Writing Catalog

Madeline Bryan

Grade: 11

Hathaway Brown School

Instructor: Scott Parsons

A Three Act Play in Which a Girl Comes Face to Face With the Atlantic and Does Not Flinch

Personal Essay/Memoir

A Three Act Play in Which a Girl Comes Face to Face With the Atlantic and Does Not Flinch

Summer hits like a god damn free fall and I am laughing. This is the season of improv, of "yes, and." This is the season of, "drop me," and "I trust you." This is living solely for the near-death experiences—for that specific way my heart likes to drop into my stomach when I offer up truth to others in the palms of my hands.

This is silver and gold, silver and gold.

This is life distilled.

I am endlessly running forward, resolving to never look back. There is never time to reflect, to think, and yet before I know it, I am stopped in my tracks thinking, "oh."

This is grinning like fools without quite knowing why, because we are together together together, and you never quite know how much you have missed someone until you see them again.

In my mind, the street lights will always cast the same shadows when the clock strikes twelve, and the nights will always be warmer than expected.

In my mind, the dark beach will always be empty, and the sky will always be full of the same constellations.

I am running across the sand under only the light of the stars and laughing. This is free fall. This is the god damn reason.

I am nothing but a girl formed of the wind and waves; I am Aphrodite emerging from the sea foam and taking her first steps on land, clumsy as a child.

I am laughter rolling out further and further across the wine-dark sea. Swimming far enough from shore that we can pretend we are the only people in the world.

When I was younger I searched for magic in the unending obsessive way of Ponce de León. As I stand waist-deep in the Atlantic Ocean, droplets of water turning into chips of the stars around me, I am convinced I have finally found it.

As we walk back through the empty streets, feet bare and hair damp, I make a quiet wish on my very first shooting star. It is not such a big wish, I think, so perhaps it will come true. On this night, the night of the stars and the sea and the salt I can still taste on my lips, I believe in anything. In everything.


Barefoot dreamers, we run to the shore; the world is ours.

I am sleepwalking through the dark, as though I have lived all of this before. Tonight is different. I am processing the world around me in slow motion, in shades of gray. The moon is notably absent. The waves crash to the shore with a noise that sounds not unlike thunder. We are utterly, and unequivocally, alone.

Tonight, we are not laughing. We do not heedlessly plunge into the ocean. We speak in hushed voices. We crouch in the dark, covering the light.

I wade into the water, soaking the hem of my dress. The waves are coming, stronger than I remember. They hit me head-on, almost buckling my knees. As I inch deeper, I am reminded of how wholly powerless we are made by the current.

There is a small part of me that wants to see just how far I can make it. How far I can go before the waves overtake me. This is the stubborn scrap of my brain that believes myself invincible. Often, I am tempted to test it. Often, I do.

I look back at you, your eyes turned to the stars. You look as if you would like to reach up and grab onto them. To pull yourself up to the heavens, hand over foot. There is no prayer in your eyes, no question, no answer. The day you climb your way up to the stars will be the day you stop asking for permission.

I retreat from the shoreline, let myself fall back onto the sand. When I exhale I feel as if I have just broken the surface of the water. The sudden absence of a weight on my chest is the first thing that I have not predicted. There is not a single person on this beach that is asking something of me that I don't want to give them.

On this quiet night, I want to scream. I want to cry. I want to laugh aloud in incredulity. It really is alright, I want to tell myself. IT REALLY IS ALRIGHT.

I am laying on my back on the sand when my second shooting star tumbles through the night sky. I am not surprised. There is no other wish I could have made except for this. Exactly this. More nights out under the stars. More nights where I am able to breathe easily, laugh easily, live easily.

I am not supposed to share my wishes, I know this. But I am reminded of years of wishes held close to my chest. Wishes on birthday candles, on lanterns, on fallen eyelashes. Wishes on pennies thrown into fountains, on dandelions, on bones. Years of wishes that never came true.

Perhaps I am ruining my shooting-star-luck. Perhaps I have ruined everything by speaking it aloud. But, remembering the feeling in my chest as I lay shivering on the sand, I cannot bring it upon myself to care. It will come true, or it won't, or maybe I will just have to climb my way up to the stars behind you and rattle them until they answer me.


In the dawn, I am reminded that I have been here before. The memory hits me like a punch to the chest, and so I swim away from shore, further than I have ever been. Maybe when I lose sight of the land, the memory will lose sight of me.

