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Writer's Digest 91st Annual Competition Children’s/Young Adult Fiction First Place Winner: "Cicada Summer"

Congratulations to Marina Richards, first place winner in the Children’s/Young Adult Fiction category of the 91st Annual Writer's Digest Writing Competition. Here's her winning story, "Cicada Summer."

Congratulations to Marina Richards, first place winner in the Children’s/Young Adult Fiction category of the 91st Annual Writer's Digest Writing Competition. Here's her winning story, "Cicada Summer."

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[See the complete winner's list]

Cicada Summer

Chapter 1

Daddy collected Pretty Things while cruising around Ordinary for Al's Autos and Towing. He'd offer the pretty things a lift, and four said yes. Those four are dead now, and everyone says he murdered them.

I didn’t believe the talk at first. He’s my blood daddy after all. A little rough around the edges. Touch of madness inside him he hides behind the bottle even on Sundays. But he’s no different from all the other parents in town. They all screw up.

Then they found a hair inside his wrecker from one of the dead girls, her torn clothes smoldering in a burn barrel behind Pic ’n Save, Daddy’s fingerprints on her throat.

At trial the jury declared him guilty, and the judge set sentencing for today.

Now I sit in the county courthouse next to my aunts-in-black who prattle on about the dark blood running through Jarrod and me like we can’t hear them. On the other side of the room are the good people—friends and family of the victims.

I recognize most except for one boy.

His eyes are hidden behind a pair of sunglasses, but I can tell he’s older than most boys I know.

Black hair dusts the neck of his indie film T-shirt and meets a pair of ripped jeans, the kind you see in magazines. He’s got stubble and muscle in all the right places and holds some woman who sobs into a handkerchief, glancing past her slumped shoulders now and then to look at me.

Even behind his shades, I feel his stare.

And it's not friendly.

I whirl away, my cheeks hot with the August heat. I don’t want to know any of the people Daddy hurt. The lives he ruined. I don’t want to be here at all, getting dirty looks from this strange boy.

Daddy whispers to his lawyer, his ankle-chains clanking, baggy suit floppy as chicken skin.

Mama says they don't feed him good in prison. Food ain't fit for a dog, she says.

Idiot Boy, Jarrod, squirms beside me. My aunts orders him to settle down or they’ll smack him good. I grip his hand, sweaty-soft as cotton, and he quiets.

They never came around until everything happened—Mama's sisters—a twin set of pinched prunes hating on me and Jarrod like we’re criminals. Your man's bad seed, Rowena, they cluck to Mama, rapping their knuckles on my shoulders. You keep a close eye on them, especially the girl. She's fourteen, nearin’ her womanhood.

I glance up at the blinding white ceiling. My lawyer-approved blouse itches me all over, and I tug on the starched lace collar, wishing I could tear it off.

Why is this taking so long? Rules, papers, lawyers fighting over every stupid little thing.

What’s the point?

Daddy did it. He killed them all. They should have locked him up when they arrested him. Then we wouldn’t be stuck in this hot cave, suffering dirty looks from everybody in town.

The judge sweeps into the room, his black robe fluttering behind him. The bailiff tells us to rise.

I fan myself with a sheet of paper and peer at the boy in sunglasses. He’s taller than I expected, jaw clenched tight as a fist.

“Stewart Brown,” says the judge, “in the name of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, this court sentences you to four hundred years at the Taggartville Maximum Security Prison. No parole."

The room erupts in gasps and cheers. People hug, cry, thank the Lord. Cameras flash. Phones click.

Mama bursts to her feet, her salt and pepper bun escaping its bobby pins. "He’s innocent! He ain’t done nothin' to them girls. Nothin’! Don't you worry, hun. We’ll get us a new lawyer and fresh trial. We'll get you home!"

Daddy scowls at her and is shuffled away through a metal door.

She slumps back into her seat, head in her hands, howling how she failed him. Shoulda been a better wife. Cooked more. Made up her face.

Jarrod scoots onto her lap, sucking his thumb even though he's too old, and she rocks him on the pitted creaky oak bench while the room clears. While my aunts scurry back to their dank cabin somewhere in the mountains. While mobs of reporters shout questions through the doors, and the bailiff struggles to hold them back.

We sneak out the back of the courthouse and are driven home by a pimple-faced deputy who plays the ball game on the radio. Mama waddles into the house. Jarrod and I stay on the front porch, watching a cicada drag itself up through the rotting wood slats, its wings stuck in its shell.

“I hate you!” Jarrod smashes it with his sneaker. “It’s all your fault!” He kicks the bug into our dirt yard and bolts into the house, slamming the door behind him.

The cicadas showed up last summer right when Daddy started his murders. Every night they’d screech so loud you couldn’t hear yourself think. Them things a bad omen, Daddy said. Come up the ground too early.

Then he changed, snapping at us, sleeping in the fog hollers with the animals, coming home all torn up and stinking of blood and dirt, eyes cast with shadow like he was possessed by demons.

Right now all is quiet as a headstone. But I know by dusk the cicadas will be back. They always come back.

I tear a blister of paint from the rails, flick it through the air. Across the street, the grass is emerald-lush, the lilies in full bloom, their scent drenching the air with pink perfume.

