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By Julianna Graham
Genre: Fiction Level: Junior 7-9
Category: UAA/ADN Creative Writing Contest

Julianna Graham

Evan cowered in the shadows of the dilapidated sofa.  The front door swung open and slammed the wall sending the piles of settled dust into a frenzied dance through the apartment's stuffy air.  A heavyset man staggered through the doorway grasping a nearly empty beer bottle in his left hand.  Evan wrapped his quivering arms around his knees hoping his father would leave soon.  The unsettled dust stung Evan's pine-colored eyes and irritated his nose.  He tried to muffle his oncoming sneeze, but it was of no use.


Evan winced.

"Boy!  Where are ya?" Evan's father yelled.

The room held its breath.

"I said WHERE ARE YA?!"

Diffidently, Evan arose from his shadowed place of refuge.

"Here?" he whispered, bending his head as low as his short neck allowed.

Draining the last of his beer bottle, Evan's father stumbled towards him. 

"You come when I call ya, understand?" he stammered.

"Yes sir," Evan replied, refusing to look into his father's stoned eyes. 

"You look at me when I speakin' to ya!" his father bellowed, striking Evan with his empty bottle.  The glass shattered against his small head as he stumbled backward and braced himself for another blow. 

.                       .                       .          

With one hand resting on his throbbing gash and the other wiping away the tears that blurred his vision, Evan struggled to climb the overgrown hillside.  After much effort, he reached the top and struggled to a towering oak tree.  The oak's mighty arms stretched in all directions inviting all bleeding hearts to hide in its shadows.  Evan broke through the tree's leafy limbs as his eyes raced up the moss-clad trunk.  Held in the thick of the tree's safe arms, sat an old tree house.

"Iris?" Evan cried.

"What's the password?" Iris' voice asked from high in the tree. 

"Pink pineapples and orange bananas," Evan called through sniffles.

After several seconds of shuffling sounds from above, a rope ladder fell lopsided from a small opening in the bottom of the tree house. 

"Hurry up!"  Iris called down.

Evan hobbled up the ladder and grabbed onto Iris' thin hand extending through the opening in the bottom of the treehouse.

"Took you long enough," she said helping him to his feet.

"Sorry...," Evan whispered.

"Nah, it's alright kid," Iris said tightening one of her uneven, strawberry-blonde pigtails, "I got us a new piece of furniture!  Wanna see?"

"Sure," Evan said, wiping his nose with the sleeve of his oversized hoodie.

"I put it on the porch so we could watch the sunset," Iris said, winding the rope ladder back into the tree house. 

Once Iris secured the ladder, she led Evan out to the porch.  The porch was composed of four differently sized boards nailed to a broad branch that gave all its visitors a surreal view of the small city it hung over.

"Tah Dah!" Iris said, showing Evan an enormous wool blanket draping over the boards.  "We'll have to take it inside when it rains, of course, but do you like it?"

Evan nodded and flashed a slight smile before snuggling down into the wool's warm layers.  Still holding his hand to his head, Evan pulled his knees close to his chest as bitter tears cascaded down his quivering cheeks.  Iris sighed and plopped herself next to Evan's shuddering body.  Pulling one of her hands from a pocket of her tattered overalls, she wrapped her faintly-freckled arm around Evan's shoulder.

  Neither of the children spoke.  They only gazed down at the city masked with sparkling lights and polished dreams.  Those who visited the city enjoyed its dazzling attractions and flashy opportunities, but those who'd fallen into its alluring trap were chained by the city's cruel shadows. 

Weary from battling the ever-present darkness, the sun's golden head rested itself behind the horizon.  Gradually, the miles of its glistening, magenta hair fell behind the horizon allowing darkness to overcome the maze of flaunting streets.  The children had been left to the mercy of the shadows. 

"Your dad hit you again?" Iris finally asked.

