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Thicket of Bones - flash fiction by Caroline Dinh

For the end-of-year trip at Cheshire Elementary, Ms. Sanderson loaded her fifth graders into a classroom-sized submarine and ventured beneath the waves. For the first few minutes, she allowed the children to gawk at the windows, though there wasn’t much to look at but an endless wall of green. She understood their fascination, though; for most of the students, it was the first time they’d wandered so deep into the sea.

When Ms. Sanderson decided they’d goggled enough, she flicked a switch on the submarine wall. Built specifically for touring, the submarine’s windows contained transparent screens that lit up with color upon command. The students gasped as intricate structures they’d never seen before came into view, glowing crimson and teal.

“Does anyone know what these are?” Ms. Sanderson asked. The students shook their heads quizzically and continued to marvel. A maze of golden sponges and turquoise twigs surrounded them, explosions of pink and orange and yellow like fireworks undersea. Schools of fish wove between the structures and a sea turtle glided by, arousing cries of awe as the children forgot that it was only a simulation.

“Well, students, welcome to the coral reef. These reefs housed millions of species, making them one of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth. There’s a queen angelfish,” Ms. Sanderson pointed towards a school of yellow fish with purple-lined fins, “and there’s a giant clam. And the plant-like organisms you’re seeing are called coral. They’re actually made of thousands of little animals called polyps that attach to rocks or to each other with their limestone exoskeletons. You want to see what they look like in person?”

Cries of “Yes! Yes!”

Ms. Sanderson turned off the screens.

They had arrived at what looked like a graveyard, like decaying twigs on the forest floor. The students stared in shock as the colorful scene they’d just witnessed became lifeless and bare. The sea creatures were gone. And the corals had degraded into colorless claws, like tangled skeletons, like little arms reaching out and crying for help that never came.

Amaya was the first child to speak. Peering at Ms. Sanderson with wide brown eyes, she asked, “What was that on the screens? Why was it so different?”

Ms. Sanderson sighed. “That’s what the corals used to look like, before our mistakes cost them their lives. That’s what they used to be.”

“And what are they now?”

Ms. Sanderson peered down at the thicket of bones and remembered the headlines she’d seen as a child. AMAZON RAINFOREST IN FLAMES. CORAL BLEACHING ON THE RISE. She remembered lifting her fist before the White House at the age of sixteen, demanding action that never came. She remembered the time when finally, finally, the president made a speech and launched a series of programs to combat climate change, when engineers rolled out innovation after innovation and change crept in at last. But at that point, for so many species, it had been too late.

“What are they, Ms. Sanderson?”

“A reminder.”


Caroline Dinh is a high school student from the D.C. area. Her favorite things to write are speculative short stories and oddly-structured poems. Aside from writing, Caroline enjoys painting, programming, and proving that STEM and the arts aren't mutually exclusive.

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