“Looking Within” By Alana Dapper Albany State University College Division — First Place Inspiration: “Beach Party” by Jaime Bull

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This was the day they had all been waiting for. It’s the day Scarlett, Julie, Maggie, Naomi, Yuliana and Mia had been looking forward to all summer! They each woke up with a jump in their step as they packed their beach bags and put on their sun screen. It was the first time they were all able to go on a trip together since Naomi had finished recovering from her most recent surgery. Each girl was excited in their own way, and they couldn’t wait to get away and spend some time at the beach with their friends. It was going to be a great day.

As the sun hit her face, Scarlett tried to appear as if she was enjoying this little getaway. She had been looking forward to this day for so long, yet she did not feel happy on the inside. All she could think about was how just that morning she had walked downstairs to her father, hung over from a full night at the bar with his buddies, lounged on the couch and watching her come down the stairs. After spending almost an hour picking out the perfect swimsuit and doing her hair, the first thing he did when she walked downstairs was laugh. It was the familiar laugh he would do right before he made a comment like, “How can you get more ugly each day?” Or “What a piece of garbage!”

Scarlett would just keep walking because she was used to it by now, but little did he know that each morning her heart sunk further and further down as she began to believe the words her father was constantly saying to her. Each day she would look in the mirror and think of how ugly and worthless she was. She felt like trash, ugly and unwanted. Scarlett looked around at her smiling friends and couldn’t help but think about how perfect their lives must be. Little did she know, she wasn’t alone.

“C’mon, Julie. Let’s go grab some ice cream from that cute little shop over there!” Naomi jumped up from their blanket on the sand as she grabbed Julie’s hand.

“You go on ahead, I think I will stay here and watch everyone’s stuff.”

The girls shrugged as Naomi looked at Julie’s petite figure and then skipped off with the others to get one of their favorite treats. Naomi knew that Julie rarely ate sweets, but she was hoping Julie could splurge for a day like this. As Julie watched them run off, she fought the longing in her mind to enjoy a sweet treat. Then she grabbed the latest teen model magazine out of her beach bag, looked at the girl on the front, and frowned. She was flawless in her appearance, without a single roll on her body. Julie looked at herself and thought she would never be beautiful until she became that flawless. She had to keep becoming skinnier so she could finally be pretty, or so she thought. Little did she know that the more she began to look like the models in the magazine, the more she felt like nothing on the inside.

Maggie finished off her ice cream as she leaned back on the blanket and sighed. After her brother had recently passed away unexpectedly, she was so looking forward to a day away from her house. She thought this day with her friends would help her to feel better, but deep down inside, Maggie still felt a sense of emptiness. She felt as if she now had a huge void in her life that wouldn’t ever be filled. Recently, she had tried so many other things to fill this void like friends, television, and food. Nothing worked, though. She still felt empty inside. She noticed Naomi looking at her, and she forced a smile to cover up the emptiness in her heart.

Naomi glanced around at each of her friends and thought of how lucky they were to be enjoying a day like this. She was grateful, too, but in the back of her mind, all she could think of was how hopeless she felt. This hadn’t been her first surgery, and she wasn’t sure her most recent one was going to fix the problem. The doctors had told Naomi that they were running out of options, and she should enjoy the time she was given just in case it was unsuccessful. She looked back on her life and felt that it was meaningless and didn’t have purpose. What was the point of the last 18 years of her life anyway?

Lastly, there is Yuliana and Mia, also known as You and Me.

We think we are alone, but each of us has felt like trash. Each of us has a void inside of us that feels like it is just air in a plastic bag. We spend so much time trying to fill this void by looking and acting like the “perfect” girl, but inside this is eating away at our soul. This is because that “perfect” girl is an impossible picture of something no one can ever be. No one will ever be skinny enough, pretty enough, or smart enough according to the world’s standards.