Evan nodded and lifted his hand from his gash.  His pearly-blonde hair was stained red where the bottle had struck, but the wound was shallow and no glass had stuck to his head.

"Yikes!" Iris exclaimed.

"What! Iris, what!? Do I need to go to the hospital?!" Evan asked, fear overcoming his young heart.

"No dummy!  You know what happens when you go to a hospital?"

"What?" Evan asked.

"They'll take you away and put you in some stranger's house.  Besides, it's not that bad.  Nothin' a little water won't fix," she said.

"So I am not going to die?" Evan asked.

"Of course not!  It's only a scratch.  Besides, I wouldn't let you die, kid,"

Evan's fear-strained muscles relaxed as he leaned his head on his best friend's shoulder. 

"I wish I could be brave like you," he whispered.

"You are brave, kid," Iris reassured Evan.

"Not as brave as you," Evan said.

"Well, that's cause' I am ten and you're only nine.  Bravery comes with age kid, don't you know?"

"Oh...." Evan said. 

The two sat for nearly an hour exchanging random facts and dramatized stories.  For the first time all day, Evan's heart beat at a normal rate.  He wasn't afraid when he was hidden in the tree's arms.  Nothing he could think of was bigger than the tree, so he decided that nothing could hurt him when he was in the tree.  Even though they were surrounded by darkness, Evan knew, that in the tree's arms, he and Iris were out of reach of the city's dark hands. 

"Well kid, I better go.  My old man and his gang will be gettin' back from tonight's drug deal or whatever, and you know if I am not back in time he'll send his goons out lookin' for me!   And that would not be good for either of us.  Trust me!"

"Why?" Evan asked.

"Well kid, your dad may hit you with beer bottles, but my old man and his gang have weapons that can do a lot more damage, if you know what I mean," Iris said, rising to her feet.

"You mean like guns?" Evan asked, stepping off the porch.

"Yeah, stuff like that," Iris said bunching the wool blanket in her arms.

"Why don't you tell the police?" Evan asked, following her back inside the tree house. 

"How many times do I have to tell you, kid?  If we go to the police, they will take us away!  Remember what happened to Justin?  He went to the hospital when his old lady twisted his arm up, and the next thing ya' know, Justin's gone and his old lady's in jail!" Iris said letting the rope ladder down. 

"I know, I just don't want anything to happen to you," Evan said following Iris down the rope ladder. 

"Don't worry about me kid," Iris said leaping from the ladder's ninth rung.  Her untied boots landed perfectly in the tall blades of damp grass.

"But I....," Evan began before attempting to leap from the ladder's ninth rung as Iris had so gracefully done.

Unfortunately, his attempt was not as graceful.  He landed with a thud at Iris's feet.  Iris shook her head and bent to help Evan up.

"You ok, kid?" she asked, lifting him to his feet. 

"Yeah," Evan replied, hoping the tree's shadows would hide his embarrassment.

"It's alright, kid.  It takes practice to jump from that high," Iris explained.

Evan sighed.

"Well, I better get going, kid.  Can you make it back in the dark?"

"Yes, I can make it back in the dark!  I am not a complete scaredy cat!" Evan replied, aggravation gripping his weary voice. 

"I know you're not, kid," Iris said as she vanished into the blackness. 

Evan retracted his grass-stained hands into the sleeves of his hoodie and pulled his hood over his pearly-blonde head.  His warm breath tuned to puffs of white vapor as he hurried home. 

Not properly dressed for the bitter night, a small winter had begun in Evan's core as he neared the tired apartment.  Just as the apartment's entrance came into view, Evan noticed smoke, coming from the shadow of a man, hanging in the air like starving ghosts shifting in the wind.  Though the darkness concealed the man's face, Evan knew who it was. The man inhaled and the butt of his cheap cigar lit his face with a warm glow. 

