Want to keep reading?

You've reached the end of your complimentary access. Subscribe for as little as $4/month.

Subscribe
Aready a Subscriber ? Sign In

“Twenty Questions, Twenty Answers” is a short story told in the first-person point of view, from Jenny’s perspective, about two teenage sisters, Jenny and Ula, who are stuck in a car together with their parents. On their dad’s suggestion, the sisters decide to play Twenty Questions to pass the time. Ula chooses the object first, and as Jenny questions her sister, she is led down an associative path back into her memories from their childhood. As they near their destination, Jenny is sure she has finally lit upon the mysterious “mineral” object (not an animal, not a vegetable): the stone Ula put on a sparrow’s grave. Although Ula denies it just as they arrive, Jenny is positive she is right.

What makes the characters in this story strong? 

Anna Shepherd does an excellent job of developing her characters, especially the dynamic between the two sisters, through telling dialogue and action. Let’s take a look at the opening sequence to see how she does this.

Only ten minutes had gone by since the last rest stop, but to me it felt like an hour. My knee bounced. My leg jiggled. My fingers drummed out syncopated rhythms on the door handle.

Through her endless fidgeting and her perception of time (“it felt like an hour”), we immediately see that Jenny is restless and fidgety—not just bored and restless, but likely one of these people who is unable to sit still. 

Jennifer,” said my older sister, Ula. “Stop tapping.”

I gritted my teeth and began slapping the side of my thigh instead. “It’s Jenny.”

Jennifer, you’re still making noise.”

“My name is Jenny!”

As the two sisters begin to interact, we see the tension between them. Jenny’s restlessness is aggravating Ula, who asks her to stop tapping, and so, to get her revenge, Ula appears to purposefully call her “Jennifer,” knowing it will aggravate her sister back. The italics on the name “Jennifer” indicate that Ula is pointedly using her full name. 

“Ula, Jenny, stop bickering,” said Mom in that stiff, controlled voice that meant she was trying very, very hard not to yell. “Especially you, Ula. You’re 15. You should know better.”

Dad turned around in the passenger seat. “Girls, you’re stressing her out. Why don’t you play Twenty Questions?”

Here, we begin not only to get a sense of Mom and Dad but also see, again, through their reactions, that this is likely a typical Jenny-Ula interaction: they bicker and provoke each other, and it exasperates the parents—especially given Ula’s age! This tells us that Ula is not very mature. In this section, I particularly love the characterization of mom’s voice: “that stiff, controlled voice that meant she was trying very, very hard not to yell.” It is so specific, and you know exactly what Shepherd is talking about! 

“Yes,” I said instantly. Ula groaned, but I noticed the look of satisfaction in her brown eyes.

“I’ll start,” she said in a practiced drawl.

“Fine.”

Returning to the sisters, we see Jenny’s youth and eagerness to interact with her sister reflected in the way she responds to their dad’s suggestion to play Twenty Questions: “‘Yes,’ I said instantly.” Ula, however, plays the disaffected teenager—groaning and replying in a “practiced draw.” But Jenny notices, from “the look of satisfaction in her brown eyes,” that she’s excited to play. 

As the story develops, Shepherd continues to use dialogue and small reactions, like the ones noted above, in a smart way that reveals a lot about each character. The story also becomes more interior, moving between dialogue and Jenny’s internal thought process as she revisits the past, attempting to guess the object Ula has in mind. 

Discussion questions

  • Can you identify some other moments where we learn something new about a character through dialogue or reactions?
  • How can Jenny’s guesses in Twenty Questions tell us more about her as a character? 
  • The story ends on a moment of disagreement and uncertainty. Why do you think the writer chose to end the story there? What might this choice tell us about the relationships between the characters?

Bird in the Clouds

Twenty Questions, Twenty Answers

Only ten minutes had gone by since the last rest stop, but to me it felt like an hour. My knee bounced. My leg jiggled. My fingers drummed out syncopated rhythms on the door handle.

“Jennifer,” said my older sister, Ula. “Stop tapping.”

I gritted my teeth and began slapping the side of my thigh instead. “It’s Jenny.”

