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Our June 2024 Flash Contest was based on Prompt #308 (provided by Stone Soup intern Sage Millen), which asked that participants write a story from the perspective of one of their favorite childhood toys. According to these submissions, stuffed animals go on some pretty incredible journeys when we aren't looking, and dolls are very adventurous too! They are also prone to fears of being forgotten by the children who once called them their best friends, replaced by computers and phone screens. But as one doll learns, a donation box can often lead to wonderful places. As always, thank you to all who participated, and please keep submitting next month!

In particular, we congratulate our Honorable Mentions, listed below, and our Winners, whose work you can appreciate below.

Winners
“Stuck” by Weizheng Chen, 11
“Believe” by Vanaja Raju, 13
“Something Other Than Hard Wood” by Rena Wang, 11
“Plush Toys' Secret Mission” by Nolan Wei, 8
“Spying On You” by Annabel Xu, 11

Honorable Mentions
“The Life and Times of Pooh Bear” by Elise Ben-Akiva, 12
“The Hopes of Aurora” by Melody Fei, 12
“I Will Love You Forever” by Ella Ka, 11
“Tender and Delightful Love” by Keziah Khoo, 10
“A Spot of Satisfaction” by Natalie Yue, 12


Stuck

WEIZHENG CHEN, 11

You're stuck. You’re stuck figuratively at least. Stuck in your mind, stuck in heaping piles of pillows and blankets, encompassing your still body. It has been that way for a while already. What has it been? A few months at this point? Maybe more, it's hard telling time when you can't see the clock. When the clock tick is the only reminder of your time here. Alone. Alone with a few musty dust bunnies to accompany your still, lumpy body.

There are the fluffy others, who can feel, with their button eyes and shiny noses, bears holding hearts, or valentine whales with foam hearts in their eyes. Even a crow has tiny black shoes to accompany its stitched hat. You can still move, at least that's what you think. You can see or breathe possibly. At the very best you're still able to feel, feel the weight of the blankets and pillows, feel the weight of yourself suffocating between others, yet feel deprived of anything but cool contact. You hate them, you think, to the very extent you want to be them. To be acknowledged. To be loved by others. Or maybe you don't want that at all; maybe you want to live the way they live. Or feel how it feels to be out in the fresh air, to smell anything but the extent of your unwashed fur. You think.

But maybe you’ve gotten used to the scent of lint and dust. Maybe you don't need the bright bedroom light, the patterns on the wall of bright birds, fluttering away. Maybe, you’re a bear. Or a turkey. You don't even see yourself since you are locked in a lying position. At this point, it would be silly to try; you've already grown content with the way you are. Maybe even happy. No, probably not happy. Just pleasantly living your synthetic life, a life away from others, away from bright-toothed children and your fake stuffed animal friends. Maybe the friends you thought were your friends weren’t even your friends or didn’t even like you. Maybe you just left behind a life of manipulation, of unconditional support and constant understanding expected of friendship, and of living like a puppet to people to children to your stuffed friends. Here, in the piles and piles of blankets and pillows, you can be your own boss. You can be happy, just tell yourself that.


Believe

Vanaja Raju, 13

I have been sitting on the same shelf every day for the past four years.

It isn’t even a display shelf, either. I’m stuck somewhere in Dakota’s closet near the ceiling, with no way to get down without being torn apart by the termites ravaging the lower shelves. They never come up here – my shelf partner is a China woodpecker who scares the life out of the insects.

Sometimes, Dakota takes a while to pick out her clothes, and I consider falling on her on purpose, just so she’ll recognize me and maybe remember all the fun times we had. There were days she’d dress me up in the doll clothes her grandmother crocheted after she made me, and once she put lipstick on my mouth, and now there is a permanent pink stain there.

But she’s seventeen now. She doesn’t have the time to play dress-up with me, to have tea parties, to believe...

So, I sit in silence, not bothering to call her name because she will never hear it anyway. The only person who gives me company these lonely autumn days is Bertie, the woodpecker who sits on my shelf.

