The Bomb

Five hours ago, my mother walked up to me and dropped a bomb. Right there, in the living room. People shouldn’t be allowed to do that.

Ever since school got out, I’ve been working. All my friends, well, they’ve been out riding their bikes and wall jumping and doing the sorts of things that one would expect a 15-year-old boy to do.

But every time I sit down and start drawing, it’s almost unthinkable to stop. I submitted a portfolio to my local arts high school a month ago, and I’m so anxious sometimes, I notice that I forget to breathe. My mom agreed to send in the application, after months of me begging and being extra nice. She thinks I’m studying for the SAT, but I’m drawing. I don’t think I need to study for a test I have to take in 3 years, and I would much rather be working on something I love to do. She won’t listen, though, so I have to lie.

Anyways, back to the bomb. I’m not a scientist, but I’m pretty sure an entire town could have collapsed from that one.

My mother, she didn’t send in my portfolio.

I don’t know if you’re aware of the deadlines for the Las Vegas Academy of the Arts’ Visual Art Program, but it was yesterday. So why, you may ask, did my mother not submit my portfolio? Well, she and my father had a discussion without my knowledge. Let me illustrate the conversation that we had.

“Honey, can you get the mail?” my mother screeched out of the dining room.

“Sure, Mom,” I mumbled, scooping the letters off of the marble floor and placing them in her pointy fingers. I stood there, with my hands folded, swaying back and forth.

“Harrison, what do you want? Stop slouching,” she said, as she browsed through the mail.

“Mom, I know you’re getting tired of me asking, but is there any possible way you’ve heard from LVA?” I winced as I asked. The last time, I got yelled at. I suppose I have been nagging her a bit.

“Jesus Christ, Harrison.” She groaned as she started to play with her silk scarf. Who wears a scarf in the summer? “We’ve been through this. You’ll hear when you hear, and besides, your father and I don’t even want you to attend that pitiful excuse for a school. Your father already has a spot for you at Meadows, where you’ll get a well-rounded education.”

“Okay, Mother. I know this school isn’t preppy enough for you, and it may not have buckets of money, and the average SAT score may not be 1500, but please could you consider my feelings? I want to go there, okay? The number of times Dad takes me to meet alumni or the staff there at his golf tournaments won’t change that.”

“Okay…” she said, rolling her eyes at me with such force, that I’m pretty sure I saw some eyeshadow flake off.

“No, Mom, listen to me. What is going on here? Why are you hiding the results from me?  Contrary to what you think, I’m not stupid. The results were supposed to come in a week ago. James already got his results back. He got in, and if he can, I certainly can. What did the letter say?”

“I think we should discuss this with your father, and anyways, we don’t have time. Go upstairs and get ready for the dinner party tonight,” she said, setting the unopened mail down on the table and slowly getting up from her velvet armchair.  

“God, why are you always so passive aggressive?” I yelled, slamming the oak door behind me.

“Fine, Harrison. Do you really want to know? Do you really want to hear it from me? Here? Now?” my mom yelled, following me into the hallway. “You didn’t get into the school.  You know why? Because I never handed in your goddamn portfolio. There you go. That is the truth. So stop nagging me about it.” Her pointy heels dug into the carpeting as she stormed out. “Do you know how hard your father and I worked to get you into Meadows? Don’t you understand that LVA isn’t a real school?” she yelled behind her, her voice bouncing off the paintings and trophies and photos that attempted to fill up the empty house.

I’m pretty sure I stood there for about ten minutes with my mouth wide open. Not to be blunt, but I hate my mother. Not in that teenage angsty way where I’m upset because she won’t let me go to a party or because I’m grounded. But because I genuinely don’t respect her. What kind of a person lies to their kid about that kind of thing? And I don’t buy that, “Your father and I just want what’s best for you” crap. Please. She just wants to be able to tell her friends that her kid goes to Meadows. That way she can get their manicured, blow dried, and botoxed approval.

I stormed down the hall, past all of the trophies in their glass cases, determined not to become one of them. When I got to my room, I ran to my bookshelf and ripped all of the pamphlets and books about Meadows onto the carpeted floors. I went to the back of my closet and rummaged around until I found the mustard yellow Meadows hoodie that my parents gave me for Christmas, and I threw it in the pile.

Then, I put on my usual suit and tie for dinner. I was halfway through putting on my belt when my phone rang. I picked my jeans up off the floor and pulled my phone out of the pocket.

“Elise? Why are you calling me?” I put my phone on speaker and continued to put on my belt.

“You don’t even have the decency to say hello to me, Harrison?” she joked. I knew she was smiling, and I could picture her dimples.

“Okay. Hello, Elise,” I mocked, catching her smile.

“Well, guess what?” she teased into the phone.

“What?” I was curious by then.

“I got into LVA! I submitted my portfolio early, just like you, and it paid off! I’m so happy, and I know you’ll get in. You have to!” She sounded like she had just won the lottery, and I’m sure I would have too, if I were in her situation.

“Oh, that’s great.” I’m not a very good actor, and this wasn’t an exception. I think she knew something was wrong. I mean, after all, she knew me the best out of practically anybody.

“Is everything okay, Harrison? You don’t sound too good. Did your mom go off on you about LVA again? You know, you really should stand up to her at some point. I know I’ve said that about a million times, but just because she’s your mom doesn’t mean she can control you.” Elise gave me the usual speech. I mean, yeah, I should stand up for myself, but it wouldn’t make any difference. Mom either wouldn’t listen or wouldn’t care.

“I have to go to this dumb dinner party with my parents, so I’ll talk to you later, okay?” I didn’t wait for a response and hung up the phone. I didn’t think she would mind. After all, she was going to make a million new friends at LVA, and I was just this little boy who couldn’t even stand up to his own mother

I rode the car ride there in silence. Cold, bitter silence.

When we arrived, I sat down across from my mother, and to the left of my father.  The long, oak table stretched on and on, and I hoped the evening wouldn’t do the same. When the appetizers were served, my mother brought up a topic that really wasn’t wise to bring up.

“You know, Amy, Harrison is absolutely delighted to attend Meadows next year.  Do you have any alumni advice for him?” She talks differently around these people. She coos when she speaks.

“Well, you’re in for a tough ride, but a good one. I think you’ll fit in there.” Amy half laughed as she talked.

I didn’t look up. I just moved the mustard greens around on my plate. I couldn’t listen to any more alumni talk, so I turned to my mother.

“You know what, Mom, I don’t really think you should be going around telling people that I’m going to Meadows when I haven’t even agreed to go.” I spoke softly, hoping that nobody else could hear.

“Harrison, what are you talking about? We agreed at home, an hour ago, that that is where you will be going to school. Now, shut up. We can talk later.” She smiled as she talked, but believe me, she wasn’t happy.

“Are you kidding me?” I spoke louder, and the whole room turned their big heads toward me. “We did not agree that I would be going to Meadows. You told me that you didn’t submit my application to the school that I actually want to go to. I don’t know what world you live in, but that doesn’t suddenly make me want to attend a snotty private school.”

My mom was looking at me in utter disbelief and didn’t seem to notice that her Chardonnay had spilled onto her croquettes. “How do you have the audacity to speak to me that way? Your father and I have discussed this. You are a child. Our child. And we know what is best for you. Your attitude about this is deplorable. I’m not discussing this here any longer. We will settle this at home, but there isn’t any more to talk about at the moment.”

“I’m terribly sorry to inconvenience you with the timing, and my apologies go out to you, Mrs. Smith, for I’m afraid I have disrupted your casual get-together. But do you even listen to yourself, mother? I mean really. ‘Your attitude is deplorable’ Who talks like that? Who spends an hour on their hair and ten minutes on their kid? You probably aren’t even listening to me right now, you’re probably too busy wondering what excuse you’ll make up to excuse your son’s deplorable actions.”

 By now, my mother’s left eye was twitching, and one of Mrs. Smith’s embroidered napkins was balled up in her lap.

“I try to talk to you about this at home, and you run away into one of the million rooms to hide in. Well you can’t run this time, Mom. Listen to me. I don’t want to go to that boring, privileged, and snotty school. I don’t want to do things so that you can tell Cindy or Mary about how studious your son is. Will you just stop thinking about how other people will view you?”

“Okay, okay, let’s stop this acrimonious discussion, darling.” My mother was half smiling (I’m pretty sure she was thinking about ways to punish me), and she was completely unraveled.  

“Do you hear me? I don’t care if I have to go to the shitty, local school. I’m not going.”

The company was astonished that I had just cursed, but my mother yelled over the gasps.

“That’s it. I’m done. You try and handle having a kid. You try what I have to go through every day. Your ignorance is aggravating. I’m doing the best thing for you, not me. I’m sorry that you want to be an artist. I’m sorry that you want to become homeless and unaccomplished, but I won’t allow it. You’re embarrassing yourself. Just leave.” She sat back down and picked her wine glass out of her plate.

I was happy to oblige. “Thank you for the lovely evening, Mrs. Smith,” I yelled behind me as I escaped out of the dining hall. I probably wouldn’t be invited back.  Oh well.

Our driver wasn’t going to pick us up for another hour and a half, so I started to walk home. Our estate was miles and miles away, but at least I would have something to do. I didn’t know what to think of what had just happened, but I suppose I finally got heard.

Punny

Nobody liked 30-year-old George Denton’s show. It was on at 10:00 at night, and it was called This Week in Jokes. It was supposed to be a hilarious show filled with funny anecdotes about the latest gossip, but George didn’t do a great job living up to those expectations. He really wasn’t funny. All he could write were terrible puns, and no one really appreciated them. It was a miracle he could make a living off his horrible show and still have enough money to pay his only crew member, Charlotte Lacourse.

All George wanted was to be a famous comedian, but it’s very, very hard to do that when you’re not funny. When he first started, George absolutely loved his job and thought he was on the path to fame and fortune. However, after years and years of disappointment, George’s love for his show began to fade away. He would’ve stopped as it was quite far from a success, but if he didn’t work on his show he would have no money at all.

“You know, George,” Charlotte said to him one day when she came in to work, “if you’re really unhappy with this show, perhaps you should consider looking for a different job.”

“A different job? There’s nothing else I’d be good at.”

Charlotte wished dearly to say that if that was the case, there was nothing he was good at, for he certainly wasn’t a good comedian. However, her respect for his feelings prevented her hurting them in such a way.

George ran his fingers through his dark brown hair thoughtfully. “I suppose there’s no harm in looking…” he said very slowly.

“No there certainly isn’t,” she replied. “It might also be a good idea to talk to someone who can help you figure out what kind of job would be best for you.”

George, happy with this suggestion, made an appointment with a life coach by the name of Dr. Walsh. He was very smart, and very Irish. His accent was, at times, absolutely impossible to understand.

George got to the office at 3:00 for his 4:30 appointment. Charlotte, who had recommended him, had told him that he might be taken early, but he had really misunderstood her. However, it just happened to be George’s lucky day, because he was the only one in the office and he saw Dr. Walsh at 3:15.

“Hello Dr. Walsh,” he said nervously, “I’m George Denton. I had an appointment for 4:30.”

“Yes, I see that,” said Dr. Walsh, staring down at a notebook.

“Pardon me?” George said hesitantly, for Dr. Walsh’s accent was just too much for him.

Dr. Walsh cleared his throat, seeming not to hear him. “Well George,” he said suddenly,
“What is it you need from me today?”

“Well

“Wait,” Dr. Walsh said, cutting him off, “your shoes look rather tight. Take them off please. I find it’s much easier to talk to patients if they’re as comfortable as possible.”

“Alright… ” George said hesitantly, wondering quite how weird Dr. Walsh was going to be. He removed his shoes and placed them on the table.

“No!” cried Dr. Walsh. “You cannot put shoes on the table! It’s the most important Irish superstition! Put those shoes back on and get out of here.” He pointed to the door.

George told Charlotte about his very unsuccessful meeting with Dr. Walsh, hoping she could recommend someone else to talk to, but she had no one. Dr. Walsh was the only person she ever went to see. George supposed she never put her shoes on the table or let her chair fall over when she stood up, which Dr. Walsh had nearly fainted at when it happened to George.

That night, George performed another one of his shows, though he was really not in the mood. He had hoped that Dr. Walsh would have been able to help him solve his job problem, but he had no idea how insane he would be.

“Hello, and welcome once more to… This Week in Jokes!” George said, turning his chair to face the running camera held by Charlotte. “This week, we have had some very interesting reports about animals. First of all, Karla the Koala has learned to sing! I bet that girl gives some Koality hugs!”

Charlotte laughed. She always did that so it sounded like there was an audience enjoying all his terrible jokes.

“In addition to our animal with the great Koalafications, the cow who wrote that book last summer has come up with a moo novel!”

Charlotte laughed again.

“Speaking of novels, Barry the beagle thinks that the dogs in the wonderful book from last week, All the Queen’s Corgis, had a pretty ruff life! This is an interesting theory as most would think that being the Queen’s pet would give you some serious advantages.”

Just like all the other shows they produced, this show was not successful at all. It didn’t really affect George, though, because by now he was so used to his failures that he would have had a greater reaction if it had actually worked out.

The day after this show, George was walking along fifth avenue when he spotted a sign. It read: DR. ANDREW JACKSON, LIFE COACH. George got excited and decided impulsively to walk inside.

“Hello,” he said confidently to the receptionist.

“Do you have an appointment?” she asked irritably, staring at him over her square rimmed glasses.

“No, I’m afraid not.”

“Well, we can try to fit you in but I’m not sure we’ll be able to,” she sighed.

“Oh, yes, it does look rather busy in here,” George said under his breath, looking around at the empty waiting room.
“What did you say?” the receptionist demanded.

“Nothing,” he mumbled in reply.

“You’re in luck,” the lady said, though she didn’t sound at all enthusiastic, “Dr. Jackson can just squeeze you in today. You’ll have to wait twenty minutes, though.”

“Alright,” George said happily. He had nowhere else to go.

After twenty-two minutes, the receptionist told him to walk down the hall and enter the first room on his right.

“Thank you,” George said. He discovered that there was absolutely no reason he had had to wait, for before he went in, no one came out, and there was no one exiting the room as he entered it.

George took a seat on the fluffy couch placed across from the armchair where the rather short Dr. Jackson was seated. There was no desk in between them.

“Hello,” Dr. Jackson said. “What’s your name?”
“George Denton. I don’t have an appointment but the lady at reception told me I could come.”

“Alright, George, what exactly do you need to talk about?”

“I’d like to talk about my job situation. I’m not happy where I am, but I don’t think there’s anywhere else I’d do well.”

Dr. Jackson sighed. “I get that a lot. People need to make better decisions about jobs.”

“Yes, well, I’m certainly not happy with mine,” George replied, trying to get back on topic.

“May I ask what about your current occupation it is that you are so unhappy with?”
“I run a show called This Week in Jokes. I’m the only member of the cast, and I’ve only got one crew member. I’ve been putting it on for five years now, but it’s a very unsuccessful show.”

“How on earth has it stayed in business this long?” Dr. Jackson asked, and rather insensitively, George thought.

“We’ve only got one investor, but he’s so wealthy it doesn’t really matter to him where his money goes. He agreed to pay for our show years ago when we told him we’d pay him a lot if he did. That was back when we thought our show would be a great success. Obviously, we didn’t make enough to keep our promise, so gradually we had to stop paying him, but he never really noticed and he keeps giving us his money.”

“Hmm… I’m sure you’re very grateful to him.”

“Yes, we are,” George said eagerly.

“But anyway,” Dr. Jackson said, “We need to talk about your unhappiness with your show. Why don’t you like your job?”

“I’ve always wanted to be wealthy and famous. I used to have fabulous dreams that everywhere I went people would stop me and ask for my autograph. I thought I’d be an outstanding comedian. But no one appreciates my jokes, so I’ve been beginning to think that maybe I’m not that great after all.”

“Well,” Dr. Jackson replied thoughtfully, “If that’s the case it would be a good idea for you to look around at other jobs. What do you think you’d be happy doing?”

“Anything where my talents are really appreciated.”

“Hmm… I’ll have to think about that one. How about I look around and let you know when I find things I think would be good for you?”

“That sounds wonderful! Thank you!” George said enthusiastically, and he left feeling quite happy he had seen that sign. Dr. Jackson was certainly better than crazy Dr. Walsh.

George had to wait a couple days before he heard from Dr. Jackson, but eventually he received a letter in the mail with his return address on it. Inside, he found four different packets filled with information about four different jobs.

The first one was, interestingly enough, a position at Starbucks. Dr. Jackson’s note said that this job might be good because the baristas were always spelling people’s names wrong and he could use his sense of humor to come up with funny name spellings. Somehow, George didn’t think that was quite the job for him.

The second job was a job at Apple in which he had to fix autocorrect issues. Dr. Jackson suggested that he could make autocorrect phrases into funny autocorrected phrases. Although working at Apple might be kind of cool, George thought he’d likely get fired if he irritated people with autocorrect when he was supposed to be making it work better.

The third job was a job working at Buzzfeed, for they were always making funny jokes. Though George did appreciate their funny articles, he didn’t think he’d do well working at a computer all day when he hardly understood how they worked. The only person who would have offered to teach him was Charlotte, but he hadn’t wanted her to think he was dumb for not knowing, so he just told her he was great with technology. He resolved not to tell her he had received this offer.

The fourth and final job was a position as coordinator of kids’ birthday parties at a gymnastics venue. Though this job didn’t seem like it would really require a sense of humor, Dr. Jackson said that when working with children, you always needed to be funny. However, not only did George find most children rather irritating, he had very bad organization skills and didn’t think he’d do well coordinating anything.

No matter what job he chose, even if it wasn’t one of these four, which it probably wouldn’t, he needed to put together a resume. He started this immediately, with help from Charlotte, for it needed to be done on a computer. George spent a while trying to come up with an excuse for why he needed help, but he didn’t need to, for although he always pretended he understood computers, Charlotte had always known he really didn’t.

“Okay,” Charlotte said. “So what was your first ever job?”

“I worked at a CVS,” he replied, slightly sheepishly.

Charlotte repressed a laugh. “Alright,” she said, typing that in. “And you started this show right after that, right?”

“Yep. And I’ve been working on it ever since.”

Once George and Charlotte finished putting together his resume, they needed to plan their next show. George looked at the latest news and discovered that a wonderful new shop called Georgia’s Chocolates had opened. George started thinking about some good chocolate puns.

“I know!” he said out loud, and Charlotte turned to look at him. “What?” she asked.

“I wonder if Georgia owns a pet chocolate moose!” George said excitedly.

Charlotte gave a small laugh.

“What, not good enough?” George asked indignantly.

“Oh, no, it’s perfectly good!” Charlotte said quickly. George seemed satisfied and they continued working in silence. It didn’t last long, though.

“Hey Charlotte?” George said after five minutes.

“Yes?” she said, preparing herself for another pun.

“Can I ask you a question?”

“Oh! Of course!” she said, taken aback.

“Why did you go to Dr. Walsh in the first place?” George asked.

“He seemed like a good life coach,” Charlotte replied, thinking the answer was really quite simple.

“Well, yes,” George said impatiently, “I didn’t think you would have gone to someone who was supposed to be bad. But why did you need a life coach in the first place?”

“Oh… same as you. Career stuff.”

“When did you stop seeing him?” George asked, thinking that Charlotte didn’t need any job help now that she worked for him.

“I still go,” she said, trying to stay calm.

“But… why? Aren’t you happy with your job?”

“I wasn’t pleased. It’s hard to work on a show that has no success, who’s only investor doesn’t even know they’re paying for it. Dr. Walsh helped me to better appreciate my job.

“But you appreciate it now, right?”

“Oh… yeah, of course,” Charlotte replied uncertainly.

Though Charlotte’s answer would have been satisfactory, there was something in her voice that made George suspicious.

***

The next day, Charlotte was late to work. She was supposed to come in at 9:30, but it was now 11:00, and George was constantly checking his watch. He decided to call her, even though he knew she hated it when she got phone calls that weren’t emergencies.

He dialed her number and held the phone up to his ear. He heard it ringing on the other side, but no Charlotte answered it. He waited and waited until he heard Charlotte’s voice. He started speaking, but then realized that it was only, “You’ve reached Charlotte Lacourse. I’m not here right now, but leave a message and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible!” Frustrated, George waited for the beep and left a message asking her where she was.

Charlotte didn’t call George back, or show up to work that day. He was starting to worry that something bad had happened to her.

That night, George was going to call ‘Missing Persons’ to see if Charlotte had gone missing, but because he was very forgetful, he didn’t. However, he hoped that Charlotte had just been sick yesterday and had forgotten to call him, so he went into work thinking she would be there. She wasn’t. She wasn’t there at 10:00, 11:00 or noon. She never showed up and, again, wouldn’t answer her phone. George was starting to get very worried. He was so preoccupied that when he went home, he walked right past the doorman, not realizing he had mail for him.

“Excuse me, sir,” the doorman said, “I’ve got your mail for you.”

“Oh! Thank you,” he said, taking the mail. He got upstairs and dropped the letters on the coffee table. He wasn’t even going to open them, but he noticed that the letter on top was  in very familiar handwriting, and upon picking it up, he realized that the return address was Charlotte’s. George got nervous, for Charlotte never wrote letters, never. Breathing quickly, George ripped open the envelope (which took a while, for he was about as good at opening letters as he was at following Irish superstitions) and pulled out the paper. He began to read, having absolutely no clue what he would find there.

Dear George,

I thought this would be easier to write in a letter than to tell you, as I fear it will surprise and worry you greatly. I’d like to elaborate on what I said about why I saw Dr. Walsh and my satisfaction with my job. To be honest, I never liked my job. Like you, I wanted to be famous and it frustrated me that your puns never got us anywhere. I majored in comedy at college, and I was really good. I knew that if I had my own show, it would be successful and my jokes would be hilarious. I didn’t like your show. I thought that if I helped you out by recommending some good life coaches, you would see that you needed a different job, and once you were gone, I would be able to take over your show and make it my own. I know this will come as a blow, but I never wanted you to succeed. I always told you your puns were good because if you knew they weren’t, I worried you’d ask me for help and then they would be good jokes and your show, particularly you, would become successful. That was the exact opposite of what I wanted, because then you would stick with the show and I would not be able to take it over. After our conversation the other day, when you asked me about why I needed a life coach, I realized that you were too close to discovering the truth and I had to leave. I was terrified you’d find out, but now that I’ve left and won’t be coming back, I feel like it’s safe to tell you, and you deserve to know because of how trusting of me you’ve been. When I first left two days ago, I had the design of coming back once you had left the show, which I knew would happen now that your only crew member was gone and you’ve told me you’re not happy.  However, upon leaving and moving to Portland, where I am now, I got a job assisting one of the best comedians of all time, Jackson Hatson. This job is a clear path to fame, whereas reviving an unsuccessful show would be very hard and less likely to turn out well.

Now that you have found out about my selfish character, I know we will surely never see each other again, so I wish you all the best in whatever you pursue and I hope that you have a happy and healthy life.

Charlotte Lacourse

George was speechless, not that he had anyone to speak to. He couldn’t believe this. Charlotte, who had always been so kind, Charlotte, who had always seemed so supportive, Charlotte, had betrayed his trust. It was absolutely unbelievable. It was even more painful to know that Charlotte was right, he would leave his show without a crew member. He’d been planning on it for a while anyway. George was going to miss his show. He remembered the day he had decided to start it…

***

George went home and collapsed onto the couch after a long day of working at the local CVS. He reached out his arm and grabbed the television remote lying on the coffee table. He turned on the tv and selected a channel at random.

“This looks pretty good,” he mumbled to himself.

The show on the channel of George’s choice was a fake news show put on by Michael McMarty. It was very funny.

“That looks fun to do,” George thought to himself. He started daydreaming about being someone like Michael McMarty. Wouldn’t it be great to be a famous comedian? George loved jokes, and though he had never tried, he thought he would probably be good at making them up. George loved the laughter of the audience watching Michael McMarty. He loved everything about the comedian’s life. That was the day he resolved to be a famous comedian and start his own show.

***

George sighed. Back then, he had thought that being a comedian was the best thing he could possibly do, that it would be so much fun and that he would be famous and successful. Clearly, comedy wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

George decided to go out for a walk. He thought it might be a better opportunity for reflection than sitting inside all day.

When he was out walking, he spotted a small, cracked bottle of blue nail polish lying on the street corner. Figuring he would be a good citizen, he picked it up and was about to throw it out when he noticed the name on the bottom. ‘Don’t Be Blue,’ it read. George chuckled to himself. He wondered who wrote those punny names… and then, it hit him. He needed a job coming up with nail polish names.

