Our January Flash Contest was based on Creativity Prompt #185 (provided by Molly Torinus, Stone Soup contributor), which challenged participants to write a story in which the protagonist explained COVID-19 to people in the distant past. What a way to begin the new year! Molly's thoughtful prompt led to a surge of creativity; these stories took us on journeys to Ancient Egypt and Greece, invented time travel via carrier pigeon, and centered on ghostly interactions. We even received a play set during the end of the Black Death! While each and every story was a pleasure to read, we narrowed down our selections to the usual five winners and five honorable mentions. As always, thank you to all who submitted, and please submit again next month!
In particular, we congratulate our Winners and our Honorable Mentions, whose work you can appreciate below.
"What Are You Talking About?" by Audrey Billington, 10 (Hillsboro, IL)
"Dear Jane" by Finoula Breen-Ryan, 10 (Bridgeport, CT)
"The Warning: A Play" by Nova Macknik-Conde, 10 (Brooklyn, NY)
"Old Answers" by Daniel Shorten, 10 (Mallow, ROI)
"The Ghost of You" by Eliya Wee, 11 (Menlo Park, CA)
"Covid-19 Explained to Ancient Egyptians" by Poorvi Girish, 8 (Fremont, CA)
"Royally Messed Up" by Lui Lung, 12 (Danville, CA)
"Dear People of the Past" by Zayda Parakh, 12 (Chattanooga, TN)
"COVID-19.63" by Divya Srinivasan, 12 (Sammamish, WA)
"COVID Time Travel" by Savarna Yang, 13 (Outram, NZ)
What Are You Talking About
Audrey Billington, 10
I was in the process of trying to beat my jump rope record when I saw it. I tripped over my incoming rope, catapulting towards the ground.
With my arms crossed, I peered at the blue-gray animal pecking at bits of dropped popcorn. A scroll, small and white, was attached to its skinny legs.
That was unbelievable. Carrier pigeons were things of the past. Who on earth could be sending me a message using a carrier pigeon?! Curious, I left my jump rope lying on the ground and rushed towards the animal. Upon seeing me, it abandoned its station by the popcorn and let the paper drop out of its legs.
“Thanks,” I muttered, unaware of the contents inside. An old-fashioned stamp was plastered on the paper to keep the scroll together. Even if the sender was determined to relive the past, they probably couldn’t find a stamp like that. It wouldn’t be cheap, anyways. The stamp appeared to be an artifact from the 1950s: monochromatic with a president’s face on it. Zig-zag lines blurred together.
While still wondering how the sender could have gotten access to that stamp, I ripped the scroll open. Even though the whole scenario showed signs of a historical writer, the note surprised me much more than I expected. It was written in cursive! No one used cursive in 2022. The weirdest thing was that it was penned in ink. Not pen ink, though. Quill ink.
“Dear Linda, I live in disorder now. Polio is just a terrible pandemic. I constantly live in fear. I don’t even want to have you over for a slumber party! It’s all too risky. I wish life would return to normal. I don’t want to stress over the idea that I might acquire paralysis. Why? Why must this happen to us? Can life not return to normal? Oh, Linda, it’s all quite terrorizing. I miss the old days. Oh, I miss them so much. Your friend, Susan.” The letter read.
My eyes exploded. Polio? Linda and Susan? Paralysis? What did all of this mean? I toyed with the idea that it might be a prank, but I went against it. I knew from personal experience that pranksters couldn’t write that well. This was something more serious.
I wasn’t exactly sure what to tell her. I brainstormed a selection of both dumb and serious ideas. Eventually, I settled on a few sentences that didn’t make me sound like an idiot. “Dear Susan, my name’s not Linda. It’s Jordan. I think you might be confused. Did you mean to send this to me? I’m assuming not. Also, polio? Do you mean COVID?? Please clarify. -Jordan, not Linda. P.S.: What year is it?”
I threw the last sentence into my letter as a fun addition. Just in case time travel was real, I had to ask whether or not she lived in 2022. There couldn’t be any harm done.
That night, I squirmed in my bed. I was unable to sleep. My anxiousness to see the reply from Susan was uncontrollable. I attempted to fall asleep, but my eyelids fluttered at a rapid rate.