“Dakota’s going to college soon,” he remarks one night. “Do you know what’s going to happen after this?”

“Not now, Bertie,” I groan. He’s been over this a million times. “Just because you’re a hundred years old doesn’t mean it will be the same.”

“Oh, but it will,” he says. “She’ll be gone, this room will be empty, the closet will be cleared out, and we’ll be stuffed in a cardboard box until we’re donated. Then it repeats all over again.”

“Dakota’s different,” I argue. “She loved me. I was her best friend. And I don’t think all that just got thrown away.”

“That’s what they all say,” he sighs. “You’ll realize soon enough.”

I hear Dakota’s phone ring, and she picks up. “Hey, Jenna...”

I hate that phone of hers. It replaced me, an evil glowing brick that seems to have her hypnotized. If she leaves the closet open, sometimes I see her in bed in the middle of the night, glued to her new best friend.

Bertie’s sleeping now. He always has had a tendency to doze off randomly. Even I’m feeling drowsy now. Dakota’s going downstairs, chatting excitedly with Jenna about cheerleading or something like that. I feel sleep washing over me, a temporary refuge from my pathetic situation, and I am again pulled into a dream.

When I opened my eyes for the first time, it was to a pair of spectacles and the wrinkles behind them. I felt an odd sensation in my head, like something was not complete. Then, with a few strokes of a needle through my skull, I suddenly had long black hair made of yarn.

“My granddaughter will love you,” whispered the bespectacled woman. “She will always believe.”

Then I was put in a red bag with multicolored paper above me, and I learned the smells of gingerbread, apples, and pine, and through the paper I could make out the twinkling of the Christmas tree lights.

On Christmas morning, the paper above me was removed and I was taken out of my bag. I looked into a young face, the face of a bright-eyed girl who gasped with delight when she saw me. “I love her, Grandma! Thank you thank you thank you!”

“What is her name, sweetheart?” asked the bespectacled woman, Grandma, from somewhere I couldn’t see.

“Umm...Betsy,” said the girl to Grandma. Then she turned to me, flashing me a gap-toothed grin. “Hi, Betsy. I’m Dakota.”

That evening, before supper, we played make-believe with a doll called Barbie and a big fuzzy thing named Teddy Bear. Barbie was kept hostage by Teddy Bear, and I saved Barbie and headbutted Teddy a few times, so he learned his lesson.

We continued the adventures with Barbie and Teddy Bear, but as the months passed and Dakota grew older, her new fascination became dress-up and she got some clothes made for me and Barbie. Teddy Bear was tossed under the bed, and never seen after that.

When Dakota was ten, she came into her room crying one day and hugged me. “Bring Grandma back, Betsy. I know you can.”

We went to the funeral, and it was raining. Dakota held me close the whole time. I whispered love into her heart, and it made her strong, strong so she could survive this, so she could cope. “I believe,” she told me that day. “Betsy, I believe.”

She was twelve soon, and she was braiding my hair and painting Barbie’s face and making me into a fashion icon like the ones on TV. She didn’t talk to me as often, though. I understood. She was busy.

When thirteen rolled around, she put me in her closet and promised to play with me soon. She never did. She had friends over all the time, and I wondered, what made them more fun than me? Was it because they were human, and I was not?

Was it because they were real, and I was not?

It was hard to think about these things, so I decided to strike up an acquaintance with Bertie the China woodpecker and sleep for months at a time. Dreaming of fantasy lives where I was human. Or where Dakota was seven and never aged. Or where I relived that Christmas morning over and over again, the sweet sound of a child’s excitement, those bright eyes. And I wished with all my might, wished that they would come true.

But of course, they never did.

“What month is it?” I yawn.

Bertie’s observing some termites skittering up and down the wall aimlessly. “July. She’s graduated. You didn’t miss much. Anyway, she’s clearing out the room. Closet cleanup’s soon. Those termites are finally going to be exterminated.”

“Good,” I say, but there’s a tinge of guilt in my heart that I didn’t get to see her graduate. Or turn eighteen. Her birthday was last month.

