Here is the short story “Youth,” which earned Anjali Seereeram the American Voices Nomination in the Scholastic Writing Awards. Only five written pieces out of over 1,300 were nominated for this award – enjoy!
Youth by Anjali Seereeram
There is a ravine in the woods behind my parents’ house, near which we always used to play. A stream must have carved it, once, in all its murmuring, exuberant glory; however, over time this stream either sunk into the earth or dried up, because now the ravine is just stone a small, narrow canyon that rocks through the trees for some length before closing up again. Our parents always warned us away from the ravine; they preferred for us to play in the large stretch of backyard, or on the edge of the woods where they could see us, but we never listened. Why would we? We were children.
Our favorite game was Cowboys and Indians. It always worked out so that I was the cowboy Adam was the Indian. He liked being the Indian because he admired them. He always told me that when he was old enough he would go off and join the Cherokee tribe, separate and free from society. I always told him he was crazy.
Adam lived two blocks down from me ever since I could remember I suspect our mothers often met for tea and cakes while they were pregnant with us. We had been best friends since birth and never thought anything would be different.
Adam fell to the ground, clutching his side. He writhed over the grass and moaned. Cackling with satisfaction, I made my way over to him, pocketing my finger gun and standing next to his head.
“Looks like this here land just ain’t big enough fer the both of us, Mister Indian,” I drawled, looking down my nose at Adam’s squinchedshut eyes. I was just about to call a victory, when Adam blinked up at me and grinned a toothy grin.
“Joke’s on you, my friend. Town sheriff traded me a bullet proof vest for a sack of my best potatoes.” With a smile he moved his freckled hands over to his side and pulled back an imaginary vest. Before I could do anything, Adam rocketed to his feet and took off deeper into the woods.
That was how most of our games went. It was the summer between the fourth and fifth grade, and we had an entire month of sticky popsicles and mosquito bites before returning to classes.
Adam and I were inseparable. He was skinny, skinnier than I he had a face full of freckles and a head of tousled dirtyblond hair that was always messy, no matter how much his mother tried to comb it. He was also more defiant than I was I was much shyer, I often would not talk openly to others, while he would challenge the likes of his teachers and ministers. Sometimes when he would come over, we would just sit on my porch eating peanutbutterandjelly sandwiches, and he would do most of the talking about running off into the wilderness, living off the land, being free from parents and rules and bedtimes. If there was any truly free spirit in our small Georgia town, Adam was it. He loved the forest, and wished to live without constraints. In classrooms he felt restricted, imprisoned. His teacher often called his mother to complain about Adam’s poor work ethic he rarely paid attention in class, and often passed in halfcompleted homework assignments. I was diligent and obedient he was not. He had a heart and a soul that belonged with the wind.
But we were brothers, of a sort not the kind that lived in the same house, but the kind that, when one ventured into a playground without the other, a neighbor might inquire where the other one was. That was how close we were. I never tired of having him by my side. He always had quite the imagination he could make a lizard into a firebreathing dragon, a tree into a formidable component, or a goat into a raging bull. When we played together we were the rulers of the world.
The morning before Adam and I met to play was the same as any other. The sun held itself at the highest point in the sky, its rays stretching out to meet the yard in a warm caress. Adam met me on my front porch, grinning his toothy grin from ear to ear, wearing his favorite rocketship T-shirt.
My mother made us sandwiches because Adam told her we would not be back for a few days. She didn’t believe us, but we believed ourselves. The sandwiches were ham and swiss cheese. I remember, because we didn’t eat them. We thought ourselves too high and mighty to rely upon a mother’s sandwiches.
We galloped across my backyard through the fresh country air towards the trees. At some point during this run we transformed into our appropriate roles I, the unruly, selfserving buckaroo; and Adam, the freespirited, lawless Native American. As we reached the woods’ edge I let him run ahead, to give him a head start. The trees were thick and luxurious; the leaves lavish and whispering. The value of a forest is not often recognized by grownups; their wonder is left for children to delve deep and greedily into.
I darted into the woods, sprinting over leaves and sticks. The blue of Adam’s shirt flashed and then vanished as he ducked behind a tree trunk. I approached, my sneakers cracking the twigs beneath me, when suddenly he stuck his body out, stretched his left arm straight forward and crooked his right arm back, as if drawing an imaginary bow. I dove to the ground as an invisible arrow fizzed above my head. Rolling to the side, I scrambled up and ducked behind the nearest tree while Adam took off further into the woods, laughing all the while.
There was no time to waste. I yanked my right hand from my pocket, formed the necessary finger gun, and jumped out from behind the tree with a screech. I chased after him, both of us hollering at the top of our lungs. On open field he was faster than I was, but the trees slowed him down, and I darted through the branches and over boulders and kept pace with him.
Now that I think of it, I must have known in the back of my mind that we were nearing the ravine. Of course I knew but I was so filled with adrenaline that all I could focus on was Adam. We kept running. I chased him further into the woods.
Eventually, out of breath, we both knew we had reached it. Panting, Adam slowed to a stop right near the edge. I held back, my sneakers grounded on the roots of a tree for safety. I was afraid of the ravine. He wasn’t.
Adam threw a casual glance over his shoulder into the rocky crevice below. I advanced a step closer, insisting, “Give it up, savage. You ain’t got nowhere to go.”
“You think a gun and a pile of rocks can stop me? Wrong. I am stronger than you could ever be.”
And I know he was right.
Adam moved to the side as I circled in closer holding my finger gun, like a tiger circling its prey. He moved to step to his left, all the while keeping his eyes on me. I suspect his plan was to dart out suddenly and use his agility to escape. He could have done it.