“Jennifer, you’re still making noise.”

“My name is Jenny!”

“Ula, Jenny, stop bickering,” said Mom in that stiff, controlled voice that meant she was trying very, very hard not to yell. “Especially you, Ula. You’re 15. You should know better.”

Dad turned around in the passenger seat. “Girls, you’re stressing her out. Why don’t you play Twenty Questions?”

“Yes,” I said instantly. Ula groaned, but I noticed the look of satisfaction in her brown eyes.

“I’ll start,” she said in a practiced drawl.

“Fine.”

The car fell silent while Ula thought of her object. I stared out the window at the wall of leafy green trees parading down the side of the road, bars of Mozart and Seitz and Boccherini running through my head. My own face—straight, thick black hair framing yellow-hazel eyes—looked dispassionately back at me. After a while, I switched to thinking about strange things that could happen as a result of insufficient AI attempts: A self-driving car is driving down a road. A tree falls across the road, and the car drives into it and explodes. However, right before it explodes, the car sends a record of what has happened to all the other self-driving cars. Instead of concluding that you should stop if a tree falls across the road, the cars all conclude that you should not drive near trees. I smiled at the image of cars inexplicably avoiding large swathes of forest.

“All right,” Ula announced. “I’m ready.” Finally, I thought, turning from the window. My sister’s eyes were narrowed, as if in challenge. Her curly blonde hair had frizzed up around her face, making her look like some sort of evil villain in a comic book.

“Is it a vegetable?”

“No.”

Ugh. Already I just felt like lying down and going to sleep. “Is it an animal?”

She hesitated. “No.” The word seemed drawn-out, uncertain. That caught my attention. Ula was never unsure of something in Twenty Questions—or any game, for that matter. At least, she never showed it.

“Is it a mineral?” I almost asked, but caught myself. Since there were only three categories—vegetable, animal, or mineral—it had to be. Furious at my mistake, I took a deep breath and said, “Is it bigger than a bread box?”

“No.”

“Is it a sort of big rock?”

“A small boulder. No.”

“Is it a regular object?”

“No.”

“Can it be seen if I look outside?”

“No.”

I hated how calm she was, how robotic, how unfazed by my questions. If this were a battle, I thought, she’d be winning.

“Have we seen it before?”

“Yes.”

I blurted out the first question that came to my mouth. “When was the last time we saw it?”

Ula’s mouth curled into a mocking sneer. “That’s not a yes-or-no question.”

I gritted my teeth.

“And it counts.”

“Was the last time we saw it more than one year ago?”

“Yes.”

“More than two?”

“Yes.”

“More than three?”

“Yes.”

“More than four?”

“No.”

So when I was seven.

Okay, this was not fair. But I knew I couldn’t back down now.

I cast my memory back to important things that had happened four years ago. That was the year Dad had hurt his foot, leaving him unable to drive and with a limp. And the thing he had dropped on his foot was . . .

Oh. The Christmas tree.

Which would be classified in the vegetable category.

I searched for other things, and my mind was drawn to a sweltering July day in Washington, D.C. Ula and I had had identical dripping raspberry gelato cones, which we licked desperately as we wandered with our parents around Capitol Hill. Despite my efforts, my hands and face had been glazed with bright red liquid.

We had walked through Eastern Market, and even though I saw the same thing every day, I had been mesmerized by all the crazy kinds of produce for sale. The gelato on my face and hands somewhat mopped up, I had gingerly felt the scales of an artichoke, nervously prodded a pineapple’s serrated leaves, and generously tasted every plate of fruit samples, stopping only when my parents (and Ula) had dragged me away with angry scolding.

Then, at Ula’s and my plaintive requests, we had gone to the library, with its blissfully cool aisles of bookshelves and its little reading tables by the windows. I had plopped down at one of them with a foot-high stack of Magic Tree House books I knew I wouldn’t be able to finish while Ula prowled the shelves.

