The story below is a winner from our Fiction Fantastic Young Writers Contest, open to all youth in Lane County. For more information on this contest, including how to enter, visit here. Support this program with a donation.
You can purchase this story in the 2023 Winners Anthology, Enter the Imaginarium here.
“The Criminal Poet” by Grace Phillips, Roosevelt Middle School
Second Place, Middle School Level, 2023
The Criminal Poet
Roosevelt Middle School
Hunched in the corner of a corroding elevator was a face not seen for almost two decades, withered and wrinkled. The lady rubbed her fingers together like a fly. Her eyes blinked deeply, considering the young man standing over her.
“Jus’ take me,” she said in distorted English. “I’m not a poet, a writer, nor a creativ’ source to those willin’ to read. I’m a torturer, a flat-out murderer, an’ a terribl’ mother to Aggie, or any other chi’.”
The boy sighed, half empathetic, half confused, as he tied her dirty hands behind her back.
The name on Agnes’ mother’s grave was Magnolia Lemonied, but sometimes tombstones lie. Magnolia was not just Agnes’ mother; she raised three other children (from three separate husbands) as well: Curtis, and the two youngest, Malecent and Jane.
Agnes was a product of her mother’s second unsuccessful marriage. She and her siblings learned at an early age to ignore her mother’s antics. (Perhaps you should take notes.) If she was depressed, hide the youngest children. If she didn’t feed you, do it yourself. And most importantly, never, ever, argue with her. Hiding became a classic part of the siblings’ worrying routine: broom closets, under the couches, kitchen cabinets.
Two of Agnes’ siblings now had families of their own. Agnes, however, knew she would never marry. She had no beauty like her youngest sister, Malecent, nor the handsome physique of her brother Curtis. Plus, after her troubled childhood, Agnes couldn’t dare see that happen to more children. The one difference from her siblings, but a similarity with her mother, was her constitution. Magnolia Lemonied could have brought down her whole family if she wanted.The home that the Lemonieds grew up in couldn’t even be considered a cottage; it was more of a shack. It had two stories, if you counted the attic where the children used to sleep. One dirty window kept their skin from becoming ivory. Three beds and a crib that Jane, the littlest, slept in past the age of eight, until their mother could afford another bed. The rest of downstairs was a wreck, when Magnolia still lived there.
No Lemonied could ever afford college, let alone school. Everything cost more than they had: pencils, chalk, clothes.
All of the Lemonieds still lived in the dilapidated cottage for sentimental reasons, and Curtis’ wife’s superstitions. Even though she was nearing thirty-two, Agnes shared the attic with Jane; the only Lemonieds without spouses or children. Malecent, recently widowed and mother to a beautiful baby boy, had been discussing better living situations. But Agnes and the other family members were oddly attached to the nondescript home and its rusting memories of cold nights and hungry stomachs.
Agnes looked at her reflection in a hand mirror, one of the few possessions belonging only to her. Twenty years ago, the day her mother died, a mysterious woman named Suzanne came to the house and talked in her mother’s bedroom for hours. Agnes had been in the makeshift living room, quietly listening in on the conversation when a scream erupted from Magnolia’s bedroom, clearly coming from Suzanne.
She knew this because when this odd woman had come to the door to see Ms. Lemonied, Malecent, only a toddling baby, sprang up and tapped Agnes’ ankle. (For a puny twelve year old, Agnes gave off a very mature feel.) Agnes answered the door slowly, expecting it to be a child from the nearby village, nervously creeping up to the door to knock on the “old witch’s house”. Instead, Suzanne was there. She looked very tired and moody—much like Magnolia—but her voice was as shrill as a child’s.
Agnes heard that voice again, loud and clear, an hour into Magnolia and Suzanne’s talk, as did her siblings. More like a horrifying screech than a scream. They all simultaneously rushed into the bedroom, where the two middle-aged women had been conversing. Suzanne, normally pale anyway, was as white as snow. The color drained from each and every Lemonied in the room, as their spiteful mother took her last breaths on the floor.
Many emotions spread throughout Agnes; relief, sadness, worry, joy. The eldest Lemonied hadn’t been that old in Agnes’ mind. Sure, she was frail and ugly, but Magnolia had still had life left in her the day before.
Suzanne told everyone to leave. She would deal with it herself.
It was late when Suzanne left. While every child was upstairs pondering what would happen, Suzanne was apparently contacting the church and doctors. Magnolia Lemonied was rotting in her grave by morning.
