Palo Alto Weekly 25th Annual Short Story Contest
Third Place Young Adult

 

About Alessandra Occhiolini

Short Story ContestThe initial concept of "Escaping Utopia" was written on an unbearably hot summer night. It was my first foray into realistic fiction (up to then I’d been focusing only on historical fiction and fantasy), and I only got through part of it. Convinced it was too disjointed to ever work as a short story, I left it lying in my desk for about a year.

Recently, however, I found it and things began to finally come together. Taking the original concept and working it into what became Escaping Utopia has not only been fun for me but personally rewarding as well; it’s always a bit of a thrill to see how you’ve grown as a writer.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with books and the written word. I find this passion is best defined by Emily Dickinson’s description of a book as the “chariot that bears the human soul”, as writing seems so inherently linked to our humanity, enduring over the years because we endure. In addition to writing and reading, I enjoy acting, singing, and am a huge history geek.

ESCAPING UTOPIA
by Alessandra Occhiolini

“Mom, do you think one could live in another world?” Hughie asks, his sticky fingers marring the pages of a well-worn science fiction thriller bearing the title "Martian Blood."

“I don’t know why you’d want to, dear,” she sighs, pushing a defiant strand of hair behind her ear as she drops gobs of cookie dough onto the baking sheet. Another set of cookies. Bravo indeed, Hughie thinks vaguely, for the survival of the stereotypical 1950s housewife.

“All I did was just ask-” he says under his breath, reaching for a lump of the dough, not entirely sure why he even asked her. He can’t stand her perpetual cookie baking, but he has to admit that the product tastes good though the motive drives him mad. Does the woman really think she can fix everything with a dash of sugar and a light hand while beating the egg whites?

“Well, I don’t like it.” she says. “It’s Friday night and there’s that big football game, against Almstead or whatever, right?” He would rather attend prom naked than go to the game, but he decides to put on a light tone for his mother’s benefit.

“Terringfield, actually. They’re stupid though, football games. Remember last Fourth of July with Cousin Howard?”

“Sure I remember, how could I forget, I was the one who had to drive you back to Howard’s house because your crazy comments on it being ‘nearly a blood sport, a Neanderthal remnant’ upset that hulk of a man in the stands behind us. It’s too bad Howard married that Edna and she decided to move to Nowhere, Hicksville.”
“I like Edna!” Hughie says, taking a long draught of milk. “She likes my books, I gave her one once and she read it. She actually read it.” Which is more than I can say for you, he wants to add, but doesn’t want to lay it on too thick. Besides, the book was "Slaughterhouse Five," and Edna had understood it well enough to expel any prejudice from Hughie’s mind.

“I suppose she’s not too bad, but I’ve got my reasons. I’ll tell you why when you get a bit older.”

“Mom, I’m 16,” he tells her, anger bubbling inside him. To her, it seems, he is still her little boy, fond of his "Star Wars" lunch box and fruit roll-ups -- though he doesn’t harbor particular hatred to either item now, this still upsets him.

“Yes.” she says, her eyes blank. She grabs Post-Its from her desk and makes a note. “Listen, I have to make a quickie call. You’ll keep an eye on the cookies, hmm?”

She leaves without letting him answer, and Hughie considers letting the cookies burn black and hard onto the tray. But he cannot bear the thought of letting them turn to ash.

He sighs, staring at the illustration that graces the cover of "Martian Blood," a busty blonde who is swooning into the arms of a small, green alien. It was almost masochistic, he knew, for the blond bore an uncanny resemblance to Emily Edwards, his next door neighbor and ex-girlfriend. Ex- best friend for that matter, too, he supposed. He had thrown out their model TIE fighters and their treasure chest of fake pirate gold in the attic, but he kept the book. He knew it was just another stupid Star Wars knockoff, but it was a nice little reminder of who he was. Geek, not geek chic. He remembered that actually being one of Emily’s reasons for dumping him -- though she’d started going out with the idiot of a quarterback a year later, so he had to question her sanity and take every word she had ever uttered to him with a few large truckloads of salt.

Not smart enough to be a math geek. Not studious enough to be an AP tracker (those people he saw gulping loads of coffee down and frantically reviewing material until they looked half-mad), nor angsty or brooding enough to be a lit mag guy, or good enough with html to be a computer geek. Sure, he liked English ("Martian Blood" looked most strange on a shelf filled with "Anna Karenina" and "A Farewell to Arms"), but it was in a needy way.

Hughie felt guilty sometimes, like he was only dipping into characters lives to escape his own. For that’s what he did- hopping from book to book, living in other people’s minds instead of his own, never stopping to consider who he was and not who he had been when he had started this frantic reading.

Planning on returning "Martian Blood" to it’s place and pulling out something else to keep him busy, Hughie kept his annoyingly large feet quiet as he crept past his mom’s office, in which she was carrying on her “quickie conversation.” He heard her moaning to someone, and figured it was his dad. She was always apt to carry on like this when they fought. Little spark, he thought, little good dialogue. He pressed his ear to the crack in the door nonetheless, always ready to flit into someone else’s troubles.

“Eddy, please.” Mother hiccups, and he cautiously peeks through the keyhole to see his mother’s small frame slumped onto the bookcase. Sappy. Not very convincing.

“Look, I know it hasn’t been great, but, Eddy? Yes, I’m listening. Come on, at least come back, have some dinner. I made you cookies, all special.”

She pauses; listening, and Hughie leans in closer to the keyhole. The cookies are typical, yes, of his clueless mother, but the plea is unlike her.

“You can’t do this to Hughie!” She sobs, her voice breaking and softening into a painful whisper. “You can’t just leave me here.” Silence fills the room, but only briefly.

