This story is by Darcy Bergstein and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Alison knew something was wrong when she found herself looking at a college acceptance email.
The big, bold words splattered across the top of the page, almost taunting her with their sheer pride and ego as the computer’s blaring light cascaded confused shadows across her face. They told her she was good enough, that she had the skill set to achieve greatness, something she had never heard before in her life.
Her five other sisters, all making it one way or another, had every achievement they’d made planted across their respective rooms as if it was wallpaper itself. It made Alison reluctant to visit them in their rooms, even to ask the mere favor of borrowing a pencil. As the youngest, Alison knew she could never compete with them.
People always say that rejection is something everyone goes through, something you get over as life goes on that’ll eventually lead to your success. The naivete of those stories, no, lies, sung through Alison’s blood as she tried and tried again throughout her adolescence, never giving her comfort with every ‘no’ she received.
But despite all of that, she kept trying. She knew her happy ending was written somewhere within the pages and pages of notes she would scrutinize every night, the countless books and articles she would read between classes, the makeshift problems she would make up in her head when she ran out of study material.
Alison’s parents always supported her extraneous efforts, but she knew their doubts were lurking behind their encouraging smiles.
One night when she was about eight years old, blissfully playing with her dolls in her room, Alison overheard her parents’ hostile whispers from downstairs through the crack of her door. Curiosity overwhelming her, she crept down the stairs, careful not to disturb her other sisters.
When she was at the sixth stair, she crouched down and listened.
“We keep getting these concerned emails from her teacher, Emily. All these failures, one after another… It isn’t normal for a girl her age.”
“Greg, calm down. She’s just a bit slow.”
“‘A bit slow?’ She hasn’t gotten a grade above a D yet this year! What if something’s wrong with her?”
“Nothing’s wrong with her, sweetie. This is just a… small bump in the road, that’s all. Nothing we can’t fix. Remember when Kimberly failed that one test…er, when was it?” Alison heard her mother snap her fingers. “Ah yes, that chemistry test a couple of years ago?”
“What about it?”
“Well, we hired a tutor and she ended up at the top of her class! We just need to give Alison a small push in the right direction.”
“You think that’ll work? Kim only failed one test. Alison hasn’t gotten a single good grade on anything so far.” Alison recognized the sound of liquid being poured and a pair of glasses being set down on the table. “I know we’ve been neglecting her studies because she’s only in elementary school. But these things build up. We have to nip this problem in the bud before it goes haywire.”
“And we will. I promise things will get better. Every daughter we’ve had has made it one way or the other. Alison can’t be an exception, right?”
“And what if she is?”
“Let’s cross that bridge when we get to it, alright? Let’s hire a tutor for her in the morning. I’m going to bed.”
“If you say so. ‘Night, Em.”
The faint sound of footfalls became louder and louder in Alison’s ears as she quickly climbed the stairs towards her room, her eyes feeling more watery than before.
Ever since then, Alison worked and worked and worked.
But her grades did nothing but plateau.
And as Alison was approaching the end of high school, the hope she held close had dwindled into almost nothing. Until her guidance counselor reached out to her in a way Alison felt like those hopeful embers deep inside of her had turned from soot to an open flame.
“I see a lot of promise in you, Alison.”
Alison blinked. “I’m sorry, what?”
Ms. Hift smiled and Alison noticed that when she did, the corners of her eyes would crease slightly. Her smile was different from the ones her parents would feign. It lacked pity.
“You do a lot of impressive extracurricular activities based on what I see here.” Ms. Hift squinted at her computer, the creases in her eyes gone and replaced with the bright pink from her convenience store glasses. “Yes, your grades could be better, but I can tell that you still put in the effort. These results aren’t out of lack of care or laziness.”
Alison suddenly felt lightheaded. “Ms. Hift, are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure.” The woman took off her glasses and faced Alison, her hands knit together in a way that wasn’t constricted but affirming. Her creased smile returned. “I know for most students, grades might seem like the be-all-end-all, but they’re not. Multiple sets of skills can be of aid as well.”
Alison nodded, her hands tightening on the bottom of her shirt as if that was the only reason she hadn’t fainted in her guidance counselor’s office.
Ms. Hilt noticed this but didn’t comment on it. She only put her glasses back on and checked her computer once more. “It says here you’ve done a lot of community service.”
“I was told it’ll help with college. And considering my grades, I wanted as much help as possible. I also really enjoy it.”
Ms. Hilt’s smile grew a bit. “Well, that’s a great quality to have. And it’ll look good on a resumé. Why don’t we talk about some schools you should try for?”
With that, Alison’s goals were set back into motion. Her studies didn’t improve, but she did as much community service as she could. On the rock climb to college, it was the only step she could reach.
And within about a year and a half, Alison received an email with one of the schools she had been hoping for. Her breath stalled as her unsteady hand clicked on the email.
When the file opened, everything seemed different. Alison sat there in shock, her feet glued to the floor as she realized she was paralyzed. All of the worries she had came crashing down in a flood of relief and confusion. Scalding tears dripped down her face; when she could finally move again, she let out a sob that she had been holding in for much too long.
And then she smiled.
Suddenly, the world felt… comforting. Like it had patted Alison on the back and playfully ruffled her dark, red hair which was now flowing onto her keyboard in a knotty ocean of hope.
Alison curled up in a ball, her decade-old chair slightly groaning as it swiveled in sync with her trembling.
She was never one to talk out loud, never one to give herself reassuring words. But today was an exception as she murmured to herself, “I did it…” between sobs.
Over nearly two years did she feel like the world trapped her in a box of steel, the sides constricting as if they had a pulse. With every beat, the word “no” would repeat in Alison’s head.
But now, she merely tapped one side of the drumming box and it broke free, the darkness she knew so well yet couldn’t shake off only a distant memory.
Alison took a look outside her window. It was as if the sun’s rays had miraculously lifted her off the ground and the sky was only a short walk away. Her tears dried before she bolted to her door to tell her family, only to find out it was locked. Alison’s hand tightened around the knob as she pulled and pulled.
That’s when a sudden blast of cold air attacked her skin, sending goosebumps down her spine. She peered out her window once again. A cloud had covered the sun, creating abstract shadows around her room. Her computer was now shut off as if it hadn’t been touched in years.
Alison continued to pull, and pull, and pull.
She screamed for her sisters to save her despite the fact she would be reminded once again of their superiority She screamed for her parents to give her those fake smiles that she tried to ignore. She screamed for someone, anyone, to save her from the hellhole she never thought would bloom from the seeds of new hope.
Then Alison woke up.
Her eyes swam over her room to see it was covered in countless papers. She glanced at her computer and remembered the “I’m sorry, but we think this might not be the best school for you,” email she received.
And everything went dark.
She tried to grasp that incredible feeling she dreamt of. The idea that she could go anywhere, experience anything.
But all she felt were the sides of the box.