The following is the first place-winning short story in the first Montclair Literary Festival, held earlier this year.

When it’s so hot you could cook an egg on a sidewalk it decides to appear. It’s shaky air in the shape of a shaky person. When I can see them, they are friendly and wave, or sometimes they do a cartwheel or something. One time, last August, they had on what looked like a top hat and tipped it to me while I was walking by. They are polite.

I met them when I was 9. I was with my 5-year-old sister, Susie, in the deserts of Arizona. We were visiting our uncle. He lives next to the junkyard because he runs the place. I told Susie he races rats for money. Susie will believe anything. She likes tea parties, and animals and soft things, to go with her personality. I’m braver, but shy, and I like movies at the drive-in theater and being outside. We both have very long black hair and tan skin. I’m taller, but not by much, and she’s always saying she is going to outgrow me.

We were going to the junkyard to visit Uncle Sandy. He always smells funny and doesn’t like children. Dad likes to check up on him every so often to see what he’s up to. He normally wouldn’t take us with him, cause trash yards are not a place for children, but Mama had to work today, and our normal babysitter, Amy, was out of town.

When we arrived the smell hit me like a brick. “Come on, Aggie, please get out of the car it’s not that bad when you get used to it,” Dad said. I reluctantly got out of the car and jogged to catch up to Susie and Dad. We headed to a small house on the edge of the desert. It looked more like a shack, but Dad told me not to say that.

When we met Sandy, he looked tired and gruff. He wasn’t expecting visitors so his house was messy and he hadn’t shaved. After our awkward greeting, Dad told us to play outside while he and Sandy talked.

“Stay out of the junkyard or you will be sick from the smell.”

“Yes, Dad.”

We headed to his back yard which was just a little patch of land cut off from the junkyard,with a very high wire fence, like the ones at baseball games. There was an area of torn fence that looked like a stray dog’s work, and a single shrub of a tree for shade. We mostly sat in the shadow while we talked and played in the yard for an hour, overhearing Dad and Sandy argue. Susie played with the strap of her oversized blue overalls and sucked on her necklace made of cheap plastic beads. Susie was a bit of a tomboy, but always liked to wear her hair in neat little pigtails. I like to keep mine down and wild, like a horse. I was wearing a polka-dot pink shirt with dusty jeans and a old hoodie two sizes too big. We both wore used-to-be-white sneakers, but mine had real laces, and Susie wore Velcro ’cause she’s bad at tying shoes.

Susie looked at me “What are they fighting about?”

“I don’t know, siblings just like to fight.”

“I’m bored, when are we leaving?” she said several minutes later. She started squinting her eyes the way she does before a tantrum.

“Calm down. What would you want to do?”

“I don’t know,” she said, getting frustrated. She angrily threw a rock through the hole in the fence. “You wanna play in the desert?”

“No way, Dad would freak out if he came out here and didn’t see us,” I said.

“We won’t be long, I swear.”

I finally agreed because I secretly wanted to explore the desert too. We crawled under the fence and into the open land. It was beautiful. The sand was white and orange and the sky was clear and light blue. It made me want to run through it. But then I got a feeling deep in my gut. I was a little nervous. I felt like something watching me. I turned and there wasn’t anything there but the shack and the junkyard. The desert was barren, but it was still fun to explore. We walked around, chased a lizard or two, and threw stones. We tried to race for a little while, but we were too tired and it was too hot. Actually, it was so hot I could see the heat waves rising off the ground.

I turned to Susie, about to say we should go back, when I saw a pair of indents on a faraway face of a person outlined by shaky air. I yelped. It was suddenly gone. I started to sweat. I was getting real scared.

“Susie, we should head back.” I didn’t tell her what I saw because it would only scare her. I wasn’t even sure what I saw was real. I just had a bad feeling growing in my stomach.

“Sure, it’s getting hot anyway.”

I looked around. We were very far from the junkyard. In fact there wasn’t a structure in sight. I started to panic.

“What’s wrong Aggie?”

“Nothing.” I looked around. We walked on. Very far away I saw a shadow.

”This way,” I pointed. We started running. The desert wasn’t fun anymore.

As we got closer I could see the beginning of a canyon. I took Susie’s hand and started to full on sprint towards it. “Stop, my arm hurts.” Susie yelled.“What’s going on? Why are you so freaked out?”

I gulped, “I just have a bad feeling. Let’s just keep moving.”

“Uhhhhhhh. I’m tired.”

“Too bad.”

We came to the entrance of a canyon. It was cold and the reflections of orange stone were scattered on the walls. I took a deep breath. As we walked, Susie chased the moving lights. I walked in silence, constantly looking over my shoulder, while Susie sang her kindergarten songs. At least she’s not scared, I thought. When Susie gets scared, she freezes up and doesn’t move until Mama comforts her with a stuffed animal or something warm to drink.

The time passed quickly. We had come to several cross-roads and Susie insisted on doing eeny-meeny-miny-moe to decide which way to walk. Judging by the sun it looked like around four o’clock. Had we stayed, we would probably be home by now. I wondered if Dad had noticed we were gone by now, or if he was out here too, looking for us.

Susie interrupted my thoughts, "I’m hungry."

“Chew on your necklace, there’s no food out here.”

“I’m still hungry.”

“When we get back, you can eat all you want,” I said. My stomach growled. I suddenly realized how tired I was. My feet hurt from walking, my lips were dry and cracked from the severe heat. “ Let’s find a place to rest.”

We walked on until I found a small cave in the side of the canyon, just big enough for the two of us to lie down. It was a very odd cave, for it had a doorway and a window. It was very narrow. The orange rock was cool and smooth on my skin. I looked over and Susie was already asleep. I was still worried about what I saw earlier but the sleepiness overcame my will.

I woke to wind on my face. It was early morning, and the sky was pale pink from the first hint of sunrise. And Susie was standing over me trying to wake me up by blowing in my face.

“Cut it out.” I pushed her off, and she giggled. I immediately noticed that we weren’t in the cave. I turned to see that we were in front of Uncle Sandy’s house.

My eyes grew wide. “What’s going on? How did we get here? Susie, stop laughing!”

“It was him,”she pointed and it was the figure from before. The figure waved at us.

“What is that, did it hurt you? When did it get here?” I said frantically, snapping awake. It continued to wave.

“Don’t worry he’s a friend.” She smiled. “It’s our desert friend.”

Christina Baker Kline, right, is interviewed by Candy Cooper at Montclair High School.
Courtesy Candy Cooper.
Christina Baker Kline, right, is interviewed by Candy Cooper at Montclair High School.
Courtesy Candy Cooper.

The first-ever Succeed2gether/Montclair Literary Festival Short Story Contest drew nearly 80 submissions from Montclair High School students. A panel of four judges — Denise Lewis Patrick, author of the Y/A Short Story collection, “A Matter of Souls,” and the middle-grade novel, “Finding Someplace”; Nancy Star, author of “Sisters One, Two, Three”; Cindy Handler, editor of Montclair Magazine; and Robert Weisbuch, professor emeritus of English, University of Michigan — selected one winner and two finalists in each grade. The March 31 event was part of the first Montclair Literary Festival.

Authors Christina Baker Kline (“A Piece of the World,” “Orphan Train”) and Matthew Thomas (“We Are Not Ourselves”) came to the high school to talk about writing.

Winners were announced at the first-ever Succeed2gether/Montclair Literary Festival Poetry Slam, which produced its own roster of spoken-word winners in grades six through eight. The Local will be running the winning work of student poets and writers throughout the summer.