That night, he wrote an email to the head of Essie, one of the most prestigious nail

polish companies in the country, if not the world. George was shocked to receive an answer just an hour later. Upon reading it, he saw that Essie would let him apply for the job! Very excited, he pulled out the resume he had constructed with Charlotte. He winced. It pained him to think of her.

The next day, after sending in his application, George received another email. He was wanted for a job interview with Essie! He was ecstatic.

George’s interview went very well, although not all of it was comfortable. There were lots of questions about This Week in Jokes, for he had been working on it for a very long time. Every recollection was painful, for there had never been a day, until she left, that Charlotte had not been with him at work. He scowled, remembering that she had surely only done that to continue working her devilish scheme.

The people at Essie seemed very pleased with George. The puns that the viewers of ‘This Week in Jokes’ had hated so much were exactly what these people loved. He got the job, and it was absolutely perfect. George mourned Charlotte as if she had died, for the Charlotte he had known certainly had. Though he learned to move on and really loved his new job, the loss of his partner and supporter stayed in the back of his mind forever and always made him sad when he thought of it.

Epilogue

One Saturday night, George went home to watch television. He was going to switch to the channel of his choice, but before he did he noticed a headline that interested him: Famous Comedian’s Assistant Fired. He clicked on the channel, wondering who it was. A reporter was speaking.

“ — assistant to Jackson Hatson has been fired. Let’s hear from her about what went wrong.” George’s eyes widened. Though he wished to turn it off, because he hated thinking about Charlotte, there was something about the segment that drew his eyes like magnets. Charlotte appeared on the screen.

“So, Ms. Lacourse,” the reporter said, “why do you think Mr. Hatson has brought this sudden end to your time with his show?’

“Oh, I really don’t know what went wrong,” Charlotte replied distractedly, “I was going to be famous, everyone loved me, but my jokes began turning dull and Mr. Hatson thought I was hurting his career instead of benefiting both of ours.”

George felt a sort of grim satisfaction. Finally, Charlotte could experience the huge disappointment he had had to go through.

“Well, Ms. Lacourse,” the reporter said, “On the bright side of things, I love that nail polish you’re wearing. What’s it called?”
“Oh, it’s called Li-Lac-ing Color,” Charlotte said, looking at the very light shade of purple on her nails.

George laughed out loud. He remembered inventing that specific color. Charlotte had now gone through what he had to when he discovered how unsuccessful he was, and she was wearing one of his nail polish colors. George was satisfied.

The True Horrors of Online Dating

Ever since I was a youngling, I have always wanted to be loved by others. Besides my parents and friends, that is. What I’m talking about is relationships and “mating”. Sure, I did have many lovers in my life, but, after a while, I realized the people in Billings— no, not just Billings— people in the whole state of Montana are not… appetizing to me. They all seem like one, ugly female, and that bothers me. Why can’t I find someone that I truly love? People my age are having kids already, and I, twenty-seven-year-old Rick Doherty, am still single.

That’s why I tried online dating. I hoped I could find someone who truly appealed to me. But, all I saw were either people who looked hideous, or hot chicks who were already in relationships.

I desperately posted a really sexy picture of myself in hopes of attracting someone. That, at first, attracted even more monstrous creations. There was a girl with two warts on her mouth and an overuse of makeup, constantly sending me chat requests. I declined chatting with her, but she just kept on sending me requests. After a while, I got sick of all of this, accepted one of her requests, and said I wasn’t interested in her. She never sent me another request. In fact, she deleted her profile. A small victory for me, but I wondered if I was too harsh on her.

To be honest, I was ready to delete my profile at that point, too, until, a month into this website, I struck gold.

Jackie Martha LeGree was really pretty, without excess makeup. Her blonde hair weaved down her tan skin, and her green eyes were like emeralds in a cave of rock. She seemed attracted to me too, since, when I accepted her request, she texted me, “You look hot.”

We started texting constantly— right when I woke up, on my way to work, at work, on my way back home, and while I ate. I learned that she was from Greensboro, North Carolina, and that she was twenty-seven too. She was an outdoors lover, and, when she could, she would sit outside and enjoy nature at its finest. She worked for a nature preserve, and she enjoyed helping the environment grow. She bragged that her nature preserve was the best in the country.

I also used this opportunity to brag about myself. I said I was a programmer for a game (didn’t say which), a really smart and buff guy (partially true), and a kind community worker (which is surprisingly true). Jackie seemed to love the “altruistic ” side of me, and she also loved video games and smart people, which made me feel warm inside. We seemed to have so many similarities, making us a match made for heaven. By then, we officially became online boyfriend and girlfriend. My heart was racing every time she texted me, knowing that all she would do was shower me with praise, in which I would do the same to her.

A year passed. Despite being in contact with her, I hadn’t met Jackie in person yet. I asked her if she could meet up, but she said that she was too busy working in the nature preserve. I kept bugging her until, one day, Jackie texted me that she was given a week off, and she was going to Billings to visit me. I told her to meet with me at Rainbow Bar. What I didn’t tell her, though, is that I bought her a Blue Diamond ring so I could propose to her. I was ready to become a husband, and I hoped she was ready to become my spouse, too.

The day came. I brought my ring to the bar and waited for a long time. I looked at every girl that came in, hoping that it was the blonde-haired, green-eyed girl that would become my future wife.

I fiddled with my ring as I wondered if her flight was cancelled, or if she was lost in the city. I was pondering to go search for her when my phone rang.

It was Jackie. She texted that she was going to arrive in a few minutes.

My heart was ready to run a marathon. Finally, I was going to meet her in person, then hope she would marry me. My body was filled with so much adrenaline, I didn’t realize that a taxi car drove in. I spotted an old, dark-haired lady with a crooked nose and broken brown eyes that I had never seen before. Was she a newcomer? I thought. I never saw someone so hideous. She can’t be my date… wait! It struck me then that I never knew what her voice sounded like, nor did I see other pictures of her. Oh, shit

My heart flipped as the old woman spotted me. A really creepy and crooked smile appeared on her face as she walked towards me. Oh, no no no!

“Hi,” She croaked. “You must be Rick.”

Noooooo!

“Uh, yes, I… uh, I am Rick,” I managed to say, unable to cover my surprise and fear.

“Hehe. Yes, I’m Jackie. And that must be a ring you’re holding. You want to marry me?”

When I didn’t reply, she continued. “No one has wanted to marry me. Ever. This is my first proposal. You know I’ll definitely say yes, right?”

“You said that you were twenty-seven…” I said in a small voice. “Your profile picture…”

“Yeah, that’s a picture I managed to Photoshop,” She said. “And I’m actually sixty-eight.”

“But…” I stammered. “Why did you lie to me all this time?”

“I have always loved younger men,” She said. “I was attracted to you once I saw you. I knew you wouldn’t love an old, ugly woman, so I put that picture together to attract you. I hoped that when you learned what I was inside, you would love me no matter what.”

She stared at me. Her brown eyes made me sink into my chair, wishing that someone could just kill me.

She snatched the ring from me and was about to put it on when I smacked it out of her hand. Her eyes widened as the ring flew across the room into someone’s beer.

“No,” I said. I was scared to the core, but I was beginning to feel really angry. “You lied to me! You made yourself seem younger so I would become your boyfriend. No! No! No! I’m not going to marry you.”

Jackie was speechless, her scary eyes staring at me. Finally, she smiled her creepy smile and said, “Well, of course you want to marry me. Come here and give me a kiss.” She closed her eyes, puckered her lips and moved closer towards me.

Before she made contact with me, I swiftly leapt out of my chair and sprinted out the door of the bar, fear and anger fueling me to go faster. I heard her gag as she realized she had accidentally kissed my chair. By now, people were giving us weird looks.

“Wait!” She screamed out the door. “Come back! I promise I’ll be a great wife! Please, my love!”

“I never loved you!”

I ran into my car and immediately sped away from the bar. I looked back and hoped that she wasn’t following me. The street was completely devoid of humans, which made me sigh with relief. I drove home, locked the door, and the first thing I did was delete my dating profile, ignoring all the messages Jackie had sent me while I was running away from her. I was still in disbelief that I had wasted a whole year dating what I had thought was the perfect woman, when the whole time it was a pedophile, manipulating inexperienced men like me into loving her.

It’s sad that there are a lot of evil people trying to harm innocent, kind people like me. I mean, a community worker doesn’t deserve the devil, right? I remembered that hideous girl with the warts and excess makeup. Was I evil in her eyes when I harshly rejected her? Was she feeling what I’m going through right now? How did she recover from it? For the first time, I wondered if there truly was someone that is a perfect match for me.

The next day, I looked out my window. Jackie was nowhere to be seen. Good, she didn’t find my address. As I drove my car to the train station, ready for work, I drove past the Hilton Hotel Jackie had said she was staying in. Feeling myself becoming numb, I decided to go another route when I realized she was nowhere in sight. Odd. She said that she loved to sit outdoors. Did she leave? I parked my car and went into the hotel. I asked the clerk if Jackie LeGree was checked in.

“She left last night. Pretty shaken up and sad. I kinda felt sorry for her, but she was hideous.” I sighed in relief, thankful that she had given up on me. I thanked the Lord that I had averted a disaster, then noticed that the clerk was staring back at me.

“Hey…” She said. “I’m getting off topic but, you want to, uh, hang out sometime?”

Her brunette hair was tied back into pigtails, and her sapphire blue eyes glimmered across her smooth face. She looked kinda cute.

“Uh… sure,” I said, feeling my luck change. “You want to meet at Rainbow Bar this afternoon?”

Great Compromise

The great Compromise of 1850 sparked the rebellion of slavery by the northerners. We live in the 21st century, where equality is wanted everywhere by everyone. We want equality on the basis of gender, race, age, and on personal information. In recent situations, females have been wanting to be treated equally by having the same salary for the same career as a male does. Also, people want to be treated fairly no matter if their income for the year is higher or lower than the benchmark. The abolishment of slavery led to these equal wantings. And when the compromise is the cause of the end of slavery, it leads us to the era in which every man or woman should be treated all the same.

As a kid, not all of us are into the whole subject of history or social studies. Whenever we think of this school subject, we think of boring textbooks and completing questions given to us by teachers. But little do we all know that events in history eventually led us to the present, where people are happier because changes have been made throughout history.

No one ever wants to repeat mistakes, but how will we know what not to repeat without actually learning the history that started it all? History may be referred to as a simple period in time when everybody did their jobs and didn’t have to worry about much. Such that, one may think about the late 20s to early 30s and think that nothing else was happening during that time except for flappers dancing and men in suits drinking and laughing. But in reality, times in history weren’t always just so simple. There was more drama and meaning in the 1850s. During the time period of the 1850s, this period led to the blood and gore of the Civil War in the 1860s that have plenty of bloody battles that were results throughout the great Compromise of 1850.  

So, what is truly the Great Compromise of 1850? The Great Compromise of 1850 was issued by Senator Henry Clay, who was nicknamed “The Compromiser” due to his efforts to keep peace between both sides so that no more states would secede and rebel. The compromise was built over the argument of slavery. It was issued to supposedly benefit both sides and make things right, but that wasn’t always the case. Things were unfair between the north and south within the issue of slavery. The north wanted to abolish the act of slavery while the south did not.

To the north, California was admitted to the Union as a free state, and the slave trade was to be banned in the capital. In the south, the people who lived in the territories of the new land gained by the Mexican-American War were to decide themselves whether to become a free or a slave state. This was called the act of popular sovereignty, in which people get to decide themselves on issues rather than elected representatives decide. Additionally, the other benefits to the north was that the debt on Texas was going to be paid and that there was a new and harsh law given to the north called the Fugitive Slave Act. This was the act in which any runaway slave fleeing to the north to escape slavery must be given back to the owner in the south only if a northerner saw a runaway slave.

The northerners hated this new law because they wanted to help some slaves  to escape slavery. Many northerners would even risk their lives to help and free slaves instead of turning them over to the rightful authorities. Many revolts and boycotts were also put in action to go against the fugitive slave law. The consequences to the Northerners if they did not help out were that they were fined and sometimes even summoned to jail or a death sentence. However, there was always a loophole to these kinds of situations that the people of the north had found out. This trip-up was that if a northerner had to report a slave, they could direct the police or the slave catchers in the opposite direction that the slave went. This would stall some time so the slave could be free and hopefully escape to Canada, where slavery was completely illegal.

The real question in this topic is, which side did the Great Compromise of 1850 truly benefit more, the north or the south? Many would say that the benefit was given to the north because the Compromise only added on positive actions, such as banning slave trade in the capital and the admission of California as a free state. Meanwhile, the benefits given to the south weren’t all positive. With the action of popular sovereignty, some land could be added and vote to be a free state instead of a slave state. However, this may not be the case.

I strongly believe that the benefit of the Compromise of 1850 was given to the south because the Fugitive Slave Act really boosted their benefits while it dragged the beliefs of many northerners down. The north was so affected with this new law considering that no benefit to the north has affected the south so much. This proves that the result of the compromise was an advantage to the south.

Thus I can conclude that the Compromise of 1850 was an agreement that was beneficial to both the people of the north and the south. It tied the silver lining from both sides of the nation closer together from what it was originally. The two different distinct social classes of owner and slave worker were now closer than ever, and there was a more fair and just group of males and females that could decide on their own whether to live in an area where slavery is in action or to live in a place where people deserve to be held to their right of freedom and their liberty. In future years, Illinois lawyer Abraham Lincoln had stated in his speech of the Dred Scott case in 1857 over the issue of the rights of slaves that according to the U.S. Constitution, every man or woman is a citizen and every citizen is entitled to their freedom and individual rights. With this statement, Lincoln had said, he eventually had the authority to end slavery in the 1860s and when the age of slavery had ended, it led to our present time of the 21st century where the issue of equality has been improved. In some ways, this issue has been improved now is that people of different race are allowed to be in the same school and use the same restrooms. So, this is how the Compromise of 1850 has led to the rebellion of slavery which led to the abolishment of slavery which led to the present where equality issues have been improved. And with the recent issues of equality, it just seems that these situations arose from the outcomes of the Great Compromise of 1850.

A Sky Full of Mediocrity

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea. — Douglas Adams; The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

***

They had originally started out as simple, single-celled protozoa, just like everybody else. All was well for a short while until, one day, one of the protozoa thought it would be pretty neat to turn cannibalistic and eat all the other protozoa. And so came the very first case of obesity in the history of mankind. Overtime, more of these obese protozoa developed, and as they continued to eat each other, they turned more and more into the shape of what was eventually deemed as “man”. Man came to create governments to help maintain stability in the chaotic realms of his world. He claimed that the duty of the government was to represent the general populace and to listen to whatever this populace had to offer.

Yet, for some reason, these duties were never reciprocated back from the populace itself, as they had chosen to ignore the incessant government warnings that, some day, the planet could actually reach its breaking point. They ignored government threats warning that if they drilled to the core of the Earth, they would most certainly find liquids along the way, but it most certainly would not be oil.  They had chosen to ignore the warning signs that Earth was deteriorating. All until it was too late to turn back.

By the time the people finally lifted their heads up from the computers and the unbelievably expensive power bill, it was far too late to turn back.

“Maybe we could just move somewhere else,” someone suggested. “I hear that we haven’t completely destroyed all of space yet.” (He was quite wrong, for that matter. But not that anybody knew.)

Since nobody else had the insight to come up with an alternative, it was decided that everyone would emigrate elsewhere in space. They wrote an appeal to their government, asking for permission to use some of the stored petroleum that the government had been keeping, just in case anything like this should come up. We want to go to another planet,” they wrote, “and find another place where we can charge our phones and get good cellular service.” They sent their letter off with high hopes.

The government took its time, as it always did, to answer. After three long months, a small note, printed on a sheet of fine plastic wrap (as trees, and subsequently paper, had long disappeared), arrived. The response was quite succinct:

No, but nice try.

Everybody was extremely taken back, as they had all the necessary equipment for the one-way flight and all they needed was government approval and some fuel. All they needed was a yes, or, at least, no response, so that they could just assume that the government was busy and didn’t have the time to deal with their trivial matter. Yet, clearly, the government had not thought of their plan as a trifle, and even had taken the time to write them a response, despite it being so terse and blunt.  It was quite clear that the government would take extreme measures to ensure that everyone would stay where they were.

Another letter was quickly written back, only this time slightly more assertive: “We seek your approval on letting us travel, as our phones are running out of battery and some of us really have to update our social media statuses. Quite honestly, we would just like to be anywhere but here.” They left the reasoning part out, added something that sounded slightly more professional, and sent it in, hoping that this time the government would be a little more lenient.

***

When one of the government staffers received the new letter, one of the first things he had to do was to quickly finish his sandwich so that he would have enough plastic wrap to write a response. The second thing he did was figure out how to formulate an answer that could concisely explain that nobody was not allowed to leave Earth, yet at the same time be convincing and satisfying enough so that he wouldn’t get another plea to leave and have to choke down another sandwich.

Hold on a second, he thought. Why can’t they leave?

If they leave, he thought, I’ll never get another one of these letters! No letter means no work!

The staffer was enthralled by the idea; he lumbered to the safe full of fuel and grabbed a canister to ship away. “Please do not feel the urge to write a thank you note,” he scratched on the bottle. “Your departure will be equally appreciated.”

***

Back home, everybody was elated to see a small package arrive. They hastily filled their rocket tank with fuel, and made some general calculations for how they were going to travel to their final destination (“Just point the rocket up. It doesn’t really matter where we land.”). Finally, the chance to devastate yet another planet had finally arrived!

The average amount of time required for a rocket to reach space is approximately eight minutes, but after fifteen minutes, it seemed that our heroes were nowhere close to space. They were starting to worry a little bit, but since there seemed to be nothing wrong with the machines or the control room, everybody just assumed that maybe they were going slower than usually recommended.

It is said that time goes by slower in space, as the planets’ orbiting around the sun and the galaxy result in approximately a one second loss per Earth week. The Earthlings most certainly felt this time loss, perhaps a little more than they were supposed to. It had already been half an hour, and there was still no sight of human-sized, parasitic-looking creatures, or extraterrestrial air crafts that shot out spectacular laser beams. The sky, or whatever it was that was surrounding them, was most certainly getting darker, but it wasn’t the kind of dark like when you forgot to turn on your night light at night. The air around them seemed to be much denser than before, and the color of the clouds around them was like the color of your phone screen the second after you shut it off, at that moment of transition from dying to dead. It was a very uncomfortable sight: just looking around made everybody cringe a little.

The eerie journey only worsened from there. It had been more than an hour since take off, and nobody was quite sure whether they were still trying to break through the atmosphere or if they were just in a very disappointing-looking part of space. The engine was starting to sputter sporadically, and people were beginning to wonder if there was something wrong with the shuttle, or even the fuel itself.

The hours of mental pandemonium turned into days. People began licking the oil off the plastic wrap letter from the government staffer, and chewing on their leather seats. By the end of the week, our advanced group of obese protozoa had been completely wiped out.

***

Meanwhile, back on the desolate wasteland, the government staffer who was obliviously eating another sandwich decided that it was time that he summon up some courage and ask someone about what was really up there, beyond Earth, when suddenly he saw a bright, shining object fall out of the sky. A sub? A gyro? Ooh- a calzone? No, that was too good to be true, but his inevitable sense of curiosity still drove him outside. He really hoped that there wasn’t rye bread: he had already had that for four days in a row, and it was starting to taste bland.

Fortunately, there wasn’t any rye bread. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any food either. Whatever it was, it was extremely worn out: the sides were dented so much that what appeared to be letters was completely illegible. The entire mechanism itself was crushed; just like the way the staffer himself crushed soda cans.  

The staffer was deeply immersed in the idea of getting a can of soda later when he suddenly heard a deep, bellowing voice. “What’s a damn spaceship doing out here?” It was the staffer’s boss.

A spaceship? The staffer mused, how would a spaceship get here? Wouldn’t it need fuel in order to…. Oh. Shoot.

(But he didn’t say shoot. He said something much worse.)

“Well, it most certainly can’t be our ship,” the staffer’s boss huffed. “We haven’t allowed anybody to leave the planet since, well, a long time!”

The staffer turned around to face the burly man that was his superior. Now was his chance to know the truth. “Why not, sir?” he asked nonchalantly.  

The staffer soon learned why not. After admitting his mistake, the staffer’s enraged boss sent him up on a spacecraft with another canister of petroleum. Six days later, another bright object came plummeting out of the sky. When it crashed, the shock created almost tangible waves, as the buildings nearby shook a little. This nearly scared the living daylights out of the new staffer who had been hired to replace the old one. He had clutched his sandwich in fear and buried it deep in his chest.

***

Years later, the mystery of the two unidentified objects that fell from the sky was resolved. Researchers had literally poured their blood, sweat, and tears into finding the answer to the phenomenon, but when the question was finally answered, nobody celebrated. The answer sent a simple but haunting message to the few earthlings that remained: nobody could ever leave the planet.

Apparently all the unattended trash particles and whatnot had come together and formed almost this sort of behemothic wall of plastic wrap and unpaid electric bills, which then, having no place to escape, began to cloak Earth’s upper atmosphere. Since nobody ever bothered to do anything about it, the wall had expanded exponentially in size over the years, until it was so thick that nothing could get in or out (since people had been relying on technology for the past few decades to live, sunlight and skin cancer hadn’t been much of a problem for a while). Therefore, the scientists reasoned, the two objects that fell out of the sky must have taken off from Earth, and when it crashed into the wall, the two aircrafts, having nowhere else to go, must have fallen back down to Earth, leading all of the passengers to their presumable deaths. Whatever actually happened to the bodies of the passengers still remains a mystery; the scientists had to go on their lunch break.

House Arrest

Fisher woke up to tentative and inconsistent guitar playing coming from his sister’s room. He stretched, yawned, and cringed at his morning breath and at Lane striking an incorrect note at the end of the song. No matter how many times she would practice each day, that single note was always just sharp enough for him to flinch. Even though he was the one who taught it to her in the first place, he desperately wanted to storm across the hallway and turn her guitar to splinters, just to make it stop. He knew it was futile, though, as he never was and would never be allowed in Lane’s room.

Disheartened, he got out of bed and stumbled towards the kitchen, still in his tattered Star Wars pajamas. Well, it wasn’t as if anyone would see them. He heard cabinets swing open and pots and pans clash together as they were removed, and knew that his mom must be trying to cook again. Smelling nothing that was edible however, Fisher knew he would simply have to fend for himself. Again. He ducked his eyes and his head as he hopelessly tried to avoid his mother and her swinging cabinets to make breakfast.

Making his way back down the hall, a layer of dust and burnt toast crumbs under his feet, he sighed heavily as he passed his parents’ bedroom door, where he could hear his dad watching the same basketball rerun. Fisher practically had it memorized. And that guy in the yellow shirt threw a ball to another guy in a yellow shirt, who threw it in the air. Apparently that deserves a round of applause. Still flailing his arms in a flamboyant impersonation of the commentator, he fell to the floor when his dad suddenly shouted with the television crowd. Still startled by his dad’s unnecessary reaction to something that happened a year ago, he brushed himself off and wiped mist from his eyes as he trudged back to his room.

Locked in his monochromatically furnished prison for the day, Fisher’s eyes watered and twitched as Lane tried her clumsy hand again at Avenged Sevenfold. He, once again, had nothing to do all day, as his phone and guitar were still in Nick Young’s room. After unsuccessfully attempting to take a nap and never wake up, just to pass the time, he screamed and took out his frustration on the wall, peppering it, along with the band posters plastered to it, with dents from his Dr. Martens. No one stopped by to tell him to stop, he remembered as he stormed over to retrieve them, even though he knew the noise could replace Brooks Wackerman. The thought made his hand send his shoes flying to the opposite wall, where very few framed family photos were shattered.

Why, why was this happening to him? He snuck out once, left them alone for one night, for one stupid party, and this was what he got. This was worse than being grounded for life.

At exactly ten o’clock at night, after long hours of sulking, pulling his dyed-black hair out, and generally being miserable, he opened his window, unaffected by the creaking noise it made. A year ago, he would be nervously looking over his shoulder, but he knew now that no one would catch him. With nowhere to run off to this time, he simply jumped outside and crouched against the side of the house, holding his breath in horror when he heard the window on the other side of the house opening. He clenched his eyes shut in an attempt to block out everything he knew was going to happen.