Months later, all Agnes’ mother’s belongings were placed carefully in wooden boxes after being briefly looked through. Agnes kept Magnolia’s hand mirror, though. Twenty years later, those wooden boxes still sat in the living room, collecting dust, not yet sealed.
After Agnes revisited the death story in her mind, she stared back at the clone of herself in the mirror, scowling at her reflection, teary eyed. Agnes hated the way she looked when she cried. Her cheeks drooped and her eyes burned pink. Agnes’ acne smeared her face like jam. Her siblings would tell her things like, “The scars give you personality,” or, “My book says the redness on your chin is a sign of wealth.” (Though that’s not really true.) Those things were only slightly healing.
When Agnes was a child, she had rarely ever seen her mother happy. But sometimes she could tell a smile was creeping up Magnolia’s face when she poured herself into her journal. Ms. Lemonied was a poet, there was no mistaking that. The only books in the Lemonied’s home were poetry. e.e cummings told her stories decorated with lowercase letters, while Shakespeare brought love to her heart. Agnes figured her mother wrote like them.
Agnes clutched the cheap mirror, creating her own poetry of thoughts. Suddenly, she had an urge to find her mother’s diaries of poems, to see if they matched her own. Which was strange, considering she never had a pang of longing in her life.
Walking down the stairs in long, heavy steps, she went to the living room, and hauled up a wooden box with her mother’s things. Agnes sunk her bottom in her bed by the window. The top hung loose from the box, unclosed.
Mostly the box contained junk, papers, and broken makeup bits. Agnes had heard from her siblings that when they were all babies, Magnolia told their damp-skinned faces of the times she had riches. Not much, but enough to buy hearty foods and powders. They were colored a little too strong to be used, the reds more of a blood than a blush.
Then there were the pendants and brooches made to decorate shawls. These had never came out, even on special occasions.
At the bottom of the box, after the whole room had been filled with tiny useless trinkets, Agnes found her journal.
Most of the poems shared daily struggles, but a couple, specifically the last few, caught Agnes’ attention.
Mr. Lo came to visit Mallie and Jane.
He threatened me.
He said, raising his arm, “In my hand, Magnolia, are the secrets you
wish to keep.
The ones you take from the children, like their family.”
He opened his hands, revealing his
ink marked palms.
“In my other hand is a bottle of pure cyanide that I will force down your throat.”
I eyed the bottle.
Death or death,
was the option.
The handwriting was sloppy, and there wasn’t much to it. Almost like a riddle. Agnes studied the poem for a while. That was the last entry in her journal. Mr. Lo was the final husband of Magnolia, and they had been on and off. Mr. Lo was the only ex-husband of Magnolia still alive. The past two had died for unknown reasons. Mr. Lo had visited a few times a couple weeks before Magnolia died.
Agnes walked out the cottage, into the nearby town, and brought the journal with her. She had never been there as a child, but after her mother died, she went into town often to see the people, and write poems about the bakers and the muddy children.
As she entered the town, she saw the boy who stayed out of the dirt and sat up in a tree while the others played. He carried a book with him, and about a hundred bookmarks. Thin leather ones, some colored and some natural. His parents were butchers, and Agnes guessed they made them for him.
The boy put a bookmark at every interesting word he read in his book. Every time Agnes came to town, she climbed the tree and talked to the boy. The villagers had all nicknamed him Prodg, a shorter version of prodigy, she had learned, and he was around eight.
“Hello, Prodg,” she said, tapping his thin shoulder. “I have something for you.” Agnes motioned to the book of poems.
“Is this a journal?”
“Correct.” Agnes leafed through the book until she reached the last page. Prodg read it silently. She had filled him in on her family troubles on other visits. Quietly, he pulled out a little piece of parchment from a sleeve on the cover of the book. Agnes hadn’t noticed it before.
“I would like to go to your house, and research more about this,” he said in his shrill voice.
They both climbed down the tree, Prodg making sure to collect all one hundred and one bookmarks.
When they made it back to the Lemonied cottage, Agnes led Prodg up to the attic. He brought his notebook along, and scribbled notes on every detail of that journal. Soon enough, they were on their hands and knees on Magnolia’s old bedroom floor—he was certain that Magnolia had hidden the earlier journals.
“This is ridiculous,” Agnes told him, as she patted the floor for any loose boards.
“No, it isn’t.” He sat on the creaky bed decoding the empty parchment piece found in the pocket of the journal, while Agnes got more rug burn than she had had in her whole life. “Once you finish doing this, I want to find Suzanne, maybe we can tie her up and interrogate her like a detective. We could—”
Agnes scoffed. Prodg, though bullied frequently, had a large imagination. Which was most likely fed from the hundred of books he had the opportunity to read.
