WESTFIELD, NJ — Westfield High School senior Sarah Boyle learned this month that two of her entries into the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards’ regional competition have won its highest award. Boyle received a Gold Key for her eight-piece fiction portfolio and one for her short story, “Uncle Frank.” Boyle also earned an honorable mention for the “flash fiction” piece that she entered.
A participant in TAP into Westfield’s student journalism program, Boyle’s non-fiction work is frequently published on TAPinto.net. But the young writer said she had no idea her fiction would do so well in the competition.
“It was extremely competitive,” Boyle said. “When I found out, it was absolutely insane. I was over the moon.”
The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards are presented by the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers. Each year, the alliance partners with more than 100 visual arts and literary arts organizations across the country to bring the awards to local communities. Teens in grades 7 through 12 apply in 29 categories of art and writing. Submissions are juried by luminaries in the visual and literary arts, some of whom are past award recipients, according to the alliance; panelists look for works that best exemplify originality, technical skill and the emergence of a personal voice or vision.
Boyle’s portfolio will now go on to the national competition, from which 16 winners will be awarded $10,000 scholarships.
Below, read Boyle’s winning fiction piece:
The service was simple. A mahogany room, a cherry-stained casket, a bouquet of assorted flowers. The room was relatively crowded, and the crowd consisted mostly of the elderly. I was sitting in the front next to my mother, who had a limp tissue stuffed in between her fingers and held firmly up to her swollen nose. Justin was to her right, staring at his peeling fingers, and dad had a strong grip around the nape of Justin’s neck. Justin appeared to be bored as he pulled at his already bitten-down fingernails. It wasn’t until mom offered him her massacred tissue that I realized he, too, was crying. I felt incredibly out of place, like I just wasn’t feeling the dense, obligatory sadness. So I watched my shined black shoes as they kicked above the argyle carpet, still a good few inches from swiping the ground.
“Please take your seats, the service will begin momentarily,” a stuffy, short man in black spoke softly to the room with his hands clasped together. Beads of sweat trickled from his forehead, and the ripples in his neck glistened with moisture.
I leaned over to mom, whispering in her ear, “Is he a friend of Uncle Frank’s?”
“Who is he?”
“He’s leading the service.”
“But he didn’t know Uncle Frank?”
“He knew him from church.”
“They go to the same church?”
Mom nodded, placing her frail, freezing hand on my thigh as if pressing an off switch. I wanted to ask why it wasn’t a friend of Uncle Frank’s who was leading the service, but mom’s gesture had clearly told me to stop. I went back to watching my dangling feet.
The sweaty man who just knew Uncle Frank from church began to talk in a surprisingly authoritative voice as he recalled the kind, soft-spoken man Frank was. He told us confidently that Uncle Frank was finally at rest, and that God had embraced him up in Heaven. How do you know that? I thought. You weren’t even friends with him.
Mom’s cousin, Anne, gave what mom later told me was called a Eulogy, and she brought up a giant bottle of water with her. She placed the water on the ground, and periodically picked it up and took slow, deliberate sips. She would close her eyes and breathe slowly as if she could handle only so many words in her mouth at once. I looked at my mother to see if she was as taken aback by Anne as I was, but she was nodding along with Anne’s every sentence, and her eyes watered just when Anne’s did.
“My father was a special soul.” Anne’s voice cracked and broke, and she gathered herself before she continued. “He believed in hard work and problem-solving. When I was a little girl he was a very proud man…” Pause, drink, breath, “...and he never wanted to admit that he needed help. At the very end, even when...even he was having so much trouble walking, I would need to tell him that I wanted to link arms to get him to accept help, and every time he would smile and say, ‘Anything for you.’ He really was a special soul. And I think we can all say that we feel his absence. Rest in peace, daddy. I love you.” She grabbed her face with her hand, carefully bent over to take her water, and hobbled back to her seat.
The service ended shortly after, and the attendees all came up to me to say they were sorry. I gave a small shrug, which was immediately accompanied by my mother’s hand on the small of my back. I remembered the speech I’d received before the funeral, and cleared my throat and said, “Thank you. We miss him.” My mother’s stiff hand began to rub softly on my back, and I glanced up at her for reassurance. She nodded, running her fingers through my hair and pulling me close against her side.
We piled into our minivan—Justin in the right seat, me on the left, dad driving and mom in the passenger seat. “You’re going to have to make a right up here,” mom directed, holding up directions and squinting her eyes. “Should be only fifteen minutes from here.”
“What’s now?” I asked Justin, who was fiddling with his flip phone.
“Cemetery,” he mumbled, leaning his head back against the seat.
“This is where we bury him?” I clarify.
“No. This is where we burn him.”
“Justin!” mom scolded, shooting him a stern look.
“Yes, sweetie. We’re burying him. And it’s going to be cold so make sure you bring your jacket.”
“Okay.” I gazed out the front windshield, watching the line of cars with flashing lights march methodically across the road. It felt like a death parade. I closed my eyes.