Meanwhile, an invisible intruder pushed the window open, making shallow depressions appear into the stained carpet as it stepped into the empty house. It didn’t cast a single shadow as it loomed over the king-sized bed that hadn’t been used in months. Two adjacent tears appeared in the moth-eaten sheets as if they were slashed with a knife, and crimson blood began to spread from the adult-shaped lumps in them. As Fisher’s parents’ faint breathing stopped, the sheet fluttered uselessly to the empty mattress. It moved on to the next room, where it killed the girl and the guitar, just out of spite, and the next, where it found an open window and no occupant.

Fisher shivered violently from the cold and his terror as he heard it crawl out of his window, still invisible, and jump towards his hiding place, escaping just before it hit the ground. He had been remembering the first day of his imprisonment- how scared he had been when he first found his family’s bodies, and how shocked he had been when the guitar, the cabinets, and the television worked on their own. He remembered how he had cowered inside that night and watched his house reenact their murders (complete with an invisible murderess, though he knew she was long gone) and how he had tried to run away, tried to change what happened, only to wake up back in the “safety” of his own bed. He remembered growing accustomed to his new daily routine as he was forced to relive the last day they were alive for months. He still couldn’t get used to his dad’s disembodied voice shouting as he watched the rerun that was live at the time, so early in the morning and so soon after his nightly death. His chattering teeth bit the inside of his cheek and he choked on the blood that ran down his throat. Despite this, he stayed outside until he knew it was safe, knowing he would only feel worse when he returned.

At eleven-fifty, he climbed back inside, noting that the house was dead silent. He kicked himself for the pun and sat slumped on the edge of his bed. At midnight, the house began to paranormally heal itself, removing any evidence of the previous day into a surreal memory. Lane’s splintered guitar fixed itself to be used horribly tomorrow, the dents in Fisher’s wall disappeared, to be replaced in several hours, and even the bruise that he had just given himself faded into his skin. Guiltily and with difficulty, Fisher went to sleep, thankful, at least, that he didn’t have to hear his dad’s snores.

Zom-Be Happy

           

Part 1:

We walked through the mist, the dead leaves crunching under our feet, through the neat rows of the graveyard. My little sister’s hand was in mine, but the air was so still and there was no wind, but there was a feeling of… something. As if a living, breathing thing, with a beating heart of love and hope does not belong. I shivered, though the air was warm. I quickened my pace, reaching the old rusty gate, and opened the door that led to my family and their dead bodies. Tears pricked my eyes, and I let go of the door, leaving it  open. I tried to take a step forward, but I fell to my knees, and my little sister sat next to me. My mind seemed to go against me, replaying the scene, the flames at the end of my bed catching onto my father’s coat as he ran with me in his arms; him falling, my mother trying to save my sisters, and the flames. I remember grabbing my grandmother’s hand as she lifted my youngest little sister from the crib, then handing her to me while she fell to her knees, her eyes closed, and her body fell against the crib, and she was gone. Like the rest of them.

I felt my little sister squeeze my hand and I looked at her little brown eyes, so clear and innocent, but afraid. I stood, my feet frozen, and she shoved her thumb into her mouth, reaching out to touch my mother’s grave. I walked with her as she looked at each headstone in complete fascination. I knelt down to her level and I spoke to her as clearly as I could. “Sophie, do not be afraid. Your family loved you, and I do too.” She grabbed one of my braids, and grabbed one of her own, as if seeing a connection in her four year old mind. I slowly pried her fingers off my braid and took her hand again while slowly getting back to my feet. At that moment, I felt a breeze around us. The wind quickened, and I felt a cold, hard hand land on my shoulder. I turned to see a skeletal face, and with my sister’s hand still in mine, I fell onto my knees, and we were dragged through the low mist. I lost sight of my sister, and her hand slipped out of mine, and my stomach dropped. I struggled against the strong, cold grip of my captors, but one of them raised their fist, and the world faded away.

The next time I woke up, it was dark and cold. I sat up and rubbed my forehead on the place where I was hit. There was a rather large bump, and at first I was afraid to stand, but the thought of Sophie, maybe crouching in a little corner, or crying and fighting against the creatures was too much. I got up and looked around. I seemed to be on some type of planet like the moon, with a gloomy white powdered landscape and deep craters, but with some dead bodies lying here and there. I squinted my eyes and saw a tiny hut in the distance, and I started running toward it… I was desperate, hoping to escape. Then I smacked right into a wall. I was so dumb. How could I have thought that I would be thrown into the middle of a plain? It was just a mural. A really realistic one though. I fell to the floor, then quickly got back up, trying to find a way to get out. I looked around me another time, and my eyes spotted a small window. I ran towards it and reached up. It was just too high for me to get to. I slammed into the wall from the momentum of my speed, and I got yet another bruise on my arm. I felt panic in my throat as I ran faster and faster. I jumped, grabbing one of the bars that kept me from freedom. With much difficulty, I pulled myself on the ledge and collapsed.

I was breathing with difficulty as I pondered my ways of escape. If only I could… just… find a way… to… escape. My thoughts were getting mixed up, and my vision was getting foggy. Was it my imagination, or did the room get smaller? Was it my imagination, or did I hear… footsteps, the swish of fabric? I pulled on the bars, my panic rising once more. I jumped from the windowsill, forgetting how high I was. I landed on my feet, and my knees gave up under me. I fell to the floor, and a sharp pain shot through my legs. A door opened, and I heard someone come in. I squinted my eyelids, just enough to see, and just enough to appear dead. The creatures. They were back. I looked at a hole in the wall. An open door. A large, rotting creature walked toward me, so I shut my eyes. I felt myself being lifted, high above the air. I was ready to be put down, and I was ready to run through the open door. But my plan was completely off. I was thrown against the wall, and I opened my eyes just long enough to see the monsters drag their dirty nails across the surface of the wall, leaving a mark behind. Red, like blood. And all was gone. I had blacked out. Again.

I woke up, and this time, I had another feeling. I walked to the wall, not sure what was controlling me. Strangely, I felt rested and calm, and I wasn’t very surprised when I walked right through the wall and onto the lunar landscape. I made my way toward the hut, but as I was about to open the door, I heard the sound of heavy footsteps make their way toward me. I already knew that sound, and it filled me with dread. Pairs of hard, bony hands grabbed my arms, and I struggled around, trying to loosen their grip. But I didn’t need to. Someone was stopping them. A familiar, but masked voice was yelling my name. The zombies dropped me to the ground, and a cloud of moon dust blocked me from seeing anything. I felt vulnerable and defenseless without my vision, but something about that voice kept me still until the dust cleared. What I saw astonished me. A rotting body was walking towards me, but the closer it got, the more I recognized it. Grandma.

Lucky

“Hey, what the hell, Connor!?”

“Alex, I didn’t mean to. It was an accident,” I plead hopelessly.

“Come on, Connor. Why did you pull the stupid home goalie!” he yells back.

“Alex, it’s just a game!” I respond, probably a bit too loud.

“Shut up, you two!” My dad yells from upstairs. Then we stop. After all, it was just a stupid X-Box game, and no one wanted to be yelled at by Dad, especially over NHL ‘14. I turn off the console and ask if Alex wants to throw a football.  

***

It is September 17th 2015, the day before my birthday. I am almost twelve, living with my eight-year-old brother and our parents. I like school, but I hate the work. I go to Yorktown Middle School, or YMS for short. Seventh grade at YMS is like being in hell. My social studies teacher is crazy and my Spanish teacher makes us sing songs with a bird called Pepito. So, there’s already a lot to overcome this year, but I feel I will need to overcome worse things.

Baseball season is ending, and skiing is beginning. December is around the corner, and in December a lot of things happen: Chanukah, skiing and vacation to Mexico! Holiday break is tomorrow, and during 8th period Ms. Filner (my social studies teacher) gives the class a homefun packet. Homefun is homework, except better (apparently). Personally, the name doesn’t make a difference –– I HATE IT!!! I hate homework in general, and it makes me feel sick inside knowing that I have to go home and actually continue school for another hour and a half… Even if it’s homefun.  

***

My first day skiing, ahh! Finally I am able to hit the slopes of Mt. Mohawk once again. I go up on the lift and start on a blue square. My brother and dad start on a green circle right next to it.  

“Now, you be careful,” my dad says. Then I’m off! I go racing down the slopes at 40 miles per hour when I see a ski shack getting closer and closer.

WHAM!!!  THUD!!! My skis go flying and I wipe out, unconscious of what is going to happen to me next.

***

“Connor, Connor, CONNOR!!!” someone whom I don’t know yells.

“Who are you? And who is Connor?” I ask.

“Stop playing games with us,” another mysterious person states.

“I’m not playing games, who are you!” I yell.

A third voice joins, a doctor this time, “Your name is Connor Allison, you are thirteen years old, you like to play baseball, and your parents tell me you have a ––”

“A thirst for knowledge! That’s the only thing I can remember about me.”

The voice that yelled “my name” earlier first says, “I am Bonnie, your mom, and the man standing right next to me is John, your dad.”

“I’m guessing this is my little brother right here,” I say, touching the boy’s head next to me.

“Yes, his name is Alex,” ‘my dad’ states.

“Doctor, what has happened to our boy?” ‘my mom’ asks.

The doctor says, “He has amnesia, but he can recover from it.”

***

We, as a family reunited (I memorized everyone’s name), walk out of the hospital. We are walking down 5th Street to get to our car when a boy that had walked by us dropped his books all over the pavement. I stood there for a second, analyzing the situation, and when I was sure I hadn’t known the boy before my accident I went to go help him pick up his books. After we had picked up all of his books he introduced himself.

“Hi, I am Aidan, what is your name?”

“My name is Connor, but I don’t remember anything.”

“Oh yeah, you’re the kid on the news with amnesia!”

I turn around then said, “Wait, Mom, it’s on the news?”

“Umm… yes, it is on the news,” she says.

“Why did you hide that from me?” I ask.

“We thought it would anger you, buddy. We’re sorry,” my dad interjects.

***

One hour later, when we get home, I walk in the house and see two tiny furry monsters at our doorstep.  

“AHHH!!!” I yell.

My dad comes in, “Connor, what is it?”

“These two furry monsters!” I cry.

My mom says that they are just kittens and won’t hurt anyone. So, I agree, feeling a little suspicious, as I walk out of the kitchen to my room… whichever one that is. It takes me three tries but I find it. I climb into bed, but don’t go to sleep; I think about what will happen to me, and how I will get all of my knowledge back. Then, once I figure out the answer, I go to sleep.  

***

“Connor, wake up!” My mom says.

I get up and look at all of the books strewn across my floor. My textbooks and my pleasure reading. I might have sleep read, if there is such thing. After eating breakfast, I get on the bus heading to school. At the high school stop, I get out of the bus. My bus driver, Nancy, asks where I was going and I say to school. She tells me this is the high school and I walk back on the bus.  

At the middle school stop, I get off of the bus and I see Aidan. I go over to him and say, “Hi.”  

“Hey, what’s up! How is your head?”

“Getting better,” I say, “How are things around here?”

“Okay… you know it is school, though.”

***

I have Spanish first period, and when I walk in, Seniora Peterson says,”Hola clase, tu tienes un examen hoy.”

I go up to her and say, “Seniora ––”

“Tu necesitas sentarme ahora. Tu tienes un examen.”

So I sit down and study the test. I have forgotten everything! This unit test is a total of 100 points! I am so screwed. It is all writing, so I cannot guess.

***

The same thing happened during eighth period. I forgot everything and got a perfect 0.0!!

Anyway, at the end of the day, when you walk to the buses you have to walk across the street. Aidan and I were walking together when, HONK HONK!!! WHAM! UGHH! CRRRUNCH!! AHHH!

Then silence.

***

I am dressed in all black for an occasion: the departure of my new friend Aidan. He pushed me out of the way of a car, and sacrificed his life for mine.  

On the bright side, my grades have improved and I have gotten my memory back. It turns out that you don’t need a lucky charm to have a good life.

 

  

 

The Box Sat Unopened on the Table

Johnathon Mathew was not an unusual man. He worked every day from nine o’clock in to morning to five o’clock in the evening for five days a week. He was a little soft around the stomach and loved to read mystery novels. That’s all there is to know about him, really.

Johnathon lived alone. Of course, he didn’t feel like he was alone. Every morning the birds were singing just for him, it seemed. Every evening he would make himself a lovely meal. Yes, Johnathon lived alone. But some might say he was the happiest a man could be.

One gray Saturday evening, just after Johnathon had finished his dinner, there was a ringing at the door of his small, peach colored home. “Visitors!” Johnathon thought excitedly (he didn’t have too many visitors these days). He wiped his mouth, got out of his chair, and scurried to the front door. Instead of a visitor, Johnathon found a box lying on his very clean poch. It was around the size of his head, with blue and yellow string sitting in a bow on top. “How odd…” He thought out loud. Johnathon had not ordered a package. “A mystery! I love mysteries!” Johnathon was very excited now. He grabbed the box and rushed inside, heaving the cumbersome package onto the spotless table. Johnathon thought it would be fun to leave it until tomorrow morning, just like Christmas when he was a boy. What Johnathon hadn’t noticed was the label on the package. It read: “For whomever it sees fit.”

The next morning Johnathon woke up in a delightful mood. He jumped out of bed and rushed to the dining table as though he was a child on Christmas morning. Johnathon pulled out a pair of scissors and cut all the string. Then he opened the lid. Empty. It was an empty box. “How could an empty box be so heavy?” Johnathon wondered. He picked up the box again, and it was light as a feather. ”AH HA! Another layer to an already thrilling mystery!” he said out loud to absolutely no one. “I will solve it. But first, breakfast!” Johnathon made himself a cup of coffee and scrambled two eggs. As he was sitting down, he heard the tea kettle start to whistle. There was no tea kettle in his house.

Johnathon grabbed a kitchen knife. He wasn’t excited anymore. “Wh—who’s there? If you don’t show yourself I’ll call the police!” Johnathon slowly walked forward towards his bedroom. He gripped the knife so tightly his knuckles turned white. He heard himself chuckle. A sweat bead ran down Johnathon’s forehead. The chuckle turned into a laugh. Johnathon’s lips weren’t moving. In fact there were pursed. And that’s when he knew what was in the house.

He ran outside, down the street and into the police station. “Excuse me, sir,” he panted, “someone has broken into my house.”

“How do you know?” The officer inquired.

“Well, I don’t have a tea kettle but I heard a tea kettle going off,” Johnathon explained. “Please sir, I need your help.”

“Go home,” the police officer said in a voice that sounded extremely similar to Johnathon’s. “I’m waiting for you.”

Johnathon screamed at the top of his lungs and ran as fast as his legs could carry him down the street in the opposite direction of his small, peach-colored house. But no matter how far Johnathon ran, he landed right back at his front door. He felt his head start to spin. “What is happening to me?” he sobbed. He flung open the door, only to find the person he’d least expect to meet face to face: Himself.

No one ever saw either of the two Johnathon Matthews again; and no one ever questioned his absence. Not for a year. And when the police finally checked his house in search of him, all that they found was one box. The box sat unopened on the table.

 

Lost

          

Don’t know where to go
I’m lost, but not found
No solid ground, just walking around
Will I ever find a purpose?
I’m lost, but not found
I need help, but no one’s around
Will I ever find a purpose?
A piece of me is gone, severing my true soul
I need help, but no one’s around
I need to find a path, a road, something!
A piece of me is gone, severing the soul that is truly me
It’s like I’m a stranger to myself
I need to find a path, a road, something!
The future that awaits me is a blank slate
It’s like I’m a stranger to myself
I know nothing about me, and I don’t remember my past
The future that awaits me is a blank slate
I have no value
I know nothing about me, and I don’t remember my past
I’m just a wandering vessel in space with no sense of direction
I have no value
Don’t know where to go
I’m just a wondering vessel in space with no sense of direction
No solid ground, just walking around

The Raven in the Window

Outside the rain is pouring, each drop splattering as it hits the ground. Inside, an old man sits on a cushioned pew, his frail back bent forwards and his hands cupped to his face. Completely alone in the cavernous church, he is undisturbed. Rows of empty, dust-covered pews line the church behind him, in front of him stands only the altar. Besides slight creeks in the floorboards, the church remains silent, a place of tranquility in an ever-changing, fast-paced world. The old man stands and walks towards the side of the church. With each measured step, his weary legs bring him closer to a beautiful stained glass window. It is a picture of a woman standing in a field full of color, next to a tree. A streetlight outside casts rays of light through the panes of glass revealing the artistic wonders within the window. All of the colors instantly become brighter and the translucent picture is illuminated. Looking up at the tree branches, the old man is entranced by the vibrant hues. Filled to the brink with colorful birds, the branches are quite a sight to see. As he marvels in their elegance, the old man’s eyes flitter between each bird’s vivid set of feathers. Alone on another branch sits a raven, its jet black beak and wings stand out, anomalies among the rows of birds. The old man immediately recognizes this symbol of misfortune. It is a bad omen. Just then, the doors at the back of the church fly open. A man walks in looking disheveled, his collared shirt ripped and untucked, his pants bedraggled. Lifting a gun, the intruder points it at the old man’s head.

“You, you did this!” he shouts, pulling the trigger. The bullet pierces through the old man’s forehead, lodging in his skull. As his knees buckle, his legs give way, and his lifeless body falls to the floor. Outside, the rain continues to pour. Inside, the man’s blood spreads slowly across the floor.

Nuclear Fusion: Persuasive Document

Nuclear fusion is one of the best and most promising forms of sustainable energy. It offers enormous amounts of power and produces no greenhouse gases. It does not use radioactive materials like uranium, which nuclear fission uses. Instead it uses hydrogen, the most abundant and simple atom in the universe, so it has a potentially unlimited supply. There is no danger like there is in nuclear fission. In the worst case scenario the atoms would just revert to their stable and safe form. Over 30 countries have started to compete for this energy source and have created multi-country consortiums. These consortiums have built machines to try to create this form of energy, and eventually, with enough funding and resources, someone will succeed. Someone will harness the power that drives our stars.

Currently, our main sources of energy are fossil fuels, which are nonrenewable and harmful. Mining for these fossil fuels damages the environment and using them does too. They produce smoke and carbon dioxide, which go into the atmosphere, swell the oceans and pollute the sky. This exposes humans to harmful ultraviolet rays, and raises the level of acidity in several oceans. This source of energy generates about 85% of the world’s electricity. Clearly the world needs a new source of energy. Nuclear fusion is our best bet.

Nuclear fusion produces energy by combining atoms. When two small atoms come together in the right conditions and the right time, they will fuse, creating a larger one. In this process, the atoms lose mass, which then turns into energy. How does this happen? Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2 explains that energy is really mass multiplied by the speed of light squared. So when atoms lose that mass, they are actually releasing energy. Now the speed of light is a very big number— 299 792 458 m/s to be exact. The speed of light squared is even larger. So even though the atoms are losing just a tiny bit of mass, they are actually giving up a great amount of energy. The most tremendous amount of fusion in our solar system is our sun, where quadrillions of hydrogen atoms combine to make quadrillions of helium atoms. The total mass of four hydrogen atoms is a little more than a helium atom, so when the sun combines atoms, they release mass in the form of energy.

Scientists have been working for years on how to collide atoms and have developed some very good ways of doing so. There exist many different ways to achieve fusion, but the most successful reactors either use inertial confinement fusion or magnetic confinement fusion, both of which are discussed next.

Inertial confinement fusion uses a hohlraum, a type of cylindrical pod, to contain two simple hydrogen isotopes, deuterium and tritium. To force these atoms to join, they have to heat them to a very high temperature, 200 million kelvins to be precise. In order to heat the atoms, scientists have also developed many sophisticated ways, two of which will be described in the passages below.

In California at the National Ignition Facility, NIF, scientists heat the atoms by pointing high energy beams of laser light at the hohlraum, which then explodes, sending shock waves through the atoms and making them combine. A different kind of inertial confinement is a Z pinch. The largest machine that uses this type of fusion is the Z-machine. It passes electricity through incredibly thin strands of wire and turn them into plasma. To do this, 26 million amps have to pass through them, each one about the diameter of 1/10 of a human hair. These wires get destroyed and turned into plasma. Even though the wires are destroyed, for a fraction of a second the magnetic field created by them remains. The ions in the plasma are affected by the magnetic field and they are all propelled towards it. During this process some of the ions stop, but since they were going so fast with so much energy they produce X-rays. These X-rays shoot in all directions and some hit a hohlraum containing the isotopes deuterium and tritium. The hohlraum containing these atoms is destroyed but the X-rays keep on advancing. They quickly meet the two isotopes and force them closer and closer. The force that repels these isotopes is called the electrostatic force but when they become close enough, another force takes over. This one is called the strong nuclear force. When the atoms come within two femtometers, the strong nuclear force takes over and brings the atoms together, which releases energy in the process. These methods for inertial confinement fusion have been successful in creating energy, but still prove incapable of using it. The miniature suns created by these high heats are just like the ones in space, giving enough light to see a new and powerful world, in this case the world of fusion.

The second method, magnetic confinement fusion, uses magnetic fields to suspend the plasma in the air, and then raise the temperature. This energizes the atoms in the plasma, and they move around so much that they collide. Two types of reactors are usually used for this method of fusion, the tokamak and the stellarator. The high heats required to energize the atoms are a vital part of the fusion process. However, since no known material can withstand a heat of 100 million Celsius, building reactors for fusion on earth requires a different approach. Luckily, someone had the smart idea to use magnetism. The World Nuclear Association (WNA) says, “The most effective magnetic configuration is toroidal, shaped like a doughnut, in which the magnetic field is curved around to form a closed loop.” This is because the magnetic field has to be infinite, allowing the atoms time to bond, which requires a closed circular magnetic field. Both the tokamak and the stellarator use a closed loop to suspend the near thermonuclear plasmas. All these reactors have contributed greatly to fusion research, and will probably contribute even more in the future.

The name tokamak is Russian for “toroidal chamber with magnetic coils’.’ The toroidal chamber is enclosed by several superconducting magnets that loop around sections of the reactor. The enormous magnets have to be generated both inside and outside to allow stable operation, but even so currents of moving particles move in different directions, destabilising the plasma. These are relatively easy to build on the scale of reactors, but the disadvantages are that the magnetic field is stronger on the inside, pushing positively charged particles upward and negative ones downward, so that there is an unstable flow in the plasma. All this is happening in the heart of the tokamak, a vacuum chamber. The stellarator, however, solves this problem. It uses an asymmetric magnetic field to ensure every plasma particle feels the same force. Supercomputer simulations show that this will allow for a continuous and stable operation. These reactors overlap in certain aspects and differ in others, but in the end they are all trying to achieve fusion.

Following the discovery of nuclear fusion, different countries joined together to combine their power and form scientific research organizations. Together these consortiums built machines they could not make on their own. These reactors include ITER, DEMO, Wendelstein 7-X and more. Each will be described in detail and explained next.

ITER originally stood for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, but later the project leaders decided that the words thermonuclear, experimental and reactor linked in one sentence might scare the public. Fortunately, ITER also meant “the way” in Latin. Therefore ITER is the way to nuclear fusion. ITER is a tokamak, the biggest in the world. It has a toroidal shape and inside it is a vacuum. Inside the vacuum, under the influence of extreme heat and pressure, gassy hydrogen becomes a plasma. When the atoms join, they release energy which comes out partly as heat. This heat is then absorbed into ITER’s walls and transformed into steam. This steam is used to turn a turbine and produce electricity. As shown, the complex steps to capture the energy are challenging, but all of them are necessary.  

ITER is an enormous machine with several parts that allow it to function. To keep the plasma in place ITER uses superconducting magnets, but the only way these magnets will function is if they are cooled to a temperature of -269℃. Two main questions can be asked here, why do the magnets need to be kept at such a low temperature, and how do ITER’s scientists achieve this? To answer the first question is simple. At regular temperatures the magnets are normal, meaning they are not superconducting. Why does the temperature affect the magnet? All magnets are made up of atoms. At normal temperatures, the atoms move between the poles at random, and align to produce magnetism. At a lower temperature, the atoms move less randomly and much slower. This creates a more controlled alignment of the atoms that produce magnetism, and therefore a stronger magnetic field. Now that it is understood why the magnets need to be kept cold, how does ITER do it? They simply keep them in a vacuum chamber called the cryostat. The cryostat is an enormous vacuum chamber that houses the magnets. Thirty meters wide and nearly as many in height, the chamber is enormous. It is perfectly designed, with everything from bellows for thermal contraction to auxiliary heating, and is one of the marvels of the scientific world.

