“An Almost Perfect Imperfection,” by Nikki Mann, is the First Place winning story in the young adult category for the Ninth Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, including an exclusive interview with W.R. Parrish and a complete list of winners, check out the May/June 2014 issue of Writer’s Digest. And click here for more information about entering the Tenth Annual Popular Fiction Awards.
In this bonus online exclusive, you can read Nikki’s winning entry.
An Almost Perfect Imperfection
by Nikki Mann
When Coyote Wilson wasn’t inhaling diesel fumes from the hay tractor, which he always thought of as an unfortunate mixture of rotten eggs, dog farts, and Aunt Melinda’s Christmas fruitcake, he was inhaling paint.
But not in that way.
Today, the wind was blowing so hard he shielded the orange spray can he’d stolen from a highway worker’s unguarded truck, and tried to think what to write.
Orange made him think of fall, of the aspens changing color and everyone and their mother’s twice-removed uncle putting on an orange hat to chase deer through the trees.
Hunting made him think of life before he was 14, of being free not to sit in the tractor and rake hay all day, and that made him think of fun.
So the word he spray-painted on the house-sized, granite boulder was fun.
FUN in safety-orange paint.
“Man…Dude…that’s the stupidest thing anyone’s ever written on The Cube,” Mike Johnston sneered.
Mike’s body was four inches larger in every direction, with shoulders built for lifting hay bales all day, but his brain kept him in the same grade as Coyote, who new better than to argue.
Instead he grabbed Jacob’s pepper-red spray can, adding two more words and question mark. Coyote always like the uncertainty of the question mark.
WHAT IS FUN?
“That’s even stupider,” Mike laughed, but the sound, something similar to a harmonica being blown through a cheese grader, was cut short by Jacob picking up a can labeled Athletic Field blue, and spraying.
Jacob had to spray the last “l” twice, because the wind kept carrying it off.
“You aren’t even on the team,” Mike said, because he could say it, because everyone knew Mike and his haybale shoulders would make the varsity team even though this was their freshman year.
“I’ll tear it up,” Jacob shot back, “they’ll be begging me to play.”
“Play with yourself maybe,” Mike jeered and the other eight boys laughed, except Coyote, who wouldn’t have laughed even if it had been funny, because Mike had said it.
The wind brought with it the feel of snow, and although adding more swear words and references to parts of girl’s anatomy had entertained the other boys for a good hour, the wind finally pushed them back to the uncertain heaters of their farm trucks.
“Come on,” one of the older boys said, “This blows. Let’s go watch Katelyn Rose.”
Katelyn Rose was known for being this year’s hottest in high school, and for having no curtains on her extra-large bedroom windows.
Coyote wanted to fix his letters, mixing a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes into the word FUN, but Jacob said, “Come on Coyote. Let’s go!” Coyote knew Jacob was determined not to lose their recently won place in the crowd of popular freshman and sophomores. He considered pointing out that it was his artwork on The Cube that had got them noticed, all his intersecting lines, jagged edges, and angry colors made some impression on the other boys, but he knew nothing would persuade Jacob where Katelyn Rose was involved.
Jacob was in love. Or lust. Coyote wasn’t sure he knew the difference, because M2 kept telling him that love only happened when you were older, where as lust could hit anytime now.
In the way only M2 could manage, sort of long distance telepathy, his cell phone rang.
“Yeah?” Coyote answered.
“Dinner’s almost ready. Your Dad said the fields were finished an hour ago. So…”
“M2! It’s Friday night. You said I was free on Friday night.”
“I said you were free on Friday night when you finished painting the barn.”
Coyote pulled the phone away so he could say something M2 would ground him for.
“Coyote!” her voice filled the truck cab even through the tiny speaker. He pulled the phone back to his ear. “Coyote. I’m going to pretend to be deaf, when I’m not, and you’re going to be here in ten minutes. So glad to hear it. See you soon.”
Coyote snapped the phone shut, chucking it across the cab for the appearance of disgust, although having a home-cooked dinner in a warm room sounded a lot better to him than freezing his butt off in some bushes full of thorns that poked him in places thorns didn’t belong, hoping the Katelyn Rose show would commence.
“M2 says I have to get home,” he told Jacob. “I’ll drop you off at Katelyn’s.”
“Stop calling her that,” Jacob snapped, “M2, It’s embarrassing.” Coyote suspected calling his step-mother M2 had nothing to do with anything, except Jacob’s anger at being ditched, but it made him think of the day he was seven, and his step-mom finally asked him to call her Mom.
“But you aint my Mom,” he remembered saying.
“Are not,” she had corrected, kneeling down so her face was on his level, “Your Mom is dead. I don’t ever want to replace her, but I want to be your Mom too.”
“So you are M2,” he agreed.
“M2. I’ll call you M2, if I get to change my name.”
She had smiled at him. “What name do you want?” And when he hesitated, she held a hand up like a stop sign. “No. Don’t tell me now. Think about it. Think hard about it, and tell me tomorrow.”
He had thought about it hard, all that night, and the next day held out his hand for a handshake.
“M2,” he’d said when she took it, “my name is Coyote.”
She didn’t laugh, because M2 knew when to be serious. “Nice to meet you. That’s an unusual name. What does it mean?”
It made Coyote blush in embarrassment to think of his seven-year-old answer, “Coyote’s smart but you don’t see him much, cause he knows how to hide.”
So she had forever become M2, and he had become Coyote.
Coyote couldn’t get back out to The Cube to fix his safety orange word FUN for another week, because it was the last week before school started and all the hay had to be baled and stacked.
Finally free, he bounced out the dirt road in the dark, his headlights drawing crazed patterns in the true black night. Coyote left the truck running, because you never knew if today the battery would last, grabbed his gym bag full of clinking rattle cans, and went to fix WHAT IS FUN?
Below Joseph’s FOOTBALL were new words.
Lots of new words.
HORSES in utility yellow
DOGS in gloss plum
BACKPACKING in moss green
TRUCKS in ford blue, which either meant the artist knew their spray can colors or the name on the can gave them the idea, and
NOT LIVING IN WHEATLAND in red oxide
Clayton stared at the list for a very long time. The artist had taken great care over their letters, with each word illuminated by outlines in a slightly darker or lighter shade of the same color. The words were fun to look at, and very girly, with little curly cues and touches of sparkling gold or silver spray for emphasis.
The headlights gave the words added dimension against the enormous square rock, and Coyote decided if he was too young to be in love, then he definitely in lust.
He agreed with the girl on everything except BACKPACKING, because why would you backpack if you had a horse to carry all your things?
In the privacy of his own time and the smooth space of night all around him, Coyote fixed his words, giving them shadowed depth, white highlights, careful edges and intentionally blurred tails.
When he finished, “WHAT IS FUN?” the words appeared to jump off the rock, joining the same three-dimensional space as the girl’s list. He added:
HUNTING in hunter orange, and
NOT HAYING in sand
Almost as an after thought, he sprayed questions.
SONG? In stone black
MOVIE? In cabby yellow
FOOD? In espresso, even though he’d only had an espresso once and hated it.
He whistled as he left the cube, and almost felt bold enough to take the paved road, even though he was only 14, and shouldn’t, strictly speaking, be driving, even if every single farm kid had also been driving for years. Derek Kettlebalm, the new sheriff, had followed his predecessor in turning a blind eye, but only during daylight, and only on certain roads. “I didn’t see you, don’t want to see you, and WONT see you after six p.m. or only County Road 155 or 289,” he had told Coyote, slapping a heavily scarred hand down on his doorframe, “And I won’t see you when your taillight is working tomorrow.”
Coyote thought about Sheriff Kettlebalm’s hands, and kept whistling as he drove the dirt road past County Road 155.
The next day was Sunday, church day whether you were actually religious or not, so Coyote spent the entire something…something…your soul…and his mighty something sermon, trying to breath while being throttled by a tie, and guessing what the girl’s answers might be.
“Coyote what has gotten into you?” M2’s voice finally reached him while he was attempting to remember the name of that song the girls in his class liked. “I just asked you twice if you wanted to go for ice cream?”
