Palo Alto Weekly 22nd Annual Short Story
First Place Teen - TIE
by Grace Barry
| About Grace Barry
"Meggie Ketch" is a story that begins in the year 2007 but transports the reader back in time to 1948 when the protagonist, Benjamin, looks back on his youth and remembers his first love, Meggie.
Though this narrative follows the memories of an old man, the story's central character holds no resemblance to its author -- a 13-year-old girl in the eighth grade at Castilleja.
Grace Barry said her inspiration comes from simply picking up a good book and reading. The inspiration to write the story of Benjamin came from reading an assigned book in her English class.
"It kind of just came to me. ... The first part was just a rush of inspiration," Barry said. "I got the idea to write it from a guy's perspective because we were reading 'My Antonia' (by Willa Cather) in English. That's kind of what 'My Antonia' is about -- it's like a recollection."
As for Benjamin's love interest, Meggie, Barry said, "She's not based on anyone I know. I took different elements from people I know and compiled it into one person."
Barry said although she attended a creative writing course at a summer camp two years ago, most of her writing abilities came from constant reading. She also credited Betty Smith, the author of Barry's favorite book, "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," as one of her biggest influences.
When asked what the moral of "Meggie Ketch" is and what she hoped readers would get from reading her story, Barry made it clear that there were no hidden messages.
"I don't think there is any really big life lesson, but I hope they enjoy reading it," she said.
Upon receiving the call that informed Barry she was a winner for the contest, she said, "I was pretty surprised! I was sick that day, so it cheered me up."
Barry was born and raised in Palo Alto and currently lives with her parents, two sisters and dog.
For the future, Barry said she would like to have a career in writing, whether it is becoming a fiction writer or simply writing as part of the job description. Barry also added she would like to become an actress.
"I'm in a school play right now -- it's pretty fun," she said. "(I like) writing, acting, reading and also drawing -- I'm a very artsy person."
I sit on my front porch, staring as the violet-red sun starts to slip out of view. A breeze stirs in the trees and blows the newspaper that I forgot to get that morning across the lawn. A single brown leaf floats onto the street.
At that moment, a boy walks past my house. He looks about fourteen in size and facial character, but he is dressed to be much older. His pants and sweatshirt are black and his hair is spiked. Printed in puffy fabric paint across the sweatshirt are the words “Just Go Die.”
Just go die?
What sort of morals are they embedding in our youth these days?
I remember being fourteen. I was a smart boy, one of the best in my year. I remember baseball games after school and my first job as a busboy.
But mostly, I remember being fourteen because that was the year of Meggie Ketch.
Meggie Ketch was a solemn little thing with a kind of blue fire burning behind her eyes. Her hair was the color of toasted marshmallows, that golden brown with streaks of amber and mahogany. It fell a little past her shoulders and would have been much longer except it was wound into fairly tight curls. Not pin curls, exactly, but not the loose kind that drip down like stalactites, either. Her hair always had a red barrette clipped on the right side and sometimes a blue one that she wore on Tuesdays. No one had ever figured out quite why Tuesdays were so important to her, but she showed up with a blue barrette clipped into the curls every Tuesday nonetheless.
I used to sit in class for hours on end staring at Meggie. She was beautiful, with a little childish face and large blue eyes that sizzled when they looked at you. She was good at math and science, but her weakness was in history.
One day, Meggie turned to me during a math test. We were the only two who had already finished. I sat, tapping my pencil, and she sat twisting a curl around her finger. Until she turned.
“Do you always sit there?” she asked, her eyebrows rising in surprise as if she had never noticed me. The truth, in spite of what I wanted to believe, was probably that she had never, in fact, noticed the awkward tall boy who sat in the last row.
“Oh. What’s your name?”
“Benjamin Ferris.” I paused. “What’s yours?” I asked, pretending I didn’t already know.
“Nice to meet you, Meggie.”
“Nice to meet you, too, Benjamin.”
“Ben, actually. I only said Benjamin in case you were the sort of person who liked to know people’s full names.”
At this her head gently bobbed backwards and she let out a soft laugh that reminded me of soap bubbles.
I didn’t understand what was so funny and I told her so.
She stopped laughing, at looked at me with a concerned expression on her face. “It’s just that it was a little funny the way you said it, and also I can tell that Ben is short for Benjamin. Did you really think I couldn’t figure it out?”
The fire was back, sparking up behind her eyes in a playful way. I laughed.
“I guess I never thought of it that way.”
“You should think of things in all sorts of ways. Otherwise you never know what you’re saying, really.”