Even though the magnets do a very good job of controlling the plasma, high energy neutrons still escape. Fortunately, ITER uses this to its advantage. ITER captures them by surrounding the walls of the tokamak with a blanket of lithium about one meter thick. This blanket is made up of about 440 smaller pieces, each heavier than a car. The high energy neutrons that escape the fusion reaction are caught there, and collected by a water coolant. Without this ITER would not get any energy, so this is an essential piece of the tokamak.

Now for the last main part of the ITER tokamak- the divertor. ITER says that the main use of this component, located at the bottom of the cryostat, is to “[extract] heat and ash produced by the fusion reaction, [minimize] plasma contamination, and [protect] the surrounding walls from thermal and neutronic loads.” Basically the divertor pulls the bad stuff out of the plasma, meaning the things that might lower the temperature, speed or density, and it also protects the walls from harm. These are the main parts of the tokamak, and together they make ITER.

DEMO is another monster of a machine. While ITER and the Z-machine have not yet been able to create a reliable energy source, DEMO is intended to bring us one step closer to nuclear fusion as a commercially viable source of energy. It plans to walk in the footsteps of ITER, and use ITER’s discoveries for a more reliable power source. DEMO will be the first commercial fusion power plant, and will use ITER’s technology to make a demonstration power plant that can supply the world with the energy it needs. DEMO will hopefully  produce 2-4 gigawatts of electricity, which is more than 7,000 times an average American uses per year. It will produce about 25 times the amount of energy put in, and have the shape of a tokamak.

Another kind of reactor is called the stellarator. These complex machines have a curving magnetic field, which allows all plasma particles to feel the same force. So far the biggest stellarator is Wendelstein 7-X, built in Germany and finished in the fall of 2015. Its curved magnetic field also allows for a stable flow in the plasma, which can then run for up to 30 minutes straight. New Scientist magazine says that when comparing the two reactors “ [You’re] balancing the physics advantages of the stellarator over the engineering advantages of the tokamak.” Stellarators have been called the “black horse” in the physics community because of the notoriously difficult process to build them. Stellarators and tokamaks are all very good when it comes down to the scientific reasons behind fusion, but the opinion of the public is a different matter.

Like every energy source, nuclear fusion has its advantages and disadvantages. As said before, the advantages of nuclear fusion are numerous. No greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming, so no smoke or carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It has virtually limitless fuel because deuterium can be found in every 6420 atoms of sea water, the reactor only needs a few, and tritium can be bred in the reactor by energizing the neutrons in lithium-6, which occurs naturally. Another advantage is that there is perfect safety. It is much easier to control than nuclear fission. Also it is very easy to stop. The last, and perhaps greatest advantage, is the amount of energy produced. With just 40 litres of seawater and 5 grams of lithium the same amount of energy can be produced as 40 tons of coal. On the other hand no one has yet actually produced energy with nuclear fusion and it is still a theoretical source of energy. There is also a matter of cost. The expensive machinery in a reactor costs billions of dollars, and research is also costly. Why spend all this money on an unproven energy source when the world could spend it on renewables like solar or wind instead? As shown, there are many controversial opinions, some based in fact and others not. However, if someone could achieve an energy source using nuclear fusion, the entire world would benefit.

How could nuclear fusion affect the world? The enormous idea and concept of nuclear fusion can change the world in ways both large and small. The price of energy would go down tremendously, and electricity and fuel would be commonplace. The ozone layer, damaged by fossil fuels, would stop deteriorating and the sea levels and fish inside them will once again be safe. More ambitious technological and scientific experiments will not only take place but they will succeed, and extensive space travel could be conducted. The growing population of the world will meet its energy demands, and developing countries can advance to a better place more quickly. The extensive amount of energy could be used to build more buildings and houses, transportation would produce no smoke, and electricity bills would drop tenfold. Our planet would be sufficient and clean, sustainable and plentiful, for a golden age of prosperity will have fallen over the world.

Nuclear fusion is one of the best sources of energy for the world. All on its own, nuclear fusion can save our planet from climate change, and help us live in a world where cheap and reliable energy is found everyday, everywhere. I personally believe that this energy source is the doorstep to a new world, a world so exquisite and perfect that we have only just begun to comprehend it.

Beautiful Spirit

            

Chapter 1

3/18/16

As a 14 year old girl growing up on the sunny streets of California, Kylie’s main objective is to be recognized by her friends, classmates and most importantly her family. Her piercing blue eyes and raven colored hair make her different, but her shy personality is what holds her back. Kylie’s family is a group of characters, they are all outgoing and whimsical. At the age of six Kylie’s parents got divorced. Kylie lives with her mom, Catherine, in LA during the school year and with her older brother, Nathan who is sixteen years old, and younger sister, Charlotte, who is eleven. She only visits her dad, his new fiancé and their two identical twin daughters, Rayna and Sophie, during the summer time.

Writing my short story in my school journel felt so surreal. My life, I thought to myself.

As I am putting my pencils back into my backpack I hear Mr. Burke say, “The short stories I have assigned are due after spring break.” As everyone sighed he shouted out, “have a nice break, I will see you back in two weeks!”

Walking out of my class I could see in the corner of my eye my best friend, Amanda. Amanda and I have known each other since we were babies and have been best friends ever since. I see her talking to a teacher, and then stomping away towards me. As she is walking towards me I can see her face getting red with anger. I couldn’t help but laugh “What’s the matter?” I asked.

“Mr. Abel told me that he won’t raise my grade because he doesn’t believe in rounding a eighty-nine point five to a ninety,” she said angrily.

As we were walking to our bikes, we started talking about spring break. She told me she was going to Mexico with her dad and brother. Her mother died in a car accident when she was ten. For a whole year she would never talk to me about it. I found out after my mom told me. I could never imagine losing my mom, my mom is my everything.

I then told her about my dad’s wedding on the beautiful coast of Hawaii, which was what I was going to be doing for my spring break. Everytime I think of the wedding I get a rushing feeling of confusion. Of course, I want my mom and dad to get back together, but my dad is happy with Laurie. Laurie is going to be my stepmom, and I am going to be Laurie’s stepdaughter. I feel that the wedding is going to make it official that my parents are not getting back together. I have always had this lingering hope that my parents will get back together but it hasn’t happened yet. I know they belong with each other and I have twelve days to to make it happen.

Chapter 2

3/19/16

Kylie’s feeling about her parents marriage continued to overwhelm her. She partially blames herself for the divorce and constantly thinks about what she could have done better as a child. Maybe she could have become a better listener and followed instructions, but as a six year old how could she have known better? Yesterday Kylie walked in on her mom talking to her friend, saying, “How can Matthew find love and I can’t?”

Twenty minutes after working on Mr. Burke’s story assignment in the library, I arrive home to my small, but cozy, yellow house. It fits all four of us, and luckily I do not have to share a room with my annoying younger sister, Charlotte.

Entering into the house I could smell the aroma of burning chicken lingering through the house, and in that moment I realized that my mother was trying to cook, which she cannot. My mom has been trying out new things: yoga, juice cleanse, coloring books, but she never commits to anything and hopefully she doesn’t commit to cooking.

“Hi mom,” I said.

“Hi sweetie! Do me a favor and call you brother and sister down. Dinner’s ready” she said. While I was walking up the stairs, I could hear my brother playing his video games, and my sister playing with her Barbies. I called them downstairs. Once everyone arrived at the dinner table my mom placed the burnt chicken right in front of us. As we ate the disgusting chicken, my mom told us that we were leaving tomorrow for Hawaii at 6 a.m., so pack your bags. I began to feel so nervous about the wedding, lots of things kept going through my mind.

After dinner, I went to my room to pack, but I could not focus because of my brother’s obnoxious video-game music. I told him to keep it down, but because he has no manners what-so-ever, he just turned the music up.

Chapter 3

3/20/16

Kylie’s mom always puts a brave face on when she’s around her three children. Kylie could never suspect she was unhappy. When she did find out, she beat herself up for not knowing. Kylie’s mom did everything for her, unlike her father who had another family in San Diego. Kylie felt that her father was somewhat to blame for her mom’s unhappiness.

“Kylie, Kylie,” Nathan shouted in my ear.

“What do you want Nathan! Can’t you see that I am busy writing!” I replied.

“Jeez! I can but I was wondering if you could pass me the water? I can’t get up because we’re in flight,” he replied.

“Yeah sure. I am sorry. I was just deep in thought,” I said.

“Who would have thought that your name means beautiful spirit and this is your personality. So sassy,” he said in a joking manner. For that comment I punched him in the arm. I feel that my name is a very important part of me because it makes me, ‘me.’ I thought to myself,  how am I going to survive sixteen hours with this imbecile?

I woke up mid-flight to my brother laying, snoring and drooling on my shoulder. Since, my brother was in the middle seat, I pushed him onto the stranger next to him, who was also sleeping. I figured that the stranger and my brother could have a surprise to wake up to.

Getting up to use the restroom, I noticed someone who looked exactly like my father. Then I realized it was my father, with his fiancee and the twins. I walked towards my father. I  wondered why he was on this plane. He was supposed to leave yesterday. “Hi dad, why are you on this plane? I thought you left yesterday?” I said in a quiet manner.

“I was supposed to, but it was too cloudy, so everyone who is a part of the wedding bought tickets for this plane. You should get back to your seat. The seat belt sign is on,” he replied. As I walked back to my seat I saw my brother waking up. I could tell that he was surprised that he was leaning on a stranger’s shoulder.

“Did I sleep on this stranger’s shoulder the whole time?” he asked.

“No, you were leaning on my shoulder, so I pushed you onto him. I don’t want your drool on my shoulder,” I said, as I smiled.

“You have gotta be kidding me! Why would you do that! You’re such an annoying little brat!” he yelled.

“Because I don’t like you,” I said while laughing.

“I can’t-” he said. He wasn’t able to finish his sentence because in that moment the plane began to fall out of the sky.

Chapter 4

3/21/16

Kylie and her siblings never got along, they always pranked each other or made trouble and would blame it on one another. She thought she would never miss them until they were gone.

“You need to get up and stop writing in that little journal the plane just crashed!” yelled the flight attendant.

“It calms me,” I replied.

“It doesn’t matter! You need to exit the plane on the slides,” she said in a rushed manner.

“What about my family? I need to find them,” I replied while trying to choke down tears.

“I’ll help you find them later but right now I need to get you off this plane!” she said pulling me by the sleeve towards an exit. I grabbed my backpack and went down the emergency slide. Once I hit the water, I could feel the cold, dark blue engulf my body. A small shiver went down my spine. As I looked around I could see that there were a lot of people in the water wounded and grieving over the ones they have lost. I could tell they were just as confused and scared as I was. I tried to swim to find any member of my family but I couldn’t. The waves began to grow after each minute. I swam as fast and as hard as I could but there was no sign of them. They couldn’t be dead, could they?

I still had the smallest shred of hope that they were still alive, so I kept swimming. Then I felt something touch my foot. I yelped in fear, thinking it was a shark, but of course it was my brother. A wave of relief and rage came over me. “Don’t ever scare me like that! Where’s mom and Charlotte,” I asked hopeful.

“Mom’s over there” he replied.

“Where’s Charlotte?” I asked while my voice shook.

“We don’t know. She isn’t the best swimmer,” he said trying to hold back tears. I immediately dove under water. I swam and swam trying to see her. Praying that she wasn’t dead. Until I saw blonde hair slowly sinking. I swam as fast as I could to her. Thinking it was Charlotte, I grabbed her and brought her to the surface. The lifeboat was a couple feet away from me. I tried to swim with another person’s body weight on top of me.

Once I finally reached the lifeboat, I screamed for help. “Someone help me! My baby sister isn’t breathing!” I screamed as her lifeless face looked back at me. People came rushing towards us. A bulky man started to performed CPR. Charlotte began to breathe again.

My mom swam over with tears in her eyes as she climbed onto the lifeboat. “Thank you, thank you.” she repeated gratefully to the man that saved my sister. She then jumped up to give him a hug.  

“It’s no problem. She’s breathing but she is not waking up. I believe she is in a coma,” he said.

My heart dropped when he said this.

A Study of Feral Children

Imagine… the wolves howl in the night. Far away, a child howls with them. Eyes flashing, she leaps over a broken branch and runs up to a she-wolf. Her eyes meet the wolf’s, and a smile softens her fierce countenance. Now…. A child, eyes dull and unseeing, stares blankly out the window. The wolves howl again. With a shriek of agony, she falls to the floor. She howls, hoping they can hear her. There is no getting around it. The fact is, feral children should be removed from their habitat, but only if their current physical or mental condition would be improved by human contact. And the brutal reality? It doesn’t happen.

Feral children are often repeatedly abused, either intentionally or unintentionally, once returning into humankind. Marina Chapman was a feral child who lived with monkeys for several years, and then was supposedly “rescued” by hunters who actually sold her. Luckily, she managed to get connections to people who helped her gain a normal lifestyle. She became a nanny and later married and had children. But what if she hadn’t gained those essential connections? Marina Chapman could have been doomed to live a fate as a slave. The truth was, not all feral children had her luck.

The Dog Boy of Chile, called Alex, was also captured to try and rehabilitate him. During a truly and gruesomely epic chase, he attempted to jump in the water. Although he was fully aware that he was human and even knew some Spanish, he missed his dog friends intensely and suffered from severe depression. Perhaps he would have been more satisfied living with the dogs that he grew to love as a family, after he was fed and cleaned up, of course.

A trait that was shown distinctly in the Dog Boy of Chile was that he was evidently happier in his feral condition. This is another opinion that should be considered before trying to “help” a feral child, possibly in the completely wrong way. The cruelty of wrenching any child from any family that cares well for them, even if they are animals, can lead to depression, as in the case of the Dog Boy of Chile. If the child is already miserable in the company of humans, why continue to force them to integrate into society?

Baby Hospital was another feral child. She was named by an Italian missionary, a name which already shows the lack of care given to her. Who would name a girl Baby Hospital? The very name indicates cruelty, as well as lack of care for her future with an identity influenced by the ridiculous label that would follow her forever. Baby Hospital, name or not, spent much of her time crying and never really adjusted to life in a normal society.

Her story is similar to Saturday Mthiyane, who was also raised by monkeys and was still “more monkey than man” at age 17, twelve years after being rescued. His only given improvements were that he now wore clothes and took baths. Baby Hospital’s plight clearly mirrors the many other children who were rudely separated from animals they loved as a family.

There is a clear difference between a child who has a great chance of recovery from the wild, or already lives a too horrific life, and someone who is safe and happy living a solitary life as a feral child. People often, in fact, argue that there are circumstances where kids have great recovery chances, or cases where human connection is necessary due to the child’s extreme state, saying that this is why all feral children should be “rescued”. However, as stated before, there is a great deal of difference between that and a feral child that is content and well off on their own.

Some feral children experience severe isolation at the hands of their parents, but never lived with wild animals. These children live horrific lives and there is no choice but to rescue them. Danielle Crockett is a well-known example of this. She was found at age seven naked, in diapers, and unable to communicate. The girl was emaciated, malnourished, covered with sores and pocks, and apparently was never really cared for. The house was shockingly dirty, with urine, feces, roaches, and maggots everywhere. Despite that, her mother had the nerve to state,

“I’m doing the best I can.”

To which Detective Mark Holste replied, “The best you can sucks.” Today, Danielle is living contently with a loving foster family. Others, such as the wild girl of Champagne, also known as Marie Angelique Memmie le Blanc, were helped out by a variety of rich patrons and went on to live a relatively good life, even after living in the wild for many years (in Memmie’s case, ten). These children obviously had a relatively good chance of recovery, and rescuing them actually benefited them. But in cases such as the Dog Boy of Chile, or Baby Hospital, they evidently were not going to conform to society, so why not leave them be? But of course not. These people instead ripped away the only “family” they ever had. They were forced to become, essentially, more human, the attempts continuing even more tenaciously when they only succeeded in making the child more depressed.

Allowing a feral child to be abused, neglected, and depressed. Making them unable to decide their own destiny. These are cruelties that should be abhorred. Each feral child’s situation should be specifically evaluated before deciding their fate, not just ignored. The ultimate goal is to make them happy, not to make them “normal.” It’s alright to be unique sometimes. And sometimes, it’s alright to let them run, wild and free.

Asian Discrimination in America

China is not the only country in Asia. Yet, from the time I was just six years old, random children would walk up to me on the playground and ask if I was Chinese. The prospect of being greeted with a rude, outright racial question without a “hello” or “how are you” was never very appealing. It was –– and still is –– quite tiring to explain to those many children that, no, I am not Chinese, I am American: Korean-American. In my twelve years of life as a Korean-American, I have experienced much prejudice and racial stereotyping based on the color of my skin and my ethnicity.

From the tender age of four, as a minority in my pre-kindergarten class, I have realized what a different person I appear to be. The class bully, Abigail, was harassing me for looking different than the people she had grown accustomed to seeing. She was only a child, and probably influenced by her parents, but she apparently felt that I had no right to be with people who looked so much “better” than me. She would say things like, “You can’t sit here because I have a big nose and you have a small one.” I was confused and wondered why she would be proud of a large nose, which I thought meant “nosy.”

As I grew older I became the top of my class, and was known as a nerd, geek, bookworm, and smart. Even at ballet class, where everyone else was in 8th grade and hardly knew what grade I was in, my peers said I was smart. Imagine my astonishment when I realized why. “And I know you’re smart,” they said, “ because you’re Asian.” I hardly knew what to say. Technically, it was meant to be a compliment, but their remarks still made me uncomfortable. I would appreciate my achievements much more if people knew I worked hard for the results, not because the work was naturally easy or something I enjoyed doing.

Only last summer, I was playing tennis when a group of boys passed by the tennis court. Apparently enraged that my sister and I got to play tennis while they couldn’t, they began to jeer and mock us, and threw stones and nails and even a gallon jug of water that completely drenched me over the fence. They began to yell something to the effect of the classic “Ching Chong Chinaman” taunt and “… chopsticks with white rice.” They also attempted (and failed miserably) to imitate the Chinese language. While very maddening, it was also slightly ironic that they didn’t even know if we were Chinese.

I grew up reading princess stories, just like every other little girl in America. There seems to be no problem, but there is. American princesses are the classic “white” beauty queen: tall, fair skin, big blue eyes, blonde hair, long eyelashes, etc. Every little girl in America grows up learning and trying to live up to the “white” definition of beauty. I was one of them. Still, it’s no use if anyone tells me I’m beautiful, because I don’t (and can’t) believe it.

When I was in pre-kindergarten, my classmates would tell me how they told my twin and I apart. “You have squinty eyes, and she has bigger eyes,” they would tell me cheerfully, never knowing how much that upset me. No one would like to be called “Squinty Eyes,” yet my classmates expected me to accept, and even enjoy, that horrible title. Furthermore, the phrase “fair skin” is a phrase that I find racially discriminating. Fair skin means you have light colored skin, and, by default, beautiful skin. My skin color is what people would refer to as “yellow” –– a skin color often seen as sickly –– so I obviously do not enjoy being called “yellow.” But, my skin is not “fair”… which leaves me wondering, if you don’t look “white,” do you have unfair skin? Is your skin not beautiful?

Kids shouldn’t participate in stereotyping and racism. Sadly, many innocent children unknowingly take part in racist habits by copying their parents’ stereotypical actions, and impulsively exclude friends who are racially different. When kids engage in these habits, they think they’re normal, but as they get older they continue their racism and stereotyping on a broader scale. My experiences as a Korean-American proves that prejudice against Asian- Americans still exists. The boys from the tennis court and Abigail from my pre-kindergarten class should know how their actions make people feel, and how their insults feed into a larger, deeper ingrained system of racism. If everyone was loving and understanding, we could all live together nicely, respecting and valuing each other’s differences. If we all dream this dream of the world as one big loving family, than perhaps that dream will become reality.

All Kinds of Kinds

When you are young, you will be ashamed of your culture. You will hate eating rice everyday even though you love Amu’s cooking. You will hate that she makes you wear a salwar kameez to school every Halloween so you can be a princess. But you love mehndi and raise your right hand, palm outward, so the orange paisleys are visible to your teachers and classmates. You call the brown smelly paste mehndi, not henna. Your brownness is showing. It’s the only part of your culture you don’t reject.

When you’re a little older, you will scrub your skin raw and apply the Fair & Lovely your mother gave you to lighten your skin. You will resent her for making you resent your melanin. Your dad tells you that you will always look like an immigrant and you will never be an American in a white person’s eyes. This is a truth you will never let go.

Around this time you’ll start to read books by brown people about brown people because you think that if you can’t be American, you might as well embrace your heritage. You will be outraged by the inaccuracy, thinking brown people don’t have “white people problems.” You don’t think brown people can make mistakes, not because you think they’re flawless, but because mistakes are not allowed. You’ll be skeptical of brown characters on TV shows— their brownness erased by giving them names like John, and their otherness amplified by making them terrorists named Ali.   

Your older cousin will recommend Corona by Bushra Rehman during your freshman year in high school. You have read multiple books by brown people about brown people that made you feel as though the authors didn’t really know what it meant to be brown. Still, you continue to read these books because they inspire the writer in you. Your cousin will tell you that Bushra Rehman is a Pakistani-American who grew up in a Pakistani Muslim community in Queens— she was just like you. Because, for the first time, you think you might actually see yourself in a South Asian character, you have ridiculous expectations for the book. You need Razia, the protagonist, to be just like you. But, of course, she won’t be. She leaves her family. She hitchhikes along the East Coast. She dates. She drinks alcohol. She smokes. What kind of Muslim is she? What kind of Pakistani is she? How could she be so selfish? What about her parents? You ignore the fact that you sound like the judgmental aunties you despise so much, but your brownness is showing.

In your junior year, your English class will read Into the Wild by Jon Krakaur. There’s something about the way Christopher McCandless drops everything and heads to Alaska that will intrigue you. You will try to ignore the fact that McCandless is a white man. You know that post-9/11 America will not work in favor of a wanderlust brown hijabi. Maybe it’s the fact that Chris seems invincible that’s appealing to you. Or that so many people treat him like their son and take care of him. Maybe you want to have that kind of faith in people. That they’ll help you instead of fear you or jump at the chance to hurt you. “Remember, Ma. You’re Muslim and they hate us,” your dad tells you this every day when he drops you off at the train station.

Maybe it’s the people at home who drive you away, the way Chris was unhappy with his ordinary life with his family. Without the fear of auntie gossip and the judgment of your parents, you could find the person you want to be. You will wish you could do something reckless and unpredictable because you don’t want to lead a conventional life.

You’re starting to write more this year. Your characters remind you of the ones you used to hate. Flawed, human, more similar to you than you’d like to admit. There isn’t a set of  guidelines to be a brown person, you tell yourself to justify the choices your characters make. You have some life changing epiphanies and realize that you didn’t hate those characters from the books you used to read. You envied them. You wanted to screw up as easily as they did. You craved that kind of freedom, to be someone and to do things unexpected of the little brown girl you are. You will become restless. You’re tired of your commute and vain conversations you overhear in the locker room. You’re tired of your parents guilting you into staying in New York for college. You’re tired of your family telling you that you can only be a doctor and talking about your future in terms of salaries. You don’t want the things your parents want. Your mom tells you that you might as well give up on your education if you want to be a teacher, as if educating doesn’t require education.

During the short story unit, your English teacher gives the class Pioneer Spirit by Bushra Rehman and, as always, you’re skeptical. You remember how you felt while reading Corona. Reading Razia’s story again, two years later, with the knowledge that you used to envy her vagabond nature, you find that you can’t help but admire her. She’s not your typical brown girl from a conservative family. She tries to be anything but typical. For that, you wanted to be her, to have her courage (or selfishness), to be able to harden your heart and, for once, do something of your own will.  

You know that you will never be able to harden your heart completely. You come from a family who loves you too much and respects you too little. The difference between you and Razia is that her parents kicked her out and yours would do everything to keep you at the same address in Jamaica, New York for the rest of your life.

You want to have a voice that defines itself like the characters in the books you read and the characters you create. You wish you could be selfish. You wish you weren’t afraid of losing your family by accidentally doing something for yourself.

