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Jaiden Burkholder

Grade: 8

Birchwood School

Instructor(s): Maysan Haydar, Lorraine Tzeng

Fear is a Wall

Science Fiction/Fantasy

Fear is a Wall

The sunbeams filtered through the massive windows of the spacious loft, bouncing their light against the wall. They obviously felt more playful than the young girl sitting on the small wooden desk in the center of the room.

As Abby Lovell looked around, memories of finishing the space with her mother swirled through her mind. She could almost smell the sawdust that had swirled through the air as the hammering and pounding ceased.

She could almost hear her mother's words again. "There, done. Now you have a quiet place to study, like you've always wanted."

Abby stood, boredom concealing the anxiety that burned within her like the warm rays of sun that shone on her bright red hair. Her fists clenching by her sides, Abby's nails dug painfully into her hands, the only evidence of the feelings she was masking. She wasn't ready to let go of her freedom, and she was still determined to hide from the words she heard every time she looked in the mirror.

You'll never be on the same level as others.

You'll never fit in.

How will you ever do it?

Her gaze drifted across the room, eyes settling on the string that hung from the scuttle attic door. Wind from the fan blew the string side to side, mirroring Abby's vacillating thoughts as each side fought to make her believe them.

In a few months she'd be going to school for the first time in her life. Homeschool was all she'd ever known, and it was being yanked from her. She didn't like the thought of trying to make friends, or of not being able to sleep in late. She didn't like the thought of having homework; with homeschooling, there'd been no extra work to do after the day was over. But she'd known all along that her mom wouldn't teach her past eighth grade. So what was the point of resisting the change? Submitting didn't mean she was happy about it.

Stretching, Abby grabbed a pair of Airpods and stuck them roughly into her ears. She sat again to work on her essay, but her heart wasn't in it. She began to drift farther and farther from both reality and writing for the placement test.

The pencil she'd been sucking on slipped from her hand, and she slumped in the chair. The music she was listening to wrapped itself around her in a constricting embrace. As she was caught in its rhythmic undertow, a faint voice seemed to whisper into her ear.

She couldn't make out the words, but she didn't care - until she realized it might be her mom checking on her progress. Mrs. Lovell hated when Abby had her music up so loud she couldn't hear anything from the outside world. Another incident would only fuel her argument against the Airpods and brain-crippling Bluetooth.

Abby jerked her head back up, expecting to see her mother shaking her head disapprovingly, but a much less expected scene greeted her. A massive stone wall stretched to the left and right as far as the eye could see, looking as though it had been standing since the beginning of time.

As soon as she recovered from the shock, Abby took a glance at her surroundings. Though she felt no heat, it only took her a moment to realize she was standing in the middle of a vast desert. There was a certain lack of feeling in the place - maybe the mist contributed to this. Everything was shrouded in layers and layers of the wispy veil. Almost unconsciously, she turned her attention back to the wall.

Examining it more closely, she noticed the tattered curtains of moss growing from its cracks, and the rough patches of lichen that draped over and between them. The weathered surface of the colossal structure they clung to was grainy and rough, and it was hard to imagine any power in the world penetrating such an obstacle.

All thoughts drained from Abby's mind as she looked at it. Suddenly overwhelmed by complete determination, she felt one impulse and one alone: she had to get past that wall, and it didn't matter how she did it.

Then the voices hit her ears - hard. It was a torrent of crashing noise this time, and it poked sharply against her mind, churning her subconscious with horrible, twisted statements bent on maiming her sudden burst of courage.

The voices told her she would fail and asked why she even tried.

You'll never be on the same level as others.

You'll never fit in.

How will you ever do it?

Repetitions of these smashed against her even harder now, inundating her soul. Abby strained against the forming bonds to no avail. The persistence of the voices was too difficult to combat. Doubt was beginning to take over. What if she couldn't do it? She sat down on the dusty ground, blankly staring at the wall as despair took control of her shaking limbs. Abby had surrendered to her fear.

Then the mist moved. It shifted, drawing back upon itself. Behind her a figure emerged, silhouetted against the cold gray of the wall like a shadow gliding closer.

Abby turned to see the ghostly figure standing about five feet away, stretching out his hand. Immediately the voices deserted her, almost as if the figure had dispelled them. Abby found she could think clearly for the first time since she'd arrived at this terrifying place.

Follow me, the figure commanded. No words audibly left his mouth, but she could feel what he was telling her all the same.

Trust me.

He'd rescued her from the constant beleaguering of the voices. The least she could do was give him the benefit of the doubt.

Come here.

Abby went to him, stepping up to the wall where the figure gestured. She watched as he moved his hand slowly toward a tattered flag that hung on a shard of stone, jutting out over the desert ground. As soon as he was sure she was looking, he grabbed it.

This is the way, he told her as he pulled the ragged banner down.

At first she didn't understand. Then she saw the hole. A gaping tunnel sat in the wall - the way to get to the other side! A smile lit Abby's face as the figure nodded. He had shown her this for a reason. He'd known of her quest.

Abby took a step closer to the wall. Then another. In a moment, she was at the shortcut. One more step, and she would finally be on the other side. Lifting her foot, she readied herself for the discovery of what had to be her destiny. But a loud stomp smashed through the air, knocking her off her feet and shattering her dreams.

Abby closed her eyes.

***

Opening them slowly, Abby found herself in her house again. She looked downward, half expecting to see dusty desert ground. She saw only her pencil and the computer. She heard her mother's heavy footsteps as she hobbled up the stairs and knew that was what had woken her. Mrs. Lovell set down the Halloween decorations she'd been carrying.

It was too late to pretend that she'd finished the paper. Abby hoped her mom wouldn't be too unhappy that she hadn't made any progress.