I didn’t understand, but I nodded slowly as if I did. Soon everyone had finished their tests and Meggie had left our conversation to chat with her friends.
I stared at her as she talked, noticing the way her delicate elbows bent with each hand gesture she used. I noticed that her head started to bounce when she got excited, and the way her hair fell gracefully when she tossed it back in laughter. I noticed the way her face moved to accentuate each syllable she spoke, and the way her smile would dart across her face every few seconds. She was beautiful.
The next day at lunchtime I saw her sitting alone in the shade of a large oak tree. I walked over and sat next to her. She looked up from her egg salad sandwich and smiled.
“Hey,” I said.
She swallowed her bite of sandwich. “Hello.”
“How did you do on the math test?”
“Good. Better than history.” She smiled sadly and sort of laughed.
I turned to face her.
“Listen,” I started, “ In sixty years, you won’t remember that history test. I won’t remember, your kids won’t remember, and your grandkids won’t remember. So don’t even worry about it.”
This time she really laughed, hair toss and all. I couldn’t help but smile.
From that day on, we ate lunch together every single day. I started to drift apart from my friends and she began to drift apart from hers. All I could think about was Meggie Ketch, with the laughter that rippled her curls. Meggie Ketch, with the fireworks behind her eyes. Meggie Ketch, with the blue barrettes on Tuesdays. Meggie Ketch, Meggie Ketch.
The time came when Christmas vacation started and snow started falling like soap flakes fall into a washing machine. On Christmas day, the local theater was offering a two-for-one ticket for all young couples in the town. I agonized over whether or not to ask Meggie. On the one hand, it wasn’t really a big deal. Just a movie. Only two hours of our lives. But on the other hand, what if she didn’t feel that way about me? What if she never talked to me again? I couldn’t imagine losing Meggie, having ice behind her eyes when she looked at me instead of fire.
But on another hand, what if she said yes?
I shook my head quickly as I walked briskly down the snow-coated sidewalk. That would never happen. Meggie had her pick of almost any boy in our class. She would never choose gangly Ben.
I turned the corner onto my street. I looked up from the sidewalk when I got to my house. Sitting on the front porch step was a large red coat with curls the color of toasted marshmallows spilling out of the top. I almost stopped in my tracks.
She lifted her head out of the coat and jumped up off of the step. As she ran towards me, she slipped on the icy path. I ran to her and caught her in my arms before she hit the pavement. We both laughed as I helped her balance on her feet.
I started to pull away once she was stable, but she kept her arms wrapped loosely around my neck. I stared with rapture at her flushed cheeks and her bright, cheery eyes. She smiled and my heart stopped beating for a moment.
“Do you want to see the movie with me tonight?” she asked, a question written on every inch of her face.
I tried to say “yes”, but I could hardly speak. She seemed to understand, and hugged her arms more tightly around my neck.
And there, on Christmas day, in front of my porch steps, with the snow falling around us, I kissed Meggie Ketch for the first time.
One cool day in April we were sitting under our oak tree, lying on our backs, with her head on my stomach. She tore off a piece of bread from my corned beef sandwich and popped it into her mouth. I smiled as a grimace passed across her face, wrinkling her freckled nose. She struggled to swallow.
I shrugged. “That’s rye bread.”
“Awful.” She coughed and sat up. I laughed and sat up too.
She laughed. I felt a smile sweep across my face. I loved the way the sunlight was hitting her hair, making each strand glisten and her eyes twinkle.
“Well, anyway,” she continued, “I’ve got some news for you.”
She sighed. “It’s not good news. My father got a job in Chicago,” she said. “It’s a great job. It’ll help us pay off our debts.”
“Good,” I replied, cautiously, fearing what she would say next.
“It’s not just that.”
Meggie paused and stared down at the grass. She ripped out a few blades and scattered them over her toes, which were exposed by her strapped white sandals. A breeze rippled her blue pleated skirt with the tiny pink flowers. I had never really realized how pretty her skirts were until this moment.
“I have to go, too.”
Panic struck me. So this was what it must have felt like to be on the Titanic, I thought. My stomach was sinking like a colossal, iceberg-stricken ship. I felt my heart rate speed up, then almost come to a halt, then speed up again. I struggled to catch my breath, even though I was sitting perfectly still.
“Wait,” I said, sputtering. “Come again?”
She sighed. A small tear was beginning to form in the bottom of her eye. “I have to move to Chicago, Ben.”
Meggie stared off into space, biting her bottom lip. “June.”
