Tiny stories, for the win

One of the new assignments — thanks, pandemic — I gave my feature writing students at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media was to write a tiny story, modeled after the New York Times’ Tiny Love Stories. (The Times gives you 100 words; I gave them 150 because I wanted them to use some of the writing skills we talk about. I also didn’t put a restriction on the topic; the stories didn’t have to be based on love.)

I told the students to make me imagine and feel something. I was pleased with the results. The below is a selection, reprinted with permission.

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My grandpa’s favorite animal is a bluebird. He doesn’t love their color, he loves their love. They show off, he says, they court and protect and kiss and raise babies together. He smiles every spring when they come around. One morning, we sat on his sun-bleached porch and listened to the bluebirds sing in the early sunshine. He looked back at his wife, my grandmother who doesn’t remember either of us, and smiled. I wonder the memories he has that she no longer carries, the things past bluebirds have seen on their loblolly perches lining his yard.

“One day we will be bluebirds,” he whispers and winks. “Look for us every spring.”

— Katie Clark

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I slammed my shoulder into the door and wiggled the handle just right so the key would turn. I heard rain from a cracked window on the walk up. By the third flight, I started to breathe heavier, a deafening sound broken only by my footsteps. Then the smell set in, must and candles, unpleasant but familiar. The last flight felt like Everest, and I paused outside the door, staring at the chipped red paint and the worn out, gold 6A. I shouldered that door open and you were there, smiling so big it felt like I was home again.

–Emily Siegmund

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Our eyes meet across a crowded college dining hall. A moment like this will become a memory we will share with our grandchildren. But in the same instant our eyes meet, my heel meets, not the floor, but a rogue grape. I land in a denim-clad half-split that I will later be impressed with and wish the ground would swallow me whole. From his vantage point, it appears as if it has.

Two older girls with tight ponytails help me up. By the time I have thanked them and laughed off their concerns, his attention is decidedly elsewhere. The poets are wrong. Falling has no place in love.

–Anna Grace Freebersyser

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Slip off shoes and socks, sweaters, shirts and long pants — anything that will add ounces. Take it off until it is just you and the scale, until it is routine. Tell yourself this doesn’t matter, lie if you have to. This number is not your identity; you mean more than it does. But then again, this number tells you if who you are is too much, and you never wanted to be “too much.” Step on, try not to shift your weight — try not to even think about your weight, except to will it away. Will it to fall off your bones and onto the floor like an oversized frock you can step over and out of, thrown away and forgotten. “Again?” she calls from the other room. Look down at the number, at who you are. “Yes, again.”

–Emily Siegmund

*****

I had to learn that she loved me back, even though she didn’t say it. I learned she was a warrior who shows love through battle scars. I learned she fought battles I’ll never begin to understand, so that I wouldn’t even have to. When the “I love you’s” came only after I left for college, it made me wish I’d left sooner. Sure, “mother knows best,” but it didn’t always feel that way—it wasn’t always that way. Unintentional insults became malignant; sitting on my mind and spreading to my heart like cancer. Regardless, I’m still here, and I’m glad she is too. Even if the love is toxic, is it still not love? With the bitterness that sometimes makes my tongue curl at the thought of saying “I love you” to someone so jaded, I think about how bittersweet it’d be to tell her from a grave.

–Jazmine Bunch

*****

“Jonny, I’m sorry we didn’t get you a costume, but you have to go to school.”

“I’m going to be the only one without an outfit!” I cried.

Cowboys and cowgirls lined the halls. “Cowboy Day” was the biggest day of kindergarten. Humiliation was an understatement. At recess, a car pulled up.

“Hop in.” I obliged, and sped off.

“Jake?” Mrs. Robbins called.

“Here!”

“Jared?”

“Here!”

“Jonny?” Silence.

“Where’s Jonny?!”

“He left in someone’s car!”

Panic. The faculty tore apart the playground. Within minutes, an amber alert circulated the city in search of a gray SUV.

Tires screeched to a halt in front of the school. Cowboy boots clacked on the concrete. With plaid shirt tucked into denim jeans, a 10-gallon hat lowered, I was a miniature Clint Eastwood. I walked into the chaos, beaming.

My father was Public Enemy #1, but his son was the #1 cowboy.

–Jonny Cook

****

The clock ticked. Darkness surrounded the empty train station in the small town of Hof, Germany. The aggressive overhead lights blasted down on me like the Eye of Sauron. There I sat. Waiting. The last train had long since departed and the next one was hours away. I was alone. In an unfamiliar place. In the middle of the night. With a dying phone. The loud tick of the station’s enormous clock every minute kept me from sleeping. I laid across the single hard plastic bench in the corridor to try to get more comfortable. Nope. There was no comfort here. Not in Hof. Only fear. Fear the next train would never come. Fear I would never see my family again. Fear I wouldn’t make it through the night. The clock ticked on.

— Chip Sweeney

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There were 50 victims of the Christchurch shooting, so we laid out 50 prayer rugs, collected from various members of the Muslim Students Association. The on-and-off sunshower misted the plush fabric and the battery-powered candles we laid atop them. We worried that only Muslims would come. Thank God we were wrong. I think all of us, in our grief, needed to see that crowd, drenched in sunset, faces tipped up towards the ten of us who were board members as we took to the podium, thanked them for coming.

Maybe I needed it most of all. I’d told myself, I’m not gonna cry. I did anyway, on the gold-touched podium in front of those 100-plus people, as I told them that my eleven-year-old sister asks me when Islamophobia will end and I don’t have an answer.

They didn’t judge. They were crying with me.

–Safa Ahmed

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The love shared between you two was rare. It ended when you lost your fight to cancer.

The week you were in hospice, my heart was breaking. I was like someone falling through thin ice, gasping for air, trying to make it back to the surface. I know that grandpa felt worse.

Six months later, he followed you into the gates of heaven. God knew that he couldn’t be on this earth without you.

When I think of you, I feel like I’m underwater again, so I reach for my bible. I breathe in the words of assurance. They make me feel close to both of you.

You’re together again. Your love story is endless.

–Savannah Cole

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Since the day I turned 1, I slowed danced with my Dad each birthday. After the party, or dinner or whatever that birthday brought, that evening he would be waiting in the living room with Bob Carlisle’s “Butterfly Kisses” cued up. As a kid, I would laugh my way through the dance as we swayed side to side. As a teenager, I’d complain about how uncool it was becoming, despite secretly looking forward to it. We still danced through most of those years but at 18 we stopped. I guess he thought I had outgrown it. I’m 22 now but every birthday a part of me still hopes to hear the familiar beginning of “Butterfly Kisses” and see my dad’s hand out, waiting to take mine and dance with me.

–Samaria Parker

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Proud of my plaid jumper and blissfully unaware of the resemblance between my pigtails and birds-nests, I bounced into the classroom marked second grade.  I hung my bag on the hook, walked to my assigned seat and plopped down.

I was ready for the day—excited to show off my spelling skills and less excited to struggle through arithmetic.  Until Ms. Jones pulled out the scale.

The glint of cold metal caught my eyes—fearfully widening.

The images of weight charts and the pointed fingers of pediatricians flashed in my head.

My face went hot and then the inevitable happened.

“Julia, I bet you weigh the most, get on!” said one, echoed by others.

The blue screen prompted my tears and everyone else’s teasing.

That day took my bounce and made the consumption of fat-free coffee creamer an event to mourn years later.

–Julia Masters