This story is by Emily Brady and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Emily Brady hails from California and can be found haunting the literary fiction, classics, and horror aisles of used bookstores. She would like to thank her husband for his honest critiques and her cats, Madame Lucinda and Frauline Brunhilda, for keeping her reading chair warm when she isn’t using it.
Eric Douglas knew few things about himself, except he didn’t like crowds much — especially from the vantage point of a stage. He was certain about one thing, though: He was in love with Jenny Gardner, and the fastest way to a girl’s heart was by holding her hand—
even if it meant dressing like a piece of corn.
The costume was bulky and stiflingly hot with green foam fronds sticking out around his head like a ridiculous sixteenth-century ruff. A simple turn of the head sent them flailing about, slapping his classmates in the face if they stood too close. And walking was an entirely different matter. The leg holes came just below the knee, which made forward movement feel like he was walking with his pants down.
“Corn!” A shrill voice broke Eric’s thoughts. Miss Pennington was the fifth-grade teacher and always seemed in a hurry. “Corn!” she said again, stomping toward Eric on a pair of kitten-heeled shoes. She pushed a sharp breath through her teeth and said, “Eric!”
He turned, smacking her across the chest with a rogue shuck. “Sorry!”
Miss Pennington grabbed him by a kernel, where she thought his shoulder must be, and pushed him toward the right wing of the stage where the rest of the class was huddled behind the curtain.
“You’re late,” Miss Pennington said, grappling with Eric’s costume as she situated him next Ben Ferris. Ben was nervously tugging a strand of painted macaroni noodles dangling around his neck. “Everyone, be quiet,” she hissed before marching away.
Eric could hear the clip-clop of her shoes quicken and fade as she disappeared.
“Too bad we didn’t need a horse,” chirped Daisy Jensen. She stood with one hip cocked to the side, lanky arms crossed. A muffled chorus of snickering rose from the students — except Ben, who was still clutching the macaroni necklace, eyes wide.
“I’m Squanto,” Ben blurted.
“I know,” whispered Eric. “We went over this a million times.”
“Right,” Ben said and dropped the necklace so it lay against the fringed suede of his costume.
The plod of Miss Pennington’s heels echoed from the other side of the curtain — the side where more than a hundred parents, siblings, and grandparents sat in the dark with their eyes fixed on the curtained stage. A microphone squealed, and Miss Pennington’s strident voice echoed through the auditorium. It was completely dark now, except for the white slice of light under the curtain — probably coming from a spotlight fixed on Miss Pennington and her hoof-like shoes.
In that glow, Eric could make out the faces of the students on the other side of the stage — the ones dressed like pilgrims. One face in particular stood out to him, and he remembered why he decided to dress up like a piece of corn in the first place.
Jenny Gardner moved to Ashland from Los Angeles at the end of the summer, just in time to join Miss Pennington’s fifth-grade class. Jenny from California, as the other kids called her, sat in the second row, kiddy-corner to Eric’s seat in the third. Her hair, long and sun-bleached, hung behind her like two shiny pieces of rope and revealed a fading tan line on the back of her neck. She was the only girl in class who didn’t bring a jacket, and Eric wondered if her family was poor — like the Dust Bowl children they’d learned about that Spring.
“Don’t you know what sleeves are?” Daisy Jensen had asked, wrinkling her nose at Jenny in frank confusion.
“It’s warm back home,” Jenny explained. “Ninety degrees this week and at least eighty until Halloween.”
One of the other boys offered Jenny a hoodie, fit her like scarecrow’s clothes. She zipped it up gratefully anyway, and Eric felt something contract in his chest. A little prick that made him think, I wish I’d thought of that, to give her mine. It was the same feeling that crept into his heart when Ben Ferris got a ten-speed bike for his birthday. Eric’s only had three.
Eric jumped. Ben had flopped into the seat next to him and was holding a colored-pencil drawing of Megatron, complete with a thought bubble that read, “Is the future of our race not worth a single human life?!”
