I headed out into the cold. Daylight was all but gone, and the outdoor lamps had ignited around campus, casting long shadows behind a fuzzy white glow. There was still plenty of human activity. Students of all grades milled around the sidewalk paths, going to the dorms or club activities. Teachers and staff went to the parking lot, or to other parts of the school on their own business. I went against the flow, heading to a certain door of the main building. That door was closest to the faculty offices, which were right next to the student council meeting room.
Pushing through the entrance, I left the nippy night air behind. My shoes clicked on the tile floor as I walked past the faculty rooms and the teacher’s lounge. Their doors hung open, letting light out into the halls. I caught glimpses of adults sitting at their desks, heard tap-tap-tapping of fingers on keyboards, the sounds of emails being written and papers being graded.
I went past the offices, came to the council meeting room. The door hung open by a few inches, so I tapped one knuckle on it.
“Cheryl Tilly, as summoned,” I said. “Anyone here?”
I pushed the door open and saw the meeting room inside. It looked like just another office at first. Bookcases lined the walls, crammed with papers and books, and one shelf stacked with plaques and awards for various things the school had won. The far wall was dominated by a big flat-panel screen, currently powered off. The floorspace was mostly taken by a long conference table surrounded by six chairs, two on either side and one each at the table’s head and foot. The council was supposed to be made of six members, one girl from each grade, voted in by the student body. One of those six was selected to be the chairman, as chosen by the council itself and approved by the faculty.
I expected five older girls to look at me as the door swung open, but the room was almost empty. Only one girl was here, sitting at the head of the table. She had been reading something on her tablet, and now she looked up at me.
“Cheryl,” she said. “Glad you could come on such short notice.”
I stepped into the room, standing right behind the empty chair at the table’s foot. I cleared my throat.
“Alice,” I said. “Where is everyone?”
She smiled, set her tablet down on the table. “Off doing things, I guess. Everyone from the council who needs to be here is present.”
This is Alice Aihara. Second year student, one year older than me. According to her, she’s third-generation from immigrants. Her family has remained almost pure Japanese, so she has only one-eighth white blood.
“So you sent me that email?” I said. “Without the others knowing? That’s abusing your power, just a bit.”
Alice hmphed. “Don’t fool yourself. I am the council. That’s why they made me chairman – I’m the only one who wants to do the work.”
She stood up, holding her tablet over her stomach with the screen facing outward. She stepped toward me slowly, crossing the length of the table. Her hard work wasn’t the only thing that had earned her power. She was imposing. Her personality was that straightforward Japanese I’m going to work myself to death and drag you down with me stereotype, combined with the brattiness of an American girl. That, and she was among the prettier girls in school. I might not have liked her, but it was hard to ignore her looks.
Alice looked like she belonged on the cover of a back-to-school catalogue. She was dressed modestly, wearing simple slacks and a polo shirt, but these showed off her petite figure. She was my height, if not an inch shorter, and she put effort into making her short, dark hair stand out in an attractively feathered mess. Her eyes were nearly black, but somehow sharp and bright at the same time. She fixed those eyes on me as she stepped closer.
“Speaking of work,” she said. “That’s why I asked you to come. The council needs to run a proposal by you.”
“Proposal?” I said. “I thought you people wanted to punish me for something.”
She was still smiling. “All in due time. At the moment, we’re more worried about the contest. You’re up to date on that, right?”
“I was in the assembly with everyone else, when you announced it.”
“Just checking. This is your first year here, so I don’t know how much you know.” She gestured to the chair at the foot of the table. “Take a seat? Let’s be comfortable.”
I sat down, but didn’t let myself be comfortable. She took the chair beside mine, so that the corner of the table was between us. She kept her tablet hidden in her lap.
“We hold the fiction contest once annually, in the wintertime,” she said. “ It’s important to keep student morale up, since so many people get cabin fever this time of year.”
“I guessed,” I said. “But why bother me about this? I wanted to participate, and this is time I could be writing.”
Alice tapped a finger on the table. “Who do you think reads through all the entries? It’s not the teachers. They’re already up to their eyeballs in work. It’s the council’s job to coordinate and manage student activities, so the whole contest is on us.”
“You have my deepest sympathies,” I said. “I’ll write a letter of condolence on depressing blue paper with ink distilled from my own tears. Can I go now?”
“No, you can’t. Let me spell it out.” Alice took a deep breath. “Plainly put, the council is understaffed. There’s only five of us when there should be six. We’ve long discussed asking one of the four from your grade to take the empty seat, but Bianca’s passing delayed that again.” She held up a hand. “I’m sorry for the loss of your friend. I don’t want to be insensitive, but I have the whole student body to think about.”
“So what?” I said. “You’re asking me to fill the empty spot? You do realize I’m the worst possible person for the job, which is really saying something when there’s only three of us.”
