First Place Winner of 2020 The Voyage YA First Chapters Contest judged by NYT Bestselling Author Dhonielle Clayton
I couldn’t stop thinking about praying mantises when it happened. Strange childhood facts running on a loop in my head. Female mantises rip the heads off their male partners during sex. Their jagged green arms folded into each other like shy cannibals. Watching. Curious. Hungry.
More than anything, I thought about insect display cases. Yellow labels with ancient words scrawled by hand. Lepidoptera. Diptera. Mantodea. What did they make of their final moments? A needle, shooting down from the sky with a sort of dumb intention. Piercing insects into colorful boxes. Their little arms spasming in those last moments against a cosmic pin holding them in place. How quickly their bodies become ornaments. How quickly my own body felt like an ornament as I held the phone in my hands. It was 6 a.m. The sky was pink and new. The call dropped on me from above, nailing right through my stomach.
Somebody once told me not to start stories with dead parents. It’s a whole thing. Look up any major franchise and the formula begins with grief. So I won’t mention any dead parents. I’ll start on the Connecticut coast instead. To be honest, somebody told me not to start stories in New England either. Something about Gilmore Girls. Supremacy. Lobster rolls. That person will have to forgive me. This story starts in Connecticut.
Overlooking the Long Island Sound is an ancient arts center populated by people who “curate American culture” and who are also “millionaires.” Every summer, the American Arts Center invites some of the best and brightest college students in the nation to submit proposals for interrogation and creation. The website is a knotted bundle of research buzzwords. The application requires an absurd amount of recommendation letters, confusing deadlines, and intentionally vague definitions. Interrogation and creation. That is the only guidance students are given. Upon Googling, this program is further defined by pictures of paper-mâché puppets, science beakers next to neon graphs, and violinists standing waist-deep in the ocean. It is at once bizarre, mysterious, and thrilling. My professors thought the same, pulling me into their offices to chant interrogation and creation with increasing volume. I chanted with them. Agreed that I should emphasize my They/Them pronouns. Wrote my essays. Edited. Applied. After months of phone interviews with American Arts Center panelists, I received the green light. An invitation to interrogate and create. A place to remix everything I had been learning in my college bubble. My proposal? A string of meaningless research terms. The head of the philosophy department beamed when I slid my application across her desk:
The Violence of Ephemera across Places and Disciplines.
So when my [REDACTED] was diagnosed with cancer two days before I boarded the plane from Atlanta to Providence, it wasn’t like I could just… I mean, you’d have to understand… we didn’t know how bad it would be back then. And the American Arts Center doesn’t wait for anyone, so… my family agreed. I’d go. And surely by August, everything would be fine. And as I sat in the airplane window seat, everything would be fine. And even with the turbulence flying over Baltimore, everything would be fine.
As soon as I landed, Providence made me forget about my home in Georgia. Maybe that was terrible. Maybe that was what I needed. I don’t know. As I walked along the riverfront, I forgot about cancer. And my Southern accent. Even my luggage rolling behind me felt weightless. I was chosen. I was nineteen. I was about to ride a train for the first time. So what if there was gum stuck to my luggage as I lifted it onto the Amtrak? All I could think about was the chilly late-May air. Friday nights I sacrificed in the name of the University library. Scholarships and grants and freshman honor societies. Working every school break. I found an empty row of seats framed with massive windows. The train pulled ahead, away from all of the work I did to get here. The New England coast yanked me towards Connecticut. Everything would be fine. I deleted “Stage Four Lymphoma” from the search bar on my phone. Everything would be fine.
About two hours later, the train pulled to a stop. Cold air in my lungs as I glanced out the window. Then… confetti. People holding signs at the train station: AMERICAN ARTS CENTER. I bounded off the train headfirst. Hands flying out to shake other hands. Hugs. Apologies for hugging. “This is the ephemera kid!” A rush of introductions and caffeine and anti-gravity. To be honest, I don’t remember what they said. Or what I said. If I was awkward or flippant or trying too hard. All I felt was confetti exploding up from my lungs and out through my mouth, the biggest smile on the Long Island Sound. With the ocean just on the horizon, these new friends helped me toss my luggage into the back of the van. They juggled nametags and pronouns and waivers as the van hummed to life and weaved through the coastal town. Yacht clubs. Mansions. A drunk grin spread across my face as I pretended that these were my people. That I wasn’t born from gravel roads and hand-me-down clothes. For these two months, I would shed old skin. I could, if I controlled my voice and movement, become the type of person who rolls the words “Work Study” and “Walmart” like foreign marbles around their mouths.