            Evan sunk into the shadows of a nearby garbage can.  For several minutes he watched the cigar light his father's hollow eyes before dying away as his father released another mouthful of smoke.  It was moments like this, Evan's tender heart pitied his father.  As long as he could remember, his father had indulged in anything that offered temporary relief. 

Evan had been told that his mother was the light of his father's world.  She was one of those people who could make the night feel like morning with her smile and the dark world brighter when she laughed.  Sadly, she had died in a car wreck, leaving her husband and twenty-one-month old baby alone.  Overcome with grief, his father lost his well-paying job and moved to the city in hopes of a new life, but the city's flashy promises did not save him from the agonizing pain his spirit was drowning in.  Desperately craving relief, he began to drink, and before long his crushed heart could go no longer than an hour without washing its sorrows away with alcohol.  Evan couldn't remember when his father had begun to smoke, but he assumed it was when the alcohol no longer affected him as strongly.  

            The cold tore at Evan's skin begging him to find warmth.  Realizing his only choices were to freeze to death or risk his father, Evan rose to his numb feet.  His heart beat like a deaf drummer on steroids as he passed his father's dark shape.  His father didn't move, only stared into the distance with his lit cigar held tightly between his fingers. 

            Wrapping his hand around the handle of the apartment's front door, Evan yanked it open and disappeared inside.  A familiar wave of humid air and day-old takeout food engulfed Evan as he hurried up the sagging stairs to room eleven.  Once inside, Evan scoured the one-bedroom apartment for anything that could pass as edible.  

            To his delight, he found a half-eaten gas station pizza next to a new case of beer on the counter.  Holding the pizza box like a rare treasure, Evan retreated to his room, which also doubled as the apartments' closet.

            After devouring the pizza, Evan knelt next to the mattress Iris had drug from a nearby garbage dump.  When Evan's father was not home, the two had spent nearly an hour trying to wedge the mattress into the closet.  Though it sat in an awkward U-shape, Evan was glad to no longer have to sleep on the threadbare carpet.

            He folded his hands and whispered a quiet prayer.  Though he did not know to whom he prayed, he did so every night because Iris had told him it brought good luck.  When he finished, he laid himself on his mattress and pulled a few of his miscellaneous shirts over his body to keep warm. 

            Hearing his father stumble into the apartment, Evan closed his eyes as tight as possible.  Shallow breaths escaped his mouth, as fear pulsed through his veins like venom slowly overcoming its prey.  As Evan fought for sleep, he could hear the closet's ominous shadows singing their beautifully-eerie song.  Lulled by their echoing voices, Evan fell into a fear-haunted sleep.

The next day, Evan trudged up the familiar hillside.  Smirking clouds had conquered the sky allowing only a bleak, grey light to blanket the city as Evan entered the ancient oak's arms. 

 "Iris?" he called, standing at the base of the tree trunk.

There was no reply.

"Pink pineapples and orange bananas," Evan called again.

Still, no reply, only the wind's faint breath blowing through the tree's branches. 

Maybe she's sleeping? Evan thought as he struggled to climb the tree.  

Reaching the treehouse entrance, Evan tried not to lose his balance as he shoved the door open and hoisted himself inside.  The shadows inside the tree house seemed darker than usual as Evan glanced around.  Suddenly his eyes ran across a dark heap in the far corner. 

"There you are!  Wake up sleepy!"  Evan called, walking over to Iris. 

Iris made no reply. 

"Iris, come on!" Evan urged, standing over her.

He could barely make out her body shape because of the dense shadows covering her.  He knelt next to her and gently placed his hand on her shoulder.  Touching something wet, Evan yanked back his hand and placed it in the small shaft of light peeking through the side of the treehouse.  Blood dripped from his fingers. 

            Fear threatened to tear Evan's heart from his chest as he turned Iris's limp body over on her back.  For a moment his heart stopped, as if taking a deep breath, before adrenaline could overcome it with panic.  He knew it was Iris by the overalls and pigtails, but he would have never known by her face.  Her eyes were swollen shut from several bruises, and her face was stained red from the still bleeding gash on the side of her head.  The sleeve on her right arm was torn, revealing another gash that was circular in shape.  The rest of her greying skin was marred with multiple lacerations and contusions. 

