“Free Bird” — a short story by Gracelyn Sparks (age 13) and first-place winner of the Turning Point Story Contest.
The sound of pencil on paper was therapeutic to Charlotte. With a firm stroke, she added wings to the bird she had sketched on the paper, before shading in each shadow and fine-tuning the details. She smiled, soaking in the sunlight that streamed from her open window, and taking in the serenity of the day. After adding her loopy signature, Charlotte tucked her pencil behind her ear, grabbed a neon thumbtack from her desk, and tacked the new drawing onto the wall. She bit her lip; it’s missing something. The bird was beautiful, she had to admit, but it looked forced. Turning her head to scan the drawing, she realized the problem.
“It needs to actually fly!” she thought out loud. Charlotte hummed in excitement, pulling her pencil back out. Within a matter of strokes, Charlotte gave the bird dimension. It was flying. It was free. And it was right.
Charlotte stepped back until she reached her bed and sat on it, deciding what she thought of the wall in front of her. Covering almost every square foot of wall in front of her desk were her drawings. People, places, plants, animals, and memories, all recorded through drawings and sketches. Art was her language. Her parents were not huge fans, and Charlotte had to stifle a laugh at that. Oops. They were constantly asking her to take down her work so that her room could match the rest of their white and beige house that looked like all the others on the block—boring. She always shrugged it off, saying she would later. But she wouldn’t. They know it, she grinned.
With a colorful hair tie, Charlotte pulled her curly, golden hair into a ponytail, and tried to decide what sketch would look best in an empty spot next to her desk. Shoes? Ooh, or a mountain range! Or maybe…she slid off her bed and backed up again, to the opposite wall of her room. Framing the empty space on the wall with her fingers, she gasped. That’s it! A—
“Kevin, don’t you dare say something like that!” Charlotte’s mom’s voice rang in from the living room, interrupting her thoughts.
“So, now I can’t be honest with you, Jackie?” her dad responded in a heartbeat. Charlotte clenched her jaw and dropped her hands. They were fighting, again. For the past year, they just couldn’t seem to get along. It didn’t bother Charlotte as much anymore, but it still made her heart tighten and breath quicken every time. She wanted to cry and yell back at them at the same time.
“It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it,” her mom huffed.
“All I said was that I think we should stop buying so much cereal. I’m sorry for giving a simple suggestion on how we can better this household.”
“Kev—” Charlotte’s mom’s voice was cut off by the slam of a door. Her parents apparently thought that by keeping arguments behind closed doors, they could keep the noise and pain with them as well. If only.
Consciously loosening her forming fists, Charlotte walked back over to her desk, shoved her headphones on, and played the loudest music she had. Her eardrums screamed in protest, but it was better than listening to her parents’ ridiculous fight.
Cereal? Really? They were honestly like little kids. Charlotte could barely remember a time when they could talk about things like that without offending or hurting each other. But this time it hurt, more than it had before. Maybe it was the realization that she was turning sixteen in a day and it wasn’t going to end.
They couldn’t pull it together, even for their only daughter. The “light of their lives”. Yeah, right, she shook her head.
Suddenly, a breeze blew in through her open window carrying a paper airplane. It twirled in the crisp sunlight, scattering the dust that glittered around it, and landed on Charlotte’s bed. Eyes widening, Charlotte walked carefully over to the airplane, as if it might explode at any second. She pulled the pencil from behind her ear and poked the paper, flinching. Nothing happened. A chuckle escaped from Charlotte’s lips as she mocked herself. Goodness, Charlie, it’s just a paper airplane. Some kid probably threw it and the breeze carried it away. Take a chill pill. Still, Charlotte picked up the airplane gently as she sat on her bed to examine it. The paper was fresh and crisp, yet the folds were anything but. They were fashioned as if a kindergartener had made them, which frankly, one probably had. Preparing to shoot the airplane back out of the window, Charlotte noticed that something had been scrawled on the inside of the paper. Ignoring the thought that tugged at her, telling Charlotte it wasn’t her business, she opened it. On it was a simple phrase in pointy, thick writing, a surprisingly detailed sketch of a bird in the corner, and a train ticket, labeled for a train out of town the next day at three in the afternoon. The note said, “Sometimes birds don’t see the cage that they’re in but need to be freed nonetheless. Fly, free bird.”
Charlotte caught her breath and steadied herself on the windowsill. It wasn’t some random paper airplane that a kid had lost. It was—it was meant for her. She quickly turned off the blaring music in her headphones so she could hear her thoughts. Charlotte’s mind raced, picturing all the people that could have sent the airplane. No, she quieted her mind, I’ll figure that out later. Whoever this was, they thought she should…run away? It was a stupid thought, really. Still, she was almost sixteen, just two years from being on her own. If her parents really wanted her, they could’ve controlled themselves. Stopped for her, if nothing else. Maybe…it wasn’t such a bad idea. She was the bird, and she was in a cage. Her house felt like it all the time. Yet suddenly, a thought tugged at her conscience, and she realized something. If Charlotte gave up on her parents, wasn’t she just as bad as them? Done trying to make things work, running and hiding from confrontation? Yeah, she was in a cage. But her cage wasn’t her house. It was her mind. I guess I’m so used to my parents’ fights that I’ve… trapped myself in my own fear and carelessness.
I—I can’t run away. I won’t, she decided. Her mind was made up.
And now, she knew what she had to do.
With a deep breath, she grabbed a pencil and twirled it in her fingers to calm her shaking nerves. Charlotte opened her door and walked to her parents’ room, ready to talk to them, before this rush—whatever it was—faded. Would it work? Maybe—maybe not. But that “maybe” was better than nothing. Her hand rested on the doorknob, which shook from her parents’ shouting, and she grasped it.
“I have to free myself,” she whispered. “Forget the key, I’m not running away from this cage—I’m breaking it.”