But there is a God who created us and loves us, who turns our trash into treasure. He loves every part of us, even our flaws and quirks. He looks at us and says we are beautiful and priceless. He says we are real and incredible, just the way we are. He says that he will come into our lives and be our everything; he will fill the void inside us and make us feel whole again. He gives us meaning and purpose in our lives that we could never find without Him. All we have to do is trust in Him and let Him change us from the inside out.

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“Vulnerability” by Chloe Butts

Georgia Southwestern State University

College Division — Second Place

Inspiration: “The Creek VII” by Jill Frank

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As I light my final cigarette

I hope the smoke lets me forget

The buzz I got from you

Let the flame touch my hand

Like the warmth of a friend

Like you used to do

And the nicotine doesn’t hit the same

When I’m the one to blame

For the mess I made

Inhaling these chemicals and exhaling your love

With each breath out, I lose memories of

Everything, I want it all to fade

I allowed you to see me exposed

Giving you the key to the doors that were previously closed

Yet you accepted the wreck I am

With every dent, scratch and flaw

You acted as if you saw nothing at all

Which showed me the difference between a boy and a man

And you read into me

As if I was the Great Gatsby

Refusing to skip a single word

You flipped through the pages that make up me

Understanding my mind’s poetry

To discover I’m just some extended metaphor

For once, I allowed myself to wear my heart on my sleeve

With it, believing you would not leave

But I guess you proved me wrong

Cloaked in nothing but my shame, guilt and loneliness

You brought out the happiness

Which had been gone for so long

I have become so jealous of the sky

It’s something I have been struggling to understand why

Are humans capable to envy the infinite space above?

How can it be so blue yet beautiful at the same time?

That is the kind of ability I wish could be mine

What kind of dopamine is there up high?

When I am sad my beauty is nonexistent

So I am trying to learn how the blue and beauty can be coexistent

And for once, maybe, I will be at peace

As much as I miss you, I must move on

But your perfection is a human phenomenon

And you, my dear, are a masterpiece

But I realized that our relationship was toxic

Far more toxic than the cigarette I hold between my lips

So maybe the absence of you is for the best

I wish I had never met you

And simply forget everything you do

But these memories cannot be repressed

I wish every content moment spent together

Could make up for our agonizing fights lasting forever

But some things just can’t be unsaid

I saw what beautiful lies

Hide behind those beautiful eyes

And when I solved your ruse, our love was dead

So why do I devote my thoughts to you?

And why am I unable to find someone new?

Is it because you captivated my heart more than anyone?

You swept me off my feet

Made me believe that without you, I was incomplete

And I distanced myself from everyone

I’m tired of you haunting my dreams at night

This continues past when I am awoken by the morning light

And I just want to fall asleep

I’ve tried looking for your replacement

But I cannot handle the torment

Of seeing you in everyone I meet

Congratulations for ruining my everything

Congratulations on releasing my sorrow from within

And making me rethink my whole life

It’s time to fill the void

I will repair everything you destroyed

I am ready to resolve the mental conflicts happening inside

My heart will always have a piece dedicated for you and me

And our love will be a bittersweet tragedy

But I need to learn myself before I fall in love again

Goodbye, my friend

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“That’s my Emma” by Ashlynn Dapper

Sherwood Christian Academy/Truett McConnell University (dual enrollment)

College Division — Third Place

Inspiration: “Equestrian Me” by Charles Wells

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“That’s my Emma.” I smiled as my 4-year old daughter danced around. She was acting out another one of her stories. She was so creative. She was going to live her life making people smile. I just knew it. She had a big heart, a wide smile, and a bright future. That’s my Emma.

One day, all of that started to change.

Emma started to become quieter and more thoughtful. She did not want to play with others, but she preferred to stay in her room and organize her toys. I was getting worried, and it only got worse. Emma didn’t look at me for longer than a few seconds, and she didn’t want to be cuddled or comforted. The worst part of all of this was that she lost her imagination. No more stories. No more playing pretend. Where was my girl going? Emma was becoming trapped in her own mind.

