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'Shape Without Form' 

Second place

I. This Is the Way the World Ends

When I was 7, I was a girl who disappeared. Emmy and I were riding our twin pink bicycles down the beach, right by the ocean where the sand is damp and firm and bike wheels make trails, like the mark of a sea creature that has slithered onto land. It was early evening, and the beach was empty except for the cursive of our wheels, and ahead there was only one obstacle. A man and a boy were sitting in beach chairs, their fishing poles stuck upright in the sand, a cooler beside them. They were the only fishermen left, the rest having either caught enough for the day or abandoned the ungiving sea for one of the inland restaurants that advertised throughout the day on banners flown behind small airplanes over the ocean. As we came upon them, the boy stood and gaped at us. I slowed instinctively, and as we approached, the boy pulled his father up by his elbow and said, "Dad! It's her! Lillian!"

"Lillian!" the man screamed, "is that you?"

The boy began to run after us screaming her name, and I rode faster until he was nothing but a speck of color on a blurred shore. I stopped my bike and Emmy stared at me, breathless. I don't know why we were so afraid, but to this day I don't think I've been more frightened. We could still see them, but the sound of wind and waves had hushed them. We had promised Emmy's parents that under no circumstances would we ride on the street. We had promised to be back before dark. We would have to pass them one more time.

I took a breath and turned my bike around, pressed my feet hard into my pink pedals, and rode against the wind. I did not look at them as we passed, but they ran toward me, screaming.

"Lillian, come home! We miss you. We love you, Lillian!"

I had passed them just out of earshot when I was suddenly catapulted to the sand. My bike had hit a rock, and I flew over the handlebars into a heap on the ground. My bike was mangled behind me, a pink skeleton in the sand. I picked it up and ran. I could only hear the wind roaring in my ears, but I knew that behind me a man and a boy were calling a name that was not mine.

II. This Is the Way the World Ends

I listened to the evening news from the doorway. I didn't want to get too close. My father had the mail splayed on the table in front of him. He alternated between anger at the mail and anger at the news. My mother had her eyeglasses on her head. This is where they always were when she lost them. She came back and forth from the kitchen where she was making dinner. She sat next to my father and then she went to stir something. I watched from the doorway as the wise cabbage of Ronald Reagan's face hovered in a box over the news reporter's head. And then they panned to the face of the man who wore the topography of a faraway land on his head, a map of the country that was covered in ice. According to the news, Reagan was ready to build space stations and fire at Russia from there, and the Russian man had armies waiting in the snow. It wasn't difficult to tell who was winning. The war was cold.

When the news was over, we ate chicken, rice and lima beans and then my father read poetry to me in bed. My favorite was one by Eliot, "The Hollow Men," because my father would sing the part that goes, "Here we go 'round the prickly pear." With my eyes closed, I pictured Dylan Thomas' "Fern Hill," e.e. cummings' lame balloonman who whistled far and wee, and when he read Frost's poem about fire and ice -- one of which was preferred, and the other, with the cold war looming over our heads, was an inevitability.

My literary parents did not believe in God, unless you count Frost, and so after my father was convinced by my breathing, a technique I had mastered, that I was asleep, he would leave my bedroom and close the door behind him, and I would come out of the shelter of covers and kneel beside my bed. I would fold my hands in front of me and imagine a room, completely white with no walls or ceiling or floor. I was in a red-and-silver spacesuit and God was a booming but kind voice. I imagined he looked like Robin Williams. He would assure me that this cold war would not be the end of us all. Instead of "Amen," we would end our nightly sessions with a quiet and devout, "Nanu, nanu." And like Mork, I would return from the stars back to Earth.

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