The waves get rougher the further I swim, and so I come to an abrupt halt, taking in wide gasping breaths. I can barely make out the shape of your head floating above the swells, but I lift up a hand in a quasi-wave. I'm fine, is what I'm trying to say. Just trying to make it to the sun, is what I'm trying to say.

Outrunning memories doesn't work too well, is what I'm trying to say.

And just like that, it's back, and a dam is opening its way up inside me. Through recollection, I know that I must have exaggerated the colors of the sky, dramatized the pauses, romanticized the god damn lot of it. In recollection, I am worried, I have twisted it into something it was not.

It was the most beautiful dawn I had ever seen and I was terrified. Terrified, and hiding it badly. Terrified of myself, of the voice just ahead of me, laughing as I reached the top of the steps.

He asks me if I am afraid and suddenly I am lying through my teeth. Putting on false bravado like a coat, wrapping it around me.

This is a memory I don't touch.

Our position is precarious, there is something in me that knows with one misstep I will tumble, impossibly, to the ground. The truth is, I was petrified. "No," I say, "no of course not."

This is a lie.

The first of many.

I leave this memory out in the Atlantic as the sun rises gold in the sky. I leave it behind, along with my terror, along with the blistering pounding of my heart.

I once thought it a dream I didn't want to wake up from. The thing is, I am now, solidly, awake.

I turn to the shore, begin to make my way towards it. The sun is rising and everything is orange and gold, pink and yellow. I am not afraid, cannot remember the last time I have been.

I turn to the shore where you are waiting, just now stepping onto the sand. I don't have words for what I left behind in the water, so we are left with this—my swim to the sun.

I suppose I am not unlike Icarus, always heedlessly yearning for what I can't have. There is a part of me that believes I would have reached that fiery planet if only I had kept swimming. There is a part of me that wanted to try.

But you are standing just beyond me, with an expression on your face that hints maybe I have swum too far, for too long. I feel regret in the abstract. Mostly I feel insubstantial. Hollowed out and dreaming. The bravado remains with me, a now-welcome companion.

I am lighter as we walk up the beach. I am lighter as I put a too-big sweatshirt on over my bathing suit, and tuck my legs under me beside our tipped-over bikes. I am lighter as the sun rises further and further in the sky, as more people begin to join us on the sand. I am lighter as I turn pages of my book with my still damp fingers, peripherally noticing you doing the same.

I am lighter as the purples and pinks fade from the sky. I am lighter as we gather our few belongings, settle ourselves on the seats of our bikes, and begin the journey home.

For it is early in the day, and there is so much to do.


Short Story


It is still nighttime when the girl wakes up. Or perhaps she has not been sleeping at all. She is slightly put aback by this fact— the awareness that she has just come into consciousness yet the lack of any recollection of actually being asleep. But our girl is a child, at least for now, and so her thoughts do not tend to stick to troubling matters for long.

It is nighttime when the girl wakes up, the kind of summer evening that is sticky-hot and loud, any hope of silence swallowed up by a chorus of cicadas, intent on sharing their song with the world. Our girl slips out of her bed, still unsure what to do with the act of being awake at a time when she is somehow certain she should not be.

The window is glaringly wide open, shockingly harsh shafts of moonlight pouring their way into the room, cutting diagonal stripes of brightness across the covers of her bed. Illuminated by the light of the moon, something that up until this moment has always appeared soft and hazy to the girl's recollection, she tiptoes to the window and peers out at the street. It offers her no answers, though she is not quite sure what question she was supposed to be asking.

Most of the streetlights are out, turning the road into something all the more shadowed and mysterious. To a little girl, at least to this little girl, it looks exactly like an adventure. She has read about adventures in books, of course, read about adventures— always wondering about having one of her own. This "adventure" of hers had always been purely theoretical, something that she occasionally slipped into contemplating while preoccupied with other, duller activities that such little girls were subjected to.

Tonight, the girl thinks to herself, is the kind of night for an adventure. She does not know exactly what is making her say that, but she knows it in her heart to be true. There is something about the moon, and the warmth of the night, and the glittering chirping soundtrack the cicadas have deigned to share with only those unlucky enough to be awake at such an hour. Or, in the girl's case, very lucky indeed.

There is the stirring of something, only she is not quite sure of what. The warmth of the night is comforting, inviting. The girl has a sudden urge to climb out her window so that she can experience some of this night air for herself. Looking back at the moon spilling across her bed makes the girl feel dizzy in a way, seasick and adrift, and so she glances back at the window, a new resolve burning in her chest— the kind that is only present in the most stubborn and obstinate of little girls: those who are young enough to see no limits to their futures, and old enough to condemn the banal confines of everyone else's.