What Coyote wanted was an excuse to drive out to The Cube and see if the girl had written her answers, but he new that wasn’t going to happen on a Sunday so he settled for ice cream.
“Your loss,” M2 looked like she wanted to ruffle his hair, like she would have a year ago, but stopped herself.
“Hey it’s the Neanderthal! The rest of the world texts, he’s got a stone tablet,” Mike yelled from just outside the front doors, where he and his group had gathered. Jacob stood among them, staring at his shoes as though they might catch fire or run away without him. “Need a chisel so you can finish the Ten Commandments?”
“Though shall not be an idiot,” Coyote said before he could stop himself, “Oh wait. You broke that one the day you were born.”
Before Mike could rally with an answer, or a fist, Coyote slipped into the crowd moving out to the parking lot.
“You’re in a foul mood,” M2 observed as she sat across from him at one of the Icey Dicey’s white tables eating mint-green ice cream.
Coyote was thinking of what to say and what NOT to say when Mrs. Liltcath abandoned her lonely post behind the tubs of bubble gum and pistachio, and invited herself to sit down.
Coyote raised an eyebrow at M2, in a ‘see, this is why I’m in a bad mood’ gesture. M2 had to work very hard to keep her mouth from betraying a smile, because at home she called Mrs. Lilcath “ a brainless git of a woman with no idea when to keep her damn mouth shut.”
The brainless git beamed at them as she said, “Did you hear that little Amy Wilcott was in lockup last night?”
M2 paused with a spoonful halfway to her mouth, green drops falling off onto her white Sunday best. Coyote, who had been looking pointedly away, snapped his head around. Amy Wilcott was a mousey girl in his class who barely spoke, and had never done anything to anybody, good, bad, or otherwise.
“Are you sure? Amy Wilcott?” M2 asked.
Mrs. Liltcath beamed nastily at M2 in a way that made Coyote suspect she knew what M2 really thought of her, and might not be such a brainless git after all. “She was caught by Sherriff Kettlebalm tagging a rock. I just don’t get why kids these days think graffiti all over everything is their god-given right.”
“No way Kettlebalm would put her in jail for spray painting a rock,” M2 said, in a voice that made it clear Mrs. Liltcath’s lack of intelligence was no longer in question.
Coyote very carefully didn’t move a muscle. He was the coyote, frozen, waiting for it to be safe to be noticed again.
“She was tagging that big cube rock out past Hinzlow’s place, which is apparently some sort of sacred Native American artifact and the federal police came down hard on Kettlebalm for letting it get all painted up, so he’s cracking down. Serves her right, smearing paint on our beautiful town.”
Coyote couldn’t help the snort that escaped.
Both M2 and the brainless git glanced at him, sharp eyes that missed little, and Coyote scrambled for something to say. “I got a piece of hay up my nose,” he suck a finger up his nostril to indicate the location. Mrs. Liltcath’s face wrinkled in disgust, just as the doorbell rang and the Merrot family walked in.
On the drive home, all Coyote could think about was little, mousey Amy Wilcott out tagging the Cube. Because she had to be just tagging, she couldn’t possibly be the girl who had sprayed those bold, stunning, colored words onto the rock. Amy Wilcott didn’t like horses, or backpacking, or trucks, or dogs. She was a born and bred Wheatland girl, one of those simple girls you knew would stay here, marry someone local, have a few kids, and bake pies on the weekend for a good cause.
“I know I don’t have to say this, but I’ll do it anyway just to be on the safe side,” M2 said, causing Coyote’s heart to WHUMP WHUMP, guilty and startled, against his insides. “I’m sure you have enough sense to stay away from The Cube while Kettlebalm is looking out for hoodlums with spray cans, not that you have anything like that in your black gym bag in the toolbox of the green truck.”
Now Coyotes heart was WHUMP WHUMPING against everything it could find, his face felt horribly hot and his feet tingled.
That night, after the bulls, the dogs, the horses, the chickens, and the barn cats were fed, Coyote took his old black gym bag out of the green truck and squeezed it into a space in the back of the tractor shed he was pretty sure only he knew about.
