Today we are featuring Inklings Book Contest 2021 finalist Shai Cohen! Shai finished 7th grade this past school year. Her story is called “True Joy” and is about a young woman standing up for herself and finding her own voice. Enjoy!

By Shai Cohen

You can never wipe away sadness. Even after years of feeling it, even after you surround yourself with others, the sadness will always be there, a tiny hint, a tiny smudge of paint, that is permanently stained. You can surround yourself with happiness, and that can wipe away a bit of the paint, but every so often, you will come back to the smudge, a tiny part that can not be wiped away.  

I can wipe away my parents’ sadness. I figured it out a while ago. When I was born, they named me Joy, a marking that branded me for life. It’s just a name I guess, but to me, it’s so much more than that. It is a responsibility. It is an oath. Being joyful wipes away my parents’ sadness. Being joyful cures their pain. So I follow my name, and I am as joyful as can be.

The dress’s bright yellow shine is meant to take your eyes off of everything else in the room. I hate it.

I stare at it for one more minute, then I grab it off the clothing rack, throw it on, and head downstairs. I see my mother first, she is wearing her bright red lipstick for special occasions. Her red lips beam up as she rushes towards me.

“Joy! You look wonderful!” She smiles so big, and she looks so truly happy. I know I am responsible for that truly-happy. I beam back at her, but really, I’m thinking about how itchy this dress is. I take her hand and we walk to the car together. My father is already waiting for us, tapping his foot on the floor while humming a tune. We all step into the car together, smiling and laughing and chatting our hearts out. On the outside, we must have looked like such a happy family.  

About an hour later we pulled into the long driveway that belonged to my grandparents. We knock on the door, and my grandmother opens it. As soon as she saw us, her face split into a huge grin. 

“Lisa! Joel!” She boomed, grinning at my parents. “Joy!” She spread out her arms and embraced me widely. 

I grin back and spread my arms around her. I like my grandma, I do. But she was a little eccentric. Her voice was as loud as a hurricane, and her smile was as long as the Pacific Ocean. But her chocolate cookies were the best, and the smile it brought on my parents’ face, even better. 

We stepped into the big house, my grandmother leading us to the living room while making comments about my dress, my hair. We got to the living room, and my eyes flicked to the dozens of photos on the walls. Most of them were colored photos of me from my childhood, but 3 of them were big and gray, and forbidden. My grandmother refused to get rid of them, that was the one thing my parents couldn’t convince her to destroy.

I swiftly looked away, realizing I had been staring for too long. My parents didn’t need to see me eying the picture. I put on a generous smile and got comfortable, as my grandmother passed out her cookies, and everyone started catching up. The rest of the day was predictable. We talked, and then we ate dinner, and then at around 8:00, my mother and father and I piled in the car and drove on back to our quiet home in New’s Creek. 

Alone in my room, hours later, I finally breathe a sigh of relief. I trace my fingers along my hair clip and yank it out, my hair tumbling in waves around it. I take another breath, surprised by how fast my heart is beating. What was triggering this? My mind flashed back to the picture I had seen today. That was what. I walked towards my desk, and reached under it, right to the tiny compartment that was almost invisible to see. I carefully pulled the handle, my fingers brushing against the cold brass, before feeling the paper on my hands and pulling it out. When I saw their faces, my heart sped up even more. But this time from happiness.

When others ask, I say I am an only child. I am a nice small package, that is neatly presented, only child, no questions asked. But the truth is, I am not an only child. I have two brothers and one sister. 

My brother Kendell, was my parents’ first child. They had him when they were fresh outta high school, two young lovers ready to be parents. They raised him in a small house 20 minutes from here. He had sandy brown hair, and soft blue eyes, and a breezy smile. But that breezy smile vanished, from everyone’s face, when he fell into a lake when he was four. I never met him, but I definitely knew he existed, he marks the worry in my mother’s eyes whenever we go near water. 

My sister was born three years after Kendell, her name was Lily. She was born in the hospital, and her chocolate brown eyes match mine. She only lived for a year though, before she died from birth complications. My mother was terrified after that, of having another child. 

But five years later, my father finally persuaded her, and baby Malcolm entered the world. Malcolm is still alive now. He’s a carbon copy of my father, with his dark olive skin, and even darker brown eyes. He was 10 when I was born. He was 19 when he got arrested. He’s 23 now. My parents’ hearts were crushed multiple times, over and over again. My father didn’t think they should have any more kids, and my mother agreed fully. It was my grandmother though, who convinced them that having another kid could be something amazing, a fresh start. The idea grew on them over time, warping into their heads. 

So three years later, they had me. And they took the pain they had received, for years and years, and they named me Joy, a declaration that maybe life could be great again. I complied with their life’s wish, but I kept the picture of my siblings, originally three gray small pictures now taped together, as a tiny reminder that I am not alone.

I wake up sweating, dreams tumbling in my head of an alternate world full of shared rooms and laughs, then a pitch darkness, as it is all taken away from me. Dreams aren’t real, but they can be scary. I took a deep breath, got out of bed, and opened the door to my room, almost colliding with my mother. 

“Joy!” She laughed as she straightened herself up. “Well looks like great minds think alike!” 

I stared at her blankly, the morning greyishness still in my brain. I wanted to ask what in the rudest tone possible, I wasn’t a morning person, never was. But I couldn’t let my negative emotions seep into her cracks. I needed to focus, I wasn’t quite comprehending what she was talking about. Then, the mystery was solved, by the gold and blue poster she was clutching in her hands.  

The Annual Happiness Gala. No joke, that’s actually what it’s called. Every year we have it here. A night at the Semison Town Square, where everyone in the town gathers to celebrate the anniversary of the town’s founding. There’s food, talent shows, talking, speeches, and also a fundraiser. It is literally the event of the year, but every year I just remember sitting by my parents while they talk and I smile at a sea of unfamiliar faces. This year, it would be celebrated in a week, so it wasn’t a surprise that my mother was already preparing for it. The question is, why was she talking to me about it? I didn’t play a big role in the town’s founding, I mostly went to the Happiness Gala because it was a norm in our town. So a million and one questions were swarming through my head, as my mother sat me down and started talking to me, the blue and gold poster now being set down on my desk.

“Joy, honey, I have a big surprise to tell you!” My mother was practically radiating with happiness. She explained everything to me in a loud voice. 

When she was done I said, “That’s great, Mom. I’ll make sure to write something perfect.” 

She grinned at me wide, then left the room, talking, something about making breakfast. I didn’t hear her. My head was pounding. My ears were deaf, my eyes hollow, nothing around me coming in focus, I was so numb that it hurt, then my eyes reacted, and the next thing I knew hot tears were rolling down my face. She wants me to write a speech for the Gala. Me. 

Why did I always have to do this? Hot tears soaked my pillow. Why did I always have to act like this? Why was this my life? Question after question exploded in my mind. These questions always appeared but disappeared just as quickly. I imagined my head hurting, standing in front of strangers, giving a speech about happiness and the beauty of life, when mine was totally messed up. Thoughts, worries, sobs came out from me. But before I went to bed I sat the three pictures on my stand and made a silent promise.

The next morning, I put on a pink dress and got into the car with my parents. The Annual Happiness Gala. Three days ago, I was sobbing into my pillow. Now I was getting ready to give a speech. In those three days, I managed to bury my feelings down deep, deep, deep. They didn’t disappear though. As we drove to the gala, I reached a hand into the bag I had brought and took out the picture. Kendall, Lily, and Malcolm stood, grinning back at me. I took a deep breath. I brought this picture to give me strength, but all it was doing was making me more terrified. What would my siblings say if they saw me here now? I couldn’t fulfill my promise, I never could so who was I trying to convince. My siblings still grinned, and I started to bite my nails. We were sitting in the front, a pleasure that we were granted because of my speech. I didn’t feel the pleasure though, I felt the pressure of my parents sitting in the front row, waiting for me to blow everyone away. Hot, nerves spiking, sweat. Sweat on my hairline, sweat soaking my dress. The mayor welcomed us. I did not feel welcomed. He stepped on the stage, wearing a brown checkered suit. 

He took the silver microphone and opened his mouth wide. “Joy Stevens!” He boomed into the microphone, his voice echoing over the loud applause. 

My parents motioned me to walk up while grinning from ear to ear. My legs felt sluggish, I was not moving, it couldn’t be true. Just run, I told myself. You don’t have to do this. But I did, of course, I did. I looked over at my parents, and I knew that I did. My dad nudged me a little, and I looked up and saw painted confusion on his face. I gave him a brave smile, took a deep breath, and made my way to the stage. 

As I stepped up the stairs I felt like a fly on display, everyone watching, and waiting for some wrong move, some way they could laugh. I gazed at the crowd in front of me, the spotlight blinding me, making my forehead sweat even more. The sweat was running down, and of course, the questions came back, again and again and again, because how was I  going to do this? I was going to need to do this, but now? After I had given my siblings an internal promise to stop faking? The mic was clutched in my hand, I was beginning to lose it. What was going to happen to me? Everyone was watching, waiting, criticizing by now, talking about the girl who just couldn’t be joyful enough.  

“I um,” I started. My voice was stumbling. The hundreds of people sitting and watching me would hear this stumbling, they would laugh, they would boo. So just start over. 

“Um I…” Terror shot through me. Everyone, everyone was watching me, watching me stand up on this stage, comments circling through their heads. My fakeness is all on display. I couldn’t talk in front of all these people. Couldn’t say anything, what could I say really? I thought of my parents’ faces, I could look at them now, but what would they say later. I would bring back the pain that they felt, so many years ago, show them that I was another mistake. And then I felt sick to my stomach. Because I had just called my siblings mistakes. Hot shame welled inside me as I thought of Kendell, whose gorgeous blue eyes should not remind anyone of how he died, but of how he lived. I thought of Lily, who weighed exactly 8.9 pounds when she was born, and who should be remembered for being healthy, not being unhealthy. I thought of Malcolm, now sitting in the State Penitentiary, letting the mistakes of his past slowly take away his future. I would not let the same happen to me. I was going to honor my promise to them, make them proud. And I was terrified. Their voices filled my head though, mingled with my thoughts and doubts and everything that has ever stopped me from saying what I needed to say. It was time to not just be Joy. It was time to be me.

“Mom, Dad,” I said nodding at each of them. “I love you guys. And you mean the world to me.” I took a breath. “But I am not responsible for your happiness.” The room gasped. Whispers flooded, and questions piped up. I glanced at my parents again and saw their faces. They were shaken.“You guys are the best parents I could ask for, but the pressure, the constant pressure that you always put on me to be kind, to always be happy, it’s not okay. You both have lost so much, and it is heartbreaking, but instead of trying to fix the past by making me perfect, try to have a good relationship with me, an honest one.” After I said these words I felt like a humongous weight had been lifted. I could breathe again. “People can control many things, but they will never be able to control my emotions.” It sounded so right, so liberating. “People can control many things, but they will never be able to control my emotions,” I said again, just to hear it once more.

I stared down at my parents, tears welling up in my eyes. “I love you guys so much, but you cannot tell me how to feel, and you cannot control my emotions. And I’m so sorry, that I had to do it here.” I gave a choked laugh and motioned to the other a hundred people listening into our conversation. I put the mic down and walked over to my parents. “But I couldn’t take it anymore.” I looked them both dead in the eye. The fear was gone. I was done with being scared. 

My father didn’t break my gaze, but my mother broke down, sobbing into her hands. I wrapped my arms around her, just like she did to me. I had broken her, I was sure, she would never be happy again. But when we broke away, she was smiling sadly.

“You’re right Joy.” Her words were unsteady, but her eyes were set. “We can’t place this unfair expectation of you. We–I was just so scared, all the time, of losing another.” A sob escaped her, but she kept going. “And we are so sorry, that we ever made you feel fake. ‘Cause your right, you can experience any emotion you want.” 

My father placed his hand on mine. “We will love you no matter what,” he said, his eyes shining with tears. 

And I hugged them. So tightly and so long. Because I knew that whatever happened, I had done it, I had told them the truth. I was free, I was freed. And sitting there, wrapped around in my parents’ arms, warmth spreading through our veins, the entire audience still watching, I felt something I hadn’t experienced in a long time. True joy.


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