“Oh, believe me. I’ve gotten that feedback. You want Cheryl? the others say. Isn’t she the delinquent one? She’s too loud and thinks she’s funny. Why don’t we get that Maggie girl? She seems nice. Or even better, the quiet one who speaks French. Either one of them would be better than Cheryl.”
“I’m glad they agree with me,” I said. “I am pretty loud and not at all funny.”
“That’s exactly why we need you. Don’t you see? The other girls on the council, they just want someone they can push around. Neither Maggie or Lorelei would fight back.” Alice tapped herself on the chest. “I fought back. They hated me for it, but when I started doing more work than all of them combined, they let it go. Now I’m in charge.”
“And you want me as your sidekick.” I put a finger to my chin, looked off into the distance. “What’s that old saying? Keep your friends close and enemies closer?”
Alice shrugged. “Call it that if you want. I don’t need you to like me. I just need you to work with me.”
“Why? There’s five of you already. That should be plenty to judge the contest.”
She shook her head. “This is a literary school. The student body is made entirely of bookworm girls. There’s going to be hundreds of short stories to sift through. Besides, the sixth-year council member is busy sorting through college applications, and the fourth-year is out of school because of a sick family member. The third- and fifth-year girls are the only ones available to help, and getting them to pitch in is the work of Sisyphus.”
I perked up an eyebrow. “So, me on the council. How could you make that happen? I thought you needed faculty approval.”
“I do.” Alice looked down at her tablet, thumped her fingers on it. “In fact, I’ve got the email right here. I’ll forward it to you.”
“I’m sitting in front of you. Just let me see—”
Before I could grab her tablet, she had already sent the message. My own tablet chirped, so I gave in. Flicking through the screens, I pulled it up.
From: email@example.com <Ericka Bergstrom>;
To: firstname.lastname@example.org <Alice Aihara>;
Re: Empty student council seat
I agree completely. Even if there’s only three students in the whole grade, the council needs one of them. Strangely, even if the first-years had 150 kids, I think I’d still suggest Cheryl for the council seat. Some responsibility would do her good. Especially now, after her friend passed away.
Hard part is, I don’t think you’ll get Cheryl’s buy-in. She was looking forward to writing an entry for the contest, and she’ll realize that being on the council makes her ineligible. But if you somehow get her to agree, then you’ll have my support.
“Ugh.” I put my palm to my forehead. “Thanks, Ericka. Gonna have to talk with her.”
“The pieces are all in place. You just need to say the word,” Alice pointed to the chair I sat in, “and that seat is yours.”
I looked up. “I’m utterly amazed.”
She smiled again. “Really?”
“Yeah, that you dare make it sound like you’re doing me a favor.” I stood up, clutching my tablet. “I know your problem, Alice. You tried earning respect by doing all the work, but the other girls just take advantage of you. Now you want your own lackey, and you choose me as a petty way of getting back at them.”
The smile fell of Alice’s face, but I kept going.
“Well, no. Ericka was right, but for the wrong reason. I do want to submit my own story for the contest, and I know it’ll get trashed as soon as it goes past your desk, just because I’m saying this. But if that’s the price I pay to stay out of your stupid power struggles, then I’ve come out ahead.”
Silence fell over us. Alice stared at me, taken aback. My heart thumped hard, but I wouldn’t let weakness show. I stared back, daring her to say something. She closed her eyes, rubbed her temple with two fingers, like an old woman massaging away a headache.
“You can’t talk to me like that. I’ve worked myself to death to make this council function. And!” She looked up, eyes bright with anger. “I’m trying to mend relationships with the first-years by asking their friend to join. Even Miss Bergstrom thought it was a good idea. I wasn’t trying to do you any favors. I’m asking for your help.”
I let out a harsh bark of a laugh, pfhaa! “And why should I help you? We’re not friends, Alice.”
She leaned back in her chair, folded her arms. “Maybe I was trying to change that.”
“Got a funny way of showing it.” I turned, headed for the door. “I’ll just go live my quiet, uncomplicated school life, far away from you and your politics.”
As I left the room, Alice stood up, clutching her tablet to her chest. “Wait! Cheryl. Tell me something. How are you dealing with Bianca’s death?”
Her words stopped me. My feet froze to the floor, as if the soles of my shoes were suddenly coated in epoxy.
Until that moment, I had been merely annoyed, peeved that she would beg a deal where I gained nothing and she gained everything. Now, she asked a question ending in those two words.
Annoyance became anger. There was only one reason she would ask that. She wasn’t showing concern or trying to console me. She was trying to prod my wounds, saying something that would hurt me. It was petty, vindictive. I clenched my tablet with a white-knuckled grip, feeling the plastic and glass bend under my hands.
