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Poems at Midnight

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Diana crosses her slim legs at the ankle and absentmindedly strokes her straight ebony hair. Her face is a mask of composure, but inside she is already smiling with triumph and graciously accepting congratulations. The poetry contest is already won. Nobody could compete with the piece she has submitted! Even her stern-faced English teacher has raved over its subtlety and richness.

Clara shifts back and forth on the hard chapel bench, her mouth slightly agape as she strains to catch a glance of the contest announcer. Her long-lashed blue eyes catch the light slipping through the stained glass windows with their wide, expectant stare.

“I’m so nervous!” Diana exclaims, just to keep up her image.

“You’ll be recognized!” Clara squeaks in tones of utter surety. Her faith lies entirely in the writer’s hands of her friend.

“You will too, I’m sure. Your poem was cute.” Diana smiles languidly at Clara, but her head already dances with visions of victory. Clara’s poem wasn’t bad. Kind of quaint, actually, if a bit shallow. Good language, but not nearly as evocative or sensual as Diana’s.

“And now… the winner of the Fresh Voice award, which is given to the most promising freshman...” Diana mentally crosses her fingers for Clara. The poor thing needs a little bit of self-confidence, even if it is only a meager prize.

“For its distinctive and creative take on the Garden of Eden… If She Bites, by Diana Byron.”

Diana’s head snaps up even as Clara jumps to her feet and applauds enthusiastically. The taller girl stumbles awkwardly up to the poem, nearly tripping over her own feet in an uncharacteristic gesture. Her head whirls and she blinks rapidly. Fresh Voice? Fresh Voice? As if she were some upstart child who had never held a pen! What was wrong with the poetry judge?

When Diana limps back to their seat, Clara squeezes her tightly around the middle, whispering, “You were awesome!” Diana waves her away imperiously and sinks back into her seat. Her head reels with shock. This is impossible.

Fifth through second places are announced, and Diana finds herself scrutinizing each as they are read aloud. None of them, she is convinced, can hold a candle to her beautiful poem. The word choice is weak, the images watery or cliché. While Clara listens in rapt adoration, as if she could literally devour words, Diana arches her eyebrows at phrases such as, “My heart melts like rainbow ice cream.” Boring, mellow, ordinary! That poem would not have earned a second glance from a third grade teacher! Diana could easily have received third, second, and most likely first. She rolls her eyes, waiting for the announcement of another dull composition extolling the virtues of butterflies in springtime.

“For a thoroughly magical work describing her house at midnight, written using exquisite control of language and evocative images, first place goes to Clara Butler!”

Clara hesitates like an unsure puppy, then leaps to her feet, casting awed eyes at Diana. Diana smiles weakly and pats Clara on the back even as tears sting her eyes. Poetry can’t be judged, she tells herself. That’s the problem. The judge probably just likes sickly poems detailing the lives of puppies and interesting quilt patterns, not truly meaningful glances into the biblical world that might have been.

Diana curls away from herself, from the slick of jealousy that roils in her mind, the surety that the judge is inadequate. Who in their right mind would choose Clara’s poem? She leans numbly back in her seat as Clara’s quavering voice arches over the chapel. The student body hushes and soaks in each pathetic word. Diana’s back bristles even as she stands to lead the cheers, even as she squeals with delight and fawns over a shell-shocked Clara after the assembly.

Next year. Next year there will be revenge.

Clara shifts back and forth on the uncomfortable chapel bench, straining to catch a glimpse of the contest announcer. A mass of lanky juniors blocks her view, but she continues to bounce up and down excitedly.

Clara’s best friend crosses her slim legs and absentmindedly strokes her hair, which flows unencumbered like any self-respecting artist’s. Why is Diana so calm? Clara wonders frantically. They both have worked so hard on this contest, spending hours agonizing over submissions and then mercilessly editing them into clear, concise pictures. Well, Diana probably did that, at least. Clara was going to, but she got so busy peer-reviewing Diana’s that she simply forgot. Instead, five minutes before the deadline, she had typed up a poem she had dashed off the night before, resigned to her miserable fate.

“I’m so nervous!” Diana exclaims. Her eyes are a flat midnight lake, showing no signs of anxiety, but Clara scampers to reassure her just in case.

“You’ll be recognized!” Clara hates the squeaky tone of her voice, hates how her fawning causes Diana’s lips quirk into a bored smile.

“You will too, I’m sure. Your poem was cute.” Awkwardly Clara nods in deference and accepts the compliment. Poems aren’t supposed to be cute! Poems are supposed to be grand and sweeping, like Diana’s. Not a jumble of random thoughts that happened to collect on a scrap of shopping bag. The only hope that Clara nurtures is for the Fresh Voice category. Ninth-grade poems can be “cute”, right?
“And now… the winner of the Fresh Voice award, which is given to the most promising freshman...” Clara’s breath catches in her throat and she sits on her hands to keep them from twitching. Please, please, please…
“For its distinctive and creative take on the Garden of Eden… If She Bites, by Diana Byron.”

Swallowing the bitter draft of disappointment, Clara bounds to her feet and applauds enthusiastically. Diana’s head snaps up, her eyes widening, but at Clara’s urging the taller girl glides up to the podium. Clara watches Diana’s rigid posture with envy, and if Diana does move a little stiffly, well, who wouldn’t be struck by shock at receiving such an honor?

When Diana glides back to their seat, Clara squeezes her reassuringly around the middle, whispering, “You were awesome!”. So maybe the Fresh Voice award isn’t what Diana was hoping for, but it’s still an honor that Clara could never even have dreamed of receiving.

Fifth through second places are announced, and Clara feels her jaw drop a little more with each insightful, exquisite offering. She stares fixedly at the contest announcer, wishing she could somehow internalize each fragment of humanity. Some lines, she admits, are not completely original, but overall each poem is as fragilely beautiful as a flitting butterfly. Her own leaden poem sinks in comparison to each lovely word.
“For a thoroughly magical work describing her house at midnight, written using exquisite control of language and evocative images, first place goes to Clara Butler!”
Freeze. Fireworks explode across Clara’s vision and send her reeling with shock. It must be a mistake—the judge is insane! Who in their right mind would choose her poem over Diana’s? Confusion ripples across the crowd as Clara hesitates like an unsure puppy, but Diana’s calming pat on the back sends the other girl stumbling up to the front of the chapel. She casts disbelieving eyes at Diana, who appears to be crying with happiness. What a sweet friend!
Clara’s quavering voice arches over the chapel. She expects apathy, but to her surprise, the student body hushes and soaks up each carelessly-written word. At first a trickle of guilt spills through her body—the prize was Diana’s, after all—but when her friends springs to her feet to lead the masses in a thunderous cheer, Clara feels as if she might just float off the floor.
Poems written at midnight are the best kind after all.





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