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“The Lonely Radio,” by Avital Sagan, age 12, is a short story told from the first-person present perspective of a radio. The radio lives in a city called Floracion at the top of a skyscraper. Floracion is unique because of the giant moonflowers called “gigantics” that only bloom at night and grow to over twelve feet wide all over the city. Most people are awake at night so they can go and see the flowers, and the radio loves them too. The radio’s main human contact is a man called the Communicator who uses the radio to talk to people in cities far away.

But one day, the Communicator does not come to see the radio. That night, no one comes outside—no cars drive on the streets, the lights are out. The radio checks the other stations but only hears static. Looking out the window, the radio sees with horror that the gigantics have come alive and are hunting. After a while, a young boy named Daniel staggers in and begs the radio to work, to not let him die there. The radio, thinking it can help, tries to connect Daniel to a person in a distant city who he thinks could help. But the woman on the other end thinks it’s a prank. Then Daniel’s mother comes, holding a moonflower, and forces him to smell it. Daniel collapses and the two of them leave. The lonely radio at the top of the skyscraper resigns itself to its fate: it will be in this forgotten city until the city burns or is covered up by the ocean.

What makes this world believable? 

This story is written in the style of magical realism. Most of the details of the story feel a bit like realistic fiction—this is a world that resembles the world here on Earth. There are radios, skyscrapers, cities, and businesspeople. There are parents and children, music, and even photos of dogs. The only two magical elements in the story are the talking radio and the giant living flowers. 

When writing about a world where there is magic, or where things don’t work like they do here on Earth, one way to make it believable is to limit the number of unique details. By making the world mostly resemble our own and then incorporating those few, odd magical details, the writer directs the reader’s attention to the most important elements of the world. 

The radio says:

My room is near the top of a skyscraper that towers over the rest of the city. There are impressively tall buildings and people constantly going about their business, but that’s not the best part. The best part is the flowers.

This description’s power starts with the surprising nature of the revelation. When the writer tells us that the skyscrapers aren’t even the best part, as readers we expect the best part to be something else you’d find in a city—the best part is the zoo, or the best part is the beautiful park. When the writer says “flowers,” once again, as readers, we expect something different than what we get. I imagine flowers in cute window boxes, or in garden plots, or lining the streets. What I don’t imagine is this: 

Floracion is overrun with moonflowers, aptly called “gigantics,” white flowers that only bloom at night and sometimes grow over a dozen feet wide. People make room for them everywhere. On the sides of buildings, in storefronts, on roofs.

Beyond the surprise of the flowers themselves, another thing that makes this description powerful is where the gigantics appear. As a reader, I can really see them—opening in front of the local coffee shop, or on the side of the bookstore. It’s such an odd, precise image, and its precision is helped along by the fact that we know what buildings, storefronts, and flowers are. None of these elements on their own are unexpected. 

Similarly, the very fact of our protagonist is an interesting exercise in both a realistic and unrealistic approach. Radios are very ordinary—but sentient radios aren’t (at least, not that we know of). Even in this magical world, the writer is careful not to allow the radio to break the rules of its physical form. When Daniel, a young boy, comes to ask for help, the radio can change the stations. But it can’t help in other ways, even when it perceives danger: 

Hide, I try to yell, but my speakers can only release static. You’re not safe here

Even though it is sentient, the radio is still bound by the rules that constrain it on Earth—it can speak in static or in radio stations. It can transmit other people’s broadcasts, but it cannot speak for itself. In a strange, extraordinary world, this radio’s ordinary function helps us, as readers, orient to the new reality. 

Discussion questions:

  • What are other moments in the story where the ordinary rules of reality on Earth are blended with the extraordinary realities of life in Floracion? 
  • The writer builds a believable world through a radio—a strange choice of protagonist. Why do you think the writer chose a radio to be the protagonist? How would the story have felt different if the main character had been Daniel, the human child who tries to escape the moonflowers, or the Communicator?


The Lonely Radio

Radios have become old-fashioned. I know that through the snippets of conversation I hear as I sit on my table. Despite that, they’ve never done more than talk about replacing me.

There’s a man who uses me the most often. He has an impressive mustache and is often referred to as “the Communicator” by the people who talk through me.

I connect people who are far away. It may not be the most exciting job—I care very little about human politics—but it’s fulfilling to know what I’m doing is helping people.