But as he stepped his foot found no hold. His weight came down on a loose, crumbling overhang, and he lost his balance and tipped over the ledge.
I remember screams; whether they were mine or his I couldn’t say probably both and I remember a feeling of lead dropping into my stomach as my entire world just then disappeared forever. I was still yelling as I fell to my knees and crawled to look over the edge of the ravine. I did not want to see him I wanted to hear his voice come out from the forest behind but as I forced my gaze downward I saw.
I don’t want to describe it. It felt like something out of my worst nightmare something that must be false, could never be true. I will never forget his fallen, broken body the body that was at once so lithe and strong, quick and sturdy, full of life and joyous youth crashed and bloody on the cruel, unforgiving rocks.
The silence was deafening. It seemed even the birds had stopped singing nothing in the forest moved. Nothing dared to make a sound. I felt paralyzed. I could not breathe. Think. My head filled with screaming, but I suspect I did not make a sound.
I don’t know how it happened, but suddenly I found my body had pushed itself to its feet and had started to run run, faster than it ever had running away, away, away from that doomed ravine.
My feet had carried me back to my house and through my front door. My mother was sitting at the table reading; when I burst in she jumped up.
I couldn’t get out the words, but she knew something was wrong at once. By my choked out halfwords and wild gestures she was able to formulate a vague idea. Her eyes grew big and she clutched her heart with her hand.
I think she probably knew where he must have been, because she knew about the ravine and must have known we didn’t listen to her. She was out the door faster than I could catch my breath.
The police swarmed the forest that evening. They brought with them their ambulances and their flashing sirens and their stretchers. I was told to stay in my house, not to move, not to go anywhere. But I needed to be closer. I needed to know for myself that Adam was going to be okay.
So I crept back into the woods to the thick of the action and hid behind a tree, hovering just close enough to the ravine to see all without being seen. There were so many men large men, all in uniform. I had never seen so many men in uniform in my entire life. The air was that of some great tragedy where no one could muster the courage to talk very loudly, but everyone needed to say something. A woman with dirtyblonde hair stood at the edge of the cliff, her shoulders shaking, her hands covering her face. A policeman had his arm around her, talking to her, and the woman turned into the shelter of his body and cried. I knew who she was she was Adam’s mother.
As I watched, they lifted something onto a stretcher and bent over it to inspect it. From my angle their wide shoulders blocked most of my view, but I knew what it was and what it wasn’t. I knew it was the body of a boy that had fallen into the ravine, but it wasn’t Adam. It couldn’t be Adam.
That’s when I stopped watching. I no longer wanted to see anything. I wanted to go home, but I couldn’t move. I closed my eyes tight, knowing that just yards away they were lifting that boy away and taking him somewhere I couldn’t follow. I heard the sobbing screams of a woman being guided back through the forest to an empty house a young woman, a woman whose world had been ripped apart. They would be trying to console her, I knew, but what could anyone have done? As I listened to the distant sounds of a truck driving away, the murmur of the dozen or so men died away until I was left in the silent forest. I was frozen where I was, and I think I would have stayed there all night, hugging my knees to my chest, if not for the officer that found me.
“You must be James.”
I looked up at him. I started to shiver or maybe I had been shaking the entire time but he noticed, and held out his hand.
“Come on, James. Let’s get you home.”
He pulled me to my feet and led me away from the ravine and out of the forest. He didn’t say much, but the pressure of his hand gave me reassurance. I followed him home, stumbling over my sneakers, into the waiting arms of my mother and father. They embraced me, held me. As soon as they both decided I wasn’t hurt, my father broke away to talk to the officer. They spoke in hushed whispers, as if what they were saying I couldn’t guess. My mother tried to get me into the kitchen to make me something to eat, but I tuned her out and moved to the window on the opposite side of the living room. The window overlooked the long stretch of yard that flexed and rippled its grassy muscles until met with an army of tall, mighty trees. They seemed like monsters to me. They seemed to rustle and wink at me, as if knowing that they had taken from me the one thing I loved more than anything in this world.
Today, they are the same. They are beautiful, and clever, and hold secrets of the darkest kind. Maybe they were always wicked, and we just never knew.
I stand in front of them now, eight years the wiser, and alone, more alone than I have ever felt. Usually I am confident, undaunted, but now, dwarfed by the ageless giants, I feel as though I am a child again small, breathless with wonder, the forest a vast and unnavigable labyrinth. Adam is by my side, grinning a toothy grin, wearing his favorite rocketship Tshirt, squinting up at the trees.
“Come on, James. Don’t be scared.”
I’m not scared, I want to say. But I am. I know what’s going to happen as soon as we step into the forest. The ravine will be waiting, silent and malicious.
“Come on,” Adam laughs, grabbing my arm.
“Not today, buddy.” I am old again. I am tall and have matured. My shoulders have broadened, I have lost the baby fat from my cheeks, my hair is freshly cut, my skin is tan. I have just graduated from Hart County High School. I am standing now, in front of the forest behind the house I am about to leave. I am alone in the world, an open road and a horizon ahead of me and only pain behind me. I hold my graduation cap in my hands. On the tiny metal plate attached to the tassel the golden engraving reads, “Class of 1989.”
I bend and lay the cap on the ground in front of the trees, adjusting so that it sits nestled between two sturdy roots. Adam would have been with me today, throwing his cap into the air, starting a new life. But he isn’t. Instead, he’s still in the forest somewhere, running over the leaves, playing Indian. In the process of becoming an adult I left him behind somewhere along the way.
“Don’t forget about me in there,” I say to him.
It is the last time I am with him, my freespirited brother. With as much courage as I can muster, I turn back to the road. Leaving the cap at the edge of the forest, I begin my journey alone.