“This is useless,” Agnes thought. Her mother had been such a standoffish person there was no good place to start, even if she revealed more in one diary entry than she did in her whole life.
Later, at the dinner table, once Prodg had gone home, Agnes picked at her food. Purposely mushing her mashed potatoes down so it looked like she ate more, and so Malecent didn’t roll her eyes too far back in her head when she cleaned the dishes. She admired her siblings, looking at their varied faces. Not one Lemonied looked like the other: Malecent and her auburn hair, like her baby; Curtis had spots on his skin, freckles and moles; and Jane her plumpness.
Agnes felt a surge of guilt and anxiety after reviewing her siblings’ looks. She needed to look through that journal of Magnolia Lemonied’s.
She excused herself from the table, and practically sprinted up the attic stairs. Agnes reread the only found journal about a gazillion times until she had nothing but a frustrated expression on her face.
Right when she was about to dive into Emily Dickinson’s world, Prodg dramatically burst through the living room door, a few of his book marks swirling in the wind. Agnes came down from the attic to see what the sound was. When she was only halfway down the stairs, Prodg yelled to Agnes, “I know what the empty parchment was!” After his excited words, he screeched in a little boy way. Changing his pitch to a whisper, then pulling out the paper, he said, “Your mother, she used invisible ink. A common trick, but a good one. I know because I could smell the lemon-vinegar from my nightstand. See the ‘a’ on the corner, it means it can be revealed with acid. Like your mother wanted someone to find it.”
“And where would we find acid?”
Agnes and Prodg then collected market onions, and wrung the juice out of them. Prodg used an egg wash brush to paint on the “acid’. After letting sit for a few minutes, another poem revealed itself.
The window, decorated with webs and mud, shows me something I’ve seen before.
Like a broken crystal ball.
The forest of cracked sticks and dead trees that continues behind my
A little blue jay always checks her nest, lays a few marbled eggs, and leaves to find a new interest.
Once the littles are in bed, I take to the “trees.”
I climb the branches, and pluck one of the
In the morning, they won’t know I ruined another family
as they dig into the prepared breakfast.
Agnes felt a pain in her heart. She remembered that nest. She remembered those eggs, the ones her mother made on Saturday mornings. Magnolia would mix them with cottage cheese, so they’d create a kind of mushy cream. The shells were the best part, blue speckled and interesting. She’d thought they were from the farmers market, or the bird lady out West. Agnes was amazed at her mother’s language. Littles? Who knew she had a name for them other than beasts. It made her uncomfortable.
“I think we know where to look next. To the trees!” Prodg exclaimed under his breath.
Once the duo arrived at the shrubs, they both recognized the same thing. A copper bucket of ice and water instead of the nest. Agnes gripped the handles and hauled the bucket down to ground level. On the surface of the water lay a pearly egg.
Prodg took a deep breath, and crouched down, saying,“Another clever trick.” He looked over at Agnes. “Eggs can be used as another way of transmitting messages, but it would have definitely rotted or worn away after twenty some years.”
“Maybe someone’s been updating the eggs once in a while, someone like Suzanne–” Her voice trailed off. Prodg chipped off the shell of the hard boiled egg. On the mushy surface, a caramel message shone.
“’Disc, then enroll’? It is signed by Mrs. Ana Grams?” Confused eyebrows strung across Prodg and Agnes’ faces. “Disc, like a record? Also, who is Ana Grams?” Prodg asked, curiously.
“I’ve never met an Ana Grams in my life, but who knows, it could be an old friend of my mother’s.”
Agnes repeated the riddle in her head over and over, until all other memories of the past day were washed out. Mrs. Ana Grams was still a mystery by the time Agnes was wrapped in scratchy sweaters for bed. Finally, at the break of dawn, something clicked. In the way that Prodg could smell vinegar from his nightstand, and immediately knew the note had to be invisible ink, Agnes knew Ana Grams wasn’t a person but a certain type of puzzle. An anagram, to be exact.
Pulling herself under the covers, she looked at the egg once more. What a strange way to send a message, and to whom? One of the Lemonieds? Suzanne? As she thought these things, another question roamed her mind: How has this turned into a mystery. Is it even?
The simply constructed words broke down into fourteen letters. The symbols bounced around Agnes’ head until she couldn’t take it anymore. At last, the right combination worked. The words spelled out in her mind’s eye: