Rosalee Carrasco (Emerging Writer's Contest Winner: FICTION)
In fiction, our winner is Tomiko M. Breland, for her story “Rosalee Carrasco.”
Ploughshares’ fiction editor Margot Livesey writes: “In the elegantly structured ‘Rosalee Carrasco,’ Tomiko Breland describes the before and after, as well as the actual events, of a very particular day at middle school. The voice is elegant, empathetic, and vivid without ever being obtrusive, and the narrative moves with impeccable timing from character to character. I was full of admiration for the intelligence of the story, and for the restraint.”
Tomiko Breland grew up in Monterey, California, with an early hunger for writing borne under the auspices of Roald Dahl and Madeline L’Engle, Jules Verne, and C. S. Lewis. In her writing, she is interested in pushing the boundaries of form in order to test the boundaries of emotion. She received her BA in English from Stanford University and her MA in fiction writing from the Johns Hopkins University. Tomiko’s fiction placed in the 2014 Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Contest, and she is currently completing her first novel.
About the piece, Tomiko writes, “In novel writing, you have the space to give the reader the past, present, and future of many characters. I challenged myself to find a way to do the same in the form of a short story without the traditional use of flashbacks. The format came first, and then the story sort of poured itself into the form.”
When Charlotte was very small, she played a game called Pretty Pretty Princess with her older sisters, and she never once won. One of them always became the prettiest princess, draped in pink or blue or purple plastic beads and a shiny plastic crown.
At eight, she was accepted into the circle of Ashlee, Tabatha, and Danielle, and even though they said to her You’re not as pretty as us, but we’ll let you play with us anyway, Charlotte conceded to their haughty governance with fawning displays of appreciation, and unmitigated devotion and loyalty.
In sixth grade, Charlotte fell in love with Scotty Marlowe. She sat behind him in geography class and mapped the spattering of copper freckles on the back of his neck instead of the primary-colored countries on the blackboard.
Yesterday, Danielle helped her narrow down her dress choice for the eighth-grade dance to a silver number with a conservative neckline and a sexier, asymmetrical piece in “oasis blue.” Charlotte was leaning toward the blue dress.
The four girls are the last to finish getting dressed after second period phys ed class. They are always the last to get dressed because they take their time reapplying fragranced lotion to their ivory limbs; glinting baubles to their discriminating wrists and ears; and expensive, shimmering makeup to their delicate eyelids and lips. Ms. McCreary knows this, so she leaves them to finish preening while she prepares the gym for the next class. Mr. Pickert, their pervy third-period algebra teacher, knows this, but what Ms. McCreary calls “tardy,” the girls call “fashionably late,” and Mr. Pickert calls “reasonably delayed,” as long as they sit in the front row with their long legs emerging from short skirts. Rosalee Carrasco knows this, which is why she chooses this specific time to step into the girls’ locker room at Oak View Middle School and reach into the pink, rhinestoned messenger bag at her side. What do you want, skank? Ashlee says, looking up, holding a comb with its teeth paused in her straightened, tawny hair. Rosalee pulls out a semiautomatic Smith & Wesson 40 VE. It is heavier in her hand than when she fingered it this morning in her father’s desk drawer. She points the cold black barrel at Ashlee.
Tomorrow, Charlotte will stay home from school, where she will lock herself in her bathroom and scrape under her fingernails with a toothpick, and then a metal nail file, and then a little Swiss Army knife. She will struggle to get the blood out from under her nails until the blood that is there is her own.
She will stay home for the remainder of the school year, and she won’t answer calls from her friends. Her older sisters will bring her homework from school, and they’ll help her complete it on the floor of her bedroom. One of them will show her how to equalize a basic equation while the other kneels behind her, brushing her hair.
When the new school year begins, Charlotte will attend high school in a new district, where nobody asks her questions.
In fifteen years, she will marry a quiet young professor from UC Berkeley, and they will have two daughters.
When they are old enough, she will tell them that they are both the prettiest princess, even though they never ask, and even though she doesn’t believe it.
At just five years old, Ashlee’s parents bought her a Shetland pony.
Her mother went to college with James Dewitt, Danielle’s father, and this is how Ashlee and Danielle became inseparable.
