Today we are featuring Inklings Book Contest 2018 finalist, Claire Lignore! Claire finished 6th grade this past school year. The story she submitted is called “Science Day.” One of our judges said this about Claire’s story: “[Claire has] created an intriguing and bleak world that draws the reader in. The hints throughout the story make the ending a wonderful surprise.” Enjoy!
My Grandma said there was once a time when clear blue lakes scattered across the earth; once a time when there were tropical forests and snowy glaciers; once a time when the whole world wasn’t a desert. She used to tell me many stories before she disappeared.
I touched my sparkling butterfly necklace. I never take it off. My Grandma gave it to me. She told me all about butterflies. She said they came in many different colors, the colors of the rainbow. She said they flapped their little wings and migrated hundreds of miles.
“Really?” I remember asking Grandma.
“Yup,” my Grandma had said. She left when I was seven years old. No one told me where she went. But, I had a feeling that my parents knew something.
My mom says I should be thankful to be part of the Luckies. But when I look out the window into the dusty world, I think she’s wrong. No one really is part of the Luckies. No one truly is lucky.
A long time ago there was a lottery because people were fighting over food. The lottery determined who would be part of the Luckies. 100 people won the lottery. The rest became Unluckies. The Luckies got to live in the most beautiful place left in the world and eat better food, while the Unluckies got to live in the rest of the world. Of course, I’m part of the Luckies. My house is made out of glass. I’ve heard rumors that the Unluckies live underground. My parents said they are dirty, always covered with fleabites, and you will get the Bubonic Plague if you get close to one of them.
Twenty years ago when the earth was cleaner, colder, less sandy, and you could grow plants if you tried hard enough, the Luckies lived out in the open, instead of in a square dome ten miles long. Nineteen years ago, when the pollution got even worse, the Luckies used everything they had left to create the dome that keeps us safe from the desert world outside. The dome is filled with human-made air that isn’t dangerous to breathe.
“Hey Bell, come help us with dinner,” said my Dad.
“OK!” I said and jumped off the windowsill. I helped to husk the corn. Corn is the easiest thing to grow, along with grass, so corn is the only thing we have to eat. We make everything from corn. At breakfast, we have corn flakes. For lunch, we have corn tortillas with more corn inside. At night, we make polenta cakes. Scientists created soil inside the dome to grow things in, but they only succeeded in growing corn and grass. As bad as that sounds, I heard that the dirty Unluckies eat fire ants for their meals!
Soon, my sister Rose, my parents, and I were all seated at the dinner table. We gobbled up the polenta cakes.
“So,” Mom said, “are you two looking forward to Science Day? Remember, keep your body in the boat at all times children!” She said the last part sarcastically. Mom was mimicking what the tour guide said to the children on the boat at Science Day. She is always doing and saying silly things to make people laugh. My sister Rose is the one who always laughs at whatever. Things that aren’t even funny. Dad is the serious one. I’m the bossy one in the family. I tell everyone what I think they should do.
“Yes! Yes! Yes!” Rose and I said together. Science Day was my favorite day! It happened every year. At Science Day, you get to go outside of the dome and on a wooden boat in the river. I grinned as I thought about how everyone would be cheering for the fish as they got let free. I imagined the fish swimming and flapping their little fins. Every year, scientists clone fish and then let them loose to see if they will survive. But every year, the fish go belly up and float among the waves like the jellyfish Grandma used to talk about.
That night, like all nights, I took out my sketchbook in my dresser along with a marker that I use to draw on glass. I turned to the first blank thin glass page and took out a picture Grandma had given me. In the picture, she’s standing in front of a real tree with a wide grin on her face. She was only nine years old when the picture was taken. Ever since Grandma gave me the picture when I was seven, right before she disappeared, I have been drawing it every night trying to get the tree to look exactly like it does in the picture.
I closed my eyes for a second and imagined the world within the picture. I could see a clear blue sky full of butterflies along with a luminous rainbow of pink and purple and blue. The tree was bigger than in the picture, it stretched out its branches like it wanted a hug. There was green grass flapping in the wind and even a ladybug with so many spots, like it had freckles, holding onto one of the wide green blades. I wonder what it’d be like to live in a world so different than what I’ve known?
I had only finished sketching the trunk of the tree when I heard footsteps climbing up the stairs to my room. I quickly put my sketchbook away, turned off the light, and hopped into bed. It was too late though. My dad clicked the door open right as I turned off the light. He knew that I had been drawing and not sleeping.
“Bell, it’s time to go to sleep!”
“I know Dad,” I grumbled and put my head on the pillow.
“It’s Science Day tomorrow! You have to get a good night’s rest,” said Dad, as he closed the door to my room.