We had left the library and continued down the sweltering street. Ula and I had run back and forth along the red-bricked sidewalk, gathering up handfuls of fallen flowers from the crape myrtles and presenting them—I more proudly than Ula—to our parents. Secretly, I had swiped several sprigs of mint from a thick clump growing in someone’s front yard and peeking through the black-painted fence, thinking to use it for tea later.

Something about that blissful day, so full of possibilities, so free of obligations, felt important. But nothing about it had anything to do with minerals. Reluctantly, I shifted the focus of my mental metal detector.

Soon, it felt as if I had gone through every memory I had of the year 2014. There was my birthday in August—a water fight at Lincoln Park, with high-velocity squirt guns and hundreds of water balloons. And Ula’s in March, spent holed up inside our not-exactly-gigantic apartment with ten preteens who were antsy from eating too much candy. There was the first day of school, the last day of school, the time I won the math competition, the time Ula won the chess camp tournament, and the time I won the vocabulary word fashion show. (I won it the year after that, too.) There was the day Ula had held a funeral for the nest of baby mice we’d found starved to death in the wall of our house—which the rest of us only participated in because Mom and Dad felt obliged to encourage Ula’s love for nature and animals, and I felt guilty and rude to be the only person in the family not attending. There was moving day, when we moved from our old apartment into a bigger one two blocks away. That was a terrible day for everyone, because not only was it drizzling the yucky kind of lukewarm summer rain but the moment we left our apartment building some construction workers came by and bulldozed it flat.

“Um, is it the bulldozer?”

“The what?”

“Never mind.”

“It counts.”

I sighed. Suddenly, I thought of something. “Is it that statue in Lincoln Park?”

“No, and by that way, we see that almost every day.”

I groaned. This was kind of like thinking you could fly, jumping off the roof of a building, going splat on the sidewalk three stories below, and then waking up in the hospital and wondering why the heck you thought you could fly in the first place.

I leaned back in my seat and closed my eyes. This drive was taking so long. If only we could get to Aunt Megan’s house. Then I wouldn’t have

to bother finishing this stupid game. I squeezed my eyes tighter, trying to recall what she looked like. Red hair, piled up on top of her head in a sort of beehive . . . or was I thinking of Grandma in those old photos?

Definitely Grandma.

Anyway, this wasn’t my fault. I hadn’t seen my aunt and cousins, or their house in Upstate New York, for several years. Not since I turned—

I sat bolt upright in my seat. I could almost feel the light bulb going off in my head. I shut my eyes again. Wasn’t Aunt Megan’s house on a lake?

“Is it the lake Aunt Megan’s house is on?”

Ula narrowed her eyes at me.

“Aunt Megan’s house isn’t on a lake. Gramps’s is. And . . .”

“That counts,” I finished under my breath.

With a jolt, I realized I was at 15. Only five questions left. I made a growling noise deep in my throat. Why does Ula have to win at everything? But I also knew, somewhere inside me, that I was too interested at this point to give up. I desperately wanted to know what this object was.

I took a deep breath.

I will do this. I would show her. Think, my brain commanded. And so I went back to my only lead—that summer day, spent wandering our home.

“Please, can we see the cherry blossoms?” Ula had begged. And my parents had given their consent, even though it was much too late for cherry blossoms, because we had all known that Ula would find beauty in even the saddest, brownest, most wilted handful of flowers.

We had boarded a train on the subway, heading to the Mall. We had gotten off at our stop and climbed the steps to the surface again, emerging into the hot, too-bright sunlight. The Washington Monument had risen, blindingly white, in front of us.

I loved that part of the city. Everything was in various shades of white, cream, and beige—even the sidewalks. My seven-year-old self had looked down at the ground, which was made up of light-brown gravel that was getting in my worn red sandals. I had been reminded for some reason of the pebbles sunken into the ground in front of CHAW (Capitol Hill Arts Workshop).

I blinked. Turned to Ula. “Is it your favorite CHAW pebble?”

“My what?”

“The blue pebble. Next to the C in CHAW. You know, where it spells out CHAW in the concrete. In front of CHAW.” Stop rambling, I told myself.

“Oh. That. No.”

Four questions left.