Ashlee was always second in command because her parents were not as rich as Danielle’s (her father moved around real estate, while Danielle’s father moved around stocks) and because her mother was half Black, though they never spoke of it.
When other little girls asked to play with them, Ashlee laughed.
She played tennis—but only indoors because she’d learned that too much sun was costly.
It was Ashlee who noticed, last week, that the Mexican girl had begun her period and didn’t know it. She had a blossom of dark red on the back of her khaki pants. Ashlee pointed it out to the others. Someone (not her, certainly), took a picture with his or her camera phone, and posted the picture on Facebook, tagging everyone in the school.
Rosalee is nervous and angry and she doesn’t know what she’s doing. She planned this, and she planned what she wanted to say and how she would say it, but she hasn’t thought past that. She just wants them to listen to her, to be scared, to feel what it feels like to be powerless. She wants a lot of things. Tabatha takes a step toward a locker, and there’s no exit but the one Rosalee is standing in, but Rosalee says Sit the fuck down anyway. Danielle stands up and repeats what Ashlee said, without the epithet, and much more calmly: What do you want? She stands in a little rectangle of morning sunlight thrown into the room by the small, high windows above the lockers. It puts her perfect face half in shadow. Her hair is perfect and her clothes are perfect, and she was in the middle of doing her makeup, so only her bottom lip is shiny with gloss. She seems in control, even when she’s not. Rosalee hates her for this. Rosalee’s hand is trembling, the heavy black and silver Smith & Wesson is trembling, and when she speaks, her voice is trembling. She releases the safety, the way the YouTube video showed her. I want you to pay, she says.
Tomorrow, Ashlee will go to school. Reporters will sneak onto campus, and one will pop out of a bush like a gangly bird of prey and surprise her. He’ll poke a mic in her face and ask if she knew Rosalee was crazy. She’ll say, I didn’t think she was crazy. I didn’t think about her at all.
She will stay friends with what remains of her clique through high school, but there will be something off kilter, as if the shifting of elements within the group has thrown off their center of gravity. She will feel the subtle prick of exclusion when her father loses his real estate job in yet another recession, and after high school, they’ll lose touch completely.
In college, Ashlee will stop lightening her hair, and she will experiment with a new drug called Chastity. Things will unravel rapidly. She will drop out of school, and huge chunks of her life will later appear as empty spheres, or as bleary shapes viewed through a glass of water. It will take twenty years for her to clean herself up, and she will, in therapy, retrace it all back to that day in the locker room at Oak View Middle School. She won’t go any further than that.
Tabatha was born in October. She was a Libra.
At two years old, Tabatha would not stop eating her crayons, and her mother had to remove all crayon and crayonlike objects from the house.
Her little brother was born when she was five, and when he was two months old, she pinched his nose closed while he slept to see him open his little pink, translucent lips like a fish. Then she kissed him.
When she was six, she gained an appreciation for the proper use of crayons, and turned out to be a capable artist.
In fourth grade, she and her three new friends helped her dad paint a mural with an ocean theme on the wall in her little brother’s room.
When she was twelve, she was her brother’s hero.
Tabatha Roth was also in love with Scotty Marlowe.
Yesterday, like every Tuesday for the past 15 years, Tabatha allowed herself to chew gently on a crayon when nobody was looking, before she went to sleep. She liked the feel of wax between her teeth. This crayon color was called “blush.”
Do you want money? Danielle asks. We can give you money. Rosalee is confused for a moment, knits her brow. I don’t want your fucking charity. She’s never cussed this much, and the word fuck feels powerful in her mouth. She says it out loud again, just for good measure: Fuck. Charlotte, with her reddish curls bouncing irreverently, moves behind Tabatha. Danielle says, coolly, Well then, what do you want? And she crosses her arms like she’s not scared, like nothing in the whole world scares her. She learned this from her father, who has always told her that “People are cowards, but Dewitts show no fear.” Rosalee feels that she’s losing control of the situation, so she aims at the ceiling. The girls all raise their arms and cover their heads with their hands, instinctually, as Rosalee pulls the trigger, which is harder to squeeze than she’d anticipated. She expects the bullet to strike the plaster tiles and cause a shower of white powder to rain down on them, instilling fear. But instead, it makes a sharp ping on a pipe, and it’s several seconds before anyone notices that Tabatha is no longer standing. She is an awkward heap on the floor.