When school started the next day, everyone knew Amy Wilcott was only there because she’d just been released from jail. If it had been Mike, or Jacob, or one of the older classmen, there would have been a certain amount of respect for a minor law breaker—bragging rights and the like. But because it was small, respectful, quiet Amy Wilcott, she suffered everything from whispers to four-lettered derision all day.
Coyote was sure if it had been him, he’d have punched somebody or hid in the bathroom, but little Amy Wilcott walked around with her head held up and a fierce expression on her face Coyote had never seen from her before.
He watched her intently all day, free to do so anonymously because everyone else was, but Coyote was trying to see if this could possibly be the girl of gloss plum and moss green and NOT LIVING IN WHEATLAND.
Coyote decided anyone who could ignore Mike Johnston yelling, “Cunt!” all day might just be capable of anything, but it was first day of freshman year, and so Coyote watched from at least ten yards.
By six o’clock, he felt like an idiot for not at least saying hi, and by eight he felt torn up inside for letting someone like Mike go unchallenged in his abuse.
By ten o’clock, he was sketching his apology in thin pencil lines across the back of an envelope, and at eight o’clock the next evening, under cover of an inky black night and M2 not expecting him home yet from football tryouts, he was spraying his apology across a lone granite boulder at the edge of the Wilcott’s South hay field.
YOU SHOULD GO TO ART SCHOOL in gloss Kaki with duck egg blue highlights and gun metal shading
He was sure she hadn’t seen it, because the next day at school she looked exactly the same, head up, quiet and polite, but when he drove down County Road 11 past the Wilcott ranch, there was a tiny dot of black paint on the front of a different boulder.
Coyote parked and waited for ten minutes, until the light had faded enough that he had to find the flashlight from among hay hooks, tow chains, and bottles of starter fluid huddling together on the truck floor. He walked out to rock, flicking the weak beam once at the black dot in the upper left corner, and then around to the back.
ART IS NOT ACCEPTABLE IN WHEATLAND dripped across the rock in stone black letters with cabby yellow tears and below in an espresso afterthought
AND SPRAY PAINT ISN’T “ART”
Coyote realized this answer was going to require serious planning and a trip to Waterburg, the next town an hour away, to buy paint from their art supply store.
On Friday night, he told M2 he was going to hang out with Jacob, and pretended not to notice when she snuck out to look in the truck box to make sure his black gym bag wasn’t there. He drove out to the boulder where he’d stashed his new spray cans, the cardboard stencils he’d been carefully cutting out every night, and his new headlamp.
Coyote sprayed for hours, carefully, deliberately, letting colors dry before adding more or shifting shadows and highlights. By the time he was done, Coyote decided he might have inhaled more paint fumes than were strictly good for a person. He added a single stone black dot to the front left corner of the rock, changed back into the clothes he’d worn out of the house that evening, and stashed his painting clothes, his paints, his cardboard stencils and his headlamp in a narrow, willow-covered wash nearby.
Coyote didn’t have a real excuse, or even a spare moment to go check and see if Amy had answered him; the not knowing itched and tickled the back of his mind.
On Monday, Amy had a printed picture taped to the front of her notebook. It was the image Coyote had painted her, Banksy Wall and Piece—a rioter, his mouth protected by a scarf, arm cocked, ready to lob flowers into the mêlée. Amy smiled slyly every time she looked at it.
On Tuesday, there was a block dot on a new rock, and a three-foot mural of Mike Johnston being sat on by a black and white jersey cow, all in the same monochrome shades of Banksy Wall and Piece.
On Wednesday, there were two black dots on the corner of cow rock, and Coyote had added a red representation of the ice cream shop, with Mrs. Lilcath’s face jeering at Mike being sat on by the cow.
On Thursday, a third dot appeared on the rock, and the Welcome to Wheatland sign had been added, with the wheat logo dripping blood.
On Friday, Amy came to school in t-shirt with a Banksy war protest scene on it, a girl in a pink dress patting down a soldier with an assault rifle leaning nearby.
On Friday afternoon, she’d been suspended for refusing to go home and change. There were no new painted rocks that weekend, although Coyote looked.