She had autism.

Every day my husband and I would try to make her talk or laugh, but it seemed to make her more frustrated with us than happy. The doctor explained that this was normal for autistic kids. This report didn’t help. It wasn’t normal for my Emma. She was slipping away, and there was nothing I could do about it. She was still Emma, just not my Emma.

Every night once she was asleep, I cried and prayed. I fell on my knees and begged God to bring my girl back. I wasn’t giving up on my Emma. I knew that there was still hope, but that didn’t mean it was going to be easy to hold on. I cried and prayed and cried some more. It was in this way that I drifted to sleep every night.

Emma didn’t get better, but she got older. She had long black hair, deep blue eyes, and red lips that framed her beautiful smile — the smile that would show rarely when she was happy. Emma was happiest when she was reminded of her old self — her life without autism. She would play with her old toys, watch old videos, or draw pictures, and her eyes would get brighter. My Emma would shine through, and it would brighten my life and give me hope.

But most of the time, it was silence. Her body was a cage to her mind and to her spirit that would be so radiant otherwise. I would find myself imagining, “What if Emma hadn’t developed autism?” I would imagine what my Emma would be like now in her teens. A beautiful, friendly girl. An actress. An artist. A storyteller. All the what-if’s … I would then snap back to reality. No. I needed to love Emma for who she was. But that wouldn’t always be easy.

I held onto the hope of my Emma coming back, but she only sunk deeper into herself. It started to break me. I thought life couldn’t get any harder for us.

I was wrong.

An accident. A can of gasoline. A blown fuse. Suddenly, our world was nothing but chaos. Paralyzing fear ran rapidly through my veins. We ran out just in time and watched as our beloved house burned. My husband called 911, but I knew it was too late. It was gone. I gasped. Emma’s drawings! The tears streamed down my face. This was all that we had left! The only things that made my Emma shine were in that house! All the memories of life before autism were in that house! That house was my last hope of getting my Emma back! My sadness turned to desperation, to hopelessness, to anger. I didn’t know who to blame, so I yelled at God.

“How dare you take this from me?! Was my Emma not enough? You’ve taken everything from me! What did I do to deserve this?” I collapsed onto the ground. I felt like I had nothing left.

A week later, we went back to the house. I sat on a rock and cried. I didn’t know what else to do. Emma looked at me, then gazed intently at the rubble. She found the horn of one of her favorite old porcelain unicorns and held it tenderly. She looked sad, and it made my heart break. Then she started to pick more things up. She found colorful hangers she had painted when she was 4, our pastel broken laundry baskets, and four sparkly cups that she loved back then. I couldn’t watch, so I sadly lowered my head.

“God,” I whispered. “I know that I probably deserve this, but Emma doesn’t. Why would you take happiness from my precious daughter, God? I have held on with everything in me. I can’t do it anymore. Please. I need something. Don’t leave me hopeless.” I put my hands over my face. I almost jumped when I felt a soft hand touch my shoulder. Something in me sparked.

“Mom.” It was the most beautiful word I had ever heard. I was afraid to move. Joy filled my chest, and I felt my heart beating rapidly.

“Yes, Emma?” I looked up. Beside her was a little statue, made of nothing but rubble and trash. It resembled a person sitting on a unicorn. My mouth fell open, and I smiled. She had made the statue for me! Beside the statue stood a beautiful girl, looking straight into my eyes and smiling. Something bubbled up within me, a feeling that I hadn’t felt in months. Hope. My Emma was still there! She wasn’t gone. I stood up and wrapped my arms around her. She twitched but didn’t move. She slowly placed her tender hands on my back. I sobbed tears of joy. I didn’t think about the rubble, or the pain. I only thought about my daughter. I thanked God over and over and smiled bigger than I had in a long time.

“That’s my Emma.”

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