She is outside before she even knows it, comfortably warm in a way that she hadn't quite expected herself to be. Though she knew, logically, that there would still be remnants of the muggy heat of the day, her idea of an adventure had painted a picture of a sudden, sweeping, shivering cold that would drop into her stomach once she crossed the threshold of the windowsill. There was an eager pulling in her chest, a little voice chanting what she was doing was altogether wrong and forbidden, that she was breaking some old, heavily important rule, and would be swiftly intercepted by Adults, and reasonably punished for her transgressions.

This delights our girl in a way, the knowledge that she is doing something that she should not be— that she could be intercepted at any moment, sent back to bed after a stern lecture. She finds that she quite enjoys this kind of feeling. There is a certain allure to the type of danger that accompanies her actions. It is a safe danger, a comfortable one. Enough to give rise to that sudden, shocking thrill, but not something that has the power to truly hurt her in any way. She feels invincible, like nothing can touch her, can't even get close.

Her feet sink lightly into the damp, dewy grass of the lawn, and our girl runs lightly from her yard into the road. There are no cars passing through the night, not at this hour, not that many ever really frequent her road in the first place. She lives in a lonely sort of community, one that is a bit too far from everything else to be a place meant for anything but an origin story. This is the small town that built our girl, built hundreds of other girls before her, the kind of place that these girls drive slowly back to during the holidays, wondering what to make of the glaring differences between their shiny new lives in the Big City, and the reality of this: where it all started.

Our little girl has seen countless who dream of leaving, yet it feels to her as if she is the only one her age for which the town is her entire life. She has never dreamt of faraway lands, never imagined being whisked away by a prince or Career. Our little girl is content in her little house at the very end of an old winding road. Her little house with her mother and father and little brother and old yellow dog.

At night, when she falls asleep, her dream adventures take place in the woods behind her house or in the creek at the other end of the lane. They feature those she knows, in place of mysterious strangers. There is never any wicked witch or evil king save for the grumpy older couple next door. The couple who love to sit on their porch in the evening and glare at the children playing out in the street, occasionally yelling at them to "keep it down."

She dreams simple dreams, achievable dreams. Our girl does not dream far, but she dreams wide. The world that she resides in is more than big enough, in her mind. She has never experienced any unhappiness that would ruin this picture she holds, none that stuck with her, only brief bouts of fluctuation, such as that which occurs in all normal lives, whether welcomed or not.

A sound cuts through the night noises our girl has become accustomed to, and she starts, caught off guard. It is hauntingly familiar to her, and for one, brief, terrible, moment, she imagines it to be her mother, owl-eyed and bat-eared, ready to swoop her away with a disapproving quirk to her lips. But, as the girl freezes, ears straining to pick up the ill-defined wavelength she had previously happened upon, she relaxes a hair, having heard enough to dispel the original worry. The voice belongs to one of the boys that lives up the street. Our girl is not sure which, but she recognizes a friend when she hears one, and she knows at once, solidly, that this is one of hers.

She pads down the street hesitantly, the anxious hum ever-present in the pit of her stomach. She has never done anything like this before. Never never never in her life. The pavement is cracked, bits of asphalt and broken glass poking out at her from secret, hidden crevices. Our girl looks pointedly at her toes as she walks, all too aware of her bare feet, and how small and out of place they look, washed out by the watery yellow beam of the last lit streetlamp.

As she picks a careful path across the street, balancing on the tips of her toes, almost appearing to be playing some kind of game, the voice, along with its owner, comes into clearer focus. Our girl breaks into a grin as she squints into the shadows that which slightly part to reveal not one figure, but several.

Her heart picks up its pace at the sight of her friends. She loves them so very much. Loves them in the naive all-encompassing way that only children can. Loves them in the way that only those who have never been burned before are capable of loving.

These children are feral. Grubby-faced and scrape-kneed. Fingernails somehow always stained black, much to the dismay of their mothers. They are the second coming of the "be home before dark" generation. They run wild in the streets at all hours of the day. And now it seems the night as well. Our girl feels a small note of discontent at this notion, at the lack of an invitation, but she shrugs it off as quickly as it appeared. She is here now, isn't she?

And suddenly they are looking up, and it is as if she has been among them all along. Her grin is angelic, ferocious. Those of the boys, her boys, are equally as terrible. They are grinning and muttering, shoving and bumping, and they are truly less like children and more like one large dynamic creature.

