The buzz of conversation echoes inside the gymnasium of Cascadia Prep High School. People admire the photographs hanging on the walls snapped by students from across the school district. I stand in front of my image, a black-and-white portrait of a homeless veteran named Joe. The LED lighting is awful for viewing photographs, especially a black and white. It makes my photo look like it’s a split tone. It’s not.
“I see tons of photos, and that’s a grand slam,” Haji says.
“Thanks,” I reply, but I know the gangly boy only says so because he’s my friend.
Then again, maybe he’s right. The bad lighting doesn’t detract too much. The glow of the fire Joe sits beside is reflected in his wise, sad eyes and highlights the seams etched into his face from years of living on the streets. He isn’t much over forty, but he looks sixty. I turn away from the photo, unable to look at it for long. Joe is more than a photographic subject. He’s a friend.
“Allison, what’s wrong?” Haji asks.
I blink my moist eyes. “Nothing. Let’s look at the other photos.”
Haji escorts me around the gym, offering his criticism and approval of the photographs mounted on the walls. As the editor of the Cascadia Weekly, our school’s online news source, he claims to see dozens of photographs every week from student photogs and insists I’m the best. My shots of high school sporting events around the city grace the site’s pages practically every week.
We’ve gone about halfway around the gym when I spot Leslie Chapman surrounded by admirers. Leslie is a junior and is everything I’m not, popular and beautiful and tall. Not just tall for a girl either, she’s tall period, like six feet at least. In the most generous terms, I’m only five foot two inches. When she sees me in the crowd, her blue eyes slide right over me as if I’m invisible. I veer away.
“It’s Leslie,” I hiss to Haji.
“I don’t know what she has against you,” he says and follows me.
“Leslie likes being the best at everything,” I say, struggling not to clench my teeth. “It’s not enough for her to be the captain of the cross-country team and a 4.0 student. She wants to be the best photographer too. She just wants me to be the girl she makes fun of at cross- country practice.”
“Well, you’re the best,” Haji says. “She has to accept that.”
I smile, feeling a spark of confidence. I’m glad Haji takes my side. In his words, having the two of us as his top photojournalists for the school news site is a sticky wicket.
The high-pitched voice of a district official pipes from the speakers mounted high on the walls. She summons everyone to gather around and face a podium at the front of the gym. Hardly anyone is glued to their phones. I shift my weight on my feet and rub my hands together.
“Don’t worry,” Haji says. “Your portrait of Joe is just as good as anything else on display, better than most. Even accounting for my bias, I’d say you have a great chance at winning.”
“I don’t know. What about that shot from the goalkeeper’s perspective? Diving. Hands outstretched to block the ball. That’s pretty dope.”
I elbow him in the ribs.
“Hey.” His smile shows off his tea-stained teeth. “It’s a dope shot, okay. Amazing, but yours is better. Yours captures something extra special, the whole enchilada.”
I give him a toothless grin. “Thanks for saying so.” “I’m totally serious.”
“I believe you.”
“That smile says you don’t.”
“Whatever.” I roll my eyes.
“Silence, please. Silence,” the official chirps, her clipped movements as birdlike as her voice.
A relative quiet falls over the gym as people finish maneuvering. The official spouts a boilerplate speech about the importance of education and a free press and how the contest is the synergy of these two crucial aspects of civil society. I tap my foot against the floor. Haji has pulled out his phone and is texting. So is about half the crowd. I stifle a sigh. All my dad allows me is an archaic pay-as-you-go flip phone. He is such a dinosaur about some things.
Once the speech ends, teachers are summoned to the podium to announce the winner from their schools. Just as I said, the photo from the goalkeeper’s perspective is a winner. It takes first place in the sports category. Next up is the documentary category. I rock back and forth on my heels.
Third place goes to a boy I don’t recognize from a high school up north. His image is of the grisly aftermath of a street race gone wrong. The twisted metal is hard to look at, knowing that three high school students died in the accident.
I sigh when second place goes to Tammy Nguyen, a girl I know from elementary school. Her colorful picture of the lunar new-year celebration in Chinatown deserves recognition. I wave to Tammy, although I don’t think she sees me in the crowd.
“Next, I’d like to call up Mr. Eldridge to give out the first-place award in the documentary category,” the district official says and stands aside for the Cascadia Prep teacher to take the podium.
Mr. Eldridge, his bald head gleaming in the light, stands behind the podium and adjusts his glasses on his hooked nose. He peers out over the crowd, squinting. I’m sure his gaze pauses on me. My breath catches in my throat, and my eyes go wide. Am I the winner? Then his head swivels away. My gaze flicks to Haji. He gives me a thumbs-up.
“First place goes to an extremely talented photojournalist,” Mr. Eldridge says in a voice raspy from years of smoking. He’s always entreating his students not to take up the habit. “Please, join me in recognizing Leslie Chapman for her amazing photograph entitled Blaze at the Museum.”
“No way,” I whisper as the gymnasium erupts in applause.
Everyone is clapping. Everybody loves Leslie.
I hang my head. Haji pats me on the shoulder, and I look up. Leslie, holding the first-place plaque, stands next to Mr. Eldridge. She smiles, showing off blindingly white teeth. I swear, she must whiten them every day.
As much as I hate to admit it, Leslie’s photograph of the fire that destroyed a museum in downtown Seattle is brilliant. The shooting flames reflect off the building’s metallic skin, making the metal and fire seem alive. I guess my photo isn’t as excellent as I thought.
I wish I am anywhere but here, like at cross- country practice. At least then I could stare longingly at Jason as he bounds over the ground like a gazelle and talk to Dalia with her neon pink hair bobbing in time with the patter of her feet.
The district official escorts Leslie from the podium. The urge to pee hits me. Too much coffee. I’m about to make a beeline for the bathroom when the official returns to the mic.