But sometimes you let yourself think about the things you do have. You think about the tight-knit brown Muslim community in Queens that becomes Little Bangladesh the night before Eid with mehndi tables set up on every block. You go down to Hillside with your sister to eat mishtis and get intricate designs painted on your hands with the brown smelly paste, which is no longer the only part of your culture you don’t reject. Your brownness is showing. Every inch of Hillside Avenue is packed that night, the way your masjid is all throughout Ramadan, with people speaking a language that is home. Your brownness is showing. You know the next day will be ten times as busy. The field at the local high school will be filled with hundreds of Muslims praying together. You will wonder how you haven’t met some of these people, but then you will remember that this neighborhood is only home to a fraction of your identity the fraction that your parents fostered.

You will be tired of having the same fights over and over again. You know you will be the first to back down and you will give your family what they want. You start to wonder what’s more important— your sanity or your reputation. Were all these arguments worth it or should you just put on a white coat and breathe in the fumes from the MTA buses? You know your parents want what’s best for you. That is, after all, the reason they came to this country. But you can’t seem to make their version of “the best” your own. You are terrified of being miserable, but your parents laugh when you tell them. Because according to them, brown girls don’t get to be happy. Brown girls don’t get to make themselves.

So the stories you read and the characters you envy remain fiction, at least for now.

The Sourcery

        

Chapter 1

You’ve got a friend in me

One day a 13 year-old girl named Annabelle went to the park and she was completely unaware of what was in store for her that month. Annabelle has long, brown hair, light tan skin, and big eyes. Annabelle is an identical twin, her twin’s name is Rose. Rose always gives her a hard time with everything she does wrong. If only her sister understood her. The weird thing about her is when she is in pictures her eyes turn red.

So, one day when Annabelle decided to go to the park without her sister she met a new friend and that new friend’s name was Hannibal. Hannibal was a trapeze artist yet he was only 14 years-old. Annabelle thought that Hannibal was the coolest person she ever met. Hannibal always wears a leather jacket, black jeans and he has nice long brown-red hair. Annabelle loved hanging out with this guy. All they do while together is talk about his family, his family owns a circus and he is one of the star performers. She had lots of fun and she was now wondering if she has seen him performing before.

When she was ready to leave the park that day she decided to give Hannibal her necklace, she said. “Meet me here tomorrow, and if you don’t then I will look for you because you have my necklace,” She said as she put the necklace on him.

“When you get home and wash your face you will see the necklace and remember that you have to meet me here tomorrow.”

He told her, “I love that you would entrust me with your necklace but no need to fret I will return here tomorrow.”

He started to take off the necklace but she shook her head and walked away. Hannibal was intrigued by her mysterious ways, for she didn’t talk much about her family.

When she went home she told her parents about the kid she met in the park. Her parents wondered why she wanted to hang out with a kid that spends his time in the circus. Apparently her sister had the day to herself so she planned a pool party for June 8th because it was going to be the hottest day of the year. Knowing that today was the first of June, she had time to ask Hannibal to go with her.

Chapter 2

The stalker

The next day, Annabelle rode her bike to the park. When she got there she saw Hannibal sitting on a hedge. When she saw his bronze skin glistening in the sun she fell off her bike. That day he didn’t have his leather jacket on instead he had on a grey t-shirt that said Death Rider with black flames under it.

“What’s Death Rider,” Annabelle asked “Is it like your favorite band or something?”

“Actually, it’s my band” Hannibal said

This didn’t make sense to her, “Wait I’m confused. You are in a band? Are you the lead singer? Is it a punk or a rock band? How do you have time to be here when you’re in a band and in the circus?”

“I perform for the circus on Sundays and practice band on Tuesdays.” responded Hannibal.

“Oh” Annabelle said.

Hannibal wanted to show Annabelle his tricks on his skateboard so they rode to the skatepark. The skatepark was really cool, it was black fenced but the paint was falling off so it is partially silver. Inside there were many different sections. Some were big ramps and some were somewhat small. The one Hannibal showed her, his favorite one, was like a sunken dome, and it was huge! In it was some graffiti that said BEWARE. She sat down on a bench and watched him as he did some cool tricks on his skateboard. She turned around to look at some of the other people in the park. She saw a guy staring at her, he was tall with light skin he had beard stubble. He had piercing grey eyes. He was wearing grey jogging pants and a long black hoodie, he didn’t seem too old or too young. She turned back around shivering with fear she told Hannibal she wanted to leave.

“Why,” he asked, “do you not like my tricks?”

“I do, it’s just there is a weird guy staring at me,” she answered.

“Oh don’t worry that’s my neighbor Jonah,” he told her “ He works with my dad on special experiments together and his son does them too.”

“But you were out of his sight,” she said.

“Have you seen him before?” he asked.

“I think so, but can we leave please?” she asked.

“Sure,” he answered.

When they got back to the park they sat down near the rose bushes. The roses were ruby red like the color that comes up in Rose’s eyes when she takes a picture.

“So what is your family like?” Annabelle asked.

“No, let’s talk about you for once,” he suggested.

“Ok, I’m open to any questions!” She exclaimed.

“Do you have any siblings?”

“Yeah, a twin sister named Rose,” she answered.

“Cool, can I meet her?” He asked.

“Yeah, you stay here I’ll bring her here.”

Annabelle went home and asked her sister to come to the park with her to meet someone. Rose was rude at first but was convinced by her sister as long as she promised to help her bring home supplies for the party.

Chapter 3

Circus Freaks

When they got to the park they went straight to the rose bushes.

“So where is this guy you keep rambling on about,” Rose asked.

“I don’t know I guess he left,” Annabelle answered “oh there’s a note,”

Anna, I wanted to go see the experiments in my dad’s lab. Jonah has invited me for the first time so I want to take advantage of this opportunity. I’m sorry I didn’t get to meet your sister. Please come to the circus on Sunday, and bring your sister. You can get in for free as long as when you walk in tell the person in the front “You are the Great zizi” 3 times, bow and then say supercalifragilisticexpialidocious while hopping on one leg and you will be let in.

See you there,

Hannibal

 

Over the Edge

I watch as the sun slides behind the horizon, its last rays gleaming through the trees. I tap my fingers on the table as the minutes pass in what seems like seconds. I suddenly shiver involuntarily and silently reprimand myself, telling myself to stop. Begging myself to stop. I give my head a quick shake and a lock of my blonde hair slips into my shaking fingers. Noticing how the sun now struggles to shine beneath the foliage, I begrudgingly look over at the clock. I squint to read the hands, but soon realize with a pit in my stomach that it is eight in the evening. I hear my heart starting to race. It pounds. Thud, thud, thud. The world speeds up and starts to spin. Stop, stop! I almost start to cry, but luckily a six year-old girl in a white dress bangs through the door with a smile on her face.

I stand up within a second, and she runs into my arms that immediately open for her. My dark world welcomes in her universe of light. I feel blissful and free for a second, but I quickly realize that my worries still cling on to me. I sigh and let her go. “Katie,” I say. “How was your day at school? Do you want some food?” She nods quickly, still grinning.

“My day was great. I did lots of fun stuff. I climbed a tree…” She trails off into paragraphs of enthusiasm. I give her an empty smile, trying to remember how much I love this girl, the only real family I have left. Unfortunately, I fail to do this. I trudge over to the fridge and grab some food to cook on the stove. The aroma fills the room as my little sister blabbers on. It smells delicious, but somehow I don’t really enjoy it. As I cook, our dad walks through the door.

“Hi,” he says in a tone that shows he is in another world. “I picked up the dry cleaning after I got Katie.” He holds up the plastic-covered clothing and I nod.

He then heads up to his room without saying another word. I remember when he used to talk to us for hours and make us amazing food. My mind begins to trail off but Katie suddenly finishes her tale with an exclamation and my thoughts are interrupted. I tell her that it sounds like an awesome day. I immediately feel guilty about not listening, but push it aside because I have to worry about my audition tomorrow. I set her food down in front of her, give her a quick kiss on top of her head, and head up the stairs to my room.

The next morning, I lie in my soft bed listening to the birds chirp. If only I could stay here all day. A wave of exhaustion then washes over me, most likely because I was not able to sleep for the entire night. I dread lugging myself out of bed and now my hands are already starting to shake again. If I don’t make it into this play, it will be so disappointing. My mom wanted so desperately for me to be in this play, we’d been talking about if for months before her accident. I have to do this for her, I miss her so much. But Alice, this  girl that is also auditioning for the lead role, is so talented and threatens your chances. How am I going to get the part over her? I take a deep breath and get out of my bed.

As I walk through the icy winter morning, I think again about my mom and her successful Broadway career. She was so famous. She starred in so many plays that they all get blurred together in my head sometimes. I saw almost every single one of them, each one unique from the previous. I wish that I could see one more. Maybe I could be inspired for this audition. I realize though that my mom is gone.

I walk into the school auditorium with a smile on my face, remembering the advice my mom used to give me. Unfortunately, the smile soon fades and my heart is pounding again. My palms sweat. With a shaky eye, I see that the room is bustling with activity, activity I realize I don’t want to be a part of. My peers stand in groups. I see one group of girls that distracts me. They wear tight shirts, fashionable leggings, and flats. They are also wearing so much makeup that not one bit of actual skin is revealed. I think about how they chitter and chatter like the birds outside my window as I look down at my baggy shirt, old jeans, and sneakers. I sigh. At least my hair is golden.

After surveying the other groups around the room and deciding that it isn’t time to audition yet, I creep closer to the girls.

“So, you girls ready?” One with a tight, shiny bun asks the circle.

“I’m so ready. Who do you think will get the lead role?” Another chirps.

“Me, of course.” Surprised I hadn’t noticed before, I realize that this is Alice. Her dark brown hair is pulled into two tight braids. She’s short and her small eyes squint in every direction.

“Oh, um, right, uh, of course. I-I’m sorry,” the woman stammers. I smile.

“You do have some competition though,” a brave one states.

“Who could possibly beat Alice?” Bun Girl exclaims.

“Annabelle.” My mouth falls open as many of the girls in the group turn to look at me, somehow knowing where I’m standing. I turn around immediately, my mind racing as I weave through the crowds of people to the back of the decorated auditorium. Oh, no. Now Alice must really want to beat me. I feel my whole body start to shake. No, no, no, this is not happening. I try to reassure myself. If those girls think that I’m a threat, then that’s saying something. I can beat Alice, I really can. I really can.

“Okay, all actors to the seats in the front of the auditorium. I repeat, all actors to the front.” A man in a black outfit shouts this while he ushers people away from the back. “All parents, please leave now!” he adds. I watch as mothers and fathers give last hugs and touches of makeup before being sent out of the door. A chaos of colorful children parade towards the front, and I follow them. My legs don’t work very well, but I push myself into a velvet seat and try to listen to the man’s instructions. I space out instead and inspect the sea of heads in front of me, each almost identical to the next with a glossy surface and a perfect poise. They are all unfamiliar and cold. I am mad at myself for only having one friend at school, Ava. I really wish she didn’t hate acting. I realize that my hands are numb now and my legs don’t feel too good either. I hate this.

Suddenly, the sea is moving. Everyone stands up. Their feet thump up the stairs and behind the stage. Startled, I shake out my legs and get up to follow them. We walk in a messy group, everyone chittering and chattering except for me. The area backstage is small, wooden, with splotches of paint. The red curtain looms in front of us, threatening me. Patches of golden light escape through it, lying to me about the amazing world that seems to be behind the flowing wall. Everyone remains in the same groups as before, despite the fact that we are packed tight like sardines. I feel incredibly uncomfortable, my arms rubbing across others while I float between the circles. Now, my heart is racing again, except much more than it did before. The difference is that this time, I can’t seem to calm it. I’m wondering how I can get my legs to stop losing feeling when we are instructed to form a line. So, I shuffle around with everyone else until we form a messy one leading to the stage. Then, it starts. People are called out one by one to audition while the rest of us are shushed backstage by the people in black. I take a deep breath as the line wiggles and shifts. I am slowly making my way to the front.

My numb hands are shaking now. We were told not to practice for this audition, so I didn’t, but I wish that in some way I could have. I have no idea what to expect. I hear the muffled talking of a boy on the stage and think about how terrible I’m going to be. I’m shivering now and once again, I beg myself to stop. My mom would be so disappointed in me. Why can’t I pull myself together? Thud, thud, thud. I’m crying silently in the dark backstage of the theatre. The tears are slipping down my face and I’m wiping the water away as fast as I can. Nobody seems to notice. My name is called. I’m pushed forward.   

Shivering and shaking, I am now on the stage.

The light hits me with a stagnant glare. It does not slip or slide or move at all. My face crinkles and a smile escapes out of the director standing in front of me.

“Hi, Annabelle. How old are you?”

“Uh, f-f-fifteen” I stammer and croak at the same time.

“So, you’re a sophomore?” I nod yes. He smiles again. “What kind of role are you

looking for?” I realize that he speaks to me as if I’m an incapable child.

“Lead.” I speak quickly and quietly, exactly like the child this soft brown-eyed man

thinks I am. He shows a flash of shock when I say this and tries to cover it up, but mostly fails. I’m momentarily distracted from my fear as I notice this and as I see the blatant doubt on his face that remains when he nods okay. He then picks up a script and gives it to my hands that I forgot are still shaking. I slowly flip to the page he tells me to and I read each line carefully in my head. I sigh. Okay, I can do this. Why am I shaking? I can do this. Why am I shivering? I can do this. I’m thinking I can do this when the world turns black.

I wake up in a haze. I seem to be sitting in the backseat of a car, but the people in the front don’t notice me. I rub my eyes and soon recognize a man in the driver’s seat with light brown hair as my dad. His face is bright and his eyes are shining. He looks so young. I can’t figure out who he is talking to because the person in the passenger seat is wearing a hat, but then we are moving and I see a lock of blonde hair slip onto the woman’s shoulder. It’s mom. We continue to drive and drive and I suddenly realize what is about to happen. My parents chat happily, without a care in the world. The night is dark with only specks of stars and I think about how Katie must be scared when I realize that she is not in the car. My heart then starts to thud and my hands start to shake, identical to how they do on stage. I know it’s coming when we make a right turn around a corner. A large blue pickup truck is driving towards us, getting closer and closer with every second. Suddenly, I hear the sound of smashing glass and my parent’s laughs are interrupted. This time, the world turns red.

I wake up lying on the warm stage floor, the director and a couple of chaperones standing over me. Their faces are cringed with worry but surprisingly, they don’t look happy when I sit up with blinking eyes. They only look relieved.

“What just happened? How long was I out for?” I wonder, only remembering fragments of the nightmare. I hear giggles behind the curtain and almost want to cry, but I stop myself. One of the chaperones goes back there to shush the kids.

“You were just about to start reading the script when your eyes closed and you fell to the floor. You were out for about ten minutes, but you didn’t look so good. We were about to call your parents and then the hospital. You still don’t look so good — why don’t you go home?” I remember the feeling of being treated like a child by this man, even though the feeling is distant and I feel like it is from a very long time ago. I can still hear the tone in the director’s voice though. However, I can only manage to stammer.

“B-b-but what about um, the uh, the a-audition?” The nervousness in my voice is obvious, I really hope the people backstage have stopped listening.

“I’m sorry, but you fainted. You looked very nervous and if you couldn’t handle the feeling in an audition, I don’t think you would be a very good fit for the play. But, go home and practice. I’m sure you can try out for the spring musical.” He says this with a tone of finality and my brain goes into overload. It floods with thoughts of Alice, how I was an actual threat to her and how now I am going to be the laughing stock of the school. Katie comes to my mind, I think of how she was so excited to watch me in the play. My spaced-out dad. I was hoping to cheer him up, but that probably wouldn’t have worked anyway because of — well, because of mom. The thought of her is what sends me over the edge.

Without even thinking about it, I quickly jump up to my feet. I raise a hand and, watching the director’s stunned face, I slap him. The loud sound is satisfying and my sorrowful, frowned face disappears. A weight is lifted off of my shoulders as I let a smile escape from my lips. A red mark is left on the man’s face, a mark that is as bright and as beautiful as a rainbow. The clouds go away and now I’m really grinning. The faces of the director and the chaperone remain blank, which surprises me. I’d expected some kind of reaction, but I realize that I don’t really mind. I skip down the steps of the stage and run out of the auditorium. I continue to blissfully run through the hallway, heading for the door. However, I soon hear steps coming up behind me. Oh, no. What have I done?

The director catches up to me and the only word I can use to describe him is furious. My heart starts to pound, a familiar sensation. What is the director going to do with me?

“Young lady, that was absolutely unacceptable. You are coming with me to the principal’s office right now! Unfortunately for you, I am certain that she will suspend you from school and ban you from all future productions here.” He grabs me by my shoulder and leads me to the office.

Since it’s a Sunday, the school is deserted. However, lucky for the director, the principal is here today. I walk into her office and escape from the director’s grasp just long enough to sit in a chair. The fabric is puffy, plush, and comfortable. The principal’s eyes widen as she moves her gaze from the computer and turns to see me. The director gives a fairly detailed summary of what I have done, but I don’t hear any of it. I don’t think anything either; I just tap my fingers and watch the pretty principal’s expression, which seems to get worse by the second. She cocks her head and her forehead wrinkles. She frowns and runs a hand through her long, brown hair.

When the director is finished, the principal sighs and says “I am shocked Annabelle. I would never expect this from you, but you have hurt a teacher and there will be some serious repercussions. Your father will have to be here for this.” She picks up her phone with a spiral cord after looking at a large directory. She dials a number, her manicured nails tapping the buttons, and waits. A minute later, she dials a different number. And then she dials that number again.

“Okay Annabelle, your father is not responding. Nevertheless, I am just going to give you your punishment now. I am disappointed to say that I will be suspending you for five days, all of this week. I will call your father again tonight to arrange a meeting with both of you tomorrow.” She sighs. “You are dismissed now, and must leave school grounds immediately.”

I get up, wondering if this is a dream. The director gives me a surprisingly smug smile as I walk out the door with nothing but empty space in my mind.

That evening, I sit at dinner with Katie and my dad. I pick at the microwaved food I’ve warmed up, an awful feeling in my stomach. Katie however, sitting across the table from me, wears two messy braids and enthusiastically shovels food into her mouth. After swallowing two-thirds of her plate she finally takes a gulp of water and looks up to smile at me. I give a weak smile back, turning my head to look at my dad now, who for once appears to be in the same mood as me. The dreary silence drips on, the only sound being an occasional loud crunch from Katie’s mouth. My numb mind can’t think, so I just drag my fork around my already scratched plate. I then realize with a sigh that the sun is sliding again. Suddenly, the phone rings. It shatters the almost peaceful silence. Without saying anything, I shake my head no to my dad, who forces himself upwards and plods over to the phone. He picks it up on the fifth ring and answers with a grunt that has the semblance of the word hello. I hear a high-pitched voice babbling, but can’t make out any words. I start to tap my fingers on the table, worrying what this might be about. I notice that my dad’s blank expression is starting to turn into a frown and when the babbling stops, he only responds “Okay. We’ll be there,” and hangs up.

“Annabelle, that was your school. Um… they said that, uh, they said — ” he struggles to finish the sentence. “The principal said that she wants to see us tomorrow at 8:00 AM.”

“Oh, um, okay.” I don’t want to offer any more information. I try to keep my face as blank as possible while I watch my dad fidget around. My fingers are tapping — does he know what I did? He shifts from one brown loafer to the other and scratches his head. He’s trying to say something, but he’s too scared to.

“Annabelle, they told me what you did.” My eyes are fixed on him. My fingers move to tighten around my chair. They grip it so tight that they start to turn white. But how could he be mad at me? He hasn’t shown any emotion in years. “Annabelle, that was… you know, go to… no, um… you are… you know, nevermind.” Punishing me was too difficult for him to do. Wow. “Okay, we’ll leave at 7:50 a.m. sharp.” He gives me a strange smile, and then heads off to his room without eating any of his food. Great. Now I have to do all of the dishes.  

I walk through the halls with my dad, continuing our silence after the car ride. I observe all of the people around me. There’s not as many as usual, because school doesn’t start for another fifteen minutes, but I recognize a few familiar faces. I see Bun Girl and Brave Girl. I see Ava with a bunch of her friends, and we wave shortly to each other across the infinite distance that seems to be separating us. I see Alice, with a different group of friends than at the audition. I wonder how she does that.

The weak, white morning light pokes through the windows. It’s climbing upwards, instead of sliding downwards. This at least gives me a smile as my dad and I walk through the principal’s door. When I step inside, the principal is sitting at her desk, her straight hair obviously curled. She gives us a slight nod with her serious face and says “Welcome. Please, take a seat.” My old sneakers screech slightly on the tiled floor as I walk over to a seat. My dad plops down next to me just as the principal begins to speak.

“So,” she says. “I want to start by saying thank you, Christopher, for coming. I think we all know what we are here to talk about. Let’s just jump right in. As Annabelle may have told you, I have suspended her for five days because she has injured an adult working in this school.” I think the principal wants my dad to say something, but he just nods and swallows so she turns to me and continues. “Now, I know that your mom passed away a few months ago. I’m assuming that times have been hard, but what you did is still unacceptable. I’d like to hear what you have to say for yourself. Tell me the story.” She finishes and fixates her attention entirely on me.

I look at my dad who shows no emotion whatsoever and then realize he isn’t going to be any help. But, my hands aren’t shaking and my heart isn’t pounding, so I just start talking.

“Okay, well so this audition was really important to me. I was doing it for my mom. We had talked about this play months ago, and – and she was so excited about it. She was going to be so proud of me and it was going to be so amazing and I just miss her so much and —” then I’m crying, the tears blurring my vision. I feel a hand on my shoulder and stiffen, but then the hand rubs my shoulder and I soften. I look up to see the principal, her face kind. I don’t realize how strange this is.

I just say “I’m sorry, I’m so so sorry.” The moment is short, because as soon as I wipe my tears away, the principal is back at her desk. My dad’s face is blank.

“Do you think you can continue the story?” The woman asks softly. I nod and take a deep breath.

“So – well, because there was so much resting on it, I was very nervous for the audition. When I got there, I remember I was freaking out backstage. On stage, the director gave me a script to read from. I remember looking through it, and then I think I fainted —”

“What do you mean you think you fainted?” The principal interrupts.

“Oh well, I just remember everything going black. I fainted though, they told me afterwards. So when I woke up, the director told me that I didn’t look so good and that I should go home. I asked him about the audition and he told me in the most annoying —” I pause for a second, expecting her to stop me, but she doesn’t. “In the most annoying tone of voice that I could try out for the spring musical. That made me really angry and that’s when I slapped him.”

“I see. What happened after?”

“I kind of just ran away” I say sheepishly. “But the director ran after me and caught me. He told me that what I did was unacceptable and that I would be punished. Then, he brought me here.”

“Okay” the principal smiles. “Thank you so much for telling me all of that. I’m still going to have to suspend you, but I think I’m going to have a talk with the director.” I’m surprised, but feel lighter. “Now, I’m going to ask you to leave so I can have a little chat with your dad. Is that okay?” I nod slowly and get up to leave. She gives me a small smile and I respond by awkwardly slipping out of the room, closing the door behind me.

As soon as I get outside I pin my my ear to the glossy but thin door. I can imagine my dad crossing his legs inside and the principal giving him a quick smile.

“So, Chris, how are you doing?” I can hear the sincerity in her voice.

“To be honest, I’m not so good.” He’s giving a weak smile, I can tell.

“Well, I’m so sorry. I’d like to give you my greatest condolences. Lily was an amazing woman and I loved speaking with her. I remember when she used to come in for Career Day and talk about working in her science lab. It was quite interesting — the kids loved her.”

“Wow, thank you. She sure was great, yeah.” He sounds like he’s really smiling.

“Do you think that Annabelle misses her a lot?” Woah, I think. Isn’t that a little too far? But my dad answers in a second.

“Yeah, I think she does actually. It’s been really hard for her and she’s gained a lot of anxiety because of it. I always see her tapping her fingers or shaking her hands.” How does he know that? He’s always in his room!

“If this is crossing the line, let me know, but I think that Annabelle feels a little — ” The principal keeps talking, but her voice lowers and I only hear mumbling for a few seconds.

Ugh. I desperately want to hear what she’s saying.

Luckily, I hear my dad respond. “Um, the thing is… well, yes, I have been a little out of it lately. I’ve been finding it hard to focus on things and I’m thinking about going to see a therapist, but I have been paying some attention to Annabelle. I just don’t think she’s noticed.” I’m shocked. This is the most I’ve heard him talk in months, how could he be paying attention to me?

“That’s interesting. Maybe —” the principal suggests very carefully, “maybe you can talk to her. Be here for her, she really needs it.”