By the time we had reached the cherry blossoms, we were sweating profusely, despite having stayed in the shade the entire way there. While Ula danced among the drooping, slightly shriveled trees, picking up every fallen flower she could find, I had looked sleepily across the Tidal Basin. Only a few boats had bobbed in the water, and I had been glad that I wasn’t in one of them. Briefly, I wondered if Ula’s object was a boat, then just as quickly dismissed the idea. Last year, I remembered, we had ridden on one ourselves.

Another thought crossed my mind. Recklessly, I asked, “Is it a cloudless sky?”

Ula snorted. “The last time I saw a cloudless sky was before I was born.”

“That’s not—”

“In other words, cloudless skies are nonexistent.”

“What an optimistic thing to say.”

“If I were an optimist, my life would suck. I would be disappointed by everything.”

I ignored her and plunged back into the vivid waters of my memories. I had been startled out of my drowsy haze by Ula’s voice crying out.

“What is it, Ula?” Mom had asked, a trace of worry in her voice.

“Mom. Dad. Jenny.” Ula had sounded as if she were crying.

“What is it?” I had called, overcome with worry and sympathy for my big sister.

“Look.” When we had raced over, we had seen a baby sparrow lying on the ground underneath one of the cherry trees, its left wing broken. It was dead.

“Help me bury it,” Ula had pleaded. When my parents were reluctant, she had snapped, “Well, then I’m taking it home and doing it myself!”

“If you bury it here, you have to do it by yourself,” Mom had said.

“Fine!”

After what had seemed like forever, Ula was done. She had even found a small, gravestone-like rock to place on top. We had listened to her short speech in honor of the bird, and then Dad had suggested heading back home. Everyone had readily agreed.

No sooner had we turned onto our street than clouds suddenly swept over the sun and rain came pouring down. By the time we reached the door, we had been drenched.

And then suddenly it hit me. It was so simple, so obvious, and so devilishly Ula . . .

“Is it water?”

“If we hadn’t seen water in four years, we’d be dead.”

“Oh.” Suddenly I felt so idiotic, like I did whenever I played chess.

And I had two questions left.

This is hopeless . . .

For the first time, I just felt like giving up. I could give two half-hearted guesses, let Ula reveal the answer, and the whole thing would be over. I wouldn’t have to bother with any of this. I wouldn’t have to try anymore.

After all, it’s just a game.

“Is it a brick?”

“No.”

“Is it . . . ”

I trailed off as we pulled into a driveway. Looking out the window, I saw a two-story house with an attic, painted a bright, cheerful yellow. There wasn’t a lake in sight.

“We’re here,” Mom announced.

I let out a sigh of relief. Safe. Gratefully, I reached for the door handle. But just as my fingers grasped the warm metal, something clicked in my head.

A mineral. Smaller than a bread box. Irregular shape. The more I thought about it, the more sure I was that I was right. For once, everything fit.

I turned around. Ula was still in the car. I said to her, “It’s the rock that you put on the sparrow’s grave.” Then, wanting to share my brilliant revelation with someone, I added, “You hesitated when I asked if it was an animal because you weren’t sure if you wanted to make it the sparrow itself. That’s why.”

Ula was now opening her door. With her back to me, she said, “No.”

I gaped. “What?”

“I said no. I don’t choose stupid things like that. You’re wrong. I win.” She opened the door and got out of the car.

Desperately, I called after her, “Then what is it?”

Ula’s voice floated faintly back to me. “I don’t have to tell you if I don’t want to.”

“But—”

“It’s just a game. It doesn’t matter anyway.”

“Yes, it does!”

She ignored me.

Stunned, I watched through my window as my parents and Ula headed for the door, dragging our luggage. I could see my cousins Cecily and Emma pushing the door open now, with Aunt Megan behind them. Her hair was the color of her house.

“You’re lying,” I said to no one. I had been right. I was sure of it.

Twenty Questions, Twenty Answers Anna Shepherd
Anna Shepherd, 11
Brooklyn, NY

Love Stone Tatiana Hadzic
Tatiana Hadzic, 11
New York, NY