They are out at night, and they know they should not be, but they are together together together, and that is all that matters in the end.

Our girl pushes her way into the very center of things, all ducking and twisting and too sharp elbows. Her smile when she realizes is not quite as large as the one before. Not as reckless, impassioned. Her smile is small and tight. Her lips stretch in a way that only leads to one word. Wicked. A wicked little girl and her wicked little smile.

There are two boys, crouched together in the dim light. Two boys, fiddling with the sprinkler system of the yard. Our girl knows exactly who it belongs to, exactly why they are now gathered. Exactly who the neighborhood children are aiming to spite. And at last, at last, the sprinkler comes to life with a spurt. It is glorious.

Already standing so close, our girl is soaked before she is even conscious of it. Soaked before barely a thought is able to pass through her head. She is soaked to the bone, but she is alive, isn't that it, isn't this what being alive, awake, feels like? Our girl is anxious to prove this to herself, it is a need burning with a vengeance, one that she is slightly put aback by the violence of.

The final street lamp, no more than twenty feet away, finally flickers with a mechanic hum, before clicking off for good.

Though this causes a brief pause, how wouldn't it, any shred of hesitation does not last more than a mere moment. If anything, the sudden encroaching dark encourages the children, convinces them that there is no one out there watching, or caring, what they are doing in that moment. No adults to catch them. No older siblings to admonish them. No grandparents sitting in reclining chairs, cautioning any who will listen with the stories from "my day."

The children shake water from their hair like dogs, splashing and shoving. Our girl lets out a laugh, a high, surprising thing, and though she can no longer see her friends, their laughs echo back at her so immediately that there is never any way that she would be able to feel alone.

They are a tangle, a mess, of bodies and it is glorious. Children falling over children, running, squealing, slipping, bouncing right back up again.

Whispered murmurs of, "this is the best thing I've done, maybe ever."

Responses of, "definitely ever," and the uproarious laughter that follows, filling the silence so deliciously that it couldn't be described as anything other than wholly satisfying.

"Why haven't I done this before," our girl is yelling, suddenly accusatory, "why wasn't I invited?"

"No invitations," a boy yells back, one whose voice she recognizes, though she is no longer able to make out his face in the dark. "Does it look like we've done this before?"

"It looks like it was planned," our girl shoots back, swiping soaking tendrils of hair away from her eyes, "it looks like all of you decided you were coming out here tonight."

"But," and suddenly the voice is sputtering, cutting out, "we didn't plan anything at all. We— I would have remembered if we planned it, I would have known."

"That's the kind of damn coincidence that only happens in dreams," our girl spits out, secretly feeling grown up in using the word "damn," all too pleased with herself.

She is not angry, not truly, but play-acting at being so is a small sweet delight, entertainment for the moment. As she wipes the water out of her eyes, blinking again and again in the hopes that eventually her eyes will acclimate to the light, our girl is conscious of her friend materializing at her side. His energy is manic, not unlike that of the other children, but panicked in a different sort of way.

"How did we get here?" he asks her, almost marveling. "How did we all get here if none of us planned it."

It must be a joke, our girl thinks. A riddle, a test. There must be something here that she is missing, some integral bit that will make it all make sense.

"Well someone must have planned it," our girl supplies, thinking herself helpful.

She is finally, finally able to catch sight of his eyes, as they glint at her, caught on some forgotten sliver of light, looking just a bit too wide, moving just a bit too quickly. "I walked out my front door in the middle of the night. I wanted to. I thought I wanted to. It felt like I was sleepwalking. Like I was dreaming."

"My brother used to sleepwalk…." our girl says slowly, not sure what he is trying to communicate to her, "when he was a baby."

"But I want to be awake," her boy says, slightly petulantly, like the child he is. "I'm having too much fun for it to be all a dream. I don't want this to be out of reach in the morning."

And our girl is going to respond. She is, truly she is. But at that moment, a porch light flicks on at the house next door, and a shadowed figure is highlighted, a screen door slamming shut behind them.

And then it is all hearts stopping and feet racing to action. It is hoses dropped and clothing grabbed. It is shoes crammed onto feet or snatched up into arms.

The boy is grabbing our girl's hand, pulling her out of shock and into action before she is able to understand anything around her—the fact that the area is already mostly cleared out, kids having run at the first suspicious noise.

And they are off, sprinting through the streets as if they are the only ones in the world.

Feet pounding, in between gasping breaths, our girl mutters, squeezing her boy's hand "it won't be out of reach in the morning. Just as long as you don't let go."