a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
The morning air was heavy. The sun was barely peeking over the horizon, and the dust of the room was visible in the air. Kade was sprawled across the bed, staring at the popcorn ceiling, observing its intricacies. The longer he looked on, the worse he felt. The longer he pondered, the more the weight of his own situation pushed against his heart, threatening to encompass it completely.
The Purge Notice had arrived yesterday, addressed to Kade. The Purge was a twisted
government-held thing where they executed society’s “bad ones”; they were told people were
chosen based on criminal records, but it often involved more political motivation than they
wanted to let on. He knew it was coming; understanding his situation, there was no way that
Notice wouldn’t have been in his hands. But still, the pit in his stomach upon holding that letter
for the first time was unbearable. Even now, with nothing to distract him, the entire concept of
there being money on his head was odd. Terrifying, sickening, paralyzing… but odd.
He clicked his tongue, hoping the small sound would distract his thoughts. Click. Click.
Until a pillow hit him square in the face.
It was Erin, a girl he had met yesterday by mere chance. She stood at the foot of the bed,
holding another pillow as if in preparation for another attempted assault. Her dark curls were a
bit messier than they had been, a bit frizzier and more unkempt. She was taller than him at an
average moment, but at the end of his bed, towering over him, weapon in hand, she was a bit
scarier than she had been yesterday.
Kade sat up, hugging the pillow to his chest, “Good morning to you too, dear Erin,” he
sing-songed, a smug grin plastered to his face.
Another pillow to his face, which made Kade laugh. It tumbled over the one in his arms
and rested next to him. Erin bit the inside of her lip, suppressing a small smile, “‘Morning. I was
just talking to some people outside. They said it wasn’t safe for us to be here for more than a few
days. We’re gonna have to find somewhere else tomorrow, I think.”
Running from the Purge was not recommended. To Kade’s understanding, if you had
been given a Notice for the Purge, you were going to see red no matter what. But if you ran, your
entire family name would be put to shame, and their methods got much more violent. The same
ending, but a more miserable story. The officiants of the whole thing did not mess around.
However, teenagers are very egotistical, and each one believed they were the exception
of the understood social norm. Or they were sure as Hell were going to try.
Erin tossed a half-eaten loaf of white bread on the bed, taking a bite into a slice herself,
“Boo. Is there butter or something?”
“Dude, we’re on the run from the government. Bread is a luxury, let alone butter.” Erin
said. Kade would have thought she was joking if not for the obvious eye roll she gave him. Kade
took the bread, hesitating.
“Are you okay, Erin?”
She seemed taken aback by the question, pausing to chew her bread, “I mean, no, I’m
not. I don’t know who would be. At this point, my entire life feels all like a game of trust, and
I’m at a loss.” Kade nodded. He knew he was included in that game. She was wary of him, for
reasons he understood but didn’t like. She continued, “Speaking of games, I found some playing
cards in that drawer over there. They’re falling apart, and something definitely peed on them, but
you know, if we get bored today. We can’t really do much for our escapade while it’s light
“Aw wait, you don’t want to go to that tavern again? And be harassed by men who
haven’t seen the sun of social competence in decades?” Kade batted his eyes, mocking some sad
sack’s excuse for flirting.
Erin breathed a laughed, “Not unless they’re ready to shoot me down there.”
Kade laughed, leaning over the pillow so as to rest his cheek in his hand, “So, Go Fish
Erin made a face Kade found hard to pinpoint, “I have nothing to bet.”
“Boo,” Kade whined, smiling despite himself, “Okay, fine. We don’t gamble. What else
is there, spoons?” he thought for a moment, “No, no, no, that would get too violent. Summer
camp was interesting with that game.” He laughed to himself, “Oh! What were some games we
played at summer camp? Poison Dart Frog?”
“Dude, it’s like 7 AM, how do you have so much ener-”
“So, is that a no on my game suggestions?”
Erin hesitated, “Honestly, if you’re in charge of any game, I fear for both my sanity and
Kade snickered, scooching closer to Erin, very much popping her personal bubble,
“What, do you not enjoy my company?”
Erin blinked a few times.
“There are so many things I could say, but that just- mmm. Nevermind.” She stepped
back, giving Kade an expression that looked something in between strained sympathy and
genuine bewilderment. She sighed, “Where did Charlie go?”