Dropping the streamers and stacks of plastic pumpkins, Mrs. Lovell wiped her brow. Abby stared at the ground like she'd noticed the most interesting thing in the pattern of the flooring. She sank even lower, hearing her mother's footsteps move toward her.

"Sorry," Abby muttered.

Mrs. Lovell bent over the desk, disappointment etched all over her face.

"You started three hours ago! Why isn't this finished?"

"I'll finish it now," Abby promised. But her mom wasn't letting her off that easily.

"You will, but not with these in." She motioned for the Airpods. As Abby reluctantly pulled them out and handed them over, her mother sighed.

"You can have them back as soon as you learn to work without them. Honey, you know that this writing assignment is a critical component in the placement test, right?"

Abby turned her head away at this, not wanting her mom to see the tears glistening in her eyes. Her mom, sensing a problem, crouched beside the chair.

"Is that what's wrong? Are you worried about next year? There's nothing to be anxious about, sweetie, you'll do fine."

Silence was Abby's only reply.

"Listen, Abigail. You aren't going to want to do this later when you could be doing something fun with your friends. You have to push through and get it done now. Trust me," she finished, sounding slightly annoyed. "You know I only want the best for you, right?"

Abby shifted in her seat but remained silent, not wanting to acknowledge the fact that her mother was being extremely nice. The despair, resting like a pit in her stomach, overwhelmed the inkling of gratitude she felt. Her mother sighed again and turned to leave.

"Listen. As long as you keep yourself from daydreaming too much, you can still finish in time. You can come downstairs for some apple cider once you're done."

When Abby still ignored her, Abby's mother finally left. Abby waited until Mrs. Lovell's footsteps receded before jumping up to reach inside the desk. She grabbed her spare pair of earbuds. Should've taken away my phone, she thought rebelliously. It didn't occur to her that maybe her mom had purposely left her iPhone, to see if she would listen. If it had been a test of character, Abby had completely failed.

Sticking the earbuds into her phone, she began listening to her music again. She closed her eyes, trying to get lost in daydreams, out of spite. Her mother couldn't tell her what to do.

Almost unwillingly, Abby began to think about what her mom had said about only wanting the best for her. The more she pondered it, the more she believed. Her family had reasons for only homeschooling until eighth grade, and she knew they must be valid. She was suddenly overwhelmed by a complete determination to finish the essay.

I won't quit or take shortcuts. I'll finish this. Now.

But when Abby opened her eyes, there was the figure, hands still holding the flag, waiting patiently for her. She was about to join him when something struck her conscience.

I won't quit or take shortcuts.

It was her own voice this time - and it was a thought she'd had before.

Maybe it was one she should actually listen to.

The figure turned his hooded head to see Abby swamped in her own doubt.

Let's go.

But now Abby was seriously doubting him. "Let me see your face."

He shook his head and took a slightly hurried step back. In doing so, his hood snagged on the stone that held the flag. It tore his hood down.

A sharp white slice of bone, two slices of black where eyes should be. A spiny, jeering smile.

A nightmare face.

As the line separating dream and life blurred and faded away, Abby thought she heard the same, rhythmic tune she'd been listening to earlier. It dropped her again, this time where she'd first heard it: the loft.

But the figure had beaten her there.

Standing before the window in stark contrast to the beautiful sunset behind him, he silently mocked her. Her mom stood behind him staring out at the sky as if she had no idea what was happening around her.

Cold. It shouldn't be this cold.

It was. This was especially strange as Abby had, once again, found herself standing in the desert. It was probably because the sun had finally set on the dream world, bathing the sand in pale moonlight.

Abby turned.

There the figure was, once again standing in the tunnel. This time, however, he wasn't alone. A red-haired woman stood in his shadow. He had her mom.

Beckoning for Abby to follow, the entity took one step through the hole, then another. He was on the other side of the wall now, standing under the shining moon. The dark, starless sky mirrored the contour of his cape perfectly.

Abby ignored the sense of foreboding that was creeping up her spine. Her mom was in danger. She needed to run; she couldn't lose her mom. She hadn't apologized yet, for… anything. How ungrateful and stubborn she'd been.

But that wasn't how it was going to end. Not if she could help it.

I won't quit or take shortcuts. I'll finish this. Now.

"You know I only want the best for you, right?"

Abby skidded to a halt, just before running off the edge of the cliff. Because that was the only thing on the other side of the wall. A massive abyss.

Abby looked up again. Both the mirage of Mrs. Lovell and the dark figure were no longer hovering over the giant trap. They'd disappeared into thin air.

***

Abby awoke, shivering. Jolting back to reality, she glanced around. Another resounding crash echoed through the loft, this time coming from the direction of the ceiling. The hatch in the ceiling opened, and wooden steps folded down from the attic. Abby had never been happier to see the person who came down those steps.

"That was quite the adventure," her mom said, leaning against the wall.

Abigail Lovell agreed. She embraced her mom, not able to express the emotions rising inside her in any other way. She'd been so afraid that her mother had actually been in danger.

"Calm down! Cleaning the attic wasn't that hard. And about the essay - if you're trying to take my attention away from the fact that you didn't get anything done on it, it's not working."

Abby was just glad they were together. She knew her mother would be there for her every step of the way. She just had to take those steps herself. She'd known it all along. Abby reminded herself -

I am just as good as others.

I already belong.

I have the power within me to make it through the next year.

She could do it. She could make it through. And the first step was the essay.

***

In the now abandoned desert wasteland, a few graceful sunbeams filtered through the curtain of mist, shining on a single wisp gathered in the shape of a small girl.

Drifting before the wall, it looked almost… red, in the light.

The mist shook once, readying itself.

Then it flew upward.

And soared over the wall.

Abby had been freed.