“Blink,” a young adult/children’s short story by Sabrina Hicks, is the Grand Prize winner of the 85th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition. You can read an extended interview with Sabrina here. For complete coverage of the 85th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition, please check out the November/December 2016 issue of Writer’s Digest.
When the rain came that morning and didn’t stop until final period, I knew it would be a long bus ride home. It hadn’t rained that hard since our last monsoon.
“For Christsake!” Mr. Kelly roared, as we pulled on to the ten-mile stretch of dirt road, now thoroughly soaked and slick with mud. He flashed his squinty eyes in the rearview mirror, making no effort to hide his contempt for the rural kids living forty minutes out of town. Not a mile off blacktop he began swerving and overcompensating on turns.
“You gotta stay in the ruts,” Peter yelled from the back of the bus.
We’d been telling Mr. Kelly since he took over this route to stay in the ruts for traction when it rained, but he wasn’t the type to listen—not to kids anyhow. He would pick us up and drop us off like he was in the sanitation business.
“We’ll never make it home,” I sighed, elbowing Maggie for more room, as she leaned into me with each hard turn.
“At this rate, we’ll never make it to high school,” Maggie said.
The bus lurched forward and in one final groan, came to a halt.
“Don’t move!” Mr. Kelly yelled, as the bus tilted right.
We peered out the window to find we were stuck in a ditch on the side of the road. He attempted to back up, spinning the wheels and splattering mud on the sides of the bus, but it didn’t budge.
“Great,” Maggie said. “Add on another half-hour for help to arrive.”
The rain saturated the air with the ripe scent of manure and grass, circulating through the few windows not rusted shut, and the sun began to filter through the heavy clouds, casting a web of light around us.
Mr. Kelly heaved his weight on the patchwork seat of duct tape, foam, and torn plastic, and he tossed the CB radio aside, grumbling, “They’re sending someone now. Stay put.”
I sighed, watching two cows torn between curiosity and grazing, thinking they’d be the only witnesses if Mr. Kelly decided to strangle us.
“Remember our staring contests in fourth grade?” Maggie asked, as I calculated how long it would take for me to walk home. Eight miles on muddy roads didn’t seem worth it.
“June? Junie?” She waved her hand in front of my face, and I swatted it away.
Her eyes bulged at me.
“Really? Don’t you think we’re a little old for that?” I said, watching them swell like spikes of golden-brown wheat in the late sun. That’s how I remembered her eyes in fourth grade when I was crowned The Staring Champion, and it had been an accurate description. I remembered the eye color of most of the kids in my class at Kirkland Middle School, especially since there were only 47 eighth graders.
On our bus there was Peter Maycomb, with overcast gray eyes that, depending upon the light, cleared to a dull blue; Daisy Palmer had a mismatched set of cat eyes – green with yellow centers; and then there was Koaty Taylor, the new kid, only two days into the school year, and already I’d pegged his eyes to be as dark as a moonless night. On Monday, I watched him get on the bus for the first time, when our eyes briefly met. He then went to the back of the bus, snapped on his headphones, and slumped so low in his seat he disappeared. Rumor was he went to live with his grandmother, Betsy, a caretaker on the Buchanan’s potato farm, after his mother died in a car accident and the state declared his absentee father unfit. Mama said Betsy had always disapproved of her daughter marrying a Cherokee Indian and hadn’t even met Koaty until a few months ago.
Maggie’s eyes drilled further into mine.
“You don’t have a chance,” I said, staring back at her.
Daddy liked to say my eyes were hardened from the winds coming off the plains, the kind that drove the pioneers crazy. I’d been riding fences with him on horseback, watching the sunrise every morning since I was five, training myself to push past the bitter weather and count cattle through brush.
In the first signs of fatigue, Maggie began stretching her eyelids, making them wide.
“Give up?” I asked.
“Never,” she said, grimacing. She crinkled her freckled nose when I heard Daisy and Peter move to the seat behind us.
“God, I can’t believe y’all are still playing that idiotic game,” Daisy said.
“You got any better ideas?” Maggie replied, still staring at me.
“Truth or dare?” Peter said.
“We all know the dares you like, Pete,” Daisy hissed.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him deflate, leaning back into the seat.
Maggie started to twitch. Next, she’d hold her breath, and I’d win. Nothing had changed since the fourth grade, not in this town. She drummed her fingers on her jeans, blew her cheeks up, and blinked.
“What a freak you are, June! How come your eyes don’t get dry?”
She began rubbing hers when Mr. Kelly waddled towards the back of the bus. We watched him as he used each seat to prop himself upright, muttering about how his entire day had gone wrong. He stopped at Koaty’s seat and snapped his fingers in front of his face. “Hey. You mind taking those things off for a second?”