“Eddy! Eddy! Eddy?” She drops the phone, and Hughie feels his throat tighten in horror, eyes widen in shock. Suddenly the badly written domestic sleeper is far too real for his liking, but as his mother crumples to the ground and clutches the phone like it is salvation, he stumbles back from the keyhole.

Hughie runs back to the kitchen, the smell of burning cookies assaulting his nostrils. Cookies, all special. He rips open the oven door and grabs the burning tray, squealing in pain as the hot metal makes contact. He drops the tray, kicking it, beating it against the cabinets, the cracking linoleum. The cookies are burned through, and they hold tight to the tray. He grabs the spatula and scrapes viciously at the black lumps. There is desperate need within him to get the cookies off the tray, off the tray, and he reaches for "Martian Blood."

He uses the spine to grate up and down, up and down the tray in a broken rhythm, scraping off the blackened dough. Up and down, up and down. He is holding in his breath, trying his hardest to stop the rhythm and just read, or leave, or run, or anything else but continue and his chest grows tight and his vision blurs and he is sobbing. The tears fall onto the cookies and the book, both crumbling as Hughie continues. The books are lies, they all lies, for nowhere can people love each other, stay with each other. They are Utopia, that cursed word of double meaning: paradise and nowhere. The world has fed him lies and he took them, as complacently as he ate the cookie dough.

Soon he is spent, and lies on the floor of the kitchen along with the cookies, now in bits of dust. Hughie has fallen head first into the unbearable reality and finality of the real world, and he knows not how to face it after all these years.

 

***

 

Hugh leaves for school by foot, like usual. The bandages from his run-in with the tray have been gone for months, yet he still feels them creeping along his palms. Hughie has been abandoned as a relic of the past, and Hugh is finding the world a strange new place. He views everyone with a wary eye and sharp tongue, ready to criticize the next willing fool. He longs to unleash his anger, held at his mother who sits home, eyes full of pain as she goes on as if trying to pretend the last 25 years of her life never happened. If they never happened, where does that leave him? This is the question that ferments into anger as he plods down the pavement, which is wet from last night’s rain. He would like to think the world was still for him, crying for the death of the child named Hughie.

He gets to school, and looks around a bit before going to his locker, trying to delay his morning routine. His burns no longer show, but the scars tinge as a tangible reminder that his tight, reserved father would never sneak in after the late shift at the office again, that he would not come home at all. Hugh wishes he’d noticed, noticed that his dad didn’t kiss his mom anymore, that they didn’t ever laugh, or play, that everything was an act. He feels stupid to not have seen the clues, to have been escaping into so many other worlds that he never noticed what was going on in this one. He looks up at the clock, and realizes he has to go to his locker or he’ll be late for first period.

 He walks heavily, dragging his feet as if he knows what awaits. She is there, her eyes green and warm and full of empathy that seems to brim over. He cannot stand it. She must have known for at least a month. Everyone has, it’s too small a town to avoid hearing the whispers about how that Donnelly woman drove her husband off. They’ve got it all wrong, as they always do, but at least the rumor mill is dependable. She moves in closer, and he figures she must have waited this long to distance herself from the tragedy first, before coming in as the conquering angel.

“Hughie, I heard what happened, and I’m really sorry,” Emily says, holding her books tight against her bright sweater set. “I know we haven’t talked in a while, but if you need anything, you know where to come, right?” She gives an encouraging nod and her signature smile, expecting him to come crying into her arms. He is breaking her heart a little, if she was to be honest, but she hasn’t been in years and she isn’t about to start.

“Don’t pretend to care, Emily. You always were so righteous, now you’re plain uppity.” Hugh says, surprised at his words but feeling strangely powerful as well. “You’re no better than him, Emily, you know. Leaving me just like he left me and my mom. Even after you ditched me for that idiot, I still kept hope that someday you’d come back. You knew that, didn’t you, Emily?” Hugh asks. He realizes that as he stares into her eyes that it is not Emily he sees there any longer, but his father. She looks at him with wide eyes, tears welling up in them but not quite brimming over.

“His name is Bobby.” She tells him, as she can think of nothing else to say, and now some tears begin to fall down her face as she begs him with her eyes, asking him to take it back.

“Yeah, and mine’s Hugh now, but you wouldn’t know that,” he tells her, grabbing her arm. Now they are staring at each other, and Hugh has finally moved beyond Emily somehow, for he has left his lies behind him while they are all she has.

“I have to go,” she tells him, drying her tears on her sleeve and sniffing in an uncharacteristic manner. The scene has not played out the way she meticulously planned it. He has hit her weakest point, the truth. She does not see Hughie in her accuser.

“You always had to go,” he tells her, eyes full of disdain, and he drops her arm. She looks at him, and she knows he will not come after her, tell her to come back this time. He has changed too much to beg. Hugh stares at her, seeing a man instead of a girl, a man in a neat suit without a single wrinkle, the man who taught him the Pythagorean Theorem back when it was hard, the man who waltzed at midnight to old jazz records with his mother when he thought no one was there.

“What are you waiting around for?” he snaps at her with feigned toughness copied out of an old movie, his heart thumping. He cannot let the man into his heart or home any longer, not now, not after he has ruined it all.

“Someone who’s gone,” she tells him, looking for a trace of Hughie in this stranger but failing to find it. She turns around, her high heels clicking as she continues down the hallway. He watches them go, the man in the neat suit without wrinkles, and the girl who once was a master TIE fighter builder. He watches them long and hard until they melt into one, and wants to run after them, tell them to come back. But the words are said and the deeds are done, there is no going back now. Hugh watches as they disappear, flickering and finally fading into the school hallway like broken holograms.