My dad starts to talk, but someone turns on a fan in another room and his words are drowned out. I’m practically pulling my hair out by the time the fan is turned off. How is he responding to that? Unfortunately, all I hear is my dad finish. “Thank you for showing so much concern though.” It sounds like he wants to leave.

“Oh, it’s no problem. I know this must be hard. One more thing — do you think that it’s possible Annabelle will act out again?”

“Honestly, I’m not sure. I hope that she won’t. I am definitely going to have some sort of conversation with her.” I think that the principal is satisfied with this. I hear one more mumble from her mouth and then a chair creaks as it slides across the floor. I instantly jump back from the door and slide down to the ground, preparing to pretend that I was spaced out the whole time. My dad comes out, looking distressed. He does give me a small smile though, which is bizarre. The principal really had an effect on him, more of an effect than I ever had. “Okay, let’s go,” he says.

My dad walks briskly down the hallway.

“Wait up!” I exclaim, struggling to keep up with him. He turns his head and smiles.

“Don’t worry, I’m waiting.” He winks at me like he used to when I was a little kid.

When we get to the car, we don’t say anything, but the silence is okay. The evergreen trees seem to whiz by as my dad drives, but really we are the ones that are moving. Soon, I realize that we are going away from home.

“Where are we going?” I ask.

“You’ll see,” he says.

When we pull up in front of the building, I know exactly where we are and I am ecstatic. We haven’t been here in months. The building is small, but extremely colorful. Neon lights illuminate its exterior that is already filled with huge pictures of mouthwatering ice cream. The outside air is icy when we get out of the car, but I don’t care. I’ll have this ice cream any time of the year. My dad and I walk over, continuing to not speak. He holds open the heavy metal door for me and I step in, immediately engulfed in this other world. All of the ice cream flavors are written in messy chalk on a gigantic board that takes up almost the entire room. The servers working here bustle around behind a tall counter with smiles on their faces. A long line leads to the cash register, but I don’t mind. The room smells cool but delicious, probably because the most amazing ice cream in the world is made here. My dad and I go to the back of the line.

The wait seems quick, but it’s only because my mind is occupied with all of the bright posters that plaster the room. When we get to the front of the line, a kind girl dressed in a tie-dye shirt greets us. We order our usuals, mine being triple chocolate fudge ice cream with rainbow sprinkles and my dad’s being strawberry ice cream with hot fudge. Licking our lips, we get a corner booth. I slide into one red bench and he slides into the other. As soon as I pick my spoon up, I notice my dad’s looking at me with a small grin so I put it back into my bowl.

“You know, this is the first time I’ve seen you smiling in months. You look just like your mother. ” My dad doesn’t seem sad when he says this, like he always is when he mentions her.  

“It’s nice to see you smile too!”

“I really shouldn’t be smiling though,” he laughs. “You hit your teacher!”

“Yeah…um…” I laugh too. We share another glance before digging into our ice cream, the sun high in the sky outside.

                                        

On a First Date

It was creeping towards 6 p.m. on a cloudless evening in the one and only, New York City. I had been waiting there for only a few minutes at most, but it felt like the lazy sun had been shining its pale rays on me for an eternity. I stood on the corner of dusty 112th street and bustling Broadway, waiting with waning patience for a moment that I had dreamed about for at least this entire school year, maybe even longer. Ever since I had first heard of straight-A hottie Roy Diamond, I had been hopelessly in love. I hadn’t been alone, though; at least ten other girls had fought me for this moment, but somehow I was the one who won him over. And now, here I was, standing right outside Tom’s Restaurant (he had picked it –– apparently something he loved to watch was filmed there) waiting for my first date.

“Oh, when will he be here?” I wondered, almost not noticing that I was talking to myself, “Wait, why do I want him to be here now? I still don’t know what to say, or what to do. What’ll I do if he turns out not to like me?”

I had been fidgety ever since I got there, but was now more than ever. I tried to think of something that would calm me down, but I came up empty. Just as I was about to fly into a panic, I heard a faint echo of music coming from inside. A slow, calm song that faded away as soon as I had heard it. That’s it, I thought. Try to sing a song to calm yourself down.

I searched through my mind for a song that I would love to sing. When that didn’t work, my Spotify playlist. As I would when I was stressed, I scrolled really quickly to the bottom, and then really quickly back to the top. It was then that I noticed “Where are U Now” by Justin Bieber. I laughed a little. Early last summer I had liked that song for some reason or another, but now I had no idea why it was even here. My first thought was to get rid of it, but then I figured it would be funny to try and sing it, as a memento to the days when I would do so 24/7. Of course, there was the crushing shame of being the kind of girl who sang to Justin Bieber, but at least I wasn’t doing it as if I liked the song –– it was a kind of mockery of my former self. With that thought in my mind, I put in my earbuds and pressed play.

Just listening to the song gave me an interesting feeling. I remembered loving it with a burning passion, but now, I noticed so many flaws in it, and the only thing I could make of it was a cheesy, burned out fan-bait. How I had changed over the last few months. I still had the lyrics memorized –– My head for words hadn’t failed me yet –– and I started singing a bit. Ew. I got about halfway through the first verse before bursting out laughing. Sure, I was going against many things I believed in, but this sure was a better feeling than waiting for a guy who just thinking about gave me massive butterflies in my stomach and pretty much everywhere else.

I had three more laughing fits before I had to turn off the song because it was too painful to listen to. To think I used to enjoy that! As I was dusting myself off and thinking about how some of the lyrics actually kinda described me at the moment, waiting for a guy who I was crazy about, I looked up and there he was. Roy Diamond, the sassiest kid in school, the guy who won at everything, the person all the girls wanted and all the guys wanted to be, was standing there, watching me look completely ridiculous.

“Am I late?” he asked.

I was as flustered as a polar bear who had suddenly teleported to the Sahara. “Hi! No, you’re right on time, actually. Uh, how are you doing?” I managed to stutter out.

“I’m ok. You have a beautiful voice, by the way,” he replied, smiling.

When I realized he had heard me singing, the gargantuan butterflies that had been propagating in my stomach turned into demons. “Oh! Well – you see – um… Thank you. How much did you hear?” I had no idea what to do at this point. If he thought of me as a girl who sang Justin Bieber, he would almost definitely drop me like a white-hot potato. I steeled myself for utter despair.

“I actually heard most of it. You sing it a lot better than Justin Beaver does, if I do say so myself. You know, Skrillex worked on that song, and he’s one of my favorite artists. I like your taste,” he flowed through his words like cool water through a silly straw. He was still smiling and seemed genuinely happy with me. I couldn’t believe it. Roy Diamond, happy with me? The king of the school, happy with a girl who had just chanced upon him and somehow won his heart? This was the happiest day of my life.

Uncontrolled Control

The spoken world is only a fraction of what the real world is. Words do not make the world, and the world is not ruled with fair words.

I started noticing things when I was a kid. My friends would always listen to me. I remember a specific time growing up when my parents promised to discipline me after I hid their keys. I was around six at that time. It was nothing major, just simply an act of instinctive and rebellious freedom. Being the kid I was, a rush of fear and regret swept over me. With all of my heart, I wanted anything in the world other than to receive a scolding from my parents. I knew the good and bright side to them, but they also exhibited a very mean side just as extreme. My mom’s face was turning shades of scarlet when she found out. I knew that my parents showed very extreme emotions to me, yet their emotions were always very simple: they were either very happy, cheerful and joyful, or angry, cross, and quick tempered. It was never anything sophisticated or deep that lasted for a while. I was still a young kid at the time, yet I knew they were hiding something from me because of my age. I was brought up to be righteous and moral always doing the “right thing.”  As I was dreading the moment of humiliation from my mom I was imagining a million different ways she could punish me she suddenly became very calm, the violent red seeping out of her face as fast as it had come. Strange, I thought. It seemed so unnatural of anyone I had never seen it happen before. Her emotions had been sapped out from her, and her face became a blank canvas unnaturally white. She was confused and dazed, and instantly dropped the improvised kitchen spoon that she was willingly using to hit me just seconds before.
“Forget it, Jacob,” my mom whispered to herself with a disconcerting and detached tone. Hearing her monotonous voice started a feeling deep down inside of me, a feeling of guilt. I didn’t quite know where it arose from, but I knew it had something to do with the sudden, occasional, and seemingly irrational changes of her behavior. I realized I had a special telepathic ability, but I never told anyone. I could change the intentions of people, but they were very subtle changes. I made people feel like they were undergoing mood swings by themselves.
Having experienced the unsettling influence that I had exerted over people, I needed a relief from my uncontrolled control. I started running. I just felt like it. It’s the first thing someone does to get rid of stress. It’s the first thing someone does when they’re afraid. It’s the first thing someone does when they need to find new control. Just a mile at first. Then two. Then three. I trained myself with a structured and ordered mindset. It began with sneaking out of the house. Then making excuses, then eventually joining the track team when I was able to at my school. I seemed to have never been caught while making my expeditions, yet I had a feeling my parents knew. I would sometimes see the silhouette of a person through the yellow and old curtains of our attic window.
My school stood on the top of a hill. A shabby, old brick facility that lay on the other side of town. That’s what I pictured in my mind, along with some grey, sad clouds dangling from above. During my years, I managed to control my ability. Yet, sometimes, I used it to my advantage, occasionally in ways that made me feel the same old guilt that stabbed me in the stomach and heart whenever I did something out of my righteous boundaries.

One instance I remember clearly. Our history teacher, a severe woman who always wore a tight business suit to school, would find joy in slowly and painfully calling out our grades after each test. I remember vividly after one test in particular I felt like the world was against me. I was dreading the next class, even considering the idea of calling in sick. The day arrived. I came to school. Coming into class, I looked down. The old, rusty-hinged baby blue doors once coated with a layer of vibrant deep sea blue paint ruined my attempts of an unnoticeable entrance to class. I nervously stumbled in, hands shaking while clutching my notebook. I peeled my hands off only to reveal ink sticking onto them. My mind broke loose from its calm and collected mode. I made no eye contact with the old lady, yet I felt her eyes staring into me like two lasers. I shuffled my way to the back corner of the classroom directly under the window with the gaping hole The story goes that it was created by a baseball from the field a couple of blocks down and looked down silently at my dirty blue skate shoes. The teacher was calling out attendance, her raspy voice finishing up the list. A loud silence ensued another one of her painful mind games.
She commenced reading off her grade book with her same unforgiving, icy voice. Halfway through the list I envisioned my name another three spots down. With all my heart, I was begging for her not to call out my name. A 70% would probably have been the best grade that I got. The person alphabetically before me in the list 81%. I envisioned the moment that was seconds away, like I was tied to a track and the train of humility was about to run me over. I played through my mind the scenario. Congrats, you did so well at failing.
Suddenly, she paused for a second. She got up and started coughing. Hobbling over to the door, she looked back at us.
“Stay put and if I catch you or hear reports of you messing around,” she didn’t even have to finish, we were all terrified of her. Moments went by. We saw the cold, squeaky door handles turn. The silhouette of the petite woman. She sat herself back down in the squeaky front desk chair.
“Alright, where did I leave off?” My hands and feet were shaking uncontrollably anticipating the mortifying moment yet to come. The next name she called wasn’t me; however, it was the person right after me on the list. I knew this because I had remembered the list and took it to my heart to do so. I was shocked and confused. I incredulously sighed under my breath. How had it happened? I was relieved at first but hit with a subtle and more gradual anger once I realized that I had used my telepathic abilities once again. I was never called on.
Behind the school, there was a faded red, 200 meter rubber track that had seen better years. I was the second best on track. Weeds and other vegetation were slowly encroaching onto the rubber ground. Paint was slowly eroding and chipping away on the side bars. Track was my strength, and I remember my first practice in particular stuck out to me. The first day was another hot and sizzling summer day. My sweat started to simmer on the red tracks.
“Good luck,” I heard halfheartedly mumbled. Many unconfident stares were exchanged across the starting line. Our coach, an old man of around sixty years old, stared at his stopwatch, fiddling with it like it was some sort of futuristic device. Eventually, after many curses under his breath, coach looked up.
“On your marks.” Even though I hadn’t started running yet, the butterflies in the cage of my stomach had been released. “GO!” The words rang loud and sharp in my ears. I lunged forward at a full, paced speed. First lap down, second lap, third. Nearing the eighth and final lap I was first. A sudden movement to my right caught my attention.
A blur of green and blue, and a sharp red pain to my right ankle. I had been spiked. I looked to see who had whizzed by me. Another kid from our grade had managed to bypass me during the last lap. I looked down at his feet as I wearily threw myself across the finish line, coming in 3rd. He was wearing neon blue spikes, and wore a confident smile on his face. Coach began ordering us and grouping us into different ability level groups. The first guy never returned a glance at me and I did not catch his name throughout the rest of practice.
During my climb up the middle school ladder, meets occurred occasionally, then monthly, then every two weeks, until when I reached eighth grade, they were a weekly occurrence that were just called “practices” with extra hype attached. My weekly appointments with the finish line were expected. I would always qualify for the next race, week after week. Yet, I was never satisfied. Each time I would see the black and white checkered line demarcation and flag, the crowds in the stand cheering with routine enthusiasm, and the kid with the blue spikes in front of me. I was never first.
Our grade was huge, around 300 people. I only knew about a sixth of my whole grade. Everyone knew a handful of people by name. The rest, you would just recognize walking by them in the hallways of school. Then there was the kid with blue spikes. I didn’t know him by name. Every time he passed me by on the track, I could always swear he was wearing a smirk on his face. He was one of those recurring nightmares that you could never remember waking up, but always dread encountering again. Coach was never a help. By some miracle, he was put in charge of running our team. Our team had around twenty people. Around half were actually good. Every practice, coach would only count the first couple, giving up hope on the rest as they slowly finished their 400 meters.
“Remember your times,” coach would always yell as we were ending our sets, “Fifty-nine seconds, one minute one second, one minute two seconds, one minute six seconds, one minute twelve seconds, and the rest of you can ask me after you’re done.” In the end, he would never tell the other times, claiming that he would always forget to keep track. I was always second, the kid was always first. I was losing control of my mind. The kid was faster than me, but every time he turned around after he crossed the finish line to look at the line ahead, at me, I could see a sneer manifest itself on his face and creep away as slowly as it came. I tried to find his intentions, using my secret ability once again. I hostilely glanced at him every time he celebrated under the nose of our coach. I couldn’t seem to get inside his mind. I usually could sense the clockwork gears churning and sparking in someone’s mind. I could find nothing, his mind was locked. I never made my disbelief apparent. Did he possess a counter ability? I never found out. His secretive smug look gave me the feeling that he knew what was happening.
       Trying to pry open my enemy’s mind, I began to notice physical setbacks from my mental toil. One day, I was second. The next I was third. Fourth, fifth, until I was barely above the cut for a bright future in high school track. I even tried to brainwash and convince myself that I was not trying hard enough. I felt like I was loosing connection with my own powers, beginning to feel paranoid about whether or not my abilities were really mine or was it fate’s master plan to steal my confidence away when I needed them the most. Fate, I thought to myself, it is uncontrollable for it controls us. Borderline sixth to seventh place in my track team sequence, I told myself that the abilities I had owned most of my life were genuinely mine. Yet it became a lost cause. If they were mine, and if I was a unique anomaly, then why did my powers not work on some people? A war between my sense of righteousness and sportsmanship was beginning. Moral and practical barriers were being broken. I was channeling every last ounce of strength to manipulate the minds of my own teammates who had managed to climb the ladder while I descended it. I was draining up the already dried up reservoir of my mind. A deep feeling that I knew I wasn’t supposed to have grew inside me I was going to cheat. I began putting in after hours, desperately clinging onto sanity, on the verge of surrendering to its dark, perpetual, and unceasing opposite unforgiving anarchy. The faded red of the track behind school became the flaming fires of untapped, uncontrollable rage that made me want to do one thing: win. I want to succeed, I would say to myself over and over again, not sure if running endlessly was helping me get better or launching me further into sheer madness.
       A week before the race. Daytime swallowed up by its counterpart pitch blackness. Sweat. Another sleepless night amid the blazing and burning lights that illuminate the track below. No one was in sight. The only sound was the fast pitter-patter of rubber against rubber. I had lost track of my distance. A feeling swept over me, I was being watched. I jerked my head around. For a brief moment, I thought I saw staring someone directly at me, perched on one of the stands on the opposite side of the field. A silhouette of someone. Neon blue caught my eye. I blinked. No one. Was it my mind? My very own conscience turning against me? My mind was torn apart. I had the ability that no one else had winning seemed so easy. Yet, it all fell out of my hands because of my rage. Finding myself halfway down the straightaway to the finish line and halfway in between the different battling sides of my mind, I started running. It became a stride, running at full force, nearing the finish line. Ten meters away. Five meters. Three meters. Then I sprung forward, rolling over the finish, tumbling into a ball and standing back up. It felt good to break the rules. I felt in control of something new. Not a power that I had, but a sense of rebellious freedom that from deep down inside I knew I had before. I felt satisfied. I felt confident. I felt a revival of my secret ability.
       The day of the race. Packed onto the starting line. Fog hung in the air, clinging onto anything and everything. In the distance, I saw a man with the starting gun. A deep breath.
“On your marks… ” the same giddy and jittery feeling. The gunshot ringing in my ears. A split second for my legs to catch up and start moving. The moments following were complete chaos, and then, out in the open. I found myself around tenth. I saw the kid with neon blue spikes ahead of me at first. A series of turns and twists. Shoving people left and right, making my way up the horde. Second place, the pitter patter, blue rubber against the red rubber of the track in front of me, my new found energy flowing through me like a violent torrent, mighty yet uncontrollable. The blue now was accompanied by checkered white and black, and we were blasting through the long straightaway. A force that seemed to come from out of nowhere swept me off my feet, making me sprint uncontrollably. I wanted revenge, and an instinct that seemed so foreign, yet wanted to me. I was still in my trance running faster than I ever had before. For the first time, I was eye to eye with the kid in the blue spikes. We were 200 meters from the finish. We locked eyes. A silent war turned into an ironically timed staring contest only, I didn’t really know who my opponent was. 150 meters away, my brain not only split in half morally, but also divided by the physical demand at hand. I tried using my power again. Neck to neck, running to the finish line. The wind was materializing into thick, sticky sheets layering onto our face. Blue and I came into the first two places. People kept on tumbling into us. It was chaos. I saw the tag collector as he accepted my tag second.

Then, I got an idea. I focused really hard to get the collector to switch our tags, mine first. Immediately, I was knocked down by the impatiently violent crowd surging behind me. I saw the collector stutter for a second, an incredulous and worried look creeping over his face, lift the tags, delicately switch them, then put them back, stacked, mine first. A deep breath of relief. A cold, dull medal was shoved into my face.

I walked over to the stands. Gingerly looking up at the leaderboards. First. Mixed feelings in my heart flooded me like the butterflies I had experienced at the starting line. I was euphoric yet confused. I looked back at the crowds, and saw one face in particular stare back at me in a haunting way. I looked back at the ground, at the dirty medal in my hand. I hurled it at the ground, with a satisfying and ear piercing cling.

Holocaust Poems

1. Mozelle Family
Opportunities revealing through time.
Processed and then paused;
The Revolutionary War.
Colonies gaining power and independence.
The Civil War.
People fighting for compassion
and for rights.
Life continued and then broken;
Death affecting people’s lives.
The Vietnam War.
Death making people
Notice complications and have pity.
Moments in time,
One moment;
Hard concrete pressed against sorrow filled faces
of children, adults.
Breathless humans hurtled and thrown into dark cells.
Swastika and Nazi flags everywhere.
A breakthrough.
An opportunity to get away from inhumane acts of disgrace
from soldiers giving up on what is right.
One family after another
guided into the new world
to a better life and opportunity.
Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters
all wanting the new beginning
of forgetting their terrible
lives in Europe.
The invasions,
Concentration camps,
ghettos.
Children knowing that their nightmares have been real
and their unforgettable past following them wherever they go.
Through forests, across bridges
to the supposedly enchanted world,
the family follows trust and instinct
to their new life, wanting it to come faster.
Their only vision of home in Austria,
the mountains and lakes.
The ambrosial food,
the familiar scenery.
No new world will ever be like it.
One family,
Breaking away
from horrid monsters,
Nazis.
Traveling
on the wrong rollercoaster,
bumping up and down,
upside down.
2. Father
One step out of there,
the sound of breaking glass
and marching of soldiers boots
never escaping my head.
Never a night without
flashbacks of this horrible past.
Leader of the house,
that’s what I am.
Protect mother,
protect daughter,
protect son.
Who is supposed to protect me?
Live in Austria.
Live in the New World.
What’s the difference?
I pave the path towards
our superior landing.
The New World will be
full of opportunities for work.
It will be an easier life
with less pain and loss.
But it will involve a lot of sacrifice like in Austria.
I don’t know if I am ready for that.
3. Mother
March 12, 1938.
That day seems almost fictitious.
Troops barging in, invading
searching homes,
and kicking people out.
Before, life was at ease.
Care for my children,
Now, life is morbid.
Save my children.
One deep breath
and we’re out.
But no,
no we can’t be.
If the Nazis did all of this to us,
why aren’t we dead?
We fought and fought,
sacrificed and agonized.
All this pressure and pain
for a mother?
It can’t end like this.
I need to wake up
from this nightmare.
I need to be
in the New World.
Now.
4. Daughter
Those small yellow stars.
Forced onto my collar.
Just eleven years old.
Why did we have to wear them?
Discrimination?
Identity clarity?
Kicked out of school.
No more fun.
Just empty breathing,
cramped in small rooms.
Daydreaming of life before.
Happily helping Mother do laundry.
Family Shabbat on Friday night.
The way Father would pick me up and spin me around.
The way Mother would bake delicious palatschinken with sprinkled sugar.
The way Brother would play jump rope with me.
But now,
Father just paces around.
Mother is too tired to cook.
Brother isn’t allowed to play jump rope with me
5. Brother
Jewish.
What does that even mean?
Does it mean
going to Hebrew School every week?
Does it mean
saying prayers?
Now,
It means wearing the yellow stars
and being discriminated,
thrown in pits or cells
like animals.
Trapped in a small room,
a sob,
a cry for help.
Then silence.
And more silence.
Who am I supposed to be?
A son to Mother and Father.
A brother to Sister.
A Jew.
A human.
I read books where characters
Get to travel the world,
Going to places like Australia or Peru.
I don’t have to be just Jewish,
I can travel the world without being so discriminated.
I am so much more than just Jewish
So then why aren’t I treated like that?
6. Flashback
Before the Nazis,
before antisemitism.
A happy Austrian family.
Mother, Father, Daughter, Son,
nescient to what shall come their way.
Children with education
Parents with occupations like teachers or journalists,
oblivious,
pompous towards their life.
Schools, cinemas, pools.
Jump Rope, ball games, Math.
No violent hate.
No bias.
Just life wrapped inside of itself,
with no understanding how to act bad or wrong,
How to treat people without compassion.
A simple life with no genocide.
7. Nazi Soldier
Force.
Orders.
Demands.
Throw them in a pit!
Shoot a mother!
The life is horrible.
I don’t want to kill people.
I just have to obey my father,
the captain of our Nazi Youth Group.
Before joining the Youth Group,
I wanted to be a teacher
Giving children more opportunities
To get out of Austria while they can,
Just as I always hoped to do.
I read books and watched films
About America.
The business and chances to become a better person.
So different from the world I live in now.
Each morning the same thing.
Gratify Hitler,
go kill Jews.
I’m tired of all of this genocide,
the killings,
the camps.
Losing sleep over how
Much pain these jews must be going through
Just because they have different beliefs.
When will it be over?
I don’t hate Jews.
I am going to keep this guilt
inside of me
forever.
This aching inside of my head
reminding me of how horrible I am.
I feel trapped inside this bubble
of killing repetition.
8. Mozelle Family
Opportunities revealing through time.
Processed and then paused,
continued and then broken.
Moments in time, one moment;
A new beginning
for those who have suffered.
The family traveled
Alongside their own stories
of their past.
Painful moments, less painful moments.
Breaking trusts and
folding up sheets of memories
to be kept safely away
where no one will find them.
But now a new life has begun.
The New World full of immigrants
and people longing for their opportunity.
Families who have traveled
through forests, across bridges
to the supposedly enchanted world.
They have arrived
to create a new life.
Father is a milkman.
Mother is a seamstress.
Son is a construction worker.
Daughter goes to school.
Missing Austria,
they are barely living with the past.
Every night
They fall asleep hoping
Hitler won’t find them
and come running.