“June?” I asked, practically yelling all of a sudden.
“I know, I know,” she said, softly, while the tear started to fall down her startled face.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I demanded, standing up. She stared up at me, her eyes bigger and bluer and sadder than I had ever seen them.
“Honestly. Couldn’t you have told me before? When did you find out?”
“February,” she whispered.
I was in shock. “Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked again.
She shook her head slowly. “I didn’t want you to worry.”
She looked back at me. “Honestly, Ben. I was really afraid that you would react…well, the way you are right now.”
I turned and began to walk away. I heard the crunching of leaves as she jumped to her feet.
“Ben, wait!” called Meggie. Mindless of what I told my feet to do, they stopped short.
She came around me and looked me in the eye. “Ben, I am really, truly sorry.”
I was sinking. I had to sit down. “I just wish…”
She knelt next to me, sacrificing her skirt to grass stains. She rested her head on my shoulder, her curls tickling my chin. “I know,” she said, “I know.”
Now, as I sit on my porch, I remember her voice, calm and soothing in my ear. I remember her laugh, her kindness, her smile. I remember her hair, her blue eyes, her blue barrettes on Tuesdays. I bury my face in my hands for a moment, remembering, and then I look up, revolted.
“Boy!” I call, struggling to get out of my chair. “Boy! Wait!” I call, trying to stop the punk before he leaves my front yard. He stops and takes off his headphones.
“Yeah?” he asks, confused.
I’m determined to stop him, to stop him before he wastes his precious youth. Before he’s wasted away by black and tacky fabric paint.
“Boy,” I say, panting as I run to catch up to him. “Boy, what’s your name?”
“Listen here, Daniel,” I begin. “You go home and you wash the gel out of your hair and you take out that nose ring and you buy some sensible clothes. And then you go and become the accomplished young man you should be.”
Daniel rolls his eyes upwards. He puts his headphones back on and struts out of the yard. I try to stop him, but my right knee aches and my cane is inside the house.
Slowly I turn and go back inside.
I sit in my chair and open the drawer on the side table. Inside is a book I haven’t looked in since July 22nd, 1965.
It is the diary of Meggie Ketch.
I remember she had told me never to read it, to never, ever read it, but she wanted me to keep it to remember her by. I could tell she was pretending she didn’t know how close we had grown and how neither of us needed anything to remember each other by.
Meggie Ketch was my first and only true love.
I open the diary. It’s covered in tattered red leather and filled with scribbled notes and childish drawings. I have never read it all the way through, for no other reason than extreme guilt. But now I am ready.
I flip through the pages, slowly, relishing each drop of ink and each fiber of paper. I stroke the smooth pink ribbon that serves as a page marker.
I read it through. I cry and I don’t understand. I don’t understand why I had to lose Meggie Ketch.
When I get to the last page, emotion hits me like a boulder. For covered in tearstains is a letter addressed directly to me.
June 17th, 1948
Oh, Ben, you read it, didn’t you?
I knew you would. But that’s not what matters.
I’m finished packing and I’ve only just stopped crying. I leave tomorrow, Ben. I don’t know how I’m going to say goodbye to you.
I love you, Ben. Do you know that? Because I do. I love your glasses and your reddish hair and the way you pronounce “Potato”.
I love how much you’ve loved me. You are the most caring, loving boy in the whole world and I wish I could run to your house and throw my arms around you and stay there forever and ever until the day I die.
But I can’t do that and I’m sorry, Ben.
Do you want to know something?
That day of the math test, back in the fall, when I asked you what your name was? I already knew it. I just didn’t want you to think I did.
Oh, Ben. Daddy’s calling. I wish I could write more. I’m going to give you this diary tomorrow. But of course by the time you read this you’ll already know that.
I love you, Ben.
I sink into my chair, unable to breath. So she had noticed me before that day, then? She had noticed odd things about me, too, the way I noticed things about her. And she had loved me! She had really and truly loved me as much as I loved her, if that was even possible.
As I close the diary and put it back in its drawer, I wish it were a long time ago. I wish it wasn’t September 7th, 2007. I wish it were June 17th, 1948. I want so much to see Meggie one last time, one final time. To see what she’s like now, to ask if she ever loved again, if she thinks about me as frequently as I think about her.
But as I start to stand up, I know that this is now. And now is now. It can never be a long time ago.
"Meggie Ketch" manages to capture the essence of young love in just a few words. This by itself is quite an accomplishment. But in addition, the young author has succeeded in accurately imagining what it's like to be an older, wiser adult. The judges found this piece very moving.