Ms. Janet McCreary was born on a small farm in Pennsylvania, where she milked goats and reveled in lightning storms from her upstairs bedroom window. She saw lightning strike the lone Striped Maple in the center of a field beneath her window twelve times.
She was a highly precocious child, and she read hungrily, consuming books under her blankets with a flashlight well after her mother turned the lights off. She and her friends spent their time talking about boys and books, but more often books.
Ms. McCreary studied German lit in college but found afterward that her skills were not very marketable. She began teaching P.E. until she found a position more suited to her.
She met her fiancé, Matthew Parker, on Match.com. Within a year, they’d determined the location and the guest list for their wedding. It would be in June.
Three weeks ago, Ms. McCreary, with much happiness, told her fiancé that she was pregnant. She rigged a game of Scrabble by hiding tiles under the table, and played words like baby, father, and family until he caught on. He was elated.
Ms. McCreary hears the shot from out in the gym, but it doesn’t register with her what it is. This is only a middle school, and she has never heard a real gunshot before. She moves unhurriedly toward the locker room, annoyed with the four girls she left there: What have they done now? As she turns into the locker room, she sees Rosalee from behind. She can see the girls on the ground beyond Rosalee and wonders what they’re playing at. Strange, she thinks. Danielle Dewitt is on her knees. It is then that she sees the gun. She thinks Scheisse, because she always curses in German. Ms. McCreary doesn’t know what to do. Her instinct is to talk to the girl, but she hesitates—maybe she should try to subdue her, or go call for help. Her eyes flicker to Rosalee’s right, where she’s certain she left a softball bat leaning against the wall. She takes a step closer, and she can hear Charlotte on the ground mumbling something over and over, but she can’t make out what it is. She takes another step, but stops, and raises her hand silently to her stomach. Charlotte moves her hand from Tabatha’s head to her own and touches her temple, leaving a bright smudge like a child’s red finger paint. She is saying, She’s dead, she’s dead, she’s dead.
Tomorrow, Ms. McCreary will spend much of the day in the police station, giving statements. She will be tired, but more than that she will be afraid she’s going to lose her job because she is never supposed to leave kids in the locker room alone. There was death on her watch.
Despite the fact that there were more students in the gym who required supervision than there were in the locker room, Ms. McCreary will be the scapegoat for Ella County School District, and she will lose her job.
In two weeks, she will have an abortion, and she will tell her fiancé that it was a miscarriage. She will tell herself she finds unbearable the thought of bringing a child into a world where things like this happened, where her children would have to play and learn and live—with children like this.
In one year, her fiancé will leave her, and she will let him.
In six years, Ms. McCreary will relocate to Germany, where she will teach English and begin writing. She will publish an article titled “Social Violence and Accountability in American Literature” in a modest academic journal.
When Rosalee Carrasco is born to a French mother and Chilean father, she is crying.
Rosalee is always doing and going and performing. She is always trying, and learning.
When she is six, she is feeding her two younger brothers mashed bananas with a tiny rubber-coated spoon because her parents work overtime to pay for her private school.
When she is eight, she is buying trendy pink bracelets and standing nervously in line next to Ashlee at lunch. She is viciously ignored.
At nine, her mother is scolding: Enfant ingrat! You have nothing to cry about.
When she is seven and eight and ten and twelve, she is asking Can I play?
At thirteen, she is falling in love with Scotty Marlowe. At thirteen, she is understanding.
At fourteen, she is watching herself become a woman in the mirror, and then she is watching herself become a woman on Facebook, and then she is watching the custodian pull dark, bloody tampons from her locker with gloved hands. She is cowering as boys call her “Rosa-leaky.”
Rosalee, honey. Ms. McCreary says, her voice hardly above a whisper. Rosalee whips around, the gun pointed at chest level, both hands wrapped around the grip. She’s been holding it up for only a minute, maybe two, but it feels as if she’s been holding it her whole life, and it is heavy. Her eyes are big and round as quarters, and Ms. McCreary can see the whites all the way around her dark pupils. Behind her, all of the girls are huddled around Tabatha’s body, and one of the girls—Charlotte—is sniffling. Rosalee, Ms. McCreary says again. She steps toward the slight girl, whose dark hair is pulled severely behind her head, making her look older than she is, and whose fear makes her look younger than she is. The teacher holds out her hand, slowly, slowly, her palm up. It is the universal sign for Give me the gun. The barrel begins to drop, slowly, slowly. Danielle stands suddenly and says, She killed Tabatha in a voice that is a sob and an accusation and a taunt; it is all of these things. I didn’t, Rosalee cries out. Her words come out high and hollow; they echo without resonance. She spins around wildly, points the gun at Danielle, and Ms. McCreary shouts, Rosalee!