The narrow road opened its mouth wider and wider. My drivers laughed about award-winners they had driven and their first summers here at the Arts Center. I laughed with them in the backseat, my smile turning tight. They mentioned performance artists and painters and poets that I had written essays on. A Nobel Prize winner. An annoying scientist with poor email etiquette. Laughing along with them, I felt totally outside of my body. I turned my nametag over and over as questions zinged out of their mouths: What are you working on this summer? What is this ephemera stuff? How did you get here? My answers were confused mumbles. They were too polite to push further, chatter turning back to each other as they remembered a harp player from last summer who got blackout drunk and tried to swim to a nearby island. My nametag stared up at me, some of the only words I understood in the rush of sound:
LEX DAVIS, “EPHEMERA”
When the van turned into a wooded lane, my world broke open for the first time that summer. The chattering stopped. The lane ended at oceanfront and ancient buildings and a sign naming my new home. I was here. Interrogation and creation. Seaweed and saltwater. The drivers stuffed a packet in my hands and nodded towards some pastel cottages sprinkled across the campus.
“Welcome to American Arts.”
At this point, back in Georgia, there was probably vomit. Stale hospital air. Poking and prodding and needles and blood. I don’t remember if that even crossed my mind when I came to the front door of my cottage. If I wanted to call [REDACTED] and rant about how massive and scary and enormous life felt. What I do remember are the seashells crunching under my feet, and how bizarre it felt that summer could include chilly air. I wanted to yell and cry and get my space set up in the old mansion marked “Art Studios.” As a cold breeze wafted through the campus, I wanted to sprint down to the shore, dive into the ocean, and swim towards that lighthouse sitting in the middle of the sound. Maybe that would make me forget about [REDACTED]. Maybe if I could drink in the new world around me, I could stop that humming noise in the background. I could smile up at the sunlight without hoping it would blind me.
The logistics are some of the only things that make sense from that summer, so I’ll try to focus on them. The row of pastel cottages. Fishing out keys from my welcome packet. Tucking the schedules under my arm (mealtimes were the only defined times of our days). I came to the porch of a lavender cottage that glowed brilliantly in the light. No sounds from inside. Breathe. The smell of fresh paint mixed with the salty air.
My key clicked and the door opened to reveal a small living room, lavender walls, and a leather sofa that looked entirely unused. Down the hall, a row of doors with numbers on them. I stepped inside, rolling my luggage over the hardwood and trying as best I could not to trigger any welcoming committee. ROOM 3. Breathe. I tip-toed. Stood in front of the door and saw my name next to:
BENJI BROWN, ENTOMOLOGY
I recognized the name from my social media stalking. Pictured the curly brown hair. Kind eyes. Nerdy dragonfly photos. I had braced myself for that word: “entomology: (noun) the scientific study of insects.” Still, nothing could have prepared me for opening the door to see…. insects. A wall of them. Display cases filled with butterflies, beetles, wasps, and more. The twin beds were littered with multicolored nets, magnifying glasses, and binoculars.
In the corner of the room, a single aquarium sat filled with natural light from the windows. Oh god, I thought. Dead bugs were going to be hard to handle as it was. Living bugs, I didn’t know if I could sleep next to. Moving my luggage in front of me, a pitiful attempt at protection, I rolled my way over to the aquarium.
“They’re a couple.”
I yelped. Leaning against the doorway, black crop-top and dangly earrings, Benji stood grinning. Beautiful. Handsome. Technicolor compared to the Facebook pictures.
“The praying mantises. They’re a couple. Mantodea, that’s the Latin…” Benji fumbled, extending a handshake, “I’m Benji Brown. You’re Lex Davis. I think we’re roommates? That’s a stupid thing to ask. Yes, we’re roommates.”
In that moment, the room was just a room. The bugs just bugs. I was nineteen and clueless about gravity or grief or Long Island bonfires. I took Benji’s hand, smiling back at their genderqueer scientist chic. Kind of cute. Kind of my type. I introduced myself with a trying-too-hard smile, not knowing that at this exact moment in Georgia, the first round of chemo was tearing apart cell walls and exploding lymph nodes like fireworks.