“We have one more award. Mr. Eldridge, please do the honor of announcing the grand-prize winner.”
Grand-prize winner? I exchange a puzzled glance with Haji, who shrugs.
“The grand prize goes to a young lady with a professional eye for photography. It’s been a real treat to teach her. Allison Lee, come on up. Her photograph entitled Joe was chosen by the judges for the grand prize because it captures something quintessential about the subject.”
My jaw goes unhinged. I utter a squeal before clamping my mouth shut and covering my face with a hand. Haji beams, and people clap. I maneuver through the crowd to stand next to Mr. Eldridge by the podium. He shakes my hand and gives me the plaque. It’s shaped like Washington State with a camera etched in the upper left-hand corner on the Olympic Peninsula. Across the top of the state, it reads 1st Annual High School Photojournalism Contest. Below that, Grand Prize is etched across the state, followed by my name at the bottom.
Staring across the crowd, I don’t feel absolutely horrible having so many people watching me. I barely notice Leslie standing up front, her eyes narrowed in a drop-dead glare. At the back of the gymnasium, my father smiles and waves at me. I wave back, delighted that he made it to the ceremony to watch me take home the grand prize.
Mr. Eldridge shakes my hand again. “Excellent work, Allison. You really deserve this award.”
The district official smiles and ushers me off the podium. I reenter the crowd and head straight to the bathroom. I’m floating in the pristine water off a tropical paradise. Life can’t get much better than this. It’s like all my greatest dreams are coming to fruition. The only thing that could make it better is if an editor from a major newspaper materializes out of the crowd to recruit me as a staff photographer.
I enter the girls’ locker room that smells of deodorizer and scoot past rows of lockers for the stalls. I balance my plaque on the toilet paper dispenser while I get down to business. I shut my eyes, not quite believing that I’m the grand-prize winner. I can’t wait to tell Dalia and Jason and Joe.
I stop at the sink to wash my hands. The door to the locker room creaks open. I look in the mirror both to admire my green hair and to catch a glimpse of the interloper. I clench my jaw. It’s Leslie staring at me balefully.
“Your photograph is fake.” Leslie snarls. “Just like you. Fake. Fake like your hair. Ugly like your slanted eyes.”
I freeze, the lukewarm water cascading over my hands. The words remind me of a fact I try to ignore. The reality that my face is a mixture of Asian and Caucasian features. My cheeks pale as Leslie marches across the locker room.
“You don’t deserve this.” She snatches my plaque off the counter. “Your photo isn’t documentary or photojournalism. It’s a portrait of your friend.”
She looms inside my personal space, scowling down her nose at me. The standoff might last for five seconds or five minutes for all I know. With a scoff, she twirls away and strides for the exit, pausing to deposit my plaque in the trash can.
I slink from the locker room into the gymnasium with the grand-prize plaque clamped in my hands. It’s moist from the paper towels discarded in the trash can. Leslie is nowhere to be seen, and the people who deign to notice my presence either smile politely or offer enthusiastic congratulations. I mutter the bare minimum of acceptable platitudes, suspicious that they know what happened in the locker room and approve.
Haji intercepts me at a side exit from the gym. I give him my leave-me-the-hell-alone stare with no effect. Smiling, he waves my dad over, calling that he found me. I almost make a break for the exit, but I don’t because then they’ll know that I’m upset.
“What’s wrong?” Haji asks.
“Nothing,” I say.
“If we hurry, we can make the 7:05 bus,” Haji says.
Narrowing my eyes, I look at him quizzically. Haji’s eyes widen.
“You forgot.” He gives me a concerned smile.
“We’re meeting Dalia at Noodle House. You still want to go, right? She’ll want to congratulate you in person for winning the award. Congratulations, by the way. Your picture is totally lit. Just like I said.”
“Ummm...yeah, of course, I’m coming.” Haji says something to me, but I’m busy plastering a fake smile on my face. “Hi, Dad. I’m thrilled you made it.”
It’s not that hard to pull that off because I’m glad he made it, although thrilled might be an overstatement. Jason being here, on the other hand, would be thrilling. If only...
“Congratulations, Allison,” Dad says and embraces me. “I’m so proud of you.”
My cheeks flush. “Thanks, Dad. Haji and I have to catch the bus. We’re heading to Noodle House for dinner.”
“Just wait until we tell your granddad. He’s quite the photographer too, you know,” Dad says, squeezing me even tighter.
“Don’t you have to teach that evening class tonight?” I squirm in his arms.
“I do.” Dad breaks the embrace. He glances at his watch. “Let me call you a car. You said Noodle House? In the University District?”
“That’s okay, Dad. We’re going to catch the bus,” I say.
“It’s dark out and raining.” Dad takes out his phone and opens the vehicle hailing app. “A car will drop you at the front door.”
I notice the glint of his wedding ring, and annoyance sparks through me. I don’t know why he still wears it. She abandoned us nearly sixteen years ago after cursing me with her genetics. If it wasn’t for her, people like Leslie wouldn’t target me for how I look. For all we know, my mother is dead or back in China. I don’t really care which.
Stifling my irritation, I glance at Haji, who nods his head in approval and gives me the thumbs-up.
“Okay. Sure, Daddy, we’ll take a car this one time,” I say.
“There. The car is on its way. It will pick you up in front of the school.” Dad’s expression turns serious. “Listen up, you two. There have been some assaults on the university campus and the surrounding area this week. Be careful.”
“If someone assaults me, I’ll bludgeon them with this.” I heft the grand-prize plaque.
“Allison,” Dad says, “I’m not joking. You could get hurt.”
“I’m not joking either.” I want to take a practice swing with the plaque, but the gym is too crowded.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Lee. We’ll look out for each other,” Haji says.