To my pleasure, the pigeon appeared in my driveway the next morning. Its eyes appeared to water at the assortment of fruits sitting in a woven basket. I took great happiness in providing my messenger bird with snacks.
My heart was flipping over and over as I sprinted to retrieve the scroll from the bird. The fatigue caused by my unwelcome all-nighter didn’t cancel my thrill. In fact, it only enhanced it. I couldn’t believe my luck. A person who was possibly stranded in the mid-twentieth century was trying to communicate with me through letters! Anyone else would’ve deemed my situation impossible.
“Dear Jordan, it’s weird not writing Linda at the top of this letter. I’ve never written to a Jordan. I feel as if you are the confused one. What are you talking about? Jordan, it’s 1955. The polio vaccine was released a few months ago. Do you not know what polio is? Are you unaware of the raging pandemic sending us into quarantine? What is COVID? A disease of your imagination? And yes, I didn’t mean to send this to you. I intended to reach Linda, my dearest friend. I have no idea how the pigeon gave the letters to you. It’s all so confusing! -Susan”
I wasn’t sure whether or not the response excited me. For one thing, I could be a revolutionary hero—the one to invent time travel! Or at least prove it was real. Then again, all of it blinded me. It was baffling beyond belief. Some part of me didn’t want to acknowledge the truth behind it.
I enjoyed knowing facts. When new ones were discovered, I was disoriented. It’s like I was on a high pedestal, but I lost my balance and fell. This revelation was more confusing than anything else I’ve ever experienced. My emotions and thoughts were fuzzy.
“Dear Susan,” I began, “I live in 2022. I have never, ever witnessed 1955 in person. COVID is a very real disease. In modern times, 2022, we all live in fear of coronavirus, often shortened to COVID-19. It’s very similar to polio, but it’s different as well. I don’t know much about polio, but here’s a summary of COVID. It’s most deadly in elderly people, but kids can get it. We entered a lockdown in early 2020, not allowed to go anywhere except for essential businesses. Now, it’s relieving, but it’s still dangerous. We always have to mask. There’s a vaccine, but not everyone gets it. It’s complicated. Now, tell me about polio! -Jordan, your friend from the future.”
Her answer was brought within a few hours. The fruit basket was still mounted into the grass, and the pigeon was still eager to eat it. This time, the bird showed no restraint and left the scroll rolling in the slightly inclined grass. I rushed to grab the letter, my palm warm against the paper.
Susan’s reply was, unexpectedly, full of misunderstanding. It said, “Dear Jordan, I don’t think I am grasping your concept. Are you saying that pandemics are not done? They will reappear in 2020? I don’t quite understand. Another thing: people won’t accept the vaccine? Why not? It’s perfectly safe. I received mine a few weeks ago, and I am functioning perfectly fine. I can comprehend some subjects, though. We entered a lockdown as well. That’s why I couldn’t have Linda over for a slumber party. You’re right about one main thing: it initiates fear. It surely does. -Susan, stuck in 1955.”
At that moment, I dropped on the hill. I tumbled downwards, sprawled on the freshly mowed lawn. Rolling should’ve been extra distracting, but it actually helped me see things clearly. The motion helped me realize something: how twisted it all was. How unreal, warped, strange, thrilling the whole endeavor was.
Why hadn’t I realized that before that moment? I was making history. Like footprints on the moon, my imprint would stay forever. Strangely, though, my motive in writing to Susan wasn’t to become the next Albert Einstein. I truly enjoyed the whole idea; I liked the unlikely reality.
I told Susan my feelings. “Dear Susan, I can’t tell you everything. I don’t know why some people resist the vaccine. Humans are weird. Anyways, I do know some things, though. Pandemics will never be done. They just won’t. New viruses and new bacteria will continually haunt the Earth. The truth is sad, I know. I just want to prepare you and all your friends. Warn them for what’s ahead. But remember this: we pushed forward. So did you and all of your friends. In our darkest days, we found scarce light. That should keep you sleeping at night. -Jordan, a futuristic prophet.”
Susan never replied. After a week of restlessness and insomnia, I began to settle into the world without Susan. It brought a surprising loneliness to me. I never knew that I could long to send a girl from 1955 letters sent by a carrier pigeon.
It really plagued me, though. I missed her confusion and wild dreams about COVID. She brought a strange happiness upon me: a feeling of home.
