Second Prize, Fiction (18 and under)
The Bigger World
Yesterday, I learned that when you put water in a pot and leave it on the stove after turning the dial, the water gets warmer. I also unfortunately learned that the water gets hotter and hotter, creating bubbles. While it may be tempting to try and pop them, the water causes immense pain when you dunk your entire fist in it.
Everyone at work today was astounded that I would attempt to do something that a child with any basic common sense would know better than to try. We were all chatting during the lunch break and of course they were curious about my bandaged hand. So I told them, with much enthusiasm because I was quite proud of my discovery and figured they would be just as astounded. Apparently that sort of stuff is common knowledge.
They thought I was being humorous, trying to trick them. They prodded me for the “real” story, but that was the only story I had for them. To prove that I wasn’t making it up, I decided to give them a demonstration. I placed a pot of water on the stove in the employee lounge and waited for it to boil. Then I burned my other hand. Even I’ll admit that that was a stupid thing for me to do.
It’s now ten thirty at night and I’m riding the bus home. It took the doctor awhile to bandage up my other hand. He asked me more questions this time as well. I’m not used to riding the bus so late. Or being outside so late. I’ve never been outside so late. Everyday I get home at five, except for on the weekends when I go to my weekend home by the lake. It’s never this dark at five and even at the lake, I’m inside by five thirty at the latest. I’m not a fan of waiting around outside while the sun undergoes its metamorphoses into the moon.
Even though I’m not a night owl, I’m fairly certain that it should not be this dark out. Some children are afraid of the dark and the sun shouldn’t leave them alone with their fear for so long. It’s not right.
I turn to a woman sitting a few seats away from me. She’s wearing very interesting clothing. I think she’s going for a less is more approach. She notices my gaze and smiles at me.
“It’s very dark outside.” I say.
“Wanna take advantage of it?” she asks.
“I don’t see how we could possibly take advantage of the dark. I bet you can’t see anything out there. Is it usually this dark at this time?”
“Yes. It’s always dark at night. Are you not from here? Would you like something that would make your trip extra special?” She gets up and and takes the seat next to mine. She’s sitting exceptionally close to me. I explain that I’ve lived here my entire life, I just have never seen the sky past six o’clock in the evening or before seven in the morning. I notice a flicker of my co-workers’ reactions from earlier dribble down her face then dry up as she glances down at my hands resting on my lap.
“What happened to you?”
“Oh, I stuck my hands in some boiling water.”
“How did it happen? Did you trip? Did you not see that the water was boiling?” She is no longer looking at me up from under her eyelashes as she was before. She stares straight at me with big eyes.
“No. I didn’t know that boiling water would hurt me. Before yesterday, I’d only heard about boiling hot water.”
“No. I’m not. Everyone thinks that I am. I’m not.”
“How did you not know about this? And about the dark?”
“I’ve just never had the need to learn it I guess. I’m fairly intelligent if I say so myself. I know how to do my job well and I can handle everyday life, or my everyday life at least. It’s when I stumble upon something I’m not used to that there’s a problem. It’s just that many things I’ve never heard of, most people do everyday so they’re a little shocked that I don’t know these things. I know everything I need to know, and I’m guessing that I know nothing more.”
“Do you know how many states there are?”
“There’s more than one?”
“Yes. Ok, how do you turn on a computer?”
“I don’t know. I’ve only ever used ones that were already on.”
“Wow. You don’t know a lot of things.”
“I know a lot about very little and very little about a lot.”
We sit in silence for awhile. I try and wrap my head around the idea that I am on a bus this late, looking out through dingy windows at the night that I have never seen before. I see lights from office windows glowing, polka dots of bright gleaming in the distance. We pass by cars and people walking down cracked slabs of sidewalk with white sticks emitting steam, dangling from their lips. Cigarettes, she tells me and offers me one. I shake my head.
“That sign,” I say pointing at the diagram next to a window of a cigarette shape with a red bar over it. “Isn’t it telling us not to use that in here?”
“You’re observant,” she says then pulls out a flame maker box from her purse and lights one cigarette for herself anyway.
“It’s a lighter,” she explains.
“The flame is hypnotic,” I tell her.
She begins telling me about a world, this world, that extends far beyond the perimeter of my life. As I listen, I feel as though I am stretching my arms out as far as they will go, reaching beyond the boundary, extending myself outwards until something will burst, but I don’t know what.
I look around the city and see buildings and structures that I’ve never cared to notice before. I am suddenly curious about the society that surrounds me.
“What’s behind that building?”
“The community center.” She doesn’t sound annoyed with me. She is patient like my mother.
“How late do people stay out until?”
“Depends on the person. Some stay out all night.”