Mom used to bring me to Uncle Frank’s when she had to go to her business events during the summers. Justin would be at camp and dad at work, and no matter how much I begged, mom didn’t want to pay all that money for a babysitter. Every visit was exactly the same.
“Uncle Frank smells funny,” I protested.
“Christopher. That’s not nice.”
“Can I please go with you?”
“No, sweetie. You’re going to Uncle Frank’s. That’s final.”
Uncle Frank lived in an old people’s apartment complex. I don’t think that’s what they’re really called, but it is certainly what it was. The receptionist was always very nice. “Hey, cutie pie,” she’d greet me, reaching for the glass bowl of candies on her desk. “Butterscotch?” Everyone would always try to give me candy there. I’d select a Butterscotch from the bottom of the bowl where no one else had prowled, and I’d stick it in my pocket for later. “You can go right up!”
All the old people would stare at me with crooked smiles and crooked backs. They would touch my hair and hand me peppermints and tell me I had a wonderful life in front of me. If the end of that wonderful life brought me to a place like that, I didn’t think it could really be all that wonderful.
Lots of the other old people decorated their doors with stickers or Welcome mats or pots of flowers. Uncle Frank’s door was completely plain. There was a circular white doorbell that was always kind of sticky when I pressed it. Mom would wait behind me with her arms strongly holding my own. I tried to focus on her sweet perfume instead of all the elderly around me.
The door would slide hesitantly open, and Uncle Frank was always the same on the other side of it. A tall man with a wooden cane, he had a way of walking that made him lose a few inches. His hair was paper white with a gentle wave in it, and he always had on pale dress shirts underneath sweater vests. He wore the same pair of navy blue sweatpants with a lot of unidentifiable stains.
“Come in,” he’d grunt, stepping back. Mom would always have to nudge me forward. I’d be hit with the sour smell of something spoiled mixed with mildew, moth balls, and a little bit of Dove soap. I’d walk slowly into the living room and sit on the one couch facing a tiny square television.
“Thanks so much for watching him,” mom’d say to Uncle Frank.
“Not at all,” Uncle Frank’s husky voice would respond.
And then mom would leave. And she wouldn’t be back for at least four hours.
Uncle Frank didn’t much believe in TV—he had only 12 channels. So he would toss me the TV remote, tell me to go nuts, and he’d sit down with the newspaper. So I’d spend the next hour flipping between those twelve channels until I’d finally settle on an infomercial about a blender that could make soup.
“Son?” he’d bark at me from his chair, leaning forward. “Can you read this?”
“Um…” I’d bend toward the paper, and patiently read the line he was pointing to. I’d look up and notice the glasses stubbornly sitting on Uncle Frank’s head. “Why don’t you wear your glasses?”
He’d answer the same way every time. “Don’t need them.”
At some point, I would get up to go to the bathroom. On the way back, I’d notice a string of different photographs hanging on his wall of different people I didn’t recognize. The pictures were tinted with yellowed age and adorned with scratches along the corners. One visit, I asked him about them.
“What’re these pictures from?”
Using his cane, he pushed himself up to a standing position and hobbled over to where I was standing. For a moment, he smiled.
“Well, that picture there? That’s from the day I got married. That was your Great Aunt Maggie. Do you know how many years ago that was?”
“Well, seven years ago, it would have been sixty-three years minus thirteen. So how many years would it have been?”
My heart started pounding. He was always asking me questions. My hands started sweating and I began thinking about it. Ok, seven years ago...so sixty-three minus thirteen is fifty, plus seven is fifty-seven.
“Exactly. Fifty-seven years ago. We married in April. We honeymooned in China. She loved to travel.”
“China’s right beneath us, right? If you dig a deep enough hole, you’d get there, right?”
He chuckled. “Yes. I bet you would. If I were in better shape, I think I’d do that to go back there.”
“Did Aunt Maggie die?”
“Yes, she did.”
“Well…” Uncle Frank faltered, taking a moment to really stare at the picture. Maggie was beautiful and had long, thick red hair that bled down to her back. Her dress was off-white and had frilly sleeves. Uncle Frank was very young and had a full head of thick black hair. He had a pair of glasses resting on the top of his head. Even on his wedding day. “I guess she died of what eventually kills everyone.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to understand…”
“But wasn’t she young?”
“Yes, very young. But she had an old soul, and I guess it confused her body. Nothing in particular, nothing glorious.”
“Yes. I miss her very much.”
“What do you miss the most?” I wondered. His face twisted a little, but he nodded in recognition.
“Well, she really got me hooked on reading. I never would have read if it weren’t for her. We would read the same books and then talk about them. She always finished before me.”
And with that, Uncle Frank leaned against his cane and hobbled back into the living room, lowering himself onto the dirtied, fabric chair.
“Can I have a snack?”
I went into the kitchen and opened up his cupboard. Inside was one, lonely box of Raisin Bran. I looked inside and realized it was nearly empty. I checked the fridge and found a container of milk, an apple, and soy sauce. I glanced back at Uncle Frank, still seated on the chair trying to read the paper.