He took the time to build stencils. Dozens of them.
Tens of dozens.
“I heard that poor Amy Wilcott is in a world of trouble with her folks,” M2 commented casually over dinner. “And when I ran into Jacob at the store yesterday, he said you had an awesome time last Friday, so I’m surprised you weren’t out with him this weekend.”
Coyote was almost too stunned by Jacob’s loyalty to find a suitably neutral answer. Jacob was still hanging out with the Mike Johnston crowd, and had been avoiding Coyote completely.
On Monday, no Amy at school. Tuesday…same.
On Wednesday, Coyote started cutting out more stencils.
By Friday, still no Amy, and hundreds of stencils. Rumors ripped through the school. Amy Wilcott was being kicked out of Wheatland High for inappropriate clothing and behavior. Someone said they heard if from the principal, so it had to be true.
Coyote challenged M2 that evening. “How can they kick her out for wearing art of a person who is FAMOUS?” he yelled. He didn’t know why he was yelling. It wasn’t M2’s fault, but he was so angry someone had to yelled at.
“Sometimes Wheatland is a cute, small town,” M2 said, with more bitterness than he had ever heard from her, “and sometimes it’s a bunch of hicks with moldy cottonballs between their ears!”
“Can I go see Amy tomorrow?” he asked, and even more to his surprise, M2 said.
“Tell her I think the school-board is filled with idiots.”
But Coyote didn’t go see Amy first thing on Saturday. Instead he drove to Waterburg, and to the clerk’s astonishment and slant-eyed suspicion, bought every spray can of any color they had. He drove home by a convoluted series of dirt roads, and called Jacob.
“I need Amy’s number,” he said without preamble, “know anyone who might have it?”
“Mike Johnston is a dick,” Jacob waited in silence, and when Coyote didn’t say anything, added “and I bet Jessica Smith has it,” and like they had never stopped being friends, he agreed to call Amy and arrange the meeting.
“You’ll need a distraction,” Jacob said when Coyote had finished explaining his plan. “I bet I can dare Mike and keep the Sherriff busy for a while.”
Which is how Coyote picked up Amy at the rock with three black dots, and drove her through the main entrance of Wheatland High. Waiting in front of the cinderblock gym, was the entire freshman class with the exception of Mike Johnston and two of his friends.
“What are they all doing here?” Coyote grabbed Jacob by the shirt collar, but if anything, Jacob grinned harder.
“We think this is messed up! If they kick out Amy, they’ll have to kick out the whole class. So tell us what to do.”
Which is how, on a Wheatland Saturday night, with Sherriff Kettlebalm busy arresting Mike Johnston and two other boys for breaking and entering an ice cream parlor, the Wheatland Gym got a face-lift.
Coyote showed Amy his sketched plans, as each Freshman grabbed a cardboard stencil and moved it into place, and he and Amy began to spray.
It took them two hours, and when they were done, breathless and reeking of paint fumes, the entire crowd stood back and laughed.
Sunday morning church service was the most unusual Wheatland had seen in years.
Most of the town, in their pastel Sunday best, gathered around a hundred-foot mural, painted in a vibrant array of colors. They gawked and gaped at Native American’s in headdresses dancing around The Cube, at images of tractors cutting hay and kids diving into Sandmound pond. They giggled at the image of eyes watching everything from the ice cream shop door, and cows doing what cows do.
The gawkers went silent when they came to the outlines of a girl wearing a Banksy image on her t-shirt protesting the horrors of war, while a screaming man yelled down a her, and far in the background, the tiny image of bloody war raged. The mural was signed.
AN ALMOST PERFECT IMPREFECTION in ford blue.
Coyote knew when M2 saw it, because she leaned over and squeezed his shoulders fiercely, and despite everyone watching, he let her do it.
Then, before Principal Melks or the red-faced school board members could build up enough steam to demand Amy be arrested, the entire freshman class (except those already in jail), lined up in front of the mural, joined hands, and bowed like they were on stage.
Amy and Coyote right in the middle.
BEAMING in sunshine yellow.