The third 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.
Syla’s palms were sweaty as she stared at the birch door and golden handle. Regardless of how she used the tiles to make distracting patterns or reminded herself of much worse situations—fraudulent pity covering disgust in her classmates’ wide-eyed stares—her fingers still trembled and her feet faltered at the thought of the people waiting to decide her fate. She had never been inclined towards testifying but what other choice did she have? It was either speak or allow him to go free.
And she could never take the latter when her parent’s stores still lay shattered because the media chose to crucify her family for the attack. When her family had no income but this lawsuit. When her mother’s touch is unrecognizable because her arms have become numb from the scars. When she had broken the mirrors in her room to not glance upon herself again.
So she acquiesced and hoped—prayed, begged—that she could help her family win, but now she felt unsteady: a child in heels, ready to tumble upon the rouge scruffy carpets of the courthouse. She couldn’t do this. She couldn’t—
A gentle brush tickled her forearm, jolting her out of her increasingly louder breaths. Syla tilted her head down to the sight of her mother’s tan lean hand touching her bare arm. She immediately straightened her body. As long as she remembered fighting for her family, she would be fine.
However, when the door unfurled to dozens of blatantly curious eyes, dissecting her actions or more importantly her body, her hands involuntarily covered the shiny, bumpy skin where her hair and eyebrows had once habited. Reprimands followed instantly in her head. The prosecutor had reminded her endlessly about not hiding her scars, but this was akin to being naked to everyone’s ravenous eyes, not a double-take on the subway. The pressure on her increased briefly as Syla remembered dimly that she needed to walk forward. Pretending that she was still at home researching the Bay Bridge for a school project, she managed to distract herself as the mandatory legal oaths passed her lips,
“Miss Syla,” her prosecutor, a stern red-haired woman, prodded while shifting Sya gently into the witness chair so she was once again facing the eyes, the unnecessarily wide and frozen eyes. She focused on the prosecutor’s amber cat-eye glasses as her focal point for the trial lest she accidentally looks to her right and sees him.
“Miss Syla, can you please describe to us the accident that occurred on May 1st?” the prosecutor began. It was a blunt question, striking the elephant out of the room instantly. Her practice slithered away to frozen fear as the stares deepened.
She looked at her hands. The sight of her pink flesh intermittently clumped up and smooth served as a visceral ache, pulling her away from the idea of fighting for her family. No, she’d fight for herself for once. So she began, cautiously weaving her tale: “I went to the store. I needed bread and milk and there was a man. He glared at me but I ignored it.”
Syla choked upon her past hubris and naivety of believing in her neighborhood’s safety. Her voice grew louder, augmenting with her emotions. “When I began walking home, I heard footsteps behind me but every time I turned around, there was nothing. I started running home just in case. But, the noises stopped so I slowed down. Then—”
Syla paused. She could smell the sulfuric milky odor that had permeated the street. For a moment, she was again under the yellow street lights as pink colored the sky. Moments before a man’s growl was her warning before burning blistering liquid poured down her skin, stripping away her joy and skin. She didn’t allow herself to cry though tears burgeoned at her eyelashes. She wouldn’t give him the dignity of seeing her so low as she described the attack “My lips were frozen, but my body burned. It was over in an instant. I could hear a man screaming at me before I passed out. Then I woke up at the hospital where I was told that I had been in an acid attack.”
Her mind flickered to the memory of the knot that formed within her stomach upon learning that the reason for the attack had been because her parents were immigrants. It had been a brief relief to learn that she had not been at fault: not caused herself to wake up in the hospital screaming, sobbing, and begging for the stranger in the mirror—sporting a melted dark curricular structure with a blended smoothie of the regal features she’d once held—to magically return to her old self. She had not been the reason for her lack of sight. Rather it had been another’s rage. She took a deep breath.
“And was this man the defendant?” the prosecutor questioned.
For the first time since the accident, Syla turned her head towards the man. He was nothing remarkable for all the pain that he has caused: short with scruffy brown hair and a scrawny figure. Yet he had managed to cause her little brother to flinch at the sight of her face. She traced her eyes over his sprawled figure and met his dark eyes. His posture showed no regard for the lives he’d ruined. The knot of emotions inside her unraveled. She wasn’t sure how the trial would conclude or how her future would lie, but watching him flinch was a balm to her tattered soul. It was a chance at resistance to target the rightful perpetrator. It was an opportunity to begin healing, regaining her conviction, and moving forward. She was not foolish to believe that her problems were solved, but at least she could ensure that her story heard against his desire: recalcitrance. It was power after being helpless for weeks, so it only takes her a moment to answer and take her chance.
“Yes, it was him.”