The first time I looked at Allen, he was crying.

It’s funny how you can see people all the time and never look at them. Allen and I had been going to school together since kindergarten, but he was always just the shy blond kid in the back of the class. Then I walked down onto the beach one day and saw him crying, and for the first time, I really looked at him.

The setting sun burned across the surface of the ocean, scattering embers like a sideways fireworks display, blazing a path of gold. Beneath the gold, though, the water was the deepest blue I had ever seen. The sea reflected the sun’s sparks back to the sky, where the stars were coming out. They burned with a colder flame.

For a moment, Allen tilted his head, and somehow the light reflected in a strange way so that the blue of the ocean, which was really just black with more depth, poured into his eyes, and the tear tracks that glistened on his cheeks were as gold as the sun on the water.

Then the sun slipped beneath the horizon, and Allen was just a boy crying on the beach again. But once you’ve looked at someone, it can be hard to look away. So I went over and sat down next to him and didn’t say anything because if you go to the beach to cry, it usually means you don’t want to talk to anyone.

Finally he said, “I’m Allen.”

“I’m Walker,” I said.

Claire Spaulding

Claire Spaulding was a 2014 Level I YoungArts Winner for Novel Excerpt and is currently working on rewrites for her first novel. She is a high school junior from Arlington, VA. This is her first published short story.

Patrick Ryan on “Helen”

At long last: “Helen.” Why at long last? Because we had a contest last year, and over three hundred teen writers entered it. Then we read and read and read, and we winnowed all those entries down to the five we were most enthused about. Then we gave those five to our guest judge, Matt de la Peña, so that he could choose his favorite, and his favorite was “Helen.” He loves it; we love it. And now we get to present it to the world.

“Helen” is unlike any story I’ve ever encountered. It’s quiet yet packs a wallop. It’s tender yet as startling as a scream in the face. Here’s how good it is: I envy you for not having read it yet, because it means you get to read it for the first time.

This is an introduction (almost) completely free of spoilers, because to sum up what the story is about would be to rob you of encountering it on its own terms. Somehow, its author, Claire Spaulding, is just 16 years old. Somehow, she’s taken a mind-blowingly complex situation and measured it out over just a few pages in a way that’s both heartbreaking and hopeful. And somehow, her story shows us that while life is sometimes capable of getting in the way of love, it’s the possibility of love—and compassion—that makes it all worthwhile.

Q&A by Patrick Ryan

PR: What was the first thing that came to you—the first thought or observation—that led to the story that became “Helen”?
CS: I read a lot about the lack of diversity in YA literature, so I started out with a conscious desire to write a kind of story that hadn’t already been told, at least not for a YA audience. That was my first thought. Then a passage in The Great Gatsby inspired me to write a short exercise in description that turned into an important scene of “Helen,” and the rest of the story came to me all at once after that.
PR: Was it always your intention to stick to Walker’s point of view, or did you experiment with telling the story from the points of view of both your main characters?
CS: I did experiment with both characters’ perspectives—as I was writing, I saw each character most clearly through the other character’s eyes, so I had to put myself in Helen’s shoes for a bit to get a solid grasp on Walker. But it would be a very different story from Helen’s point of view, and while I might revisit that idea someday, this story has always belonged to Walker.
PR: You give us the events out of chronological order. Did you ever think of telling it chronologically, or was the plan always to render it the way it is now?
CS: I began writing the most important scenes as they came to me, but I always planned to go back and put them in order later. Then I got halfway through and realized I was already telling the story I wanted to tell. Without giving any spoilers, I think that having the story unfold non-chronologically plays with readers’ assumptions in a powerful way. As more information gets revealed, hopefully “Helen” will challenge some preconceptions and force readers to confront their own biases; that was always my goal in writing this story, and I think the unusual structure contributes to that.
PR: One of the things I love about “Helen” is that it’s a doomed love story, and yet it’s not a story of unrequited love. It’s actually a fairly complicated dynamic you’ve created. If we were to put the events in chronological order and look at the arc of the story, was this always what was in store for these two characters? Or did you consider having things turn out differently for them?
CS: Most books I’ve read draw a clear line between friendship and romance, but affection and attraction and love are a lot more complicated and mixed-up than that, especially for teenagers. I wanted to write “Helen” in part to celebrate a relationship that was deep and loving and important but didn’t fit easily into any boxes. The specific details of what would happen to the two characters at the end of the story came later, but I always knew how their relationship would develop.
PR: What are you working on now?
CS: I’m starting my third round of revisions on a novel that I’ve been working on for a little over a year. It’s a fast-paced urban fantasy, very different from “Helen” stylistically, but it explores some of the same themes of love and identity and social justice. That’s my biggest project at the moment. I also have a few more short stories that I’m working on. I’m actually most comfortable writing novel-length fiction, so I’m trying to challenge myself to write more short fiction and poetry.
PR: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
CS: I’ve heard this advice worded several different ways, but it boils down to this: “Write the empty spaces on your bookshelf.” It’s easy to get too focused on trying to write beautiful prose and not realize you’re writing a story that would bore you after three pages if you picked it up at the library. Instead, write the kinds of stories you would want to read. And write the stories and characters that aren’t getting written, whether that means writing more LGBTQ characters, more characters of color, or just more characters dealing with problems and emotions that feel real to you.