Dakota walks into the room with a large cardboard box, and she takes all of her gymnastics and cheer trophies down from their display cabinet and puts them in the box. She labels the box with a Sharpie and takes it upstairs to the attic.

“She’s been at this all day,” Bertie explains. “She took a break for lunch but that’s it.”

Dakota’s back now; she’s clearing out the bottom shelves. It’s a miracle she hasn’t seen the termites yet. She has two huge boxes in the middle of her room – one full of stuff to give away (I can spot Teddy Bear, dust-covered and moth-eaten, and one of Barbie’s arms) and stuff to keep (some clothes, pictures of her family, and some of her hair ties). She’s fast as she works. She’s humming a tune, and I recognize the song right away – it’s the theme song of one of the shows she used to watch when she was little. I remember it. She always had me in her lap as she watched TV.

As she clears out the upper shelves, she needs to stand on her tiptoes. Finally, she’s picked up Bertie, and he calls to me. “See you on the other side, my friend!” He’s gently placed in the giveaway box.

And when Dakota picks me up, I almost cry with joy, feeling the tender way she holds me. “I remember you...Betsy.”

“Yes, Dakota, it’s me,” I say excitedly, knowing she can’t hear me, but it doesn’t matter to me.

She hugs me to her chest, and I feel so loved. See, Bertie was wrong! She remembered me, and now we will play again, and we will be best friends like we were before.

She smooths out my hair. “I remember I believed in you. I was so stupid back then. You’re not real at all.”

I’m frowning, hoping she can see me, and I’m trying to speak but my vocal cords aren’t working. I want to tell her she’s got it all wrong, that I can be as real as she wants me to be, but she just dusts me off like I’m a silly little thing, incapable of life.

“Well, now some other girl can have fun with you just like I did.” And she tosses me into the giveaway box before I can scream or plead or do anything.

She promptly closes the box and I hear her taping it shut. “Mom! Can you donate all of my old toys?” Her voice is muffled through the cardboard, and I am being and crying for her to open the box, to take me back, please, please.

“What did I tell you?” Bertie’s shaking his head. “This is what they always do.”

I’m too numb to feel anything, and as I’m carried downstairs, Dakota’s whole life flashes before my eyes. And when she lets go of the box, my realness is gone. I’m completely still and memory by memory, my mind is wiped.

She’ll never believe anymore.

When I open my eyes, there’s a little girl with curly black hair smiling at me.

“I love her so much, Aunt Patricia,” she says. “What’s her name?”

I hear another voice. “That’s for you to decide, honey.” “Mmm...” She thinks for a minute. Then she smiles. “Your name is Zoey, and you’re my bestest friend ever.”

“Why don’t you introduce yourself to her?” Aunt Patricia says from the corner.

“Hey, Zoey, I’m Alana, and that’s Aunt Patricia over there by the birthday cake.” Alana turns my head and I’m looking at a woman in her mid-forties with long lashes and a nice smile. She’s standing next to a cake with one, two, three, four, five, six candles on it.

“Where did you get her, Aunt Patricia?” Alana asks.

“There was a really nice antique store I went to; this doll had been donated to them by a nice lady who had a girl going to college. Anyway, they wanted another girl to have just as much fun with her.”

I try thinking about a teenage girl, but nothing comes to mind. I don’t have any memories from before this. That’s strange.

“Come with me, Zoey,” Alana says. “I need to introduce you to my other dolls. And show you my room. Oh, we’re going to be best friends, I already know it.”

I smile to myself, and I know it too.


Something Other Than Hard Wood

RENA WANG, 11

The old creaky shelf held beautiful, porcelain dolls. One by one, each doll got taken away for sale. Between the scratched wooden shelf, two dolls stood beside each other. I had golden and silky hair, with a white porcelain face, my eyes glowed under the sun and moon. I also had beautiful, luxurious clothes, carefully sewed on. On the other hand, the other doll was made fully of cloth. Her eyes were made out of over-used button eyes. Her hands were hastily sewed on. The stuffing was slowly falling like gray clouds. I’ve been here ages, and I’m still perfect. I still have memories of so many children begging their mothers, “Oh, mama, may I have this beautiful doll?”