Kade flopped back onto the bed, “Oh! I think he went to hunt for some news stuff. I
guess just an update on what the government is saying about the Purge. He might be at the
tavern?” Erin raised an eyebrow, “Well, where do people get news in these parts of tow-”
As if on cue, the dingy door rattled open, and there stood Charlie. He was holding a
couple newspapers, and tossed a copy to Erin, keeping one for himself.
“The man of the hour!” Kade exclaimed, using his knees to bounce lightly on the bed.
Charlie laughed a bit, shaking his head, “Hi, Kade. Erin, it doesn’t look like there’s much
right now. Just something about the New Year’s fireworks ceremony in a couple days, and how
776 people turned themselves into the Purge yesterday. Considering they sent out close to 1,000
Notices in the region, that’s not bad for them. But that means we’d be more recognizable in
Erin looked at Kade, who was peering over her shoulder, far too close for comfort. It was
closer to an awkward side hug than a partner reading. Charlie kept talking, proper in his
mannerisms, nervous in his delivery. Something about how they needed to be extra careful, blah
blah, money on their heads, yap yap, very risky, yaddi-yaddi-yadda.
Kade just nodded absentmindedly. He was looking at the advertisement for the New
Year’s fireworks ceremony. Fireworks ceremony. Something knotted in his stomach.
“Kade, are you okay?” Erin asked.
“Huh? Oh. Yeah.”
Charlie and Erin exchanged glances. Charlie fidgeted with his hands for a moment, and
Erin faced Kade, urging him to say more.
Kade sighed, throwing his hands up and averting eye contact in frustration, “I just… is
there any way we can watch the fireworks?”
The silence was tense, and Kade could feel his chest tightening. God, he was dangerously
good at rendering Erin speechless. He only wished it were as fun as it was a moment ago.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she finally spat.
Kade flinched at the harsh tone, his posture collapsing, “I just-”
“Dude, seriously? You’re probably the most recognizable out of all of us for this Purge
thing. You’re probably most at risk, and you won’t take this seriously! It’s not a joke, our lives
are at stake! Are you seriously so dense to think you’re exempt from the situation here? Are you
“Erin, please,” Charlie reached for her arm, but she yanked it back.
Kade said nothing. He stared at his feet.
“Now of all times is when you decide to stay quiet? Who even are you?” she threw her
arms up, mocking him, “Little princely boy, son of government workers-” Kade flinched again,
“-won’t take the Purge seriously when he's a victim to it. What the hell are you?” Her voice was
getting louder as she spoke. The louder she got, the more Kade’s posture shrunk.
“Erin, please, take a deep breath. Someone’s going to hear you,” Charlie’s voice was
wavering. He put a gentle arm on Erin’s shoulder.
She held her mouth closed, making a sound close to scream, flailing her arms around as if
that would help make sense of her anger, “God. Fine. Go to the firework show, get yourself
killed, just don’t drag me into it!” She stormed out, slamming the door.
Kade still didn’t say anything.
Charlie stared at the door for a moment, sighing and dropping the newspaper on the floor.
He shifted and flopped onto the bed, laying on his back. His arm was draped across his forehead,
his eyes were closed. Kade stood still, eyes fixed on the ground, clutching his jacket as if his life
depended on it. The silence was suffocating.
“Why do you push her buttons?”
Kade blinked, “I wasn’t trying to.”
Charlie sat up, giving Kade a firm stare. Kade didn’t look back at him, but tensed up,
“Why, then, did you ask to go to the firework show? You know how dangerous it is. You know
how stressed we all are.”
Kade paused, shifting from foot to foot, “I know.”
Charlie’s voice hardened, “Kade, please, I know you can talk. Why do you want to go?”
Kade broke, shaking in his own emotions, tears welling up in his eyes. A few rogue ones
escaped, falling onto his cheek, a stabbing reminder of himself. He turned to Charlie, still
avoiding eye contact, mumbling, “I just… want to see them.”
Charlie’s eyes softened. He looked perplexed, but sympathetic. He sighed, rubbing his
forehead and groaning. There were a few moments of uncomfortable silence before Charlie
finally replied, “We’re only a few miles South from the Capitol. Can we really walk that far?”
Kade looked up, making eye contact, “Uh, actually… You can see them from here. We’d
have to go to the roof to get a clear shot, but, you know.”
Charlie paused, “Okay. Okay. Okay.” He buried his face in his hand, taking a deep
breath, “I’ll sit on the roof with you. But you have to be alert while we’re up there. Erin would
kill me for a second time if something happened to us. It's like, two days away, right?”
Kade nodded, visibly relaxing.
The next two days moved like thick molasses on a hot day. Erin had been rather stand-
offish with him; Kade hadn’t explained anything, but rather, tried to patch his new and more than
awkward friendship with her the best way he could while dancing around direct confrontation.
She slowly started to warm into their banter again; Kade suspected Charlie had something to do
with it. The calm third party always did his wonders.
Kade even invited her again to the roof of their new hideout to see the fireworks, but she
declined. She said something about how it wasn’t her place to be; her eyes were softer when she
said it than they had been the first time he brought it up.
Thus, the two boys climbed the stairs to the top, opening the door to reveal a blanket of
night sky above them. The sky was clear; stars were sprinkled in the abyss, and the moon was
waxing gibbous. “Shame it’s not full. That would have been lucky,” Charlie commented.
“It looks close enough to me.”
Kade was giddy. If he was eccentric on a normal day, there was not a single word to
describe how excited he was at that moment.
“I wonder what kind they’re going to have. Have you seen this show before?” Charlie
nodded, but Kade kept talking, “Of course, they’re huge, so they’ll definitely be visible and like,
obvious from where we are. Oh, I hope we can hear the music too. It’d suck if we couldn’t. The
music adds so much. They like, sync it with the explosion of colors and stuff.”
Charlie laughed, “Yeah, it’s really cool. I take it you go to this annually?”
Kade paused; Charlie was observing Kade, as if he was trying to understand something,
“Oh. Yeah. You know my parents; they’re politicians. They help run the thing, so we’d always
get VIP tickets.”
“Your parents help run everything, that was a given.”
Kade laughed lightly, “I guess so.”
The two sat in silence for a moment, before Charlie asked, “When does it start?”
“Shouldn’t be long.”
As the moment grew nearer, Kade grew quieter, focusing more on the Northern spot of
the empty night sky that would soon be exploding with light.
“Kade, can you be open with me for a second?”
Kade’s firm stare broke, and he looked at Charlie. His eyes were red, “Huh?”
“I’m sitting with you on the roof because you… well, you cried over this. You don’t owe
me any explanation, but, like…” he stammered, “Just- why is this so important to you?” Charlie
wasn’t malicious. He wasn’t making fun of Kade. He just… wanted to know.
“Oh, uh…” Kade averted eye contact, pausing to think, “I just… like them.”
Whatever hope that Charlie had had in his face flattened, and he turned back to the sky.
Kade looked at him a bit longer, knowing he wanted to ask for more, but the mood had shifted.
They focused on what they had come there for.
A stream of smoke was sent into the air, exploding into thousands of bursts of light.
Beautiful, burning flowers of fire. Kade leaned forward further, scrambling to his knees as if that
would bring him closer. The delayed booms of the fireworks and the distance covered up any
chance of hearing the music, but Kade knew what was playing. He shifted forward. Every year,
the lights played off in perfect timing with the accents of the music, growing bigger with the
dynamic contrasts. Quieter, fizzier fireworks would go off in the more melodic parts.
Without the music, it was a subdued experience of what Kade had seen in the past; but
maybe somehow, the buildup, the unsureness in his attendance, and the tension surrounding it all
made it just as magical as it had been in year’s past. Kade’s mouth was agape.
It was everything.
It took a few minutes for Kade to sit down, relaxing into watching the rest of the show.
He hugged his knees to his chest. He thought for a moment of Charlie next to him, of his genuine
kindness in his curiosity. A game of trust, Erin had called it…
“This is the biggest event of the year. You know, it was actually one of the only events
my parents let me attend when I was younger.”
Charlie shifted, almost too quickly, looking at Kade in anticipation and surprise.
“Fireworks were like this… otherworldly thing for me. And the best part was my parents
usually kept some for us. You know, we’d light them in our backyard. I remember holding a
sparkler for the first time, sitting on my dad’s lap,” Kade laughed, indulging in the nostalgia for a
moment, pausing to think. His tone grew darker, “It was… I don’t know.