Now, two years later, I couldn’t say I was in a perfect haven. COVID may have faded away, luckily, but my fantasies as an eleven-year-old didn’t exactly become true. I wasn’t Albert Einstein’s successor, like I secretly hoped. I was still Jordan Tyler, the girl with an exciting story almost no one knew about.
But I made an impact in my own way. For that reason, I was famous, even if no one knew my name.
Finoula Breen-Ryan, 10
Dear future Andersons,
Hello. I am Jane Anderson, born March 29, 1796. I am twelve years old as I write this. How old are you, the recipient of this letter?
Please tell me about the 20th century, or, I hope, if this letter is discovered even farther on in time, the 21st or 22nd century. Tell me your name, your age, and anything else you want me to know. Address it to "Jane Anderson" and nothing more. I assure you, it will get to me.
Why am I even writing to you? You are dead; this will probably get returned to me in the mail. But for some reason, I still feel the need to write this letter.
I’m Ellie Anderson. I was born on December 7th of 2009, and am twelve at the moment, too. Huh. What a coincidence.
It is January 8th, 2022. The COVID-19 pandemic is still going on. Well, I guess I should explain what COVID-19 is, since you’re from the 19th century and everything—yikes. I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that I’m writing to a dead person. Maybe all the drama of the pandemic has gotten to my head.
COVID-19, or Coronavirus, started in December of 2019 and has continued all the way to now. So many people were hospitalized and died because of it. Like, half of my class has had to quarantine over the past two years.
And then there are the vaccines. I got my two shots, but a bunch of people are refusing to get their vaccines, further wreaking havoc. There are conspiracy theories and everything. And there are these things called masks that cover the lower half of your face and protect you from the virus, but can be pretty uncomfortable. I can’t tell what’s worse: the masks themselves or the people who refuse to wear the masks. Probably the second one.
COVID-19 is just. So. Annoying.
Wait—I’m just realizing that you might not know what a vaccine is. A vaccine is basically a dose of medicine that doctors insert into your body with a needle, and it helps protect you from whatever illness it’s for. Okay, I’m cringing as I write this. But they’ve saved a lot of lives.
Never in a million years (or two hundred years, I guess) would I have thought I’d be writing to a dead girl about what it means to be alive.
Ellie never got a response.
But, for some reason, the letter was never returned, either.
The Warning: A Play
Nova Macknik-Conde, 10
Act 1, Scene 1
A small English village, 1349
A small village, with deteriorating houses, and several corpses piled up to the left of the stage. The only people left are a 15-year-old boy, BARTRAM, and a woman in her 30s, COVENTINA.
BARTRAM: (in a despairing tone) Oh no, oh no, how are we supposed to bury all these corpses without getting infected, mother?
COVENTINA: (shrugging, mumbles) I don’t know.
Coventina kneels down next to a corpse.
COVENTINA: Oh, brother, why did you have to leave me? You were so kind, so handsome, so loving. All the maids in our village were in love with you. You could have had any girl you wanted! But alas, the Lord decided it was your time to join Him in Heaven. You would have been so happy to know the curse had lifted. At least I know that you are watching from above. You must be one of the most beloved angels to all who meet you.
BARTRAM: Poor UNCLE ALDRICH. He didn’t deserve to die like that.
A dark blue cube with all sorts of strange adornments appears.
BARTRAM: (in a flat tone) Oh, wonderful. We’re all going to die from another curse.
A girl, FERN, pushes back a sheet covering an opening on the front of the cube.
FERN: Oh, hi! My name is Fern! Nice to meet you!
BARTRAM: (suspicious) Who are you? (gasps) Are you a witch?
Coventina stands up and elbows Bartram.
COVENTINA: Don’t be rude! (to Fern) Hello, my dear! I’m sorry for my son, we just got out of a plague-curse sent by the Lord and cured by burning witches, so Bartram is a bit suspicious of any unknown woman, since only women are liable to be witches. I am Coventina. Your name is so unique and pretty, Fern, it is absolutely lovely.
FERN: Thanks! Your name is also beautiful! Where I come from, the name Coventina is also rarely, if at all, used. Also, Bartram, I’m not a witch.
COVENTINA: Thank you so much, Fern!
Fern clears her throat.