Koaty sat up and slid his headphones back to rest on his neck. He looked at Kelly, and, for an instant, me.
“Move up with the rest of the kids. I’m opening the emergency door here, and I need you out of the way.”
Koaty looked at the four of us staring at him, and I felt the need to nod. I’d seen Mr. Kelly toss a kid off the bus last year for back talking. I could only imagine what he’d do to some new kid who sassed him.
Koaty gathered his belongings while Maggie stood up, gesturing next to me.
“First, you must beat Kirkland’s Staring Champion,” she said.
He looked nervous and uncomfortable as he approached, clutching his backpack and sweatshirt.
“Naw, you don’t have to,” I said, trying to spare him, or myself, I couldn’t tell because suddenly my heart felt like a caged bird beating wildly in my chest. I thought he would sit opposite us, but Maggie was blocking the seats, and he slid in next to me, tossing his belongings at his feet. His hair blocked most of his face, but he ran his fingers through his dark, wavy curls, tucking them behind his ear, and I saw how his features were a map of two cultures. His lips were full, and his skin pale, but he had high cheekbones and a ridged bone structure, showing his Native American roots, striking an unusual and fine balance.
“Come on June,” Daisy said, pounding the seat behind me. “Initiate him.”
Mr. Kelly threw open the latch in back, sounding like he was going to pass out, and the bus groaned.
Peter shook our seat. “If June wins, I say we commit mutiny and get this piece of crap going again. I’ve driven bigger rigs than this on these roads with my dad.”
I turned my body towards Koaty, noticing the small holes in his jeans and his faded, red shirt with a peeling name of a band or brand. When I reached his eyes, he was already staring at me with unnerving attention.
“It’s stupid,” I said. But I couldn’t look away. His eyes were much darker than I thought. Not like night at all. Night always brought millions of stars. Koaty’s eyes were like the abandoned, endless well I sat by as a child, wondering how deep I had to go before I’d find the world I was sure laid beyond. I remember wanting to see the water, some reflection of sky, but it was too deep and dark, swallowing stone after stone, and when I called into it, my voice dissolved into an echo.
“You’re pretty good,” I said, not sounding like myself. “Usually people give up right about now.”
He didn’t say anything. I wanted to break free of his gaze but couldn’t. I tried focusing on the reflection in them, the sight of me gazing back, or the window of the bus and the field outside, but I was drawn to the darkness of his irises merging with his pupils, recalling the day I wedged my body deep inside the well, determined to find my mirrored reflection. I hadn’t thought about it for years, but it always bothered me, like a meandering story with no resolution, or a book with no end.
His lashes trembled slightly, and I thought he would blink, instead his lips parted, curling to one side as he drew breath, and I wondered if he was reading my thoughts. I found dark eyes the hardest to read, but as I stared at him, I saw the cold stain of his mother dying and his father leaving, hardening his eyes, defiant and layered in anger. His mother, however, had gifted him with softness, seen in his lips and the delicate slope of his nose. I saw the spare room he stayed in, his bed resting along the wall, near a window, in the caretaker’s cabin. I had been there once before, when I was little, to deliver apples to his grandmother. I imagined him staring out before sleep, bathed in moon glow and starlight. I saw his eyes pushing back, stronger than any wind, animal-like, the way a cow protects her calf. He wouldn’t cry though, even when he wanted to, and suddenly I felt the contagion of his loneliness, the seed of it spreading in my gut.
Maggie and Daisy started talking about Science class, already bored of our contest, and in the background Mr. Kelly began cursing and kicking the bus. When Peter finally lost interest, Koaty said, barely above a whisper, “You have the lightest eyes I’ve ever seen.”
I had never considered my own. They were nothing special—a basic blue. Even as he stared at me, it seemed funny he should notice. I’d always been the observer, never the observed, and suddenly I felt the heat of my body rise to my face and sting me.
“They’re as big as the sky,” he added.
“Yours are like the bottom of our old well,” I said, before I could consider my words. I didn’t want him to think I meant anything by it. But I suppose I had.
“Is there water in it?” he asked.
I nodded, sensing the importance of my response, even though I had never seen water there. I’d almost killed myself trying to find out. Looking back, I’d been reckless. The well was in a distant pasture, and I could have fallen in without anyone knowing. I remember clutching the rope, my feet climbing the stone side. But he seemed relieved by this, like I had thrown him the same line of rope.
The sun bled through the window behind me. I saw it so clearly in his eyes — the pasture, the cows, the rolling hills beyond, and all the blue above.
“It held the sky,” I said.
His lips stretched into a wide smile, and at the same time, we blinked.