But behind my house on Hollow Hill the sun is a red festering wound splintered across the sky. The air heavy and thick with whispers and musty Kentucky sweat. I clap my hands over my ears and I can hear the dead girls’ screams, and I’m so scared.

Because it’s up there Daddy killed them. By the abandoned coal mine. Killed them like were nothing and nobody. Like they didn't have feelings and weren't somebody's daughters.

I hate knowing this.

Hate having to hear about it all the time.

Hate being born on the wrong side of everything.

I close my eyes and think of the boy from court. His smirk and judgy attitude. He knew. Knew all about me. People like him get all the empathy in the world. They get cake, while I get pointing fingers and nasty whispers.

Murderer’s daughter. Serial killer’s trash.

I’m used to it by now. Yet today, seeing him comforting that woman, the hurt cut deeper than ever. It was bottomless. And I know behind those dark glasses burned another kind of pain. One that never goes away.

Now I’m grateful I never saw his eyes. I wouldn't of been able to handle it.

Writer's Digest 91st Annual Competition Children’s/Young Adult Fiction First Place Winner: "Cicada Summer"

Chapter 2

My mind is a video replaying that last day in court.

I still feel that boy's eyes on me. See the smug looks on my aunts' faces. Hear the rejoicing of the crowd. Everyone was so happy—the monster was going away—while I shattered into a thousand pieces.

Enough. Cut tape. Daddy's in prison. More that a year now.

Three-hundred-ninety-nine more to go.

I lie back on the dry grass and look at the sky. Against the blue clouds and orange juice sun appears a face. Broad cheekbones flush from the mountain wind, slants of ash blond bangs, eyes the color of green apples.

Parker leaning over me.

Parker trailing his finger along my lips.

"You on another planet?"

I sit up and curl my arms around my legs. "Mmm, nope. I'm at the ocean, sipping a mango smoothie on the sand."

"C’mon, babe, you know you ain’t never gonna see the ocean."

I give him a shove. "After I ditch this town I will. I'll drive there myself in my own car."

"Yeah?" He scoots closer to me, shorts slung low on his hips, cut-off T-shirt revealing a skull tattoo below a freeway of six-pack abs. "And I'll be there to rub lotion all over your hot body, Amelia Notorious."

"Not if you keep calling me that stupid name."

"It’s a compliment." He kisses the back of my neck, and it tickles in a slightly annoying way. "Means you got all the right stuff."

The rat-a-tat-tat of skate boards razors above our heads. I cup my hand over my eyes and see Damian Arsop and Hector Gonzalez up on Hollow Hill Bridge, practicing moves for the skate championships in a few weeks.

The bridge is a steel and cement dinosaur left to rot by some coal mining company back in the 90s. They stripped the granite ridge to the bone, then some of the forest grew back in sections. Like a drunken haircut. Now we come up here to skate and party.

"Parker, if you want to go practice I'm good here."

He clasps his fingers behind his neck. "Don't need no practice. The dudes are lookin’ to be lit like me. Concrete surfers never give it up, right babe?"

Concrete Surfers. This is Parker's thing, skate boarding, and he's the best in the county. But I'm not crazy about hanging out on the mountain. Most of the time I loathe it.

"I know, I'll show you how to do some maneuvers. It'll be fun."

"So I can split my lip like when I was a kid?"

He holds up his hands. "Not my fault."

"You bullied me until I got on that plastic board and rolled down hill.”

He slides his sunglasses off his head, glancing at his reflection in the mirror lenses. "Wish you’d get off that. Besides,” he slips his arms around me and presses his lips into mine, “you recovered beautifully.”

"Stop." I push my hands against his chest. "Somebody’s watching."

"Since when are you such a prude? The dudes have seen us a million times."

"I'm not talking about them." I nod at the pond in the distance. "I mean them."

He follows my gaze.

Two figures at the water's edge.

No one comes up here this late unless they're up to no good.

Parker jerks his chin at Hector and Damian. They climb down from the bridge and head toward the pool of black liquid. Its rivery smell is strong tonight with hardly any movement.

"What are they doing?" I sit up, glancing from him to the woods circling the swampy water.

He shrugs. "Gonna check things out."

"If something's about to go down I don't want to be here."

"You know I’ll protect you." He squeezes my cold fingers a little too hard.

I inhale and watch the sun slip behind the trees. The colors change quick on Hollow Hill. I think that's why Daddy liked it. The darkness creeps up on you and not even the animals want to come out of their hiding places.

Now there's just enough light to see Damian and Hector standing in the cat tails, facing those other two boys.

They look around our age, the tall one dark, the other blond and familiar.

Their conversation travels on the breeze, guarded, clipped. It’s clear they don’t want Damian and Hector there because they cold-shoulder them, without the usual boy gestures of thumb clasps and fist bumps I see at school.

Who are they and what do they want? It’s almost night. Nothing to see but the black water and coal culvert, which aren’t exactly on the town website as major tourist attractions.

“’Sup?” Parker asks when the guys return.

Damian smirks. "It's that puke, Zeke. He’s with some big dude taking pi’tures.”

My stomach clenches. “Why?”

"Didn't say, didn't ask.”

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