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Luminous (2nd Prize Winner - Group III)

March, 2011
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a piece that precedes a more significant movement

JFK Airport, summer. Eighteen years old and feeling like the king of the world.

Out on the runway, black wheels thrum with steady stress across the asphalt, as in primitive rock and roll. Only when the plane pulls to a stop does the humming of the engine rise from the background, in faithful harmony with the restless chatter that surrounds Will.

From behind, Julia is reading him Shakeapeare, her idea of being encouraging. She clutches Romeo and Juliet fervently with both hands. “I defy you, stars!” is her parting shout before her voice drowns against the boom of the loud speaker. “I defy you, stars!”is right, Will thinks, as the words drum in his chest to a singular beat.

11:50 am.

All of his friends had made the effort to see him off. They stand now, handing him items they think he would need that London would not be able to offer him. He does not tell them that London has all he will ever need.

11:55. Five minutes.

After the crowd dissipates, Julia pulls him aside. She draws from her left pant pocket a picture, and he recognizes the setting straightaway. On the night of graduation, starlight had poured into the blackest crevices of night, washing every shadow bright. The moon had lost its foothold early in the night, but the grinning faces did not care because the stars were luminous as they carved fields of direction in the sky.

There is noise everywhere in the picture, senseless and merry. He and his friends shouted and laughed and cheered, and almost no one was aware of the camera, so caught up in their joy of being free at last—except one pair of eyes that stared straight into the lens. At the border of darkness and edge of light Julia stood, her eyes blue and startling against the canvas of the shadows.

She tells Will to think of the rest of them once in a while. “When the stars are asleep,” she says, “and the street lamps aren’t enough.”

He tucks her gift into his right pocket and thanks her, kissing her on the cheek and knowing that it is not the reassurance she is looking for. She nods and takes what he offers her with a smile all the same.

As Will strides toward the boarding gate, he feels the weight of her gaze on him but does not turn back. He leaves her only the sound of his fading footsteps, confident that it will linger in her memory like a record lost on loop.


On the plane, the woman next to Will trades him the window for the aisle. When he slides open the shades, he sees all white at first, nothing but clouds, sun-kissed and blinding. Through his pocket, he feels Julia’s photo, and the last thing on his mind before he drifts off to sleep is the blue that shyly peeked out like a little girl at her first school play from behind the pale curtains of cloud and cloud. Upon the grand, light-streaked stage of his mind, he sees that blue. Blue eyes blue.

And his heart beats on, vital and alive.


          from the beginning again

Five years later, JFK Airport, winter. Twenty-three and feeling twice the age.

Five years is not so long, if you really think about it. Taking into account all the hours spent deep in slumber or working incessantly to prove your worth, you only realize that you are far from home when there are no more papers to shuffle, no more people to meet, no more rhythmic progressions to hammer from your instrument.

Then, you remember.

As the plane descends upon the runway with emphatic force, reality rudely intrudes the fantasy, the wild blast of colors the last five years have been. Dreams are often beautiful because reality is not. London was his dream, a romantic five-act, but the curtains have been drawn now, and he has returned to what used to be home, this place of no familiarity, of no comfort. No one had put this city on hold for Will to find the way he had left it. There is no pause button in life.

Before Will stands to disembark, he leans his head against the window, seeing at first his reflection, then the sky beyond the glass. There are great gaps in the constellations tonight, places where stars used to be.

Stars burn out the same way people do: gleaming, glowing, glimmering, until one day there is nothing left but a dull, dark shell.


I defy you, stars?


It is midnight when Will sets foot inside the airport. His return is not the production his departure was. No one waits for him holding up signs with his name printed in Sharpie. Around the airport, he sees only flight stewardesses, nameless figures; bulky luggage, a blur of grays; men in black, sense of purpose.

Will does a double-take.

At the center of the crowd she stands, in the arms of a man strangled in his finely pressed suit. She is a strange beauty, he thinks, as he makes a sound like crushed air.

When she looks up to say something, she catches Will in her peripheral vision, and their eyes meet in a split second of euphoria, dark with confusion—and then it is gone, his searching gaze hitting a shield of glass where a piece of sky is supposed to be.

She looks away.

The vibrations from the loud speaker tingle across his skin as he watches Julia say what she had intended to say to the man by her side. Her mouth moves, but no sound reaches Will. Pulling away from her crowd, she strides in his direction.

Only in the old, dilapidated theatre of his mind does he hear the crimson heels click like a time bomb across the tiled floors, measuring the distance between them. When she nears him, her steps slow.

Calando, a dying song.

Then, they crescendo back to life as she pushes past him as if he were made of smoke, as if she is looking for someone who burns brighter.

Will twists away suddenly, pride—and something more tender, fragile, elusive to name—stung and ever stubborn, keeping him from reaching for her even now. He digs his hands into his pockets instead, half-expecting to find that same graduation photo.

But his life is not a Hollywood film. It is not a cosmic potpourri of coincidences of unrealistic proportions. That picture had long faded into nonexistence with his life before London. What he draws from his pocket now is a postcard of a white camellia. At the airport in London, he had thought that the flower was gorgeous, that it might make a good souvenir for the ones he—well, the ones he used to know. And that is the cruelest truth of it all, that he never thought to bring beauty to his friends when it mattered, when it could have meant something more than compensation for his own guilt.

As the automatic doors slide open and a stream of cold air breaks through the chasm, striking Will like lightning through his bones, he holds the postcard to his stomach where a heavy coil of mercury stirs, sick and bitter. Before his eyes, the streetlamps blur. They seem to stare down at him, leaving him feeling bare and helpless as he realizes that he has no way of evading their pitying gaze.

When stars burn out, they do not even have choice of shrinking away slowly, deeply in shame. They had that leisure, the right to decide their own fate, when they were bright and beautiful.

Now, they just collapse.


         a lingering look backward

As Will rides away in a taxi, a stranger to this city, he studies the camellia, bringing it heavenward. From a certain angle under a certain stretch of starlight, he sees blue. That same blue eyes blue that shines brighter than he ever will.

And the sound of her foosteps plays on, with defiance that deafens.


By Manjing Zhang,

Shanghai American School

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  1. Xing Jun Ng
    May 13th, 2011 at 19:21 | #1

    This piece is impressively beautiful and despite awkward dialogue, the writing is truly laudable.

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