I stayed up late thinking about Science Day. I wondered if the Unluckies would stand at the shore again and watch the fish too. I was curious if the fish would go belly up. Or would they survive this time? I kept tossing and turning. Sometime after midnight, I fell asleep.
* * *
I pulled my backpack over my shoulders. It was my hiking backpack. Inside I’d stuffed everything I needed for Science Day, including a delicious trail mix made of popcorn and corn flakes. My parents gave the pack to me when I was eight. It was Grandma’s when she was a kid. She told me she used to go on hikes in the wilderness—when there was a wilderness. I double-checked to make sure I had my protective facemask. It would shield me from the dirty air outside.
“Let’s go!” I said impatiently, but Rose and my parents were still getting their sunscreen on.
“Patience, Bell,” My dad said, as he put on his backpack.
Finally, we headed out of our house and walked to the sixth pneumatic transport stop. For thirty years, no one has been allowed to use any engines that pollute the air. Instead, we use a solar and wind-powered train called the pneumatic transport. At our stop, it was so crowded that my family had to wait in a long line. When the pneumatic finally came, we were last to get on. There wasn’t room to sit down, so we stood, almost falling every time the pneumatic made a sharp turn. I kept an eye out for my best friend Annie from school. Once we passed the last pneumatic stop, all of the Luckies were on the train, so it would be hard to find her.
We passed rows of homes and then the park where the scientists tested new plants to see if they could grow. A few minutes later, we entered the end of the dome. A huge line of people developed waiting to go outside, as more and more Luckies got off the pneumatic. Again, my family was one of the last ones to get in the next line. This was the part of Science Day that I dreaded. It involved waiting for what seemed like hours, and then waiting some more, as the scientists checked our backpacks and our ID’s that proved each of us were Luckies. After that, we had to wait some more to board the boat! It was so boring!
Since there were only 300 Luckies, I knew almost everyone. But with everyone wearing protective facemasks it was difficult to find any one person. We looked so strange with our noses and mouths covered. Finally, I spotted Annie. Of course, I only recognized her because of her curly black hair, and how she wore the backpack her great-grandpa gave to her.
“I’m going to go say hi to Annie, okay?” I asked Mom and Dad.
“Just be quick,” said Mom. “And come right back here when you’re finished.”
I waved to them and ran off toward Annie. She’d gotten way ahead of us in the line to go outside. It took me a while to get to her, but when I did, I tapped her shoulder.
“Oh hey, Bell!” she said. “Did you hear there’s a sandstorm in the forecast?”
“Today? No, my parents didn’t mention that.” I had heard that sandstorms could be dangerous, with winds that could blow toxic air into your lungs and even knock you down. When Annie’s family neared the door to the outside, I waved goodbye to them and walked back to my family.
Finally, we were ready to leave the dome. When I stepped outside, a blast of hot air hit me. I squinted because it was so much brighter than inside the dome. The air blew my hair into my eyes. I grabbed Rose’s arm in shock. I remembered from last year that being outside takes a while to get used to.
“Come on!” My parents told us. They were already way ahead of us, almost disappeared into the crowd. Rose and I ran to catch up.
Just like last Science Day, a huge wooden boat was tied up at the dock. It bobbed in the waves. Another thing I didn’t like about Science Day was the smell of the river. It had an odor of dead fish. Little kids tried to push their way to the front of the crowd so they could get a better look at the boat, but their parents pulled them back. I jumped up and down too, trying to look over people’s heads. Rose chattered excitedly about how she was going to become a scientist when she was older, and then she would find a way to keep the fish from going belly-up in the water.
“Everyone from Pneumatic 6 can board now,” a voice announced.
Hooray! I finally got my first good view of the huge wooden boat. It seemed to be hundreds of feet long. The hot wind was so strong that I could lean into it without falling over. I wondered if this was the start of the sandstorm Annie told me was forecasted. I stepped onto the boat and sat down on a bench next to Rose. Mom and Dad sat in front of us. The speakers boomed again and said the same thing they did every Science Day, all about the day’s history. At the end, they said something a little different though:
“We’ll head back a little earlier today because of an approaching dust storm, but we will still have plenty of time to watch the fish. Have fun, and as always, remember to keep your body in the boat at all times, children!”
With a small bounce, our boat backed away from the riverbank. Waves bobbed and splashed against the sides. In no time, we’d made it to the dock out in the middle of the river. This time my family was first in line because we’d gotten on the boat last. Next to the dock, the scientists stood on the deck of another special boat. It had a big water tank attached that held thousands of killifish. The scientists chose killifish to clone since they can survive in really dirty water. I guess our river is way too dirty that not even killifish can live in it. Once every Lucky had gotten on the dock, three scientists dressed in white coats stood next to the water tank getting ready to dump the fish into the river.
Rose nudged me. “Clap, Bell!” She had to shout because everyone else was already cheering.