A Sketch of a Morning Walk in Late Summer

It’s early, only 7:30, but my mother and sister are awake and talking quietly in the kitchen. I ask if I may go for a walk around the street. With permission, I tiptoe to the door. Why am I tiptoeing? Everyone at home is awake. My father is already at work, and my brother is away for the summer. So why am I tiptoeing? It feels like the right thing to do today, on this bright early morning.

I open the large white wooden door. It slowly creaks open. The screen door awaits. I reach to open it –– but, oh, then I remember, I forgot my sandals. I tip-toe to the shoe rack and strap on my sky-blue sandals. Now I’m really ready to go. It will not be a long walk, just around our street and the neighboring one.

I open the screen door and close it carefully, so it won’t slam and wake the neighbors. I don’t tiptoe anymore, as I start my little walk, but merely walk quietly, slowly, to best take in the beautiful surroundings and fresh air. It’s a little bit on the cold side, but it’s August, and in a month summer will be over and gone. I’m not ready for summer to end yet. I still want to go to the pool and learn how to do a dive off the diving board. I still want to experiment with our new ice cream machine and learn how to make mint chocolate ice cream that doesn’t taste like toothpaste. There’s still a lot to be done this summer, and I’m glad because of it. But I think that when summer ends, it will end peacefully, yielding to the bright red and gold autumn. I can never decide what color matches summer best. Blue, like the water in the pool? Light brown, like an ice cream cone? What should it be?

I reach the end of our street and turn onto the other street. I see the house that two years ago had been white. A year ago, a tree was blown onto that house’s roof, and the house was damaged. But now, the house looks great! It’s a medium blue. When our neighbors hired someone to repair it, they also decided to have the house expanded. Now that they have two children, they decided to add a few more rooms to the house. All the construction work is done. Their house is beautiful.

I have now reached the end of the street, a dead end, I turn around to go back to our street. All the way back, I daydream, unaware of my surroundings. Suddenly, I snap out of my daydream, and I can’t even remember what I was dreaming about. I realize that I’ve already reached my house. I hesitate before walking inside. I hear my sister, practicing the piano. I smell oatmeal with cinnamon cooking from the kitchen. I decide to go inside. It was a lovely walk, but now my day awaits me. I’m ready to jump into it, refreshed from my morning walk in late summer.

Dead on the Floor

Some people are just naturally gullible. L used to be one of them. Starting when he was in elementary school, he had the reputation for falling for even the most obvious tricks, which made him a top target for pranks. When he entered the land of real life, the pranks suddenly became serious, and he started losing real money for them. It could even be funny in a way how easily he fell for these scams, but unfortunately L is no longer around to tell us about them. He now lives in the afterlife of police investigations and gag orders.

Getting to that point usually involves long stories, hitmen, or money. The latter two played a big part in L’s situation, but the story isn’t as long as you might think.

One day, L was on a pirated TV website on his endless and hopeless quest to have one of his favorite teams, whether it be Real Madrid, the New England Patriots, or the Boston Celtics, actually win a championship. After clicking the link for the Real Madrid vs. Malaga game, he was flooded with advertisements for 30 seconds before he could watch the game.

The biggest advertisement, in the middle of the screen, showed a sloppily photoshopped image of a smiling man holding a stock photo of $100 bills. This didn’t matter to L, nor to any of the other suckers who were dumb enough to fall for this. Next to the man, there was a colorful, inviting box with the words “GET MONEY NOW!” scribbled onto it. As you might expect, L proudly clicked on the link and was redirected several times until he landed on a webpage titled “Stock Marketplace –– Tutorial.”

L quickly read through the instructions, how important could they be? He checked the box that said he had read the terms of service and agreed with them, and clicked the “next” button. The next page asked for his credit card number. L had promised himself to be a little bit more careful with his spending after his credit score tanked. He had been warned that a debt collector would show up at his house and they would have an unpleasant conversation. He got out of that situation by pleading with his “friend” from middle school who now worked at a very important government position to give him a loan. The friend wasn’t too happy to lend him the money, mainly because he knew he would never see it again, but out of compassion he reluctantly agreed.

L didn’t want to get back in the same situation, because he had a feeling his “friend” had limits to how much money he was going to donate to someone he probably hated very much.  However, believing that this “Stock Marketplace” was going to earn him money like the ad said, he took the risk.

Once he got onto the site, he saw he could make a “risk-free investment” of $50. He put it in a random stock, waited a minute, and then he got a message saying ‘congratulations, your investment is now worth $60.” He had earned $10 in a minute. Of course, he had no idea that the stocks were fake and that this was basically a rigged gambling website, but nobody who knew him would expect him to figure that out.

He decided that he would put a lot more money on the next stock. If he earned $10 with a $50 investment then with a $5,000 investment he would earn $1,000. It was something he had learned years ago in algebra class –– proportions, he thought. He clicked the button, and after a minute of glossing over the thought of finally getting rid of all his debts, even the one to his “friend,” he finally understood that this made-up stock market didn’t run on proportions.

Sorry, the screen said in small font, but your investment is now worth only $400. That was all. L stared at the screen for a minute, understanding that for the millionth time in his life he had been ripped off.

He just kept on staring at the screen for a couple minutes, but he was interrupted by a notification from his phone. He took it out of his pocket and saw that it was an alert from his credit card company. They had canceled his transaction with Stock Marketplace because it was blacklisted. At first he didn’t understand what transaction the app was talking about, he hadn’t pressed any buttons, but then he realized that the website was automatically charging him for each investment he lost money in. Anyway, he had been saved again, this time by Bank of America, and that meant a celebration. He turned off his computer and headed for his favorite bar.

He spent a long time in the bar, trying to attract girls with his stories of being miraculously saved from getting into bad situations. This obviously didn’t work, it only reinforced everyone’s belief that he was a loser lucky to be alive. Eventually, like every other time he came to this place, he gave up around midnight, walked back the five blocks to his apartment, and fell asleep.

The next morning, L was woken up very early, at around five a.m., by his phone ringing. He reached for it from his nightstand, and saw that he had been continuously called for half an hour by someone whose caller ID was 0000. Apparently he was in such a deep sleep he hadn’t noticed. He pressed talk and wondered who would call at such a disturbingly early hour.

It could be Marco, the owner of the neighborhood coffee shop where he had applied for a job. It could also be his landlord complaining about the lateness of his rent payments. And maybe, just maybe, it could be Marie, his ex-girlfriend who had broken up with him after he had dropped out of UDC. L had stalked her Instagram and Snapchat and saw that she was still single, which left the slight possibility that she might want to come back to him.

However, it was none of the above. The voice on the other end was very deep and sounded vaguely Russian. He said his name was Eddie and suggested that they go straight to business. L wasn’t really awake enough to talk business but Eddie didn’t seem to care.

“As the treasurer of Stock Marketplace company,” he said, “I alert you that you owe us $4,600 American dollars. You have 15 hours to put money in box outside your building. No police, we have gun.” He then said something in another language, and L heard something that sounded like someone banging on a trash can, and then screaming. Before L could explain his financial troubles to Eddie, he hung up.

Most people would think this was a dumb prank. Not L, he believed everything the man said. And that meant he needed to come up with $4,600 quickly.

Why does this always have to happen to me? he asked himself. Every year, he thought, I get ripped off by some idiotic creep who sometimes isn’t even trying to rip me off, but it always ends up with me being thousands of dollars in debt. That was true, but he comforted himself by remembering that he always got out of these situations in the end. Three times his parents had bailed him out, last time his “friend” did it. Neither were likely to do so again. He had no obvious options.

The reason that L always got out of these situations is that when he really wanted to use it, he had a very good memory.  The reason he didn’t like using it was that there was probably a lot more stuff he would like to forget than remember. But this was a life-or-death situation. And if he could vaguely remember the name of one person who might be able to help him, then he would be on the life side. And if he didn’t, then he was screwed.

L thought very hard. The one place where he remembered that he met a lot of rich and smart people was two years ago in his 8th grade reunion. Everyone who bothered to come had just graduated from college and had gotten a good job. He had just started going to UDC, which was enough to please some of his teachers. He remembered that he had been given a paper with everyone’s name, job, and phone number. Of course, he had lost it. But then he thought harder, and he remembered that they put the paper on the school website.

He quickly opened the browser on his phone and went to alicedeal.org. The paper wasn’t on the front page, and he wouldn’t expect it to be there because it was two years old. He started going to random pages until under the “ADCA” tab he found a page that said “alumni.” He selected his school year and soon found what he had been looking for, the list of all the people who came to the reunion.

First he looked at the names, trying to find some of the people that were close enough to him to remember who he was. Only one came to the reunion, a short German kid who was a lawyer somewhere in New York. He had a feeling he might need a lawyer soon, but that was not an immediate priority. Then he started looking at the jobs. He was looking for some banker or maybe a cop or security guard. There were four people that worked in the financial industry, he knew none of them. There was one cop, one he even knew slightly, but then he remembered Eddie’s warning about “no police.”

Eventually, he found the name of his “friend”, who was a diplomat. Even if he wasn’t going to loan him money, L remembered that he had said that he worked in the International Organized Crime subsection in the State Department, which sort of sounded like what he was facing.

L called the phone number that was listed on the paper. It rang three times, then a message started playing:

“Hello, this is Verizon customer service. The number that you are trying to reach has been temporarily shut down by request of the owner, please try again later. Thank you.”

He called it again, and the same message played. He had no time to waste. He had put a work number there too, and he called it.

“Hello, this is Molly at the Organized Crime section of the State Department, how can I help you?”

L was expecting it to go straight to his friend, not to this person, whoever she is.

“Um, I want to speak with Mr. Lehrer. It’s, you know, uh, extremely urgent.”

“Mr Lehrer left for a post in Moscow last month,” she said.

“Yeah, you see that’s a slight problem. I sort of really need to talk to him.”

“Sorry, I can’t reach him. Even if I could I’m not allowed to disclose information to anonymous strangers. Have a nice day.” She hung up.

L could see that his search wasn’t going anywhere. If his friend was in Moscow, then he probably couldn’t help him. Even if he wasn’t, then he had no way to reach him. Time to try someone else. There was a slight problem with that, though. Everyone else on the list either hated him or had no idea who he was. Then something caught his eye, Adrian Lehrer wasn’t the only person on the list that worked for the State Department. There was another one who worked in the Foreign Aid section.

He only vaguely remembered this guy, Ian, who rode on his bus and was in a class with him once or twice. But he did remember seeing him hanging out with Adrian, which meant they probably knew each other. He dialed the number.

“Hello,” Ian answered, “who is it?”

“Yeah, I’m L, a person who rode your bus in middle school.”

“I don’t remember you, what do you want? I’m busy.”

“You remember Adrian Lehrer, he went to Deal?”

“He also works here. He’s in Russia now, what happened to him?”

“Nothing, I just want his number so I can call him. I, um, have important information to give him.”

“What type of important information could you have?”

“Not important, just give me his number.”

“Fine, it’s +7 2365-403-891. Happy now?”

L hung up and immediately dialed the number. It rang once, and then, he heard a message in what he assumed to be Russian. He tried a couple more times, and he kept on getting the same message. He glanced at the clock, it was 10:48 a.m., he only had nine of his 15 hours left to get the money.

He threw his phone on the bed in frustration. Why was his friend so unreachable? The only other option he could think of was to start an online fundraiser, but those never worked. In fact, it seemed as though the only point of online fundraisers was to give you false hope before they inevitably failed. No bank was going to loan him money, and his childhood friends were even less likely to donate to his get-out-of-trouble fund.

But then, he had a new idea. If his friends weren’t going to help him, then maybe his teachers would. He remembered from the reunion that one of them was dead, another was living in another state, and that left his science and math teachers to organize the reunion. His math teacher would probably just tell him “l told you so” and scold him for not listening in the finance lessons. But his science teacher was a different story.

He was a very nice teacher that could do many things, and L was sure he would either loan him money or help him find Adrian. L especially remembered that he sat behind Adrian in that class. L had done many annoying and dumb things to him, which was why Adrian hated him.

L held his breath and dialed the number. It was answered after three rings.

“Hello?” the science teacher asked.

“Hi, um, it’s L, the kid from your fourth period in your first year teaching.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Remember me? I sat behind Adrian but you moved me because I didn’t know how to peer edit an essay.”

“Oh, you. I remember you. What do you want?”

“So, it’s a weird story, but I probably owe some money to some guy Eddie. Problem is no one is going to loan me money.”

“You know, teachers are poor. We don’t make that much money.”

“Fine, you see I think this Eddie is some foreign gangster. Adrian apparently is an expert on these groups and he’s in Russia now with the embassy.”

“Okay.”

“Problem is that I can’t reach him. I got his number from his friend but it dosen’t work. Can you help?”

“Okay, I will try, but I can’t guarantee anything.”

L hung up and sat down on his bed. He had now come to the conclusion that he probably wasn’t going to get the money that he needed to pay Eddie and the best he could do was get some information from Adrian on who exactly he owed money to. Except he wasn’t even sure that would happen considering how hard it had been to make contact with him. He thought about his options for a couple more minutes, and then his phone suddenly buzzed. He picked it up, it was Marco. He had a job.

Once he got to the coffee shop, Marco quickly explained to him his pretty simple job. He was supposed to take orders for customers and type each option on his computer. It was extremely boring, and he even thought about taking all the money from the cash register but he knew Marco would find out before he could get the cash to Eddie. More importantly, he worked from 11:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., leaving him only three hours to get the money once he ended his shift. And he got no messages from his science teacher his entire shift, which probably meant that he hadn’t found Adrian’s number.

He ran the five blocks back to his apartment and decided the only way he could get out of this mess was to run away. He could leave most of his possessions at his house, he had no need for them. He had no idea where he was going to hide, probably in some forest somewhere, although he knew nothing about wilderness survival. And that way he hoped Eddie wouldn’t find him.

With no particular destination in mind, he got on the bus to Union Station with his last remaining money, about $60, and hoped it was enough to buy a train ticket. It probably wasn’t, but that was fine because he could stop at the bank and withdraw the other little money he had there. And if that didn’t work he would sell his computer. Either way, he was somehow going to get enough money to run off to wherever it was that Eddie couldn’t find him.

There was one small problem with that though. When he reached the station, he quickly figured out that $60 wasn’t enough to buy a train ticket. So he went to an ATM, except it didn’t work. He put in his PIN three times, but it always gave him an error message. He was sure he put it in right, but he was running out of time so he decided to try his last option, pawning his computer.

That wasn’t going to work either, because as he discovered, there weren’t any Apple stores in Union Station, and he was doubtful he could do it anywhere else. Not only could he not get any money, but by looking at the signs, he discovered that he needed an ID to get on the train, and he had left it at home. He was stuck in DC, unless he felt like endlessly walking toward some imaginary place.

At first, he panicked. But then he realized that DC was a big city. He could hide in some place downtown and no one could find him. He didn’t know where exactly that place was, but he knew he was safer hiding in an alley then in his apartment, where Eddie knew where he was. He just walked out of the station and found a Starbucks nearby. He decided to sit there until it closed, then he could figure out his hiding place for tonight.

While he was there, he thought about what the people in his favorite crime shows would have done. He wasn’t fit enough to win a fight against some gorilla and he couldn’t completely transform himself overnight. The one thing he could remember that nearly everybody did was get rid of their phones, which could be tracked. The AT&T store was across the street, but once he got up, his phone rang. It was his science teacher.

“Listen,”he said “I got Adrian’s number. He’s in a meeting in Belgium.”

“Whatever, what is it?”

“+7 832 4512 043.”

“So it’s a Russian number?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Because I got his Russian number from his friend, but it didn’t work.”

“Why, do you know the friend?”

“No, I mean not since middle school.”

“Then why would he give you the number?”

L shrugged, “I don’t know.”

“Whatever, just call him if you’d like.”

L hung up and quickly dialed this new number. What he didn’t realize was that it was the middle of the night in Brussels.

“Hello?” a tired voice answered.

“It’s L.”

“What do you want? If it’s another loan, then the answer is no, especially at this hour.”

“No it’s not that. I heard you work against organized criminals.”

“I try to, but they are usually smarter than us.”

“Well, I think I have a little problem with this guy Eddie who wants to kill me because he thinks I owe him money.”

“Who is he, a loan shark?”

“No, a scammer.”

“What’s new?”

“Well, do you actually owe him money?”

“Sort of.”
“What do you mean, sort of?”

“I lost a lot of money to his thing called Stock Marketplace. But I think it was rigged.”

“Wait, you fell for that scam? Me and my EU colleagues would probably agree that you’re the first. And in that case, no I’m not giving you any money, so good luck paying them back.” And with that, he hung up.

L dropped his phone on the floor. The whole reason he had not ran out of the city in the morning was that he was sure he would get advice and maybe money from his friend. Before he could decide what to do, someone tapped him on the shoulder. L looked up at her.

“Have you ever heard of the opportunities you could get by trading Forex?” she asked.

“No.” L had no idea what that was.

“If you want to hear about them, then come with me to the back.”

L stood up and followed her to the back.

“So this Forex thing, how does it work?” L asked.

“It doesn’t,” the woman said. In a quieter voice she asked, “Where’s the money?” She put a gun to his chest.

“At my house,” L said. And with that lie, a silenced gunshot entered his body, and two seconds later he was dead on the floor.

Cream Puffs

        

“Okay everyone, get in the limousine!” Summer Jennings told her friends, quickly ushering everyone into the sleek black car.

Willow Darbee climbed in the limousine and looked in awe at her amazing surroundings. There were four separate snack bars, lounge cushions, massage chairs, fuzzy rugs, throw pillows, reclining chairs, and three TV screens. Summer had invited twelve of her friends to see a movie with her for her thirteenth-and-a-half birthday. Her real birthday was in August, so she was celebrating now in late February. Of course, they would all be travelling to the movie by limousine, Summer’s preferred form of transportation. Willow and Summer were in no way close friends, but they had a lot of mutual friends and didn’t hate each other, so Summer had invited her. As they all sat around, talking and eating, Summer started to describe the movie to her friends, saying that it was called Cream Puffs, and was about things mysteriously disappearing. Willow thought this sounded like a pretty good movie, so when they arrived at the theater she was pretty excited to watch it.

“Lucinda? Why are on earth are you getting popcorn? It’s awful for your teeth. You’re going to end up looking like an old toothless hag if you eat popcorn,” said Summer rudely as they were heading to the theater.

Lucinda rolled her eyes and walked away from Summer to talk her best friend, Molly, offering absolutely massive bags of popcorn to everyone at the party except for Summer. Lucinda and Summer had always hated each other ever since kindergarten, when they were dressing up and role playing. Summer was the queen, so she made all the decisions for who played what role. She told Lucinda she couldn’t be a princess or anyone in the royal family, but she could be a rock if she really wanted to. Lucinda was extremely aggravated by this, and she drew with markers all over Summer and Summer’s cubby. Then, when the teachers came Lucinda pretended Summer did it. That was the beginning of their enmity.

Over the years, Lucinda and Summer’s hatred for each other had grown immensely, but they had always had to invite each other to their birthday parties because their parents were friends, and they had a lot of the same friends. Pretty much everyone knew at this point that the two of them hated each other, and Lucinda and Summer were just fine with that.

Lucinda and Willow were pretty good friends, but Lucinda could be extremely rude sometimes, so they didn’t spend a whole lot of time together. Willow’s best friend was Eliza Kenter, but she attended the school Willow used to go to, Lepper Prep. Willow and all the girls at the party attended Orlan Academy, an all-girls school in Hartford, Connecticut. The girls settled themselves in their seats just as the previews were beginning, Lucinda and Summer still fuming at each other. Willow was seated between Lauren Ender, a sweet girl who was constantly losing all of her belongings, and Lindsay Pinser. Lindsay was fairly nice, but she tended to be very judgmental. One time, when Willow had sneezed, most people had said “Bless you!”, but Lindsay had stared at her and said “Okayyy….” as though she had just done something incredibly weird and unusual.

The first preview in the theater was for a documentary called Everyone Dies, in which everyone died. Willow had distinctly heard Lindsay say, “Okayyy….” when this trailer was playing. The next one was for an action movie called “Let’s Go!” where there was a lot of action. The next few were for comedies, thrillers, or coming-of-age movies. Finally, Cream Puffs began. The first scene took place at a school where all the girls were running around, skipping, laughing and getting along. Very unlike Orlan Academy, Willow thought to herself. But then, in the second scene, things started mysteriously disappearing, and everyone started getting mad at each other. That seemed more like Orlan Academy. There was someone at the school who was stealing everyone’s stuff, and whenever they took something they left a Cream Puff in its place. Willow thought this seemed pretty ridiculous, but it actually worked in the movie. All of the characters were so excited when they saw the cream puff that they ate it, and it took a while for people to realize things were missing. When they finally did, everyone started turning against each other, and falsely accusing girls of stealing their belongings. Then, all the girls were invited to a fancy party where jewels were stolen, and the thief was discovered.

It was at this time that most of the girls in the theater had started spacing out, dozing, or texting. The dialogue was so dull and the plot so strange that it was very hard to pay attention. Willow was playing chopsticks with Lauren, Lucinda and Molly were texting, and Lindsay was taking selfies. (Which was very strange, because you couldn’t even see her face in the dark, slightly creepy movie theater.)

Only Summer was still watching the movie. Poor Summer had thought that maybe this party would be a chance to redeem herself. The rock incident, the comment about Lucinda’s future life as a hag, and many other instances had made many of Summer’s “friends” think she was mean and annoying. And she definitely could be at times, but she thought maybe this would be a chance for her to start over. Now, though, no one was paying attention to Summer on her half birthday, or the movie she had chosen. Willow noticed that Summer seemed a bit upset, so after they had left and were driving back to their various houses she sat with Summer in the limousine.

“Hi Summer!” Willow said cheerfully as she sat down next to her. “Thanks so much for inviting me to your birthday party! It was so fun!”

“Oh, you’re welcome!” said Summer. “It was actually my half birthday, though. And I bet it would have been much more fun if not for that awful Lucinda.” Summer whispered this last part under her breath. “She’s just horrible! And I can’t believe she ate popcorn! I mean, how stupid can a person be? Lucinda never fails to amaze me,” said Summer. Whenever she discussed Lucinda she looked as though she had a very unpleasant smell under her nose. Summer made rude but occasionally accurate comments about Lucinda throughout the rest of the limousine ride, Willow nodding her head every once in awhile.

***

The next day at school, strange things started happening. The first odd occurrence was Lucinda’s shriek. Lucinda could be quite the drama queen sometimes, but she almost never screamed quite this loudly.

“Lucinda, what’s wrong?”

“Lucinda, can I help you?”

“Lucinda, is everything okay?”

All the girls rushed to her side to see what Lucinda was yelling about. She was standing in front of her locker with a look of horror and confusion on her face. Willow was surprised at Lucinda’s look of confusion, for she usually acted as though she knew everything and made it seem like she always understood what to do. Lucinda almost never looked confused though.

“Well,” said Lucinda, taking a deep breath, trying to calm herself, “I got an olive green and white striped leather jacket last weekend, and I wore it to school today. I got a ton of compliments, by the way. Well, I was going to get it out just now, but it’s gone! All that’s there is a teddy bear holding a heart that says ‘I’m sorry.’ And that jacket was really expensive!”

All the girls gasped, shocked that anyone would steal something. Willow’s head was spinning. This seemed an awful lot like the movie: something goes missing and another thing is left in its place. But why would anyone do something like that, and who? It must have been someone who saw the movie, Willow thought to herself. They must have gotten the idea when they saw it. Who, though? Could it be Lucinda herself, and she was just trying to get attention or somehow blame it on Summer? No, somehow Willow didn’t think it was her; she seemed so truly upset. What about Summer? Summer had hated Lucinda since the day they met, and maybe she was trying to get revenge. It honestly didn’t seem like Summer though. What would she even do with the jacket? If she wore it, everyone would know she was the thief, so it probably wasn’t her. Willow pondered who it could be as she walked into the bathroom. She was distracted from thinking about it as she heard someone sobbing in one of the stalls! Willow was taken aback by this, and wasn’t sure whether to ask, “Are you okay?” or to pretend she couldn’t hear. She decided it was probably best to ask if they were okay. She did, and through their crying Willow managed to hear, “Yeah I’m fine, thanks for asking. Don’t worry, and please don’t tell anyone.”