“I was sheltered when I was a kid, but I wasn’t stupid. I was able to figure out the kind of
people my parents were working for, the kind of people my parents were. But, I guess… I don’t
know…” his voice wavered, but he shook his head, continuing, “I started to act out. Like, I
would dress in outfits they hated on purpose, so maybe, even though they hated it, they’d show
some sign they were reasonable human beings in some unreasonable situation,” he paused,
choking out, “Did you know what I got arrested for? The thing that got me in the Purge in the
Charlie shook his head, as if any word spoken would break the moment, as if it would
snap the trust and leave the story forever unfinished.
“Fireworks,” Kade refused to make eye contact, staring at the show. As the fireworks
exploded, his eyes would light up, and his face would mirror the distant glow, “I would set
fireworks off on some rich people’s roofs, to screw around with them. I hated them. They knew
they were wealthy; everyone knew they were wealthy, but there was something about their ego.
They knew their privilege, and they flaunted it. It was infuriating.
“I did it because even if I didn’t get caught, my parents would know it was me. Fireworks
are too hard for a random protestor to get, and they were too personal of a thing for me. They
knew that. They weren’t that awful. I was trying to talk to them by being what they hated,
because I knew my words were falling on deaf ears.
“The first time I got caught, they let me off on a warning. They did their politician magic
or whatever so I wouldn’t be given a Purge Notice. But still… they…” he shook his head, “I was
in denial about having them as parents, but I think, in a way, they were in denial about having me
as a son.” He pursed his lips, as if he was ashamed of admitting that, “The son that was shorter
than most girls, the son that wore skirts, the son that committed crimes as some convoluted
statement because he’s too emotional to just accept it and move on.
“The second time I got caught, they were pissed. I guess it was the last straw. We got into
a huge screaming fight, but… I guess the screaming was mostly from their end,” the excitement
in Kade’s eyes had died. For the first time in the few days Charlie’s known him, his face is
unreadable, empty. Charlie fidgeted.
“They basically listed all my faults to my face, and after a while, my dad just… left the
room. My mom said nothing, so I… I left, too, I guess. There was no going back after that point.
They stopped defending me. They didn’t even want to try. They let me get picked for the Purge.
They were so done with me they stopped advocating for my life. They let my time run out. God.”
His voice was getting higher and higher as he spoke, weaker and weaker. Kade rubbed his face
harshly, stretching his cheeks down and letting his eyes roll back for a moment. All the initial
emotions of this conflict were rising in his chest, threatening to stop his breathing in its place, but
this time, it was different. There was a crushing sadness to it all. “Part of me blames myself. I
was a brat. I must have been a horrible son to have. But then again… I don’t understand. How
can you watch a kid grow up with such love, and then as soon as he’s not what you want, you…”
Kade trailed off. The rest of the question remained unasked, but there was an understanding
between the two of them that it was not wise for Kade to finish it.
Kade said nothing, hugging his knees tighter to his chest, burying his head into them.
Charlie didn’t say anything. It was an answer to everything he and Erin had been wondering the
past few days, but it was out of left field. This kid, the one who didn’t understand when to shut
up, the one who tried to make a situation light-hearted at every instance, even when it drove
them to insanity… He wasn’t sure how to go about this, how to be a friend that Kade wouldn’t
regret confiding in.
There were no words. They were teenagers, kids. And they were risking their lives to see
some fireworks so one of them could somehow make sense of everything he’d been through.
Charlie put a hand on Kade’s shoulder. Kade melted into it, slumping into Charlie’s side.
His wails were quiet and careful, and eventually they stopped, leaving Kade to just shiver against
Charlie. There were no more tears to be wept, but there was still a wound left unhealed. He
rested his hand on Kade’s head.
“Thanks, Charlie,” Kade said, barely audible over the distant booming of the fireworks.
“I promise, you have nothing to thank me for,” he replied, looking back to the sky,
painted in a fiery scene of reds, oranges, and pinks. Kade shifted, laying his head on Charlie’s
lap, smiling in what he could only define as relief. He let his heart settle in the comfort of the
moment. He stared off at the show.
It really was beautiful.
Isabelle Fisher, age 18, recently graduated High School in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Her old elementary notebooks are littered with stories, and now, her Google Drive documents share a similar sentiment. She has no formal or published writing experience.
* = Editors' Choice work
Unless otherwise noted, all pictures used are open-source images in the public domain.