And when people aren’t using me, I can look out at the island of Floracion. My room is near the top of a skyscraper that towers over the rest of the city. There are impressively tall buildings and people constantly going about their business, but that’s not the best part. The best part is the flowers.

Floracion is overrun with moonflowers, aptly called “gigantics,” white flowers that only bloom at night and sometimes grow over a dozen feet wide. People make room for them everywhere. On the sides of buildings, in storefronts, on roofs.

Most people are awake during the night to see the flowers, and I can’t blame them. It’s spectacular.

And the Communicator comes into my room every day. He, like me, has an important job. He has to stay awake during the day to communicate with nearby cities and countries. Like me, he’s made a sacrifice—for me, my mobility, for him, his sleep schedule— but we’re both improving Floracion. Together.

He uses me to talk to other people while I listen, learning what I can and speculating about the outside world. Those conversations make my life, stagnant as it is, worth it.

I’m proud of what I do. It’s an important job, and Floracion is—in my highly biased opinion—one of the best cities in the world. How could any sterile buildings match the flowers’ beauty? The way the city makes every hour of the night busy?

At some time in the evening, the Communicator leaves. His assistants sometimes stay longer, even sleeping here in some extreme cases, but they eventually go too. And I’m alone.

But one day, he doesn’t come.

It’s not his absence that worries me, but the fact that he said nothing. His assistants are also gone. They always discuss their plans where I can hear them.

Where are you? I think. Static bursts from my speakers for a moment, but it’s gone as soon as it starts, and I get no answer.

I look down on the island. It’s night, yet no one is out. That’s beyond unusual. Not a single car is driving on the streets, and if there are any people, it’s too dark to see. Most of the lights on the buildings are out.

I check the radio stations, but there’s nothing but music and static.

Even the flowers seem different. With no sounds from vehicles or the usual racket from people, the white petals that almost shine in the moonlight seem eerie. They’re more like the pressed flowers that used to be kept in the room. Beautiful, but dead.

There’s no wind. Not a single leaf on any of the flowers moves, but one moonflower—a gigantic that must be twenty feet across—moves.

It rotates its head, the movement slow and deliberate. This is not the wind. It’s a predator looking for prey.

It’s not doing that on its own, I think, but the irony is not lost on me. A sentient radio thinking that the flower cannot do anything on its own.

Perhaps the world is stranger than I know.

And like a flipped switch, there are suddenly more. The gigantics closer to the ground are moving to face the street.

I remember one of the Communicator’s assistants mentioning a plant called the Venus flytrap. They have thin hairs that, if brushed against by an insect, will cause them to snap shut.

The moonflowers are hunting.

I watch in horror as the city comes alive, but not in the usual way. The flowers look everywhere, sometimes leaning down or looking up.

One of them looks at the mountain. It has no eyes, but the way it keeps staring makes me feel like a hapless fly, my doom about to be sealed. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the moonflower grew legs and started walking toward me.

But it didn’t, and I’m grateful for that.

In the unknown time I have been around, I have perfected the art of zoning out. Of letting time pass by me as I blank, making unbearably long nights no more than a dull minute. I employ this tactic now, tuning in to one of the music stations for good measure.

I think they call this genre “jazz.” It washes over me, helping me relax despite the strangeness of my situation. I don’t get much about humans, but I understand why they love music so much. It’s almost magical.

Then the elevator bings.

I’m reconsidering my moonflowers-growing-feet theory when someone decidedly human steps into the room.

It’s a boy. He’s much younger than even the youngest of the Communicator’s assistants, a small girl with gravity-defying curls who had seemed to prefer looking at dog pictures than helping.

When he looks at me, I remember why I do this. He looks at me like I’m his last hope.

But more than that, he’s scared. Terrified. Tears hover in front of his eyes, balancing carefully on his lower eyelids without falling out.

Does he know what’s going on out there? I wonder. He must, given how upset he seems. It was creepy enough for me to see the flowers moving. For someone who might be just feet away from them—that would be beyond frightening.

The boy rushes toward me and begins to fiddle with me.

“Please,” he says, the tears finally beginning to slip down his face. “You have to work. You have to. I can’t die here.”

I feel bad for him. My ability to manipulate the world around me, to do anything more than change the channel, is limited. But I can help him in small ways.

I adjust my inner workings, setting myself to a channel that the Communicator often used. He’d talk to a man he called “sir” and “mister.” There was always a level of deference to this man that the Communicator never gave to anyone else. The man had to help this boy.