FERN: I have something quite upsetting to tell you. You know how the Black Death just happened? Well, I come from the future, and in the years 2020 to 2022 AD, there will be another pandemic—Coventina, why are you raising your hand?
COVENTINA: What is a pandemic?
FERN: A wide-spread sickness that will infect all realms. Anyway, as I was saying—yes, Bartram?
BARTRAM: There is a prophecy that Doomsday will come in the year 2000 AD. Doomsday is when the Lord will end the life of all humans for the final judgement. All who do not believe in Him will be sent to Hell, and all who are faithful will live the rest of the eternal afterlife with Him in Heaven. Thus, your claim that you come from the year 2022 must be false. Also, time traveling sounds quite witchy.
FERN: (frustrated) For the love of—okay. Okay. I’m fine. I’m good. I’m great. You know what? Why don’t you come in the time machine with me so I can bring you back to 2022 and show you I’m not lying, hm?
BARTRAM: Not a cha—
Coventina places her finger over Bartram’s lips.
COVENTINA: Quiet. (addressing Fern) I’m sorry, my darling Fern. I must speak to my son before we decide whether we will join you in your blue box or not.
FERN: It’s quite alright! Take as long as you want.
Bartram and Coventina step away from Fern.
COVENTINA: (whispers) Oh, Bartram, why don’t we humor her?
BARTRAM: (whispers) Because either she’s insane or a witch, and I would not want to be in a cramped room with either!
COVENTINA: (whispers) Fern is far too sweet of a little girl to be a witch, and really, what harm could it do to step behind a sheet?
BARTRAM: (whispers) She could attack us! And if I’m right and she’s a witch, she could curse us!
COVENTINA: (whispers) We could stay close to the opening in case she decides to attack us so we can run away, and if she starts to curse us, one of us could tackle her to break her concentration so the other can run away, and then the tackler could run after the other.
BARTRAM: (whispers) Ugh, fine! Just don’t say I didn’t warn you when we’re dead! And at least let me make a prayer first.
COVENTINA: (whispers) Fine with me.
Bartram crosses himself and whispers something under his breath that Coventina cannot hear.
BARTRAM: (sighs, whispers) Okay. I’m ready.
COVENTINA: Okay. Fern? We’re going to come with you in the blue box!
Bartram, Coventina, and Fern all step behind the sheet serving as a door on the front of the time machine.
END OF SCENE 1
To Be Continued
Daniel Shorten, 10
“Where did you come from?”
The man with the grey beard looked somewhat irritated to see me. His attention was directed to the bored looking boy seated next to him, who looked about my age (quite a mature 11, if I may say so myself).
“Don’t you know that this is the great Aristotle?” said the boy before immediately pulling a face behind the old man’s back.
“Alexander, please sit down and do your work,” snapped Aristotle.
“I have come from the future to warn you about something terrible that is going to happen in the year 2020!” I exclaimed. “There is a great sickness known as the coronavirus that has infected people throughout the world—they are dying by the thousands.”
"Please slow down," said Aristotle. "Tell us your main worries and we will help you to consider them."
“We’ve noticed that the virus spreads like wildfire when people gather in large groups indoors. But we are very sociable and like to do just that.”
“Hmm,” said Aristotle scratching his beard. “What could we do about that?”
“Isn’t it obvious—have the entertainment outdoors!” piped up Alexander. “That’s what wrestling is for! I thought you were meant to be wise.”
“Okay, that’s fine, but what about this? The governments have put in place all these restrictions, but not everyone obeys them.”
“We Greeks have a way to solve that,” said Alexander, smiling. “A leader will be obeyed if he is loved, respected . . . and feared."
“Fair enough,” I said, “but how do we get everyone to wear a mask if they don’t have one?”
“Anyone who has a toga has a ready made mask,” replied Alexander, swishing his own toga over his face.
“You guys are amazing at this, but this is the trickiest one,” I said. ”Every country on the world handles COVID-19 differently, and until everyone’s safe, nobody’s safe.”
At this Alexander stood up and replied, ”You clearly need someone to conquer the whole world—I can help you with that.”
The Ghost of You
Eliya Wee, 11
March 24th. Tuesday. March 25th would’ve been game night for the seniors in our neighborhood. Game night hasn’t been the same since Frank’s been gone, but it was still people. Better than staying in the one room that doesn’t remind me of him all day, or watching the television mindlessly.
