a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
"Hey, Lamar, what do you think you're doing?" Daniel Clements leaned over Elias with a sneer. His slicked-back blond hair and piercing green eyes shone against the bright fluorescent lights of the classroom. In a flash, Elias’ computer seemed to materialize from his hands to Daniel’s. Daniel let out a strident laugh that echoed around the classroom. "Who learns Algebra two in tenth grade? I learned this three years ago!” Daniel leaned in and whispered, "You’ll never amount to anything in this world anyway." He tossed Elias' computer back onto his desk and sauntered out of the classroom.
Elias buried his head in his arms, feeling the disapproving stares of his classmates stabbing his back, the kids who could run faster than him, think better than him, all while attractive enough to be on the cover of a magazine. Just because their family had enough money, their futures were guaranteed. Whether they were enhanced in math, language, or physical ability, they were all destined to push the corners of reality, revolutionize the world, and leave him in the dust.
When Elias arrived home, he half-heartedly thanked the self-driving car and stepped inside the house. He was immediately wrapped in a hug from his sister, Stella.
"How was school?"
"Come on, something interesting must have happened today!"
"You know, Elias, you can tell me anything." She ruffled his hair and walked back to the kitchen, which was filled with the scent of ground meat simmering with tomato-basil marinara.
Later, as he twirled the noodles around his fork and slurped them up, he thought about how ninety percent of the food consumed in the United States was genetically modified. Tomatoes had anti-freezing genes from fish, meat was largely lab-grown, and wheat was resistant to thousands of pests and diseases. He glared at the basket of apples in the center of the table, with their polished rosy skins and sweet fragrance. Even the apples are perfect in every way, unlike me, he thought.
Stella’s voice invaded his gloom. "Mom, Dad, for the past semester, I've been designing that interstellar spacecraft, right? I finally got to present it! And Professor Madden, the one who never smiles, came up to me after class and said he wanted me to intern at an aeronautics and space company!"
"Oh my goodness! I always knew you'd make us proud." Their mother wiped away a tear of joy.
Stella turned to Elias, her eyes suddenly far away. "Elias, how about one day, just you and me, we go to Pluto together, and see new galaxies far, far, away, without all this air pollution on Earth?"
"I have no doubt you’ll make that happen." Elias looked at his sister’s stunning golden hair, crystal blue eyes, and skin as pale as porcelain. She always shone so brightly, like the stars in the sky she so wanted to explore. Their parents had bought her a staggering 80% increase in cognitive ability, a 20% enhancement in communications, and an aspiration to become the best aerospace engineer on Earth. I could have been like that too, Elias thought, if only our father hadn't lost his job before I was born.
His mother turned to him, and he looked down before their eyes could meet. "Elias, I hope you don’t feel too overshadowed by your sister.” she said gently. “But since your Mathematical Aptitude Test is in a few weeks, Stella will help you study for it.”
Elias felt his stomach clench. This is my chance to prove myself! If I do well, I could go to a top college and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the genetically enhanced kids.
Elias followed Stella to her room and sat down at her desk. She leaned over him, her blonde hair forming a curtain around them, and scanned through his previous math exam. "You seem to be having a lot of trouble with graphing polynomials. First, you have to look at the degree and the leading coefficient…” As she drew a diagram on the computer, the stylus dropped out of her hand and clattered on the desk. She picked it up and dropped it again, making Elias jump back in surprise.
“Oh, sorry!” She awkwardly picked it back up. “By the way, you’ve been awfully quiet. Do you have any questions?”
“Um...no.” Elias got increasingly agitated as his confusion built up.
“Elias, this is a complicated subject, but you can learn it. You can do anything in this world if you set your mind to it.”
At that instant, Elias’s pent-up anger erupted. “That’s easy for you to say! You’re the smartest, the strongest, so much better than me. Everything comes easily for you!” He threw his pencil and stormed out of the room, ignoring her calls for him to come back.
It was absolutely freezing.
No matter how much Elias layered on, the cold crept in and gave him goosebumps. Sheets of frost encapsulated every blade of grass and settled on the bare trees.
He scanned his face on the recognition lock and opened the front door. Where was Stella? She wasn't supposed to go back to college until next week. He wanted to apologize for lashing out at her last night, but he had a math test to study for. He shouldered his bag and went to his room.
A few hours later, Stella was still not home, and she hadn’t responded to his texts. Elias thought about his classmates, how unexceptional they’d been, and a wretched feeling ate away at his gut. Stella had dropped the stylus again and again. What if she was in trouble?
Elias threw open the front door, jumped into the car, and shouted at it to roam the streets. Elias opened the window and shouted out her name. The trees and houses became a blur, and he grew shaky and sweaty.