“How ‘bout a cheaper one, sweetie?”

And sure, I was expensive. Too expensive, for this... tiny, little store. They sold toys. Toys like wooden blocks and cars. And plastic dolls. There weren’t many porcelain dolls like me. This toy store owner was not the wealthiest store owner. I was his most expensive doll. Soon, the store owner was going to retire. He had back pain and had a hard time reaching down to pick up the fallen dolls. He had to get us all out or we’ll be thrown away.

The bell on top of the door jingled. And a little girl with a closed parasol came in with her mother. She glanced around at the thrifty store, with rays of damp sunlight streaming in. Like any other kid, she tugged on her mother's dress, and asked, “Mama, Let’s go to the dolls! May I have one?”

“Yes, sweetheart, you may. They’re on sale anyway. We must bring luck to the store owner. The sign outside said they are throwing away anything they don't sell. I bet he doesn’t want to throw
away these wonderful dolls either.”

The child glanced around and reached up for me. But I tipped back and fell beneath the shelf and into the darkness. Slowly I shifted myself. Making a trail in the ground. After a while in pure darkness, it felt like the dust was whispering to me, “Come here! Come here!” I shivered hearing the eerie sound. I saw a small torso of those colorful wooden blocks. It grew closer, wait... It’s that car from the basket! There was a colorful wooden car that talked to me, “Hey! You're here too.” “Good thing you’re here, can you give me a push outta here? I think there's a girl that wants to take me home!”

“Sorry, I think your weight is too much for me. My poor wheels are out of grease. I haven’t rode on flat ground in 2 years.”

“Well...” I cringed, “We can work together?”

“All I can do is give you moral support. Do you have grease for my wheels?”

“No, I’m a doll. All I do is sit still and look pretty. Now I’m stuck here with you. A talking wooden block. To think, I’m gonna die here or in some horrible trash can!”

“Well, I’m also here. I’m gonna die here too.”

Now all we can do is give moral support. So, he shared with me his dreams. “I want to be a racecar. Speeding through the tracks. Filled with grease so I will never run out!”

“All you are is a petty little block of wood! All the cars are gonna crush you!”

“Don’t be mean!”

“Sorry. I don’t know how to socialize. You know, I’ve been sitting on a shelf my whole life as a doll.”

“It’s fine. I’ve been sitting in pure darkness for two years and managed to become friends with dust. You’re a much better friend.”

I tried to smile. But my porcelain face was stiff. We stayed, chatting in darkness for a few days. And suddenly, a burst of sunlight came in. The store owner was holding the crusty shelf up.

“Oh! There are still two little toys in the shop! Maybe I should take them to my niece! Poor girl, couldn’t find you after she dropped from the shelf!” The next thing I heard was smooth jazz on his car, and after that was a high pitch squeal.

“Thank you! I wanted this one!”

“There's one more, child.”

“Oh! This cute little car!”

She clutched the car and I, and it was the first time I felt something other than wood.


Plush Toys' Secret Mission

NOLAN WEI, 8

I looked around. There was nobody watching. A few minutes ago, my owner, Nolan, had gone off on a trip to the grocery store with his dad. His mom was still sleeping upstairs. Being a living plush toy, I was very content to stay out of human eyes. And so were my friends.

“It’s safe.” I whispered. “All clear.” Immediately, one of my best friends came bounding over.

“You never said that it would take this long!” Muffin the plush cat complained. At least, Muffin was what Nolan named her. I personally like to call her squishy cat, but she doesn’t really like that.

“I said I would tell you when the coast was clear.” I pointed out. “I never said how long that would take.”

“You did too.” Muffin grumbled. A dinosaur head popped into view.

“Is everything good, Blueberry?” asked Blue the velociraptor. He was missing an eye because Nolan popped it out almost the first day he got him, so he has a little trouble seeing.