“Can I eat the apple?”
So I took the apple and joined him again back in the living room. He looked at me once and asked me if I’d done something different with my hair.
“I put some water on it before.”
“It looks very nice.”
I proceeded to eat my apple and watch an infomercial about the solution to freezer burns on frozen food.
Mom was right—it was freezing in the cemetery. I pulled my coat tighter around my body and leaned on her side. We gathered around the gaping hole in the ground, where Uncle Frank’s box was placed on some kind of machine.
“He’s in there?” I asked mom.
“Is he wearing clothing?”
Mom gave me a strange sideways glance before nodding. “Yes, honey. He’s wearing clothing.”
“What about his glasses? Are they on his head?”
Mom pulled me into a hug and her arms felt squishy from her jacket. She rested her chin on the top of my head and whispered, “I don’t know.”
And then Justin stood up and walked to the front of the crowd.
“What’s he doing?”
“He’s going to say a few words,” mom said.
“What I remember most about Uncle Frank was his belief that you had to work for a reward. He’d never just hand you something,” Justin said softly. “He was the strangest “Tooth Fairy’s helper” I’ve ever met.”
I began giggling. I knew exactly what Justin was talking about.
When I lost my first tooth, mom brought me a paper towel and the phone.
“For the blood,” she said, dabbing my mouth with the paper towel, “and to call Uncle Frank.”
I’d already seen Justin go through this, and I was eagerly awaiting the time when I’d be able to tell Uncle Frank that I’d lost my tooth. So I gave him a call and told him the exciting news.
“Expect a letter in a couple days,” he said in a gruff voice.
So I checked the mailbox every day until two days later, a letter from Uncle Frank was resting inside the metal. I snatched it, raced inside, and tore it open with anticipation.
Congratulations on losing your first tooth! You are growing up, young man. Now to get your reward, you must answer the following questions:
- How many baby teeth does a child have?
- How many baby teeth do you have?
I expect you to conduct this research on your own. NO using the internet or asking anyone for help. You can do this! Respond whenever you have your answer.
I was in the bathroom with a flashlight before the letter had even fallen to the ground. I leaned up towards the mirror, tipping my head back so that I could see my mouth. With my tongue, I touched every rough tooth and counted as I did. I then counted again with my pointer finger, and a third time just by looking at my teeth. I got different numbers every time: twenty-two, eighteen, nineteen. I stood in that bathroom for nearly an hour counting until eventually I kept getting the number nineteen. I have nineteen teeth.
I got out a piece of white paper and a pencil and sat at the table.
I have 19 teeth.
Kids must have 20 teeth.
I got a response two days later.
Very good. Use this money wisely—maybe buy some toothpaste to keep your other nineteen teeth clean.
Inside was five dollars. I kept the five dollars inside my sock drawer.
I kept loosing teeth and more questions kept coming.
- (You can use the internet) How many teeth do adults have? Thirty-two.
- (You can use the internet) How many baby teeth do kids typically lose before they stop losing teeth for a while? Eight.
And of course, at the end of every letter:
How many teeth do you have?
And each time, I would subtract one. I would collect the five dollars, adding it to my sock drawer. One day my mom was putting away my laundry and she found forty dollars in there.
“Christopher! Where are you getting all this money?”
“Oh my goodness. That man needs to stop giving you all his money.”
“It’s okay. I think I’m going to buy Uncle Frank something.”
“You are? Well, that’s very gracious. For what occasion?”
“He and Aunt Maggie got married this month.”
“Chris, that’s very thoughtful. I think that’s a great idea.”
The next day, mom took me shopping. I knew exactly what I wanted to get him. We went to the grocery store first, and I picked up another box of Raisin Bran. Then we went to Barnes and Noble, and I went straight to the books on tape.
“Uncle Frank doesn’t read much, sweetie.”
“He’ll like it,” I said confidently. “And he won’t need me to read it for him.”
We bought a couple books on tape, including one about traveling in China, and mom helped me wrap the entire present. I mailed it to him because I didn’t like watching people open presents, and I wrote him a card.
Thank you for the money. Happy wedding month. I hope you like the gifts.
When the coffin began its descent, it was steady and slow; my mother’s hand very quickly found mine. I suddenly became very aware that it was not my mom holding my hand, but I holding hers. So I squeezed it tightly. As the coffin left our view, mom’s hand trembled in mine.
“Bye, Uncle Frank,” she whispered, using the heel of the hand that wasn’t in mine to wipe black liquid from beneath her eye.
“Bye, Uncle Frank,” said Justin, leaning against my father.
“Bye, Frank,” said dad.
I stuck my hand in my pocket and squeezed an old Butterscotch that I didn’t know was in there. I couldn’t stop wondering about Uncle Frank sitting in that wooden box. I wondered if he still had on a pale dress shirt and a sweater vest. I wondered if he still wore the same pair of navy blue sweatpants with a lot of unidentifiable stains. I wondered if his glasses were still on his head. But above all, I thought about how now Uncle Frank was that much closer to China.