Rosalee will be charged with five counts. She will be convicted of three counts, and she will serve four years at a juvenile correctional facility, where she will read Sylvia Plath and ZZ Packer, and keep to herself.
When she is released, she will go to community college, where she will major in women’s studies. She will become interested in acting, and join a small troupe at a local theater.
She will be quiet and withdrawn, dark and inscrutable. Men will fall in love with her, or rather, they will try to fall in love with her, but she will not let them. People will try to get close to her, but she will push them away.
In her most acclaimed performance, she will star in the role of Wendy, in Peter Pan. She will be most convincing when she plays Old Wendy and her young daughter Jane asks her what it is she sees in the darkness. Nothing, Wendy says. Yes, counters Jane. You see when you were a little girl. And Rosalee says, That is a long time ago, sweetheart.
For the rest of her life, she will be always doing and going and performing. She will be always remembering.
Danielle Dewitt was a happy, occasionally colicky baby.
Her older half-sister Sophia dressed her up in cashmere and anointed her with makeup when Danielle was four; she looked like a painted porcelain doll.
When she was five, her older half-brother Colin taught her how to fish. She caught a small salmon and threw it back, horrified.
At Mimi’s Finishing School for Children, she learned how to read a French dinner menu. At home, she learned how to read people, how to put herself at the advantage.
When she was nine, she stole her sister’s beloved diamond stud earrings and flushed them down the toilet.
She considered herself a good, charitable person; she made her father donate to the whales every Christmas.
Last week she conceived of and forced the girls to carry out the prank on the Mexican girl. Danielle said that each girl had to supply an “item” so that none could be exempted if they got caught, except for Tabatha, because Tabatha was a virgin and so hadn’t begun using tampons yet. She, however, acted as lookout.
Danielle, who had stood up and stepped forward a moment ago, made brave by the presence of an adult, steps back again. The barrel of the gun is shaking wildly in Rosalee’s hand; if she pulls the trigger, the bullet could fall harmlessly wide, or it could hit Danielle right between her pretty blue eyes, a fatal blemish above her straight, narrow nose. Rosalee says, I didn’t kill her, it was an accident, and behind her Ms. McCreary is nodding her head, Yes, yes. Of course it was. Rosalee says to Danielle, motioning with the silver barrel, Tell her. Tell her it was an accident. And Danielle says, It was while she’s exhaling, so they can hardly hear her. And tell her, Rosalee says. Tell her what you did to me. Danielle’s eyes flit, imperceptibly, to Ms. McCreary and then back to Rosalee. We didn’t do anything to you. Rosalee moves suddenly toward Danielle, the gun at her side. Ms. McCreary is yelling something in the background, but neither girl hears. Rosalee steps up to Danielle, so close their noses are almost touching. They are breathing each other’s heavy breaths. Something passes between them: an expression, a quivering of the pupil, an exchange of molecules? Rosalee drops the gun.
Danielle will go to school tomorrow and she will dazzle before the paparazzi. She will be quoted as saying, “I never even spoke to the poor girl before this. She must have been obsessed with us.”
She will go to the eighth grade dance with Scotty Marlowe, and she will look stunning in a slinky, asymmetrical dress that is “oasis blue.”
She will use what she’ll refer to as “the Tragedy” to get her father to buy her a Hermès Birkin bag, then a Mercedes C-Class when she turns sixteen, and then a shopping trip to Paris at eighteen.
She will go to Sarah Lawrence University, marry a dermatologist, and have three children by Cesarean section before she is thirty-five.
She will read Charlotte’s Web and James and the Giant Peach to her children when they are small, and they will bicker for her affection.
One day, just before her youngest daughter begins high school, Danielle will hire a maid named Rosa. She will pause for a moment as she cuts the stem off the bottom of a tulip, and she will think that maybe she knew someone once by that name.