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As They Imagine Us on Summer Nights

Photo of Kylan Tatum<br>12th Grade, New Jersey

Kylan Tatum
12th Grade, New Jersey


The first place winner of our Summer 2021 National Teen Storyteller Contest, presented in partnership with the student-led and founded Decameron Project! We invited young writers to share a story responding to themes of social justice and the criminal justice system.

This contest is part of our NEA Big Read initiative, made possible through a $15,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, in celebration of Ernest J. Gaines’s classic novel,
A Lesson Before Dying.

It had the makings of a quiet

We strapped pink wings to our shoulders and dove headfirst into blue, let sundae droplets brand our shirts, and the smog, thick like nana’s cigs, rested heavily on the town.

I recall these days like a memory or a dream or else a bullet lodged within a body, as such things were commonplace among these people, as were liquor and the recurring nightmares of shots heard round the ‘hood.

And it was on a day not unlike the one before it or the one after or the ones to come that the incident occurred. It was Sunday, the Lord’s day, or it had been that morning, for the church wear was already hung, exchanged for pastel trunks and waffle cones dripping chocolate ichor onto asphalt. The children lived out their fantasies with sticks and dirt and the adults drank whatever filled their cups and later a group of teenage boys found themselves in a neighbor’s pool at a time when the night was blacker than their skin.

And after that, it gets fuzzy, but somewhere between bleeding into the sky and bleeding into one another and bleeding into the pool, bullets were sprayed like silly string and flesh was torn like confetti and their screams were deemed celebratory and none could say if their hands were sticky from chocolate or blood or even where the two became distinct or if the pool or the boys were to blame for this slippery mess and so we didn’t speak of the incident and neither did they and so there was peace.


I think about the boys now, when the fog hangs low like a blanket sheltering the children who remain gathered among muck and chocolate puddles, immersed in a world in which black bodies don’t turn up face down in their neighbor’s pool, and look for a reason:

God claimed them on his day.

The water broke their fall.

They all end up lodged in my throat, and I imagine it’s a lot like the feeling of drowning. But, I know there’s a reason. There has to be.

I close my eyes and wait for one to flood my mind.