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art by M.S. Corley

Pictures in Crayon

Elizabeth Shack is a former physicist and newspaper reporter living among the cornfields of central Illinois. When not writing, she comes in last in 5k races and attempts to grow vegetables in her shady yard. Find her at elizabethshack.com.

At recess the Arks dot the sky like unwinking stars. Ally and her friends aren't supposed to talk about it, eyes wide above the breathing masks that muffle their voices, but they do. Where they'll go, what they'll bring. Every kid Ally knows has a suitcase packed, just in case they win. Hers has photos from the zoo and a birthday card her little brother Rafe drew in red crayon. He called the scribble Mars.
The only time they don't talk is after the monthly drawing, when no one can bear it. Some kids, somewhere, were chosen, but it's not anyone they know. At recess no one looks up. Those nights, Rafe crawls into her bed. He doesn't understand--at four he's barely old enough to enter the lottery--but he knows something's wrong. Their parents are crying, and Ally will keep him safe.
Ally lies awake with her arms around her little brother. In the morning she repacks his suitcase for next month and tells him stories about Mars.
Some of the Arks vanish, headed to Mars, the asteroids, maybe other stars. No one's sure how much is rumor, how much is hope. Ally wants to see different stars, find a new Earth that's still green.
Karen Williams from down the street wins a seat. Her parents throw an awkward party; Karen excited and terrified, her parents weeping, her sister--too old for the lottery--locked in her room. Ally manages to congratulate Karen before the words clog her throat. Her vision of new stars starts to fade.
A year later, most of the Arks have left. The Williams family moved away, no one knows where, and no one else from their town has won. Rafe understands now. He still shares Ally's bed, but he cries instead of sleeps. Recess is canceled because the air is too dangerous and no one wants to see the near-empty sky, or talk about what they've packed, or the fun they'll have on the asteroids or Europa. The teachers let them watch videos all day. There's no point to learning when they won't grow up. Ally finds Rafe's new sketches of Mars and throws them away.
The quiet before the lottery smothers her. Rafe cowers on her lap in their living room, face pressed against her shoulder, his ticket already crumpled in his fist. He's too young to be so hopeless. Ally holds her ticket as delicately as a butterfly.
The announcer gave up his cheerful banter long ago. He recites the winning numbers like a liturgy.
Ally's breath catches. But she's had the first number before. One number doesn't mean anything.
Her fingers tighten on the ticket, but she doesn't dare hope.
Three numbers. Please, she prays, though she expects no answer.
Her heart races. One more number, and she'll get to be twelve next year. Just one more number.
Ally hears the strangled sound that comes from her throat. Her vision goes black for a moment. She blinks once, twice, checks the numbers on the television screen and the numbers on her ticket.
"Ally? Are you all right?" Her mother never asks, Did you win? Will you live?
She nods. Rafe isn't looking. Doesn't know Ally won. Doesn't know she'll head to the stars, find a new Earth.
Doesn't know she'll leave him behind.
Ally clutches her ticket, seeing new planets in its black ink. Gropes blindly on the table for a pen to sign her name. Picks up a red crayon.
The lump in her throat threatens to choke her. She prints in big block letters:
The End
This story was first published on Monday, June 3rd, 2013

Author Comments

I have a younger brother and often find myself writing about siblings. In this story I wanted to show sibling love rather than rivalry.

- Elizabeth Shack
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