“Hello?” the boy says. “Can anyone hear me?”

A female voice responds from the other end. “Yes. I’m Carmen. Who is this?”

The boy smiles, wiping away some tears with his sleeve. “My name is Daniel. I’m in Floracion. I need help.”

Carmen doesn’t respond for a moment. “I’m sorry, but this is meant as a private channel. You should call the police if you need help.”

“Wait!” Daniel yells, his voice echoing around the small room. I hear a slight gasp on the other end. “Please. The police aren’t answering. People are going insane, and they’re trying to get me to smell the moonflowers— they say it’ll make me feel better. I don’t know what’s going on.”

His voice begins to crack as he continues. I’m sure that this will be the end of his troubles. Carmen will send as much help as she can give and get him off the island.

But the moment I think I know what a human will do, they prove me wrong.

“This is not meant for pranks. I advise you to go back home.” Carmen’s tone has gone from cordial to steely. “Goodbye.”

“No!” But Daniel is too late. She’s gone.

I expect him to start sobbing again, but another look has appeared on Daniel’s face: horror.

He tries to talk again but seems to choke on his own words.

“You can’t,” he whispers. “I can’t die here.”

I feel bad for him, but I’m soon distracted by the familiar bing from the elevator.

But this time, instead of relief, I feel an inexplicable worry. Daniel’s eyes widen slightly. “Is someone there?” he calls.

Hide, I try to yell, but my speakers can only release static. You’re not safe here.

Footsteps come closer, but something is wrong. It doesn’t sound   like a human. It doesn’t walk; it drags. And the noise I hear—that’s nothing that a human would make.

A whining. Like a hurt animal.

Once, the Communicator played a horror movie on his tablet. My view of it from over his shoulder wasn’t the best, but I was scared nonetheless. For several nights after it, I had trouble blanking out like I usually did. I kept imagining monsters in the dark and doors that shouldn’t be opened but always are.

Now I’m in the movie.

The door to the room opens, revealing a woman in a dirty summer dress with dark hair and soft features that remind me of Daniel’s, although I’ve never been one to distinguish humans well.

But that look in her eyes, the dead look like something inside her is rotten—that’s impossible to miss.

And Daniel sees it too.

I almost miss the pot in her hands. Two moonflowers are growing in it, both of a decent size, but nowhere near the size the flowers can sometimes reach.

“Don’t do this, Mom,” Daniel pleads. “This isn’t you. You don’t have to do this.”

I wish his words meant anything, but the woman doesn’t respond. She stumbles forward, making that same whining noise.

Daniel pushes her back, and she loses her grip on the pot. It falls to the ground and shatters.

His mother stares at the pot’s remains. Her whining gets louder as she lifts the flowers with all the solemnity of a pallbearer carrying a coffin.

Daniel tries to rush past her, but she slams into him as I watch helplessly. She shoves the moonflowers under his nose. He tries to resist, but after a moment he goes limp.

They stay like that, mother hunched over son, for a few minutes. A solitary tear runs down her cheek as she stares at him—some remnant of the human she once was.

After a little while, she drags him out. I think I see Daniel’s eyes flutter open, but then they turn into the hall and I’m left wondering what he’s about to do.

So I wait.

I hear the elevator ding for the final time that night. Everything is silent save for the jazz station I listen to again, trying to forget my fears in the tune.

And like the nights after I peered at that horror movie, I can’t blank out. All I can do is watch as a city falls below me.

But even as my world crumbles, as I feel devastation on a level I’ve never experienced before, as I try to scream with a mouth I don’t have, the jazz keeps playing. On and on.

I don’t know how to die. All I know how to do is play music that has become more grating than soothing. But I don’t have the energy to change the channel. I don’t have the energy to change my fate.

Through the days and nights I keep waiting for an end, but I don’t find it. I watch planes fly and flowers burn, but the finale I seek never comes.

The music has looped so many times, I know every note by heart. I resign myself to the fact that my death will only—if ever—come when Floracion is burned to the ground or reclaimed by the sea.

And no one noticed the lonely radio, watching the city from above. It wished for nothing but a way to finish its miserable story, yet it knew that long after the words stopped it would still be waiting for its life to end.

Avital Sagan
Avital Sagan, 12
Ithaca, NY

Peri Gordon
Peri Gordon, 11
Sherman Oaks, CA