wife offered a grim smile with her burned and deformed mouth, now missing multiple teeth, and gave the hardest squeeze on the shoulder she had given yet, causing Howard to scream in unimaginable agony.
            Howard stared into his wife’s eyes, alight with the reflection of the inferno of which she came from. For a moment, he listened to the dry and gasping breaths his wife took, a result of her life being terminated by flames. Words forming on his mouth, he looked up to say something, anything, to her, but a white-hot finger was pressed to his lips to silence him.  He was held in this position for Lord knows how long, and eventually the pain became so much to bear that he felt the need to close his eyes in a grimace.
            He counted to ten in his head, one Mississippi, two Mississippi… and opened his eyes. He found that the pain on his shoulder and lip had been assuaged, as the intense heat and pressure that would have turned coal to a diamond was no longer there. Nor was his wife.
            Kneeling there, confused, he threw his head into his hands and wept. Now this was the second time that he was unable to say goodbye. What he would have given for just two minutes, a minute, thirty seconds, a word of conversation would have met no limits. All he could have asked for was to be with her for just a bit longer.
            As he sat there, he heard the subtle creaking of metal from down the hall. Slowly, he rose and turned to face the door at the other end of the hallway, which was beginning to bend towards him from the intense pressure of the heat behind the door.
            Before Howard could make a sound, let alone get out of the way, the door came flying of its hinges and down the hall at the speed of a bullet, and collided with Howard head-on, sending him flying backwards into the flames beyond the door that his wife emerged from. He landed in the midst of a sea of flames, and as his clothes began to catch fire, he heard the door slam shut behind him.
            By the look of it, he would get to be with his wife after all.

by Liam S., Grade 9

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