24 March 2011

expectations {a short story}

My library had a used book sale last weekend, and stepping into the library basement, I almost squealed from delight.

And I could tell you a lot more about that {and maybe I will in a separate post}, but right now, I want to get to the point of this post. For the sake of focus, I will simply say: I bought The Giver, that young adult book by Lois Lowry.

I bought it because I was having a nostalgic moment, and I bought it because...

Ah, wait.

That is digressing, and I'm trying to get to the point.

Which is: I'm re-reading The Giver, and it reminded me that I wrote a short story a few years ago that feels very Giver-esque. {Scroll down a little, and you'll get to the story.}

The prompt stemmed from magic realism {think: creating a world so like our own but with elements of the magical in it—all done to try to make a point about our real reality}, and I wrote this in one flow, one typing session at the computer.

And the ideas, I have to admit, frightened me a little when I re-read the story. For example: I talk about Thought, Word, and Deed in here. Capital letters like that and all, and those words come straight out the Confession of Sins I say every Sunday at church.

Was I harboring frustration at the church? At God? At the Christian view of life and how it constrained my life?

I honestly thought that when I finished this story because you know that idea that you write to find out what you're thinking about? That when you let the pen or your fingers flow, your mind lets go of its grip just a little and then bam, you see what you've been thinking, really thinking?

Well, that's not the case here. I know it's not, and I think this story flowed so well because of the detached tone I took, not because of inner hatred toward the church.

So all other Anglicans reading this {and especially people at my church}, please don't try to stage an intervention, not even during the Confession of Sins. God and I, we're doing okay, but it seems the liturgy has so worked its way into me that it came out in a story.

But now that I've been re-reading The Giver, I realize how similar my story and my world are to Lois Lowry's world and story.

So it seems that The Giver also worked its way into me—all the way back in fourth grade—and then came out in this story. Ok, my story has some slightly creepier elements to it, but do you remember The Giver? That was the creepiest book I had ever read back then, simply because the world was so familiar but unfamiliar at the same time.

I'm going to think of this as an homage to Lois, as opposed to plagiarism. Thinking of plagiarism is never fun, but re-reading books from your childhood is. Little bonus fun tip there.

And this was a longer digression/intro than I intended.


The morning was very sunny, perhaps too shiny, too overwhelmingly clean. And even though she had to squint and even though she knew it was not good for her eyes, she looked at the sun, right at the gleaming sun. So high in the sky already, a reminder of lost and wasted time. Of loss. Of missed opportunities, chances and moments that will never come again, fleeting flits of time to forget, burned away by the shiny, gleaming sun.

She closed her eyes to the sun; she did not want to see it anymore, so high, so perfect, so in control of millions and billions of lives, even and including her own.

A circle glowed red against the black. The sun had succeeded in burning away some part of her.

She pushed all the air out of her lungs, trying to entirely deflate herself, imagining herself as a rag doll—no, that’s not right, she thought. Rag dolls do not have breath and air. She wasn’t being precise in Thought, and when you aren’t precise in Thought, it leads to imprecision in Word and Deed and so in order to stay in order, in line, you must be precise in Thought, Word, and Deed. All. The. Time. Everyone. Knew. That.

It was written on the balloons.

She pushed all the air out of her lungs again, trying again to entirely deflate herself, imagining herself as a balloon.

Yes, a balloon. That is very precise.

She remembered the day she had asked her mother why everyone had to wear the balloons.


“Get to, dearest. You meant to ask, ‘Why does everyone get to wear the balloons?’ You’re not too young to be responsible for your words, and you don’t want to be punished for imprecision—do you?”

“No, Mummy,” she dutifully, quickly answered. “I don’t want to be punished. I’m four, and that’s not too young to be responsible, and indeed, it’s not too young to be punished.”

“Good, dearest. You showed me that you understand by restating. That was a perfect use of your words.”

Her mother lightly, briefly, barely touched the top of her head and the physical contact was a zigzag of delight that ricocheted from the part in her hair—her mother had touched her!—and clumsily bumped into her heart.

Physical contact was reserved for reward. Everyone. Knew. That.

“And how would you be punished if you were imprecise?” her mother asked as she held out the harness with two balloons attached to it: Word and Deed.

“If I am imprecise, they will take away my words. I will not be able to speak.”

Like everyone, she had learned that response from the Book of Expectations before she had been born. As she recited it, she hoped her mother would be pleased enough with her knowledge of the Rules that she would receive another touch. She treasured up all these moments of contact and coveted them in her heart.

Her mother nodded. Of course she shouldn’t have been rewarded for merely knowing and performing what was Expected.

“Mummy, why does everyone get to wear the balloons?” She returned to the original question as she slipped her arms through the harness. First the right arm, then the left—right first as it should be in a good and right world.

She buckled the harness in front, just on top of her collarbone, and the two balloons, the balloons of Word and Deed, started to pull up her shoulders. Word was attached to the right shoulder; Deed was left. They were attached to the harness with strong but clear string.

“We all get to wear the balloons because they are a reminder of what we should expect of ourselves. We should always be reaching higher.” Her mother held out the third balloon, Thought. She took it and started to bind it around her neck, where it belonged.

Her mother continued explaining, “We must always reach higher because if no one reached for anything, how would anyone ever get what they wanted? How would we ever get what we needed? How would we become better?”

“Mummy, why do I always have to become better?” Without thinking, she said that.
Her mother’s hand grabbed the strong but clear string attached to Thought.

“Did you intend to say that?” Her mother wrapped the string around her hand and pulled.

She coughed, gasped, choked. Thought went around the neck so that it could be used to punish you. If you did not exceed what was Expected, Thought would torment you.

With the last of her air, she said, “No.”

They came in the room then, pale men with slender fingers. One of them reached down her throat and ripped out her voice box.

She was punished.

That day was the first time she lost her voice, and she had gotten it back five months later. Since then, she’d lost her voice 27 more times, each and every time for asking why everyone so willingly, so obligingly, so foolishly attached the Balloons of Expectations to their shoulders and neck every day.


The morning was very sunny, perhaps too shiny, too overwhelmingly clean. She made herself forget the shame of that other day and the shame of subsequent punishments and she did that by looking into the sun, the shiny, gleaming sun. She used its double-edged pain to burn away pain for at least one more day.

She did not know why she was contorted, twisted up, tangled in shame over speaking what was in her heart. She did not understand that and she feared she never would and that was a large fear in her life.

Wordlessly, she climbed out of bed, and without words, she attached her harness of Word and Deed. She bound Thought around her neck, and as happened every day, her shoulders rose, the nape of her neck was pulled up.

Her head, oh her head, it was pushed down. The Balloons of Expectations made her stare down at the ground, at reality, at limitations. At what she was supposed to rise above.

The only time she could ever look up was when she didn’t have the balloons. And that was only when she was in bed, in the morning before she got up, before she prepared a face to meet the faces that she’d meet, before she bound herself to the Balloons of Expectations.

Before she became who everyone thought she was, she looked up.


  1. The Giver is my all-time favorite Children's book.

    And your story is amazing.

    For reals.

  2. I've never read the Giver. But I did enjoy your story! Very thought-provoking!

  3. Thanks, Val and Beth!

    And Val, you totally should read The Giver. Quite clearly, I own a copy now, so let me know if you want to borrow it.



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