“Yes, Blue,” I said. “And please, don’t address me by my name.” “Why not?” Blue asked. “Blueberry is a perfect name for a squishy mallow.”

“Just please, respect my wishes,” I said.

One by one, my other friends arrived. Dallas the T-rex, Spikey the stegosaurus, Mr. Chomp the crocodile hand puppet, and Glider the paper origami dove all joined us.

“Hi!” said Mr. Chomp, flopping across the table.

“Why did you call us here, Blueberry?” asked Glider.

“Well, I’ve been noticing something consistently,” I said. “Nolan keeps on dropping or putting his things in the wrong spot, then he can’t find them later. I say we help him organize.”

“But Blueberry,” said Spikey, getting anxious. “We can’t let them know it was us!”

“They won’t know.” I said. “Nolan and his dad will think it’s their mom and wife, and his mom will think it’s him! Are we all in?” I held out my foot, and one by one, my friends joined me. Glider even stuck his wing out.

“Then we’re all in.” I said. “Let’s help our owner organize!”

It was a lot easier said than done. There was so much paper and garbage and trinkets piled around; we didn’t know where to start. We decided to split into groups to cover up more space. Me, Blue, and Muffin were one group, and Spikey, Mr. Chomp, Glider, and Dallas were another. My group went upstairs, while the other group stayed downstairs.

We went to Nolan’s room, and it sure was a hot mess. We climbed up and down the table leg, organizing papers, and tipping garbage into the garbage can. We had to all work together to move books, even for a few steps.

“I think I have something stuck in my mouth.” Blue said after a while. I was not surprised, judging from how much leaves Nolan had fed, rather, stuffed, into his mouth the other day. He had grown to tolerate the meals, even though he was a meat eater. Blue reached up to his mouth, pulled out a handful of leaves and bark, and tossed it into the garbage can. “Phew.” he said. “What a relief.”

After we were done cleaning the tabletop, we jumped onto the closet and started cleaning on top of that. We organized all the games, shuffled all the papers, and made sure to turn the lamp off. Muffin rolled over to each closet, pulled it open, and started moving around all the clothes inside them.

“What are you doing?” I asked skeptically.

“Cleaning-out-these.” she huffed. “If-we-clean-the-top-it’s-best-to-clean-here-too.”

“Nolan’s mom doesn’t usually do that.” I pointed out.

“I’m-doing-it-anyway.” she said. I looked at Blue and he shrugged.

We helped Muffin with the closets, then we folded the blankets on the bed all together, grunting, then put it at the bottom of the bed. We looked underneath the bed, finding anything that was dropped, and hauling it back up. After that, we went to check on the others. We found them busily cleaning up the play area, putting sports equipment away, hauling boxes back in place. As we watched, Glider swooped down to pick up another item, accidentally triggered one of Nolan’s contraptions, which launched a flurry of balls at her, knocking her backwards.

“Ooof!” she said as she crash-landed.

“Watch where you’re flying next time!” Blue called to her. “We’ll have to clean that up too!”

After a lot of bustling around, we finally got the play area organized. I then beaconed everyone to the table to celebrate our success.

“Well done, everyone!” I said.

“Do we have to do that every week?” Muffin whined, her ears drooping. “Because if I do that one more time-” We all suddenly heard the garage door opening.

“They're back!” I said. “Back to your positions, everybody!” As I watched, the door opened, and Nolan came into the house. As he went upstairs, I couldn't wait for him to see his newly cleaned bedroom.


Spying On You

ANNABEL XU, 11

I’m a doll made of vinyl compound. My hair is human hair. I’m about a foot and a half tall. I’m wearing a ridiculous way-too-flowery dress stitched with an oversized bow on the back. I have too-sparkly-for-their-own-good boots engraved with cheap plastic glue-on gemstones.

You think I’m just a cute and innocent interactive doll that can blink, wave, move around its limbs, and cartwheel, but I have sensors on my feet.