I can’t bear to get rid of his things from the house—it would make him actually gone. Maureen tried to help me get rid of his stuff, but I stopped her before she could throw it out. Our house is haunted by his ghost, lingering in the walls, in each souvenir that we collected in our travels. His laugh rings through my ears as I rise each day. I never believed in the supernatural, the realm of ghosts and spirits. I believe in the Lord, in the pain that I know must serve a purpose.
Leonara used to say that people would chase the ghosts away, and I would never listen. “No ghosts,” I would say. “No stories.” Yet perhaps that’s why my heart hurts. Because his ghost is everywhere, everything reminds me of that pain.
I’m walking down the stairs one day when a book catches my eye, like a memory being released. I blow the dust off the cover—Birds of North America. The pages seem to flutter through the air as if a ghost is turning the pages for me. That thought scares me. No ghosts, I tell myself. The book lies open to a page with a faded photograph. Frank and I are standing on top of a lush green hill. The grass seems to ripple on the glossy print. My hair—still dark then—blows in my face as I laugh wildly, a falcon on my leather-gloved arm. Frank. I sink to my knees. He’s staring at me with an expression of wonder. That gaze—it fills me with warmth that pulls at my open wounds. My heart throbs.
He would always be so truthful. He would just study my face at times, and when I would ask him what he was looking at so intently, he would tell me that he was memorizing my face, my beauty. I would laugh—call him a charmer.
The air in my house is stifling, I can’t breathe. The coatrack falls over as I pull a sweater over my shoulders, the front door unlocked with shaking hands. The cold bites into my bones. A vague sense of ghost hands brushes through my mind. My muscles burn, legs buckling just before a marble headstone.
I hadn’t been here since his funeral. I never wanted to be here before then—heck, I hadn’t even been out of my driveway since the beginning of the pandemic. The wind sounded too much like his voice, the chill reminding me too much of the emptiness beside me.
I trace the letters. Ghost hands. My head falls onto the cold stone.
“Frank.” My voice, like ghost voices. “I’m sorry for not coming sooner. Everything reminds me of you—I’m going crazy. This pandemic—it drives me crazy. I want it to be over. I’m alone in our house. I can feel you in the walls, Frank.” It’s surreal to say it out loud. “I feel your ghost. I’m going crazy. They call it a pandemic, Frank. Can you believe? I have to stay home, there’s so much fear—" I stop to catch my breath.
“This could end if people would stop to breathe. If they would see that this is real. People don’t protect themselves. They don’t mask, they think that people are lying about the virus—can you believe it? The death count, Frank, how is that not real? I’m afraid, Frank. I’m afraid of death, I’m afraid of going crazy alone. Why did you have to go?”
My words hang in the air. “I don’t want to die, but you took my spark to heaven. This pandemic—remember how I studied psychology in university? We learned about humans, how they think, how their brains work. But I don’t understand how people could be this harmful, this destructive, this ignorant. My days, I spend them alone, aimlessly watching tv, or reading textbooks; there’s only one room that I can be in without thinking of you too much. The pandemic, it made our divisions stronger. People protest because of unjust acts. The violence is incredible. I don’t want to go crazy like Emily from that short story. I don’t want to keep you here with me forever. I know you’re gone. Am I hurting you, keeping you with me? Am I hurting you, to look down on me, watching me become some wreck? Do you want me to forget you? Why, then, do I feel your hands holding me? Why, then, do I hear your voice? I can’t forget you, Frank.”
My hands are numb in the cold. “The pandemic, Frank. It’s driving me crazy. The people I hear about on the news, they make up these... stories to justify hurting other people. They’ll murder people because they’re different. This virus is driving us all crazy. The former president called the virus the 'China virus.' Who will unify us now? Who will mend the rifts that have formed? People even go so far as to refuse to vaccinate themselves. It started in March. The vaccine, we didn’t know about it, but we learned about it. We were shut in our houses. Leonara has John, Maureen has Tray. I felt your absence so strongly, I still do. But this pandemic—the country’s still in chaos.”
A chill rips through the air. “It’s getting late,” I tell the emptiness. “I’ll come back tomorrow,” I add. I brush the dirt off my knees as I rise.
And I can feel the ghost hands carry me home.