Palo Alto Weekly 16th Annual Short Story Contest
2nd Place - Young Adults 15-17 year olds
by Laurel Lathrop
I saw the dead bird when I was walking in the woods one morning.
At first it was just a patch of light brown against the darker path,
but then I saw the black clawed feet and stopped cold. It was a
bird, with black shining eyes, a yellow beak and those claws. I
couldnt move for a few moments; then seeing the soft feathers
I felt like brushing my finger down its side. But that would mean
getting close to those staring eyes and open beak and curled little
claws. And, against my will, I remembered lectures about bird-borne
diseases. So I started my legs moving and walked around it, and
then there was someone else.
A girl stood on the path, wearing a deep-red silky dress, long reddish
curly hair falling over her shoulders and down her back. She was
staring at the bird too, so I couldnt see her face. She smelled
like crushed mint leaves. I was surprised to see anyone there, especially
someone who I hadnt heard coming, so I stood watching her
until she looked up at me.
"Sad, isnt it?" she asked. I nodded. She had gray-green
eyes with pale eyelashes. Her face was fair, with freckles on her
nose and light purple shadows under her eyes.
"I wonder what happened," I said.
"I dont know," she said. "Doesnt look
like an animal killed it. Maybe it just fell."
The thought made me shiver: a bird falling out of the sky, dropping
like a stone through the trees and onto the forest floor.
"Whats your name?" I asked, looking away from the
"Im Nora," I said, smiling. "So why are you
in the woods?"
"I couldnt sleep," Lucy said. I nodded sagely. She
smiled a little as she asked, "Why are you in the woods?"
I shrugged. "Just wanted to get out of the house."
She nodded. "Want to walk with me?"
"Sure," I said. "Where are you going?"
"Nowhere, really. So it makes sense to go together."
I glanced again at the dead bird as we started walking, but Lucy
didnt look back. We walked in silence for a few minutes, and
I looked around. I had never been on this path before. I didnt
walk in the woods often, and when I did I stayed on the main trail
that made a loop, grazing the shore of the lake.
After a while I asked Lucy, "Do you live near here? Ive
never seen you before."
She looked straight ahead as she answered, "Yeah, I live nearby.
My parents own a resort by the lake, renting boats and stuff. I
hate the lake, though. I walk out here whenever I can." She
glanced at me. "Where do you live? I havent seen you
"I live a few hours away, but we have a summer house here,
We kept walking through the forest. Occasional sunbeams broke through
the leaves and made yellow splotches on the path. Whenever Lucy
walked through a beam it caught the wispy curls around her face
and made them bright as flame. She walked softly, her red dress
rippling around her ankles. On anyone else I thought the dress would
look old-fashioned, silly, but Lucy somehow made it appropriate.
"So you live by the lake?" I asked. She stopped and turned,
meeting my gaze with her gray-green eyes.
"Yeah. All my life. Ive never been away from here."
"Do you ever want to get away?" Stupid question.
.She stared at me. "Yeah." She started walking again.
I was getting uncomfortable. "Lucy?" She turned. "Where
are we going?"
For a moment she softened. "Youll see when we get there."
I felt a little better as we kept walking. After a while the path
started getting steeper; each step took effort and I began breathing
hard. I was wearing a loose t-shirt and shorts, but even these started
Lucy was now several steps ahead of me. She looked back every once
in a while as if to see how I was doing. I was about to ask her
how much farther we had to go when the path straightened out and
I saw a break in the trees ahead. Lucys pace quickened and
she broke through the trees far ahead of me, so I watched as she
stepped out into the sunlight. Her dress and hair flared bright
red as the sun hit her and I thought she looked like something from
a movie. I made it to the end of the path, and stepped between the
We were on a rocky outcropping, gray stone flecked with mica that
glittered in the sunlight. The cliff thrust out over the woods,
then dropped about twenty feet back down into the trees. Everything
below us was green forest, swaying in the breeze. I could see the
lake off to the left, a puddle of molten silver, shining so brightly
it hurt my eyes. The sky was classic blue with a few perfect clouds.
I stood there blinking in the sudden sunlight. Then I saw Lucy.
She was sitting, legs tucked under her, near the edge of the rock.
Her hands were in her lap and the breeze ruffled her hair. Her face
was turned toward the sun, eyes closed. She looked like a princess
from a fairy tale. She was beautiful.
Eyes still closed, she said, "I love the sun on my face."
I went over, sat near her and turned my face to the sun too. My
head felt awkward flopping back on my neck and the sun turned the
inside of my eyelids red, making me feel like I was going blind.
I brought my head back down and opened my eyes, and Lucy was looking
at me. Up close, she looked different from how she had seemed in
"It was so cold in the woods," she said, shuddering. "Its
much nicer out here."
I nodded. "Its nice. Why didnt you tell me we were
coming here? You said you werent going anywhere."
"This isnt anywhere important. Its just a trail
I like." She closed her eyes again and sighed. "Im
I noticed the lavender pools under her eyes.
"Why are you tired?" I asked.
"I told you, I couldnt sleep."
"Why were you sleeping in the day?"
She opened her eyes and looked at me, expressionless. I felt like
a child, with endless silly questions. "Sorry," I muttered.
"I used to sleepwalk at night," she said suddenly. "I
would wake up in the middle of the night and I would be in the kitchen
or on our porch. Once I was on the dock, and I was still walking.
If I hadnt woken up I would have gone into the lake. I told
my parents we needed to lock the doors at night, but they didnt
believe me. I started locking my bedroom door, but they found out
and took the lock off. Then I got scared and stopped sleeping at
night. I read, did homework, sometimes took walks. During the school
year I slept in the afternoons; in the summer, I slept during the
day. But today I couldnt."
For a moment I sat there, not sure whether to believe her or not.
She was tired, I could tell that, but in the sunlight Lucy didnt
seem like someone who would sleepwalk.
"When did this start?" I asked finally.
"Five months ago," she said, looking right at me as if
daring me to doubt her. "One night I woke up and I was in the
hallway. A week later I woke up in the kitchen. And so on. I woke
up on the dock in April. Thats when I stopped sleeping at
"Howd you keep your parents from finding out you were
sleeping all afternoon?"
"I said I was doing my homework."
"Your parents never came into your room for three months?"
"Thats right. They dont like me very much, its
easy to ignore me."
"Im sure your parents like you."
"Not enough to trust me!" she said with sudden anger.
"They wouldnt let me lock my door! I was terrified Id
drown myself some night while I was sleepwalking, and they thought
I was making it up or dreaming or something. How could they think
I watched her, pale cheeks suddenly flushed, eyes bright. Somehow
her anger distanced me from her. She was after all, just a girl
who liked to wear old-fashioned dresses and wander in the woods.
Maybe she had insomnia, but that didnt mean she sleepwalked,
had almost walked off the dock but conveniently woke up. It didnt
mean anything about her parents either, though she might not get
along with them. I watched her, felt sorry for her, but I did not
She saw this somehow because her face whitened. She said quietly,
"I dont know why I told you. You dont believe me.
You dont know what its like."
She turned away from me, staring off over the forest. Her hands
played with a section of her dress, wrinkling and smoothing it between
her fingers. Her skirt and hair rippled in the breeze.
I sighed and shifted position, wondering if I should go. There was
no reason for me to be there. The thought hit me that she might
fall asleep; she seemed tired enough, and the sun was soporific.
That would give me a chance to leave. I didnt like the thought
of Lucy waking up alone, but she had no right to expect me to stay
with her. I wanted to stay a little while longer, though. It was
beautiful on the cliffthe blue sky, the breeze, and the green
forest beneath the glittering rock. She would fall asleep soon and
then I could leave.
I rested my cheek on my knees, feeling the sun on my face, and looked
out at the lake. It was so bright I could only see it with my eyes
half-closed. I had walked by the lake on the trail and I couldnt
imagine being afraid of it, as Lucy seemed to be. But I had always
seen it in the daytime. At night it would be different
my eyes and pictured it.
The lake at night, stars in the black water, waves lapping against
the dock. The trees stood dark all around, whispering in the wind
that wrinkled the surface of the lake. I was fascinated by the water,
deep and dark. Then I was being pulled toward it, faster and faster
until suddenly I was underwater, the thick stillness surrounding
me. I was blind, darkness pressing against my wide-open eyes, and
then suddenly I saw something worse than blindness. Below me, so
deep that it must have been on the bottom of the lake, I glimpsed
a piece of red silky fabric, waving slowly and gently. The water
was crushing me, bearing me toward the bottom and I opened my mouth
to scream and then my head jerked up off my knees and my eyes were
wide in the bright sunlight. I was gasping and the breeze cradled
my damp face. Slowly I stretched out on my stomach and looked over
She was asleep, curled up with her arms beneath her head, legs slightly
uncovered by her fluttering dress. Her face was calm, mouth slightly
open, eyelashes pale against her flushed cheeks. Her eyes were still
shadowed with purple. Her hair flowed over her arms and shoulders
in tangled red curls. She looked helpless; for the first time I
could picture her afraid. I watched her shoulders rise and fall.
Then I propped myself up on an elbow, reached out and brushed a
curl away from her face. Her hair was soft.
I lay back down against the sun-warmed rock. I watched her. She
never moved. I watched her, every slow breath she took, until she