Laurisa White Reyes
Ages 10 - 14
Laurisa White Reyes
Ages 10 - 14
12-year-old Elena Barrios' father has AIDS, a new disease in 1991 with a 100% fatality rate. Rather than face certain ridicule and ostracism, Elena tells her friends anything but the truth, fabricating stories about her father being a writer and researcher. But the reality is that Elena resents her father's illness and can't face the fact that he is dying.
When she is befriended by a named Ang, who tells stories about her own father, Elena is transported into these stories, allowing her to experience them first hand. With Ang's help, Elena gains the courage to stand up to the bully at her school, mend her relationship with her father, and finally say goodbye.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
THE STORYTELLERS' journey began more than twenty years ago when I worked as an office assistant at Huntington Memorial Hemophilia Center in Pasadena, CA. In addition to treating children with leukemia and patients with hemophilia, the office also treated HIV and AIDS patients. At the time, in the early 90s, AIDS was death sentence. The doctors for whom I worked were some of the leading researchers in the field, searching for a treatment that could extend life expectancies and improve the quality of life of AIDS patients.
One morning, a family arrived at the center--a father and several young children. They all looked rather sad. Later, I learned that they had lost their mother to AIDS and now the children were being tested for it. It broke my heart.
Those early years of AIDS were wrought with fear and ignorance. Patients were often ostracized and quarantined because the public was so afraid of contagion. Victims of AIDS were also stigmatized, especially those who were gay. I won't mention here the things I heard said about them at the time, but it was pretty awful.
Times, thankfully, have changed. Not only are treatments effective in managing the disease, but the fear and stigma once attached to it are no longer as prevalent as they once were. For many years, I wanted to write a story capturing some of that history--so that the current generation might understand what things were like in our not-too-distant past, and that they might think twice about allowing such discrimination to exist in our present and our future.
I began writing THE STORYTELLERS nine years ago. In those years, I have re-written it at least a dozen times. I have received very positive responses from many corners, but the one issue that seemed to stand in the way of its publication was the 'AIDS issue.' I was told, understandably, that the discrimination described in my book isn't an issue anymore, so why write about it? Why share this particular history with today's children?
I have to ask this question in response: We no longer practice slavery, so why write books about it? The Civil Rights Movement happened decades ago. Kids today don't have the same prejudices as their grandparents did, so why bother teaching the present generation about the past?
We write about the past because, 1) Those who do not learn from the past are destined to repeat it; and 2) To fail to record our history, however black it might be, is to fail to progress toward something better.
So, I present to you THE STORYTELLERS, asstory that means a great deal to me, and one that I truly hope will make a difference somewhere to someone. Enjoy!
Elena stood at the street corner, the toes of her sneakers timidly peeking out over the curb. Waves of heat rose from the asphalt, warping the air like water ripples. She took off her glasses and wiped them with a tissue. Then she put them back on.
No, it wasn’t her glasses. The air really did seem to move. Elena had never seen that before, not in Idaho where October mornings were cool and crisp. But now the term ‘Sunny California’ made sense to her. It was as hot as a July afternoon back home.
She shifted her backpack from one shoulder to the other. Would the light ever turn red, she wondered? This neighborhood was nothing at all like Idaho, everything concrete and brick, the only patch of earth being a vacant lot squeezed in between apartment complexes. And the intersection of Fair Oaks Boulevard and Lake Avenue seemed as wide as the Grand Canyon, with cars zooming past in all directions. Elena wanted to cover her ears and run all the way back to the farm where she had spent her entire life until now, but unfortunately that was something she just could not do.
Everywhere Elena looked, there was movement. Across the street in front of a café, a man wearing a white apron around his waist held up a large square of red and white checked fabric. He snapped it in the air before letting it glide down onto a round table. At a florist shop next to the café, a woman arranged bundles of roses and lilies in long, black canisters. Across the street on the opposite corner, a large man with a thick brown mustache stiffly swept the sidewalk in front of a drugstore. And there were people everywhere, men in business suits, women in high heels or active wear, kids with backpacks—everyone walking or jogging or even running. Elena suddenly missed Idaho more than ever.
“Off to school, are you?”
Elena started. Was someone speaking to her? She glanced around. On the steps of the building next door to Elena’s sat an old woman with skin the darkest shade of brown Elena had ever seen. She wore a flowered bandana tied around her head, and in her hands a strand of yellow yarn twitched between two long, metal needles. Elena wondered what she was making. Mittens? A sweater? No, not in this heat, she thought.
The woman looked up from her knitting and spoke again, a little louder than before. Her accent sounded slanted and round, like people who came from the South.
“I said are you headin’ off to school?”
Elena allowed herself a brief glance in the woman’s direction but then quickly looked back to the street. This was the city after all, and Papi had warned her about strangers.
The light turned red and the flow of cars stopped, their engines grumbling and growling like animals pulling against invisible leashes.
Elena reached into her pants pocket and pulled out a brown plastic tube the length of her palm. She held the inhaler to her lips and pressed the button on the bottom of the canister. A cool mist filled her lungs. She felt a little better now, but the cars still snarled at her, and the street loomed in front of her like a black void that could swallow her whole.
Elena knew she should cross. She would be late to school if she didn’t. There was nothing epic about it, really. She just had to take one step after another. But the longer she waited the harder it was to pry her feet from the curb.
“What’cha scared of?” said the woman. Elena felt her staring at the back of her head. “Cars don’t bite, y’know. The way you jus’ standin’ there, you’d think they was a pack of alligators.”
The woman was talking to her, but why? What could she possibly want?
Elena stiffened. She had to get to school. It was her first day, after all. As she willed herself to step off the curb, she tried to picture her farm and the way the fading daylight cast lacy shadows across the barley fields. She took a deep breath and lifted her foot.
Suddenly, the street rippled. Elena leapt back with a start. Scrunching her eyebrows, she peered curiously at the street, which swelled and sloshed like water in a bucket. Then the color of it shifted from black to a sickly shade of green.
Elena looked up at the city’s squat concrete buildings with their sharp, straight edges. She watched with astonishment as her new neighborhood, section by section, began to transform—the café, the florist shop, even the apartment buildings all melted into mud, street lamps sprouted leaves and became trees, and where the cars had been appeared the ridged backs of alligators half submerged beneath the murky water.
Soon the entire city had vanished, replaced with a hot, humid swamp that smelled of earth and damp moss. Elena listened to the sound of croaking frogs and swatted at a mosquito buzzing in her ear. For a single moment, she forgot about the cars, and the city, and school, and just stared. She was too amazed at her new surroundings to be afraid. Then, curiosity getting the better of her, she dipped the toe of her left sneaker into the water.
All of a sudden, a monstrous gray gator sprang up like a giant mousetrap and snapped its tooth-filled jaws, missing her by inches. Elena threw her arms in front of her face and screamed.
The frog sounds and the mossy smell vanished, and the all too familiar stench of exhaust fumes filled her nose. Elena lowered her arms. She was back on the corner of Fair Oaks Boulevard, the woman’s knitting needles clicking away.
The signal turned green, and the cars at the intersection lurched forward. Elena turned and ran as fast as she could up the front steps to her complex. Then she rushed inside, down the hall to her apartment, and slammed the door shut behind her.