I turned to face her again, hoping she could see the rage burning in my eyes. She met my glare with a poker face. The air between us should have sparked and shimmered with the struggle of wills. I wanted nothing better than to slap her across the face. I’d make it a good hardy smack – the kind that twists your neck and makes your lip bleed. But I had already gotten in some trouble at this school, and I didn’t need an act of violence against the student council chairman on my record.
Prudence overcame anger. I closed my eyes, took in a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“I’m doing fine,” I said. Then I turned and walked out of the room, leaving Alice behind.
I had to move fast, or I might go back and smash my tablet over that girl’s head until one or both of them broke. My mind was in a red haze. I was so mad that I didn’t feel the cold during the short walk from the school building to the dorm. I didn’t remember storming up to my room, slamming the door behind me or throwing my tablet down on the writing desk.
When the fog cleared, I sat at the desk, elbows on the desktop and my hands clasped around my head. My heart was pounding, making a dull thud-thud noise in my ears.
“How dare she,” I said under my breath.
This was no good. I couldn’t let some evil-mouthed girl ruin my mood. I had the whole weekend ahead of me, and I wanted to use that time. The short story contest was coming up, and I meant to have an entry ready by the deadline.
“Calm down,” I said to myself, breathing deep. “She’s not important. Don’t let it bother you.”
Easier said than done, but I did regain control. The anger began to fade, leaving me feeling tired and empty. I sat there for a while, resting, letting my head cool. It startled me when my tablet chirped, sounding an incoming message.
That had better not be Alice, I thought.
I pulled the new message up, and it wasn’t from Alice.
You back yet? I thought I heard your door slam. What happened with the council?
I sent back a reply.
They wanted me to join the council. I told them no.
That was all I wanted to say about it. My tablet chirped again.
Oh, wow. I heard the council is down one member because our grade is so
small. But, why did they ask for you? No offense, but I kinda thought
they’d want Lorelei. She’s the real honor student.
I laughed at that. Of course Maggie would see things that way. According to her, Lorelei should be the council chairman, principal of the school, president of the country, and Empress of the Universe. Being in love skews your view of the world.
Fine by me. Lorelei
can have it. Fair warning, being on the council makes you ineligible
for the writing contest. Didn’t Lori want to submit that French
From: Magdalene Paige
To: Cheryl Tilly
Oh yeah. That wouldn’t work then.
There the email exchange died, and I was glad. I didn’t want to think about the council or its chairman. I had a story to write.
Sitting on my desk was a tablet dock, a favorite accessory for Carissa students. The dock was a vertical stand with a power/data plug on its base, and a full-sized keyboard on the front. Snapping the tablet into the dock would hold it upright and make some changes to the UI, effectively turning the tablet into a small desktop computer.
I put my tablet in the dock and pulled it toward me, getting the keyboard comfortably under my hands. My first impulse was to open the word processor and start typing, but I wanted to make sure my effort was well spent. I needed to review the contest rules.
With a combination of keyboard presses and tapping the screen, I pulled up the school’s local intranet site. I followed the navigation bars to the current events page, and scrolled down to the section on the upcoming contest.
It’s that time of year again!
The bi-annual short story contest at Sister Carissa’s is once again underway! Most of our students are familiar with the contest’s rules, rewards and best practices, but we’ll reiterate everything for those who weren’t with us or didn’t participate last year.
The basic concept is simple. Write a short story, email it to the student council, and we’ll judge it on three criteria. Each will be weighted toward and overall rank. Criteria are listed below, from least weight to greatest weight.
The Story – An analysis of the tale itself. How interesting and original was the story? What was the overall theme or moral point?
Technicals – This will cover grammar, punctuation, spelling and written style. We hope everyone does well in this category, since we’re at a literary school.
Presentation – How the tale is given to the reader. It’s hard to make a story truly original, and even the oldest cliches can be made interesting if presented well. This will be the most heavily weighted criteria on which an entry is judged, considering factors of narrative and pacing, characterization and symbolism, exposition and implication. (If you don’t know what any of those words mean, time to hit the dictionary!)
We’ll be accepting stories in all of the following genres, so be sure your entry can be believably classed under any of these.
Each category will be awarded one first prize, one runner-up, and honorable mentions where applicable. There will also be one grand prize winner for whoever submits the best story for the entire contest. See at the bottom of this page for the prizes for each category.
Contest rules are as follows:
Each short story must be at least 10k words, but no longer than 40k words.
We won’t accept fan fiction or plagiarisms of any kind. All works must be original.
All entries must be in digital format. We won’t accept paper-printed or longhand-written stories.
All contestants must submit their entries by the due date to the student council’s email address. In the subject line, please write the title of your story and the genre we’re supposed to consider it in.
Everything should be kept reasonably school appropriate. Some mild profanity and adult content is acceptable, but no excessive cussing, pornographic sex scenes or racial slurs. Keep this general rule in mind: If you wouldn’t feel comfortable showing it to your teacher, don’t submit it. (The faculty may read these entries, so beware.)
And that’s the contest! Everyone, get writing! If you have any questions, you can email the student council or Alice Aihara.
Below were links to those two email addresses, followed by a grid that listed the prizes for each award in each category. I stared at the page, both embarrassed and impressed. Alice had written this entire thing, I could tell. She must have put a lot of work and care into it, both in composing the page and in getting the faculty’s approval for everything.
In a way, Alice was this contest. She wrote the rules, organized the entries, and at this rate, she would be the only person reading through and judging hundreds of short stories. It was a sad picture, thinking of her sitting in that council room for hours and days, flicking through page after page of amateur fiction on her tablet. Alice, the council chairman, all alone because no one cared enough to help her.
I squeezed my eyes shut, shook my head. No sympathy. Alice was an aggressive shrew, and she deserved whatever she got. If she were smart, she would back out of the council, tell this contest to kiss off and go live her own life.
Then again, what if she did just that? There would be no contest, and I still had an entry I wanted to write.
“No, no.” I smacked my palm to my forehead. “Not my problem. Stop thinking. Write something.”
I closed the web browser, then opened the word processor to a blank document. I let my fingers rest on the keyboard, calling up the ideas that had been churning in my mind for a month or two. It’s never easy, starting a new story. The first line, the first word is hugely important. Presentation is key, just like Alice wrote on the contest page.
After a couple of hesitant keystrokes, my fingers began clicking out the words.
Captain Jared knew well the first rule of ship-to-ship space combat.
Don’t get hit.
It was both more complicated and less obvious than it sounded. Of course you don’t want to get hit. One stray railgun pellet could knock a bolt out of your hull, cause a micrometer-sized breach that slowly leaks your precious atmosphere to the cold void of space, a few molecules at a time. But the thing about flying a ship – it’s a pressurized environment. The air inside all wants to get out, and it’ll take any path it can. That micrometer breach will grow, and maybe your instruments will detect it before you have a hole the size of a baseball in your ship. If you’re less than lucky, you’ll first learn about it when the bulkhead busts open beside a crewman’s head, half your air pressure blowing out along with the poor fool who was just trying to get his work done.
So, you don’t get hit. That’s the first rule.
My hands paused, hanging over the keys. That was a good start, but where to go from there? I needed to segue into an introductory space fight, but my mind was blank. I felt tired, and writing seemed like more work than it was worth. Arguing with Alice had drained me.
Another idea popped up. Maybe I could deal with another problem while I wanted for story ideas to gestate. Pressing a hand to my thigh, I felt the love letter still in my pocket.
“Yeah,” I said. “Let’s get that out of the way.”
I tabbed out of the word processor, opened the browser and pulled up the Sister Carissa social board. This was a branch of the school’s local intranet, a mini-site based on some open-source social networking software. Everyone at the school had a profile here. Here teachers would post information about events, assignments and their own schedules so the students were kept in the loop. Students used the board for blogging and communication, getting help on their schoolwork and gossiping like a bunch of girls. The faculty didn’t care that most of the board’s traffic wasn’t school related, just so long as everything was kept clean.
I went to my own profile and wrote a new post.
When I got back to the dorms after class today, there was a love letter on the floor of my room. Like, a real love letter. It said all kinds of technically correct things about how beautiful and awesome I am, and the person who wrote it would very much like to have babies with me. Not really, but it was just about that gushy. So, who did this? I promise I’m not mad, but we should talk about it. And we can talk privately through email or whatever, if that’s easier for you.
I hit submit, then refreshed the page to make sure it had posted. Anyone who followed me would instantly get an alert, and anyone browsing the board for new content would see it. Whoever had written the love letter was certain to keep an eye on my profile. This was the quickest way to reach her.
I refreshed the page a few more times, and saw two replies pop up from people I knew.
Ha! This brings back memories. Let me know if you find out who sent it to you.
Maggie and I are both glad to see you’re not ignoring it.
A few minutes passed, and more replies popped up. One said that first-year students were too young to get love letters. Another said that love letters were lame and I should throw it away. The replies dried up, and I kept refreshing a page with the same posts. I had been hoping for a quick response from the letter-writer, but that wasn’t happening. She was probably busy with her own stuff. I had to wait.
Staring at this page was a waste of time, so I closed the browser and went back to the word processor. No sooner did I put my hands over the keyboard than the tablet chirped, sounding an incoming email. I pulled the message up and read it. My breath caught in my throat, and I stared at the screen wide-eyed.
You posted about my letter on the social board. Not what I had in mind, but it works.
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