He found Stella slumped against a convenience store, her eyes dull and listless. He stumbled out of the car and cradled her in his arms. She was so light. She whispered his name.
Elias tried to stay calm as the car drove them home. Their parents were still at work. Elias gently lowered her onto the couch and brewed a cup of tea for her. He turned on the TV.
"Thousands of children in wealthy communities across the US have gone to the ER because of a mysterious illness, 'spasalia.'" President Anderson's voice echoed ominously. "Medical professionals all over the country are already studying this disease. So far, it has only attacked people under thirty who have undergone genetic alterations. Spasalia does not seem to be a virus or infection, but rather a consequence of the body's cells undergoing spontaneous mutations."
"Spontaneous mutations?" Stella's voice, which was always bursting with enthusiasm, was tinged with disbelief. "Like cancer? Do I have cancer?"
Elias suppressed his own panic. Right now, he had to be somebody Stella could rely on. "Don't jump to conclusions. And besides, even if it is cancer, radiation therapy today is a lot more efficient than fifty years ago." He paused. "You didn't have any signs of illness before?"
Stella sighed. "I did have some bad headaches, and I've been feeling pretty weak for the last few days. But I just took an aspirin and went on my way." She fidgeted with the handle of the teacup. "Ever since I was little, I've always had to be the best. Sports, writing, math, you name it. I couldn't stand disapproval from Mom and Dad, not after all they'd spent on making me perfect. When I heard they couldn’t afford anything for you, I swore to be a strong big sister you could always depend on." She laughed bitterly. "Sometimes, I wish I could be like you, like the genetically normal kids, the kids who don't have a price tag hanging over their heads, who don't have to carry the whole world's expectations on their back."
She suddenly lurched forward, the teacup falling from her hands and shattering on the floor. She clutched at her throat, choking and gasping. Elias ran and grabbed the phone. His fingers shaking, he dialed 911. When the ambulance finally arrived, she had passed out, and he watched helplessly as they took away her limp body.
Elias paced around the waiting room, wringing his hands. If I had gone and looked for her earlier, if I hadn’t prioritized that dumb test over my sister, she wouldn’t have ended up like this. His parents were crying softly in the corner. After an hour of waiting, a nurse came in and led them to Stella’s room.
Elias tried to fight back tears. Stella had a tube down her throat and machines plugged into her. She was almost unrecognizable. Elias made up his mind to help her the only way he knew how.
Elias spent his days sprawled out on the floor of the library, with twenty tabs of articles open--all on the topic of spasalia. But, in the back of his mind, he knew it was all futile. He was a sixteen-year-old kid at the bottom of his class and had no experience in much of anything besides school.
You can do anything.
He tried to ignore his sister’s voice, but she only repeated her encouragement. He thought about her, sick and dying in a hospital bed, before drafting an email to Dr. McGee, a researcher at a lab studying spasalia. He briefly introduced himself and begged to help out at the research facility.
Elias sent dozens of emails detailing his ideas about the genetic origin of the disease. Finally, Dr. McGee replied, telling him that a few of his speculations had some promise to them and that he and his colleagues were interested in what more he had to say. At last, Elias felt like he was on the right track.
That night, Elias lay in bed with his eyes wide open. He sat up in confusion as he saw the silhouette of his mother and father in the doorframe of his bedroom. He could hear the crickets chirping outside as his mother sat at the foot of his bed.
She took a deep breath. "The hospital called this afternoon. Stella..." Her shaky voice finally gave way as she cried, her shoulders heaving, her breath coming out in short gasps.
Elias put his arms around her as she sobbed. He felt like the floor had given way from beneath him, sending him tumbling into an abyss below.
He was too late.
Six years later
"Hey, young man. Are you looking for a nice bouquet to give to a lucky girl?" The man at the flower shop laughed good-naturedly. "How can I help you?"
"Do you have sunflowers?" Elias asked.
"Of course we do!"
Elias paid for them and carefully placed them between the seats in his car. Then, he drove to the cemetery. With the sunflowers in hand, he pressed the button on the elevator for level thirty of the skyscraper cemetery. He carefully walked amongst the graves until he arrived at a small headstone with a glossy shimmer.
Elias knelt down and gently laid the sunflowers on the ground, their bright yellow color contrasting against the dusty ground.
"We finally found the cure, Stella," he murmured. "It's going to be available to the public within the next few months."
He took a deep breath. “I used to think I was disadvantaged, that life was so unfair. But in the short time we had together, a time I wish I had treasured more, you gave me worth, when everyone else turned me away. It wasn’t ability I was lacking; it was belief. Just like you said, you really can do anything.”
He turned to the window, still deep in thought. High in the night sky, he watched as a sparkling light streaked across the stars and disappeared among the treetops.
* = Editors' Choice work
Unless otherwise noted, all pictures used are open-source images in the public domain.