“Sweet, right?” Ben’s face lit up with pure anticipation. Eric knew the only answer he wanted to hear was, That’s the best! Where’d you get it?
“That’s the best!” Eric steered his thoughts away from Jenny and forced enthusiasm. “Where’d you get it?” But his eyes moved past Ben’s face — which was explaining how he’d gotten a tracing projector and done the picture himself from a comic — and back to Jenny’s braided hair, shining like yellow gold against the borrowed sweater.
A few months later, Miss Pennington announced the Thanksgiving play.
“We’ll need at least five Pilgrims,” she said with a pencil in hand, poised to check names off her list. A dozen hands shot up, all belonging to girls. It was no secret the Pilgrim girls got the best costumes: long dresses with starched pillow cover bonnets. “And do I have any volunteers for the Native Americans?”
Several boys’ hands stabbed the air like launching rockets.
Ben glanced at Eric. “Put your hand up,” he hissed. “Or you’ll have to wear a stupid Pilgrim hat!” Eric slid down in his seat, hoping Miss Pennington wouldn’t write his name down for any part. Maybe he could paint sets or hand out programs instead.
Miss Pennington started writing. “And I’ll need one of you to be the lead Pilgrim.” A few of the girls looked at Jenny, who slowly put her hand above her head again.
“Thank you, Jenny,” Miss Pennington said, and the pencil started scratching on the clipboard again.
“And finally,” she continued, “I need one person — just one — to play the corn. You won’t have any lines. You’ll just walk across the stage, hand-in-hand with Jenny when she takes the gift from the Native Americans.”
The room was silent, except for a snort from the direction of Ben’s desk.
Miss Pennington’s voice shattered the uneasy silence. “Eric! Thank you!” she said, mixed with surprise and relief. Eric bolted upright. What? No! He looked up, stunned; his hand was in the air, straight as a pole, as if reaching for something far outside his grasp.
And now, standing in front of the whole school, he waited for the moment to arrive.
One by one, students approached the microphone, recited their lines, and carried out a series of simple, related anecdotes. Some students, such as Daisy, spoke with causal indifference; others (Ben, for example) stumbled through them with the speed and clumsiness of a boulder plunging down a mountainside.
Jenny walked to the microphone slowly, carefully pushing the hem of her dress forward with each step to avoid falling, her hands at her sides. Eric noticed they weren’t trembling at all.
“In the fall,” Jenny started, her voice high and crystalline, “the Pilgrims decided to have a feast. Some of their Native Americans neighbors joined the feast, and gave the Pilgrims food — including corn — to aid the celebration.”
She smiled, turned, and began to walk from the microphone to the middle of the stage. Eric’s palms felt cold and sweaty. He tried to wipe them off, but the foam only made a funny squeaking sound against his skin. He realized Jenny was smiling and felt a sudden urge to look away but couldn’t. He was smiling back.
In the last few steps toward Eric, her hand outstretched, Jenny’s face turned from joy to surprise when her shoe snagged the hem of her dress. One moment she was there, the next she was tumbling forward, coming at Eric like a freight train.
A murmur rose from the crowd, and the consistent click of camera shutters ceased. Eric’s limbs felt like cement. As if in slow motion, he walked — waddled — to Jenny as she untangled her feet from her dress.
“Here,” Eric said, sticking both hands toward her. She took them, and for a moment, Eric thought he might lose his balance and come toppling down with her. The only sound in the auditorium was the uncanny rustling of the corn fronds as Eric fought against them.
Once they were squarely on their feet, Eric and Jenny faced the audience, which erupted in applause. Eric realized he was still holding Jenny’s hand. She gave his a little squeeze, then raised their clasped hands above her head and bowed dramatically.
“Thanks, Eric,” Jenny said as the curtain began to descend. “You’re a swell piece of corn.”