“Yes. It’s when I work.”
“Do you like your job?”
“What do you do?” She is slow to answer me.
“I sell company.”
“That sounds like a wonderful job. I think I will like to hire you sometime.”
“I don’t think you want my kind of company.”
I think she is wrong. I am enjoying having her here, telling me about things I’ve never understood before. I listen more intently than I’ve ever done before. Everything is so fascinating and grand. She speaks of tall buildings and movies she enjoys watching. Of people and funny situations she’s found herself in. The world is exciting.
“This world is perfect.”
“No, it’s not,” she says.
“Why isn’t it? All the things you’ve told me about are wonderful, and large, and important. Isn’t it nice to live in a big world like that?”
“It can be. But sometimes it can be awful too. No matter what your life is like, it’s not going to be perfect. Sometimes it gives you more opportunity to get hurt. But your life is just as real as anyone else’s, even if your world is smaller. You’ve felt good things and bad. You’ve seen great things and lost great people in your life just like the rest of . Life is life.”
This woman is one of a kind. She is truly something, treating me like an equal when she has the opportunity to do just the opposite. She doesn’t treat me like a joke, or even think that I’m joking. I’ve met some people who haven’t been as sweet as her. I know I don’t know as much as others. Sometimes I just forget, like this morning when I explained what happened to my hand. I’m reminded soon enough afterwards however. The looks on people’s faces, the absolute loss of any respect that they had for you when you admit that you don’t know how who Obama is or what the name of the next town over is, it affects you after awhile.
My mother was a very practical woman. She taught me how to tie my shoes and read and write. She taught me things that I needed to know. Things like cooking, cleaning and getting involved with political news, she took care of those sorts of things so I never learned that stoves make water hot and a larger world exists beyond the limits of this city. I believed that she told me everything I needed to know. Kept me safe from everything I didn’t need to know. She was the one who taught me that one must always be inside with the curtains closed by five o’clock. That was the only way to stay safe from the dangerous world.
I’ve managed to pick up a bit of information from others along the way. In early adulthood, I eventually learned that staying inside after five pm is not necessary for survival. I just prefer being inside after that time. Old habits die hard I guess. I’ve discovered a few things on my own as well. But I never feel like I’ll know enough. I’m always nodding along to stories I don’t get, pretending I understand the references people make, and laughing at jokes I don’t find funny. It get’s lonely sometimes. It’s hard for people to talk to a man that hardly knows anything.
That’s why this woman is so wonderful. She is not only talking to me, but answering my questions. Nobody else does this. It’s like I was stuck at a bus station, waiting for a bus to come get me, when all the buses were cancelled for the day. I was stranded, until I met her.
“Will you marry me?” I ask her. She doesn’t seem taken off guard. She must feel the same way I do.
“No,” she tells me, staring straight ahead.
“Why not? Don’t you love me?”
“No, I don’t.”
“I love you. You’ve been so nice to me. You’ve been so patient. My mother always told me to marry a nice girl. You are a nice girl.”
“I’m not as nice as you think. And there’s more to love than that. We barely know each other. I don’t know you’re name. You don’t know mine.”
“What’s your name then?”
“Doesn’t matter. The answer is no.” She gets up and starts walking to the exit door. My stop is nowhere near this part of the city. If I get off with her and try to change her mind, I have no idea how I will get back home. Part of me, or more honestly, most of me, is afraid.
Love however, prevails all. It gives you courage, it gives you strength, it makes you do crazy things. She is worth it. The world is full of potential and anything can happen. I know that this world she described is wonderful and that being alone isn’t. Loneliness, always feeling like you’re saying the wrong thing, that is scarier than anything I could face outside this bus.
I get out of my seat and move towards the exit door that she stands in front of. The bus stops and the back door swings open.
“Please let me explain why we should get married!” I say as I reach the door just as she is exiting through it. I try to step off the bus after her, but the door swings shut in my face. I bang and presh on the door to try and get it to open. I do not know how to open the door. Every Time I’ve been on the bus, someone has opened the door for me. I think they are motion sensored or you have to press a button, or do something specific. She had done something to open the door but I was too distracted by what I had to say that I didn’t see what she was doing.
I am ramming into the door, the word “Alone” pulsating through my thoughts in rhythm with each slam. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know what to do.
The bus lurches forward, pulling away from the stop. She was right. This world can be awful.
Kelsey Nowlan is currently a Grade 11 student in Canterbury High School’s Literary Arts Program. The program offers her the opportunity to learn about creative writing and experiment with a variety of different writing styles. When she isn’t writing, Kelsey enjoys other activities like sewing and dance. After high school she hopes to pursue a career in fashion.