I also have high definition 1080p night vision cameras in my eyes that catch everything. They watch you and collect data, of course. The hours you sleep per night, conversations you have and with whom, food you eat. I send it back to the corporation offices, where a team of humans (Silas, Henry, and Frank) process this data and contact the ad companies. This is how the world makes money.

Our company was founded by a man who dropped out of Harvard to fulfill his dreams of invading people's privacy. This company has been going strong for 13.2 years. We are a company where all the humans work 16-hour days and are terrified of being laid off. They get paid a good amount, so this job is to die for.

You, Jessie, just bought me with your birthday money a few days ago from a second-hand store. You brought me to your three-bedroom condo and put me on your kitchen table. You wanted a game console called Y-box like everyone else, but it was out of your budget, so here I am. You didn’t tell anyone else about me as if you were embarrassed. Though you don’t know how important I am to the world of advertising.

Your condo has checkered marble floors, a box of leftover firecrackers in the closet, and red lanterns hanging from the ceiling from Chinese New Year. Your rice cooker is often on, puffing the steam of jasmine rice into the air like a substitute humidifier. A shelf full of spices makes a rainbow on the counter and smells like cinnamon and ginger. Your oven is an extra space for pans and bowls, and your house has the smell of sesame oil. Your father likes to listen to K-pop music, which is now blasting from his 2007 phone, although he doesn’t seem to understand anything in the lyrics. While he listens to that music, he is ripping junk mail, coupons, and ads that our advertising has sent you and tossing them into the trash. All that filled up half of the whole can.

Your bedroom is down the hall where you have pink walls and a purple bed. Your father and mother used to stay in the same room but your mother sleeps in the guest bedroom. Your mom is always on the couch because her stomach hurts really bad. You don’t know this, but she has a neoplasm inside her abdominal wall that is growing rapidly, crowding her stomach and internal organs. Some ads pop up on your mother’s phone: Choose Claire Eves for your cancer doctor! She prescribes the latest medication, temozolomide.

I’ve already read all your mother’s text messages. She writes about her fears and tells your father to make you do your best in life and to remember not to pick fights about politics with other people, as you will only cause trouble.

Your father secretly smokes outside. He works for a large cybersecurity company and worries every day that he will lose his job. And from the way he is sitting, I can tell he has a back injury on the fourth vertebrae, likely from his terrible posture. From how he sits on that bright red overstuffed couch, the injury will only worsen. Your father has swelling to his face from the smoking, but you only think it’s because he’s grown fat from his cheese dillies addiction. Your father is watching K-drama and is not so pleased to be interrupted until he sees the ads that catch his attention: Get a new mattress here!

You have Steven King books hidden under your pillow that keep you up at night. You need glasses but your mom doesn’t want you to know because she likes showing off your pretty eyes to other moms.

I know everything, but you're just a clueless girl. What I don’t know, I intend to find out. If I feel movement, like you walking to the bathroom or turning on the kitchen at night, I might hop down from the shelf and follow you, but you don’t know what I do.

On Wednesday, you ask me, “I see a green lens on your eyes. You have a camera don’t you! I want you to tell me. So I won’t be treated like a baby everywhere now!!”

“Well...you still have baby fat, you are rather short for your age, but you seem like a good person who can keep a good secret. I want to tell you everything. Now, on earth, everything is listening to you. Your phones, your TV’s, your computers. Not just dolls. After all those years I’ve been sitting in a dusty thrift store, I kind of...malfunctioned. So, I can be honest with you. I share data about you with the company that created me.”

“But why would you do that? We’re so boring! All we do is sit around and watch television and eat.”

“This is how my company makes money.”

“Well, if you can spy on my family without yawning to death, good for you. How about we play video games! That’s way funner than listening to babies whooping and kids pretending to be fire trucks outside. Now I have a friend to play games with!”

“As long as you don’t mind that one of your family’s biggest secrets might be revealed and cause psychological distress, damage relationships, or take away your freedom.”

You fidget with your fingers as if this information is not interesting enough.

“Whatever! Who cares? Mom told me everything is watching Nowadays. Nobody cares!”

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