            Adrenaline now surged through Evan's veins causing him to be overcome with an energized numbness.  He felt as though he was trapped inside a body, unable to control what happened, only helplessly watch.  His mind was paralyzed in a tornado of fear and questions.  If I get help, will the police take me away?  How did Iris get here in this condition?  Did her father and his gang do this to her?  Will they hurt me if I help her?

Evan glanced at Iris once more.  He had made up his mind.  He had to help her.  Refusing to let his growing fear sway his choice, Evan leaped to his feet, let down the ladder, and scurried out of the tree. 

He didn't know what to do, but he had to do something.  As he raced down the hillside and into the city, the fear inside him pleaded with him to turn around.  Shadows from the looming buildings he ran by seemed to be mocking him, but still, he kept running.  He didn't know what was driving him - fear, love, or adrenaline - but he kept going. 

What happened next, Evan could only remember like a distant dream.  Somehow, he had found a police officer and led him to Iris.  Though he couldn't remember much, the look on the officer's face when he beheld Iris would be tattooed on the back of his mind forever.  Evan knew the officer had desperately tried to hide his expression of pained-horror from him, but it was useless.  The officer had carried Iris out of the treehouse and down the hill. 

Evan's mind was still unable to comprehend everything that was happening as he followed the officer, who was carrying Iris's limp body, into a sea of glaring lights and screaming sirens.  The officer shouted to awaiting paramedics, who rushed over with a stretcher.   Evan placed his small hand on the stretcher as the officer laid Iris's marred body on top of it.  Now immersed in the cold light, Evan could fully see Iris's condition.  His emotion caught up to his raging adrenaline and, for a moment, time pitted the child and froze the world around him.  Evan laid his head against Iris's and squinted his eyes to hold in tears. When he opened his eyes, he hoped for the first time that he would be back in the closet, waking up from a bad dream, but it was not so.

"Please don't leave me," he whispered into her ear.

Time began again as the paramedics swarmed the stretcher and raced it into an awaiting ambulance.  Evan tried to follow, but the officer held him back.

"Hey, they will take care of her.  I promise.  My name's Officer Kacen and I need you to stay with me for right now, ok?" Officer Kacen said gently, but Evan didn't hear him.

            "Iris!  Iris!  Don't leave me!  Please don't leave me!"  Evan shouted, still trying to break free from Officer Kacen's grasp, but it was too late.  He watched helplessly as the ambulance disappeared down a shadowed street.  Evan's momentary courage quickly drowned in a sea of hopeless reality as he buried his head in officer Kacen's blood-stained shirt and continued to cry. 

.          .          .

Five weeks had passed since that horrible day.  Evan's story had been revealed, and he had immediately been placed into child protective services.  After enduring several foster homes, he now lived with officer Kacen and his wife.   He enjoyed his new life with new clothes, plenty of food, and loving caretakers, but it wasn't the same without Iris.  He had never been told what had happened to her, and he never asked out of fear of what the answer would be. 

Evan pulled himself deeper inside his old, oversized hoodie as another wave of shadowed memories overwhelmed his mind.  Suddenly, a knock sounded through the house, arousing Evan from his thoughts.  With his head down, he rose to open the door.

"Hello?" Evan asked, not wanting the visitor to see he'd been crying.

"No, no, no!  You're supposed to ask, ‘what's the password?' " a familiar voice teased.

Evan's head jerked up.  A surge of unfamiliar hope pulsed through Evan's veins, and for the first time, overcame the ever-present shadows inside him. 

"Iris!" Evan shouted, nearly tackling his friend. "How did you get here?!"

"Well kid, let me tell you a story," Iris said with a smile.

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