“I can’t clap until I know the fish aren’t going to die!” I yelled back. But for some reason, I decided to clap anyway. Then it got quiet for a moment as a woman in a white coat, the lead scientist, took off the top to the fish tank, and gestured for the other two scientists to help her lower the tank into the river. Soon, a huge swarm of fish swam out past the dock. Everyone celebrated. But there was more cheering coming from somewhere else. It was behind us, back on the shore. I turned, and sure enough, there were people on the riverbanks jumping up and down applauding. I watched them. Their clothes were ripped and torn and stained, their hair messy and tangled, their faces were wrapped with cloth and covered with sand. They weren’t wearing any protective gear! They could die from the toxic air! Rose turned around and watched them too.
“The Unluckies,” she whispered to me. “Don’t stare at them!”
I nodded and turned back around to watch the fish so no one would notice I had been staring at Unluckies. A fish right beside the dock where I was standing got my attention. It swam slowly in circles and I wondered if it was about to die. It looked golden up close, and it had a tail filled with spots. I was tempted to touch it. I looked ahead at the rest of the fish. Every ten feet or so some of them stopped swimming.
“You know the Unluckies aren’t as bad as people say they are. Melanie says they’re just like us, except they lost the lottery…” said Rose. Melanie was Rose’s best friend.
I looked at her shocked. “How would she know? Has Melanie talked to one of them?” I couldn’t believe it. Melanie had always seemed odd, but not that odd!
“She’s been outside to visit her uncle.”
“Wait,” I said. “Is her uncle an Unlucky?”
“Shh! I shouldn’t have told you. I knew you wouldn’t understand! Don’t mention it to anyone!”
“Okay,” I said reluctantly thinking about Melanie. Had Melanie’s kindness toward the Unluckies rubbed off on my sister?
“Another thing,” she said, “I told Melanie about how our Grandma disappeared? Well, she told me ‘maybe your Grandma didn’t disappear. Maybe she was sent away like my uncle was.’ ”
I shook my head. “That’s stupid. It makes no sense.”
I watched my parents wondering if they had heard anything of what Rose said. I didn’t think so because they were chattering away with the family next to us.
The fish, at least the ones still alive, swam on. I wanted to watch the fish like everyone else, but my eyes kept going back to the Unluckies standing on the shore. My Mom told me never to talk to them. My Dad said to stay away from them. Avoid them at all costs. But Rose told me they were just unlucky. All they did was lose the lottery. They were no different from the rest of us. For so long, I had always believed my parents, but now, well, the Unluckies looked so innocent standing on the shore cheering just like us. I was beginning to wonder if Melanie might be right. I shook the thought out of my head, thinking of how my parents would be so disappointed in me if they knew what I’d been thinking. Well, I suppose they would be especially disappointed in Rose because she was friends with Melanie whom I now knew was related to an Unlucky. I still could not believe it.
The cheering stopped. This was turning out just like last year. Almost all of the fish were dead. When would the scientists get it right? When would they make the world like my Grandma described it used to be, full of beauty?
Suddenly, a huge gush of wind and sand made the dock bob in the waves. Everyone tried to keep their balance. It felt like we might tip over into the water.
“What’s happening?” I asked my parents.
Before they could answer though, an announcement was made over the loudspeakers: “Don’t panic. Please, do not panic…”
Wind blew me up in the air. The dock flipped upside down. There was no time to close my mouth and eyes before I went under. I swallowed a bucketful of water. My facemask fell off. My eyes burned. I saw a jumble of arms and legs all trying to reach the surface. I gasped for air but instead gulped in even more water. I tried to follow everyone else upwards, but my arms and legs felt like heavy lead. I needed to take a breath but drifted further and further toward the bottom of the river.
A strong arm pulled me up and up and up until I was out. I had never been more thankful in my life to breathe dirty sandy air as I was at that moment. Someone had saved me! I coughed and coughed until all the water in my lungs came out. When I was finally able to talk, I turned around to say thank you to my savior, but I stopped short. It was an Unlucky! Her nose and mouth were wrapped in cloth. She had long gray hair that was covered in sand. She looked familiar but I didn’t know why. I tried to wiggle out of her grasp. I was being abducted by an Unlucky!
She held on to my arms tight as she pulled me to the shore. It was impossible to get away from her. When we got to the shore, she was breathing hard. She was staring at my neck like she might…
“Is that…a butterfly necklace?” she asked.
“GET AWAY FROM ME!” I screamed. Was she going to steal my necklace?
“Bell?” the old woman asked, letting go of me.
“How do you know my name?”
Instead of answering, she took off the cloth around her nose and mouth. She looked older and different, but there was still no mistaking who she was.
Wondering how to support the youth writer in your life? We can help! Check out our cheat-sheet below which will help you have creative, writerly conversations with your Young Inkling—even if you’re not a writer yourself.