In eighth grade, she is one of the girls who tells Dynamo Wilson to bug off when he picks on you. She’s a flash of rosy lips and batting eyes, she drives all the boys wild. All the boys—except for Martin Kepa, because everyone knows he’s gay—probably think about her when they jerk off. Pretty girl. Freckles, probably. Blonde hair, definitely. You know the type. Girls with names like Claire. She is sugar, and spice, and all things nice.

You spend that summer studying girls in magazines. You tell yourself that by the time high school rolls around, you’ll be beautiful. In your room, you do jumping jacks, aggressively, blasting Teenage Dirtbag. You eat plain oatmeal every morning for breakfast, except for the mornings that you don’t eat breakfast. You dye your hair the color of honey. It’s the quintessential loser-girl-becomes-cool-girl montage.

In August, you walk downstairs wearing a pale pink flared dress and your mom almost claps. “You look so beautiful,” she says, hand on her heart. You were in fifth grade when she began feeding you diet bars and buying you clothes that were two sizes too small. “For inspiration,” she had said to you last Christmas, when you held this same dress in your hands, eyes fixed on the size small tag. When she tells cool-girl-you that you look beautiful, you feel like the sun.

Brayden Mekertichian

Brayden Mekertichian is a first-year college student living in the heart of a perpetual rainstorm—also known as Portland, Oregon. In her free time, she enjoys exploring nature, attempting to win her cats’ love, and expressing herself through many mediums of art, such as drawing, writing, dancing, and acting.

Patrick Ryan on “Burning, in You”

Amazing things happen in Brayden Mekertichian’s “Burning, in You.” In a series of short, powerful sections, we’re swept through seven years in the life of a young woman, from the age of thirteen to the age of twenty. We’re with her when she’s high, we’re with her when she’s low, and we’re with her when she’s lower than low. And yet, somehow, there’s humor in this story. There’s bravado peppered with fear. Confusion salted with insight. It’s a portrait in mosaic of what can happen when a young person’s self-image, sense of self-worth, and tendencies towards self-indulgence collide. The gaps are enormous. The ending is mysterious. The emotional import is colossal. I admire this story as much for what it leaves out as for what it includes, and we’re delighted to honor it as one of the winners of our Teen Writing Contest.

Q&A by Patrick Ryan

PR: Where did the idea for this story come from?
BM: “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.” Those are Emily Dickinson’s words. “Burning, in You” is my truth told slant. Like Parker, in my teens, I struggled with eating disorders (and mad teen angst). When I tried to write my story, my torrid affair with food and body, I couldn’t find the right words to capture my experience, my ache, my world. So, I invented Parker, a girl made out of me. The more I wrote, the more Parker became a separate entity from myself—a girl with her own trials and tribulations. Parker and I are different people, yet by telling her story, I found a way to tell my truth slant.
PR: The story covers a lot of emotional ground and a lot of time. What were you conscious of leaving out or skipping over?
BM: I wanted to write a short story that illustrates the process of hitting rock bottom. However, if I included every moment of Parker’s fall to rock bottom, this story would easily be a thousand pages. You see, I couldn’t possibly contain a lifetime of building pain into a short story. So, I asked myself: what moments of Parker’s journey matter the most? Which specific moments tell the reader important information about where Parker was, where she is, and where she’s going? I thought about it, and then I wrote those moments. Now, I cross my fingers, hoping that readers will be able to see all of the history and complexity tangled up in a single moment.
PR: What was the advantage for you in making those omissions?
BM: I was once told that the key to good writing lies in specific and telling details. By jumping through time and space, a writer is asking the reader to work, to fill in the gaps. In my experience as a reader, I like doing the work. Filling in the gaps not only keeps me on my tippy toes, but it makes me feel like Nancy Drew. I may not have been able to share every bit of Parker’s story in “Burning, in You,” but by condensing her experience into a handful of specific and impactful moments, I hope that I was able to relay the overall feeling and message of her story.
PR: How did you settle on the second-person point of view?
BM: Not to pick favorites, but I’ve always felt that there’s a special sort of magic flowing through the second-person perspective. Why? Because the second-person point of view demands the reader to become a part of the story, and to search for themselves within a protagonist. What a special way to create unity between a reader and a character. Though I typically write in the first-person perspective, I decided to whip out the magical second person perspective for “Burning, in You”; I wanted readers to experience Parker’s story firsthand.
PR: One of my favorite things about the story is that it can be read as ending on a question rather than on an answer. Was that your intention?
BM: Have you ever read one of those “create your own adventure” books? In seventh grade, my friend Reilly and I spent hours poring over one of those books, astonished by how the different choices we made led us to completely different lives. In a single day of reading, I could experience life as a dolphin trainer, a suburban mom, and the (short) life of a person killed by a gas station attendant. By the time I had finished reading the book, I had a wide array of different lives to choose from. I got to pick which lives to hold close (dolphin trainer, of course, that’d be super cool), and which lives to forget (I’d prefer not to be murdered at a gas station, so that one went bye-bye). I chose to make the ending of “Burning, in You” ambiguous so that the reader can choose what type of ending they want/need. Hope and heartbreak are both on the table, it’s your choice how you want this story to end.
PR: Finish this sentence in just one word—the word you think best captures it: “This story is about __________.”?
BM: Breaking.
PR: What are you working on now?
BM: I’m currently working on a short story about a pregnant mother grieving the death of her four-year-old daughter. On a brighter note, I am also working on a handful of poems inspired by the Tao Te Ching.
PR: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
BM: When you pick up a pen to write, you may find yourself thinking that every sentence you produce is really lousy. But just because you think it, doesn’t mean it’s true. And, hey, even if it’s true, lousy writing is the path to good writing. Just keep writing. Trust me. And if you don’t trust me, trust Anne Lamott, the fantastic author of Shitty First Drafts, who gave me this advice in the first place.