“I won’t tell anyone,” said Willow awkwardly. She decided to leave and just let the girl be. That was the end of the second strange occurrence. Willow thought the voice sounded incredibly familiar, but didn’t quite know who it was. They sounded so sad, and almost nervous, that it was hard to tell who they were. In a way they almost sounded as if they were trying to change their voice. Could they be crying because something of theirs that was very precious to them had been stolen? And could they have been trying to change their voice so Willow wouldn’t know it was them? Did they even know Willow, or that she was the one speaking? She assumed they knew her, since their voice sounded so familiar.

As Willow walked back to her classroom to get her books for her next class, she realized how badly she needed to use the bathroom. She walked up to the science classroom, put her books down in a seat, and ran to the bathroom as fast as she could. Her teacher, Mrs. Undergen, was very strict and enjoyed handing out unfair punishments if a student was late to class. Willow ran back to the science classroom after, but unfortunately Mrs. Undergen was already waiting there, shaking her head.

“Willow, I must admit I am extremely disappointed in you. You are usually such a good student, and now? You are fifty-one seconds late to class? Really? Since this is your first time being tardy, you will only have to do two extra pieces of homework.”

“I’m so sorry, thank you so much for your generosity,” said Willow, trying to sound as sincere as possible. She sat down in her seat next to Lauren and throughout the class quietly complained to her about how much she hated Mrs. Undergen, and told her about the missing jacket. Lauren seemed shocked at this and said, “But who would ever want to do that? Obviously they’d be caught, and everyone knows how strict the punishments are. Also, they’d have Lucinda as an enemy for life.”

“That’s true,” Willow whispered back, “I really don’t understand it.” Unfortunately, Willow said this last phrase rather loudly, and the whole class heard.

“You know what else you don’t understand?!” Mrs. Undergen asked, clearly extremely annoyed. “Proper etiquette. You arrive late to class, now you’re talking while I’m talking? I’m quite disappointed in you. Three extra homework assignments for tonight.”

Willow sighed. This was going to be a fun evening.

***

That afternoon, Willow went to swim practice where she got to see her friend Eliza. Willow had recently joined the swim team, which was great because she had gotten to see Eliza a lot more.

“Eliza, the craziest thing happened today at school! You know that girl Lucinda? I think I’ve told you about her. Well, today, her special leather jacket went missing, and a teddy bear holding a heart that said ‘I’m sorry’ was left in its place!”

Eliza gasped. “That’s so weird! Who do you think stole it?”

“I don’t know, but I’m trying to figure it out,” said Willow. “And the weirdest thing is that when I went to Summer’s birthday party, we saw a movie where things were being stolen, and cream puffs were left in their place!”

“It must have been someone at the party,” Eliza said decisively. “They definitely got the idea from seeing the movie.”

“Yeah, I think you’re right. But, someone might have told the thief about the movie, and then they got the idea. That makes the whole thing even more complicated,” Willow said with a sigh.

Willow thought about who the thief could be throughout the whole night: before, during, and after finishing her three difficult science homework assignments, plus all the other homework.

“Yay Mrs. Undergen,” Willow grumbled when she had finished all her homework, fairly late at night.

The next day at school, something else went missing. Molly, who was usually always happy and smiling, looked very upset, so naturally everyone rushed over to her to interrogate her about what had happened. Most people assumed the mysterious teddy bear thief had struck again, and they were correct.

“My phone case was stolen!” exclaimed Molly, after everyone had asked her what had gone missing. “I keep my phone in my backpack, in my desk, and my phone is still there but the phone case is gone, and now there’s a tiny teddy bear holding a heart that says ‘I’m sorry’ that definitely wasn’t there before. And I got the case only a few weeks ago!”

Everyone within ten feet of Molly gasped and asked questions. Now that there had been a second theft, Willow was even more determined to discover the thief, but she didn’t want to be too obvious about her investigations. She decided to simply ask questions and do her best to notice things around her and make observations about the thefts. Willow had always been a very cautious person ever since was five years old, when she was sitting on the roof of her family’s boathouse in the country with Eliza. It seemed very safe because they were sitting just right outside the window, and their parents had approved it saying that they could stay there for a bit as long as they didn’t go any farther. Willow and Eliza were making friendship bracelets, and one of Eliza’s beads rolled down the roof, toward the very edge.

“I’ll get it for you!” Willow had said cheerfully, climbing to the bottom of the roof.

“No! Willow, we’re supposed to stay up here!” little Eliza had said, furrowing her eyebrows worriedly.

“Oh, don’t worry!” said Willow. “I’ll be fine.” But she wasn’t fine. She reached for the bead, and fell off the roof. Eliza screamed and was so scared she crawled to the bottom of the roof to see if Willow was okay. Then Eliza fell off too. Willow was so upset, and felt that she was the one who had hurt her friend. They both had to get ten stitches on their arms, and ever since then Willow has been much more cautious, and has taken an annoyingly long time to make any decision.

Willow’s next class was English, so she gathered her books and left for class, still wondering who had stolen the items. She was a bit inclined to think it was Summer, since she hated Lucinda, and Lucinda’s best friend was Molly, but she thought Summer was too smart to do something like that, since she would have realized that Lucinda and Molly would probably think it was her.

During English class, Willow sat with Lindsay, and it occurred to her that maybe it was Lindsay. She did have an obsession with phones, so it made sense that she would want it to look as nice as possible. Also, whenever anyone else got something new, Lindsay always wore an expression of deep disgust and jealousy on her face, especially since, as she had mentioned many times before, Lindsay’s parents were very strict and didn’t believe in buying her what they called “non essential products.”  

“Lindsay,” Willow whispered as quietly as she possibly could. (She didn’t want another Mrs. Undergen incident.) “What’s your favorite color?” Lindsay looked at Willow oddly. “What?”

“I said,” Willow told her exasperatedly, “What’s your favorite color?”

“Um, I don’t know,” said Lindsay. “I guess maybe blue.”

“Me too!” said Willow. “Do you like, for instance, olive green?”
Lindsay wrinkled her nose. “No, it’s nasty. Why are you asking?”

“Oh, just doing a survey,” said Willow. The real reason was because she wanted to discover if Lindsay liked the olive green color on Lucinda’s stolen jacket. If she didn’t, though, why would she have stolen it? Could she have known why Willow was asking all along, and had lied on purpose? And could Lindsay have been the girl crying in the bathroom?

Willow pondered all these things in her next class, art, but she was distracted by a moment by the adorable bear Lauren was painting, and the beautiful puffin a girl named Katherine Linner was painting. Willow looked sadly at the demented looking goat she had just finished added a pink stripe of watercolor paint to. She had never been a great artist.

***

The next day at school, there was a third crime. Katherine’s beautiful painting of a puffin had gone missing! When everyone asked her about what had happened, Katherine said, “Well, I put it in my desk yesterday all wrapped up in the brown paper, but I forgot to take it home because I slipped on some newspaper and got distracted, and then I had to clean up the newspaper, and then I went to the bathroom where I heard…” Willow had stopped listening to the story, Katherine had a tendency to talk on and on and on about anything she could think of, and Willow just wanted to her to get the point. Fortunately, three minutes later, she did.

“… and now my artwork is gone, with a — ”

“Teddy bear holding a heart that says ‘I’m sorry,’” everyone finished for her. They all knew by now the thief’s habits.

In her next class, Math, which was conveniently also in her homeroom, Willow sat next to Lauren and said to her, “Three things have gone missing in three days! This is really getting out of hand.”

Lauren nodded her head. “I totally agree. A few people told the teachers, but they said the items had probably just been misplaced for some reason. Even though they said it was against the rules to go into someone’s desk, they said that the teddy bear was a sweet gesture, but I don’t know how they explained the ‘I’m sorry’ part.”

Lauren went back to her math worksheet and seemed very intent in adding up the numbers. Lauren’s family wasn’t able to pay their rent, and she had been trying to figure out exactly how much money she had and what houses they could afford, so she was now very concerned with becoming amazing at math.

After what seemed like a never-ending math class, Willow was about to rush to the water fountain (her infuriating teacher Mr. Quininin hadn’t let her get water) when she slipped on some newspaper. That’s funny, Willow thought to herself. Katherine had mentioned she slipped on some newspaper too.

Suddenly, everything made sense. Willow knew exactly who had been stealing.

***

Ten minutes later, during her break period, after writing and rewriting drafts of what she was going to say, Willow was ready to accuse the thief. She marched straight up to her and said, “Lauren, I know it was you. You were at the movie, so you got the idea from it, but changed it slightly. You were the girl crying in the bathroom two days ago, because you were upset about your family not being able to pay the rent, and you felt awful about stealing the jacket. You did it so you could sell it and your family would have more money. Then in science class, you acted like you didn’t know about the jacket having gone missing, but I remember now that you were there when Lucinda told everyone. Then, yesterday, you were the one who stole Molly’s phone case so you could sell it. And you kept on leaving the teddy bears because you love bears, which I figured out yesterday during art class. I’m assuming you were planning to sell your painting, but you also wanted to sell Katherine’s. Katherine mentioned she slipped on the newspaper. Your desk is right in between mine and Katherine’s and your newspaper from yesterday must have fallen off your desk onto the floor. I slipped on another one of your newspapers little while ago, and noticed it had a bunch of ads for apartments in it. You were looking for a new house for your family.”

Lauren was crying. “I feel awful. I just wanted my family to have more money. When I first heard we were going to move out, I tried to get a job but everyone said I was too young and irresponsible. Next, I went to my grandmother and grandfather’s house, and was going to tell them we were going to have to move out. They don’t speak to my parents since they hate my dad. They don’t think he’s wealthy enough. My dad’s parents are dead, so I thought maybe we could move in with them. It turns out, they had been moved to a nursing home and hadn’t told my mother. I thought stealing was our only hope. I promise I’m going to give everyone back their stuff, and own up to it, right now. I haven’t sold it yet, and I haven’t damaged it, or anything.”

Willow gave her a big hug. “It’ll all be okay Lauren, don’t worry. You were just trying to help your family.”

Lauren sniffled. She walked into the principal’s office and bravely told her everything that had happened. The principal was very nice, and understood that Lauren had good intentions. Her punishment was only to own up to and return everything to Lucinda, Molly, and Katherine, and the principal was going to send an email to her parents. If Lauren did this again, she would be suspended.

Willow went home that night relieved that almost everything was going to work out. She told her mom, dad, and younger sister Penelope everything that had happened.

“What should we do to help Lauren’s family?” Willow asked them.

“I really don’t know,” her mom said. “Maybe we should just let them figure this out on their own. I know Lauren’s parents, and they like to be very independent in what they do.”

Willow’s dad nodded his head in agreement, and so did Penelope even though she had no idea what they were talking about.

“I guess so,” said Willow. She still wished there was a way to help.

***

The next day at school, Lauren returned everything and apologized again and again. Lucinda, Molly and Katherine were all very understanding, and everything went back to normal. Lauren, who was so pleased she wasn’t in bigger trouble couldn’t help smiling all the time. It turned out, there was another reason she was so happy.

“Willow, guess what?! I sold my painting for $300! And my mom got promoted at her job, so we have enough money to pay our rent!” Lauren told Willow, clearly overjoyed.

“Lauren that’s amazing!!” exclaimed Willow.

“I know, I’m so happy!” squealed Lauren. “I’m just wondering, but how did you figure out it was me?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Willow breezily. “I guess I’m just that cool.”

A New Understanding

Leto walked down the stairs, into the living room. She was about to turn on the TV, when she heard her brother yelled at her mom.

“Leto, come here and tell your brother to stop being so rude!” yelled her mom. Sighing, Leto put the remote down on the couch, and walked into the dining room.

“Haul, listen to mom, okay?” she said halfheartedly.

Haul rolled his eyes.

“Get in the car, both of you. We’re meeting your dad at the French restaurant today,” her mom said, gathering her stuff on the table and putting them in her purse.

Leto grabbed a bag and shoved her wallet, a light jacket and a book into her bag, along with her phone. Haul put on his sneakers without bothering to tie the laces, and ran down the stairs to the garage. Leto heard her mom mumble, “God, nine-year-olds!”

Leto slipped her sandals on and followed her brother. When she got into the car, Haul asked her, “Leto, why do you think mom and dad are taking us to a restaurant? We never go to restaurants except the pizza place near our house.”

“That’s not really true, Haul. Remember when we went to the Thai place in the city? And the Italian restaurant near your school?” she said, thinking back to when they went out.

“Yah, but that was for my birthday, because I wanted to eat Italian food. You won that basketball game when we went to the thai restaurant,” he replied. Leto frowned, thinking about what Haul had said. If they only eat at restaurants on special occasions, then why would they eat out today? She hadn’t done anything special since the last time they ate out, and neither had Haul. So why were they going to a restaurant?

“Sorry to keep you guys waiting,” said her mom, interrupting her train of thought. Her mom put her purse on the seat next to her, and started the car. While putting her seatbelt on, she added, “Leto, can you open the garage? I forgot to do it.”

Leto sighed, and got out of the car. Why was she always the one who had to do everything? Why didn’t her mom do it herself, or ask her brother sometimes? Leto pressed the button, and opened the garage. She got back into the car, next to her brother.

When they got to the restaurant, her dad was waiting. Her mom got out of the car, looking nervous.

“Hey, Haul. What happened today?” asked her dad.

“Well, I got an A on my math test, and I played with Victor after lunch, and then I had to do homework,” Haul rambled excitedly.

“You have homework? Already?” his dad said, looking surprised.

“Dad, I’ve had homework for like three years now,” Haul said, looking a bit annoyed.

“What about you, Leto?” her dad asked while checking his phone.

Leto began, “Well, um… I walked to school with — ”

“She yelled at me today,” interrupted Haul.

Leto rolled her eyes. “I didn’t yell at you, I just asked you nicely if you could please listen to — ”

“Leto, don’t be mean to your brother,” interrupted her father. Leto rolled her eyes again, annoyed. Why did people keep interrupting her?

“Leto, don’t have an attitude. Stop being such a ‘teenager.’ You’re only thirteen,” her dad said sternly. As a waiter came and showed them to their seats, Haul stuck his tongue out at her. Leto wanted to do the same thing back to him, but didn’t, knowing that she would get into trouble.

After sitting down comfortably in their seats and ordering the food, Leto and Haul’s father cleared his throat. “So Haul, Leto, um… your mother is pregnant,” he began.

“Yay!” screamed Haul.

“Shut up,” Leto whispered to her brother, smiling.

“But, um, the baby is, uh…” said her father awkwardly, scratching the back of his neck.

“Is it a girl? Is it a boy?” asked Haul, not listening to anything his dad said afterwards.

Leto smiled. She loved little kids, because they were so cute and innocent. Even though she knew she would have to take care of her annoying brother more, having a little sister would be worth it. She would be able to dress her up, and give her all of her old clothes. Even if it was a boy, she would have lots of fun playing with him. Even though she was still hoping the baby was a girl….

“Guys,” said her mother, “what your father is trying to say is that the baby has Down syndrome. And even though this is going to be hard, we have decided to keep the baby.”

Everyone fell silent. Then Haul asked, “What’s that?”

“What’s what, honey,” said his mom softly.

“What Down sym-syndr-drum?” Haul asked innocently.

“Abraham?” she said quietly, asking her husband to answer.

He cleared his throat, and said, “Um, well, Haul, Down syndrome is a disability that makes people have mental and sometimes physical problems. Some people always need to be watched, while others can go to school, and live a normal life. It depends on how bad the baby’s condition is. We don’t really know that yet, but we’ll see. If we give this baby the correct treatment when its young, he or she can live normally when they grow up.”

Haul looked stunned. Leto felt like she was having a nightmare, and she would wake up, and it would all disappear.

The waitress brought the food out, but they all sat in silence. Then Haul sloppily served himself some food, and began chewing loudly.

“Haul, close your mouth! You are so embarrassing,” Leto whispered, annoyed. This was all too much. What had she done to deserve this? All she did was help, and now this? Not that she didn’t still want a baby brother or sister. In fact, if it had been anyone else’s family, she would have thought that the parents were so brave to keep the baby. But why did this baby have to get Down syndrome?

“So dad, how did the baby get the Down symdrum thing?” asked Haul, before shoving another huge bite of food into his mouth.

“Well, when women get pregnant around the age of forty-five, the chances of the baby having down syndrome is pretty high,” responded his father slowly.

“Okay, well, I’m still getting a little brother, right?” said Haul.

“It could be a girl,” his mom said.

“I’m going to get a little sister or brother! Who cares if it has a disability? I get sick sometimes, too. It’ll get better if we take the baby to a doctor. So why is everyone so gloomy?” said Haul nonchalantly.

Leto wanted to scream, cry, and smile at the same time. Haul was right, of course. But he didn’t understand what Down syndrome really was. And he wouldn’t be the one who would have to do more chores. Leto knew her parents would ask her to watch Haul more often. They would reduce her ‘privileges,’ which most people called liberties. Leto didn’t know what to think. She was tired.

When the family finished eating, and went home, Leto immediately flew to her room, bag in hand. Once her door was closed, she took out her phone, and texted Nasryn, her best friend.

Leto: My life sucks.

Nasryn responded after a few seconds.

Nasryn: what happened?

Leto sighed, and answered.

Leto: My mom is pregnant.

Nasryn: that’s great! Why are u sad?

Leto: the baby has down syndrome

Nasryn: omg

Leto: I don’t know what to do!

Nasryn: just keep calm, Leto

Leto: I am freaking out! How does my mom think that she can handle a baby with down syndrome, when she can’t even handle Haul??

Nasryn: Leto, talk to to your mom!

Leto: what would I say? Tell her all my selfish reasons why I am freaking out about this baby?

Nasryn: u seriously need to calm down

Leto: but how am I going to do ANYTHING after the baby is born? Even now, my parents r like “Leto, put your brother to bed” “Leto, do the laundry” “Leto, go buy groceries at the shop”

Nasryn: THAT is why u need to talk to your mom! Tell her u can’t do it! Stand up to her!

Leto: my mom isn’t the problem. Usually, I help her because I want to. But when I don’t help her, Haul or my mom tells my dad. Then he’s just like, “Stop the attitude, bla bla bla”

Nasryn: then go and talk to your whole family

Leto: I can’t do that! Besides, this is supposed to be about the baby, not me

Nasryn: Leto, you have to talk to your parents. Is there any other reason why u are feeling anxious about the baby?

Leto: not really. I mean, I do want a baby brother or sister. But is the baby going to be okay?

Nasryn: you and I both know that your family is going to take great care of the baby.

Leto: I hope so.

Nasryn: Now go talk to your parents.

Suddenly, her father entered her room. Either he hadn’t knocked, or Leto had been too focused on her conversation with Nasryn to hear him.

“Texting again?” he said disapprovingly, as Leto turned off her phone. Leto knew that Nasryn was right. She had to talk to her parents about this. Leto went down stairs to the living room, where Haul was sitting and drawing.

“Nice drawing, Haul,” Leto said, surprised.

“Thanks,” he replied.

“Haul, can you call Mom and Dad, please?” she asked.

“Mom! Dad! Come here!” he called out, not looking up from the picture he was drawing. Her parents came to the living room, and sat down on the sofa. Leto sat next to Haul on the other sofa.

“We need to talk,” Leto said, gathering all of her courage.

“About what?” her mother asked.

Leto gulped, then began, “Well, um, I know that you’re very busy already, with Haul and — ”

“Oh yah, Haul, how was soccer practice?” her dad said, interrupting her.

“It was pretty good, except that Alex got hurt, because Jarek pushed him,” Haul said.

Leto sighed why did people always interrupt her? She cleared her throat then said, “ANYWAY, um, so I know that I should be responsible, and I like helping you guys out, but sometimes, it’s too much and — ” This time, and alarm went off, interrupting her. Leto groaned, annoyed.

“Oh, those are the chocolate croissants that I was making for tomorrow! Leto, can you go and take them out of the oven?” her mother said. Leto wanted to scream that she didn’t want to, but she couldn’t let the croissants burn.

When she went back to the living room, she started talking. She needed to let it all out without anyone or anything interrupting her. “I know that I’m the older sister, and that I should help you, Mom, and I like helping you. It’s just that I know that when the baby comes, you’ll be busy with the baby, and Dad will be at work, and you NEVER give Haul chores, and even if you do,” Leto paused to take a breath, “you only give him the easy stuff, like clean up your room or put your plate in the sink. And you don’t care if he doesn’t do it or if he says he can’t because he needs to go out and play. And usually I don’t mind helping you, Mom, but sometimes it’s too much. And — ”

“Leto, stop making the baby an excuse to not do some chores. Haul is younger than you, so he doesn’t have to do as much. He’s just a young kid, so stop comparing yourself to him. And don’t use your siblings as an excuse for having an attitude,” her dad said.

“Dad!” Haul and Leto said at the same time.

They looked at each other, surprised. Haul motioned for Leto to go first.

“Dad, every time I try to say that I can’t do this, that I want to go and play and not have to grow up too quickly, that I don’t really want to be doing housework all the time, you stop me. I need to live my life! You always say ‘stop being rude’ or ‘don’t have an attitude’ or ‘stop being such a teenager.’ You never actually listen to what I’m trying to say!” Leto said.

“And Dad, I’m not a ‘young kid’, ok? I’m nine. In two months, I’m turning ten. I can do chores, you just never tell me how! You treat me like a baby. I want to learn. I’m not going to be the baby anymore, but I’m not going to be the oldest either. Let me help Leto,” Haul said, emotionally.

“Haul, I know you think you’re all grown up, but you’re still my baby boy. It’s great that you want to help your sister. Clean your room, okay?” their dad answered.

“Dad, I already do that. You think I’m a baby. Look at the stupid art on the fridge. I drew that when I was five!” Haul said, clenching his fists.

“But honey, it’s so good!” his mother answered.

“No Mom. The people are stick figures, and the cat in blue! Look at what I can do now!” Haul said, showing them his drawing.

It was a beautiful drawing of a lake at sunset. The sky was pink, yellow, orange and purple. The lake had a reflection of the sky, but the image was rippled, because of the swans that were swimming in the lake.

“It’s beautiful!” gasped his mother. Haul smiled.                                                                            

“Please stop treating me like a baby, okay? Let me help Leto!” Haul said.

“And I’m not an adult yet. I don’t mind helping out, but stop making me do everything,” Leto said.

Leto’s heart was pounding. What would her parents say? Would they actually understand what she was trying to say, or would they think that she was being insolent? Would she get into trouble? Would she get Haul into trouble? What if they thought that she didn’t want the baby?

Leto cleared the depressing thoughts from her head. What happened now was completely up to her parents. She couldn’t do anything, so there was no point worrying about it. At least that’s what she told herself.

“Leto, stop — ” began her father. Leto took a deep breath.

“Abraham, stop it,” her mother interrupted suddenly. She had been silent most of the time, not really expressing her opinion. “Leto, I’m sorry we made you do so much. I never meant for you to have to be the adult already. From now on, you and Haul can decide how to split your chores. I promise I will listen to what you’re trying to say, although I can’t speak for your father. If you want to go play or something, just tell me,” her mother said.

Her father responded, “But Candace, she’s just trying to — ”

“Listen to yourself!” her mother said, interrupting him again. “Our daughter is trying to tell us that we’re not giving her a childhood, and you just choose to ignore her!” For a moment, the family sat in silence, and Abraham scratched his chin.

“Fine,” he said finally. “Leto, I’m sorry. I just thought that you were being a teenager. You’re my oldest child, and I’ve never had a teenage kid before, so I don’t really know what to do. But that shouldn’t mean that you have to be an adult. So, I’m sorry. And Haul, I guess I don’t want you to grow up so fast. I mean, it seems like just yesterday that you learned to talk! But I know that you’re not a baby anymore, and I need to let you learn and grow. “

Haul and Leto smiled at their dad, and said, “Thanks, Dad.”

Then Leto looked at her mom, and said, “Thanks, Mom!”

 

EPILOGUE

One and a half months later…

“Leto, come here!” cried Nasryn. Leto walked over to where her best friend was standing, holding a sleeveless light pink fluttery dress with a dark pink ribbon.
“This is so pretty! Your little sister would look fabulous in this!” Nasryn said, as she put it into the shopping bag.

“Nasryn, she isn’t even born yet, you don’t know what she looks like. Besides, she’s going to have to wear onesies for the first few months at least,” said Leto with a smile.

Nasryn replied, “She can wear the dress when she’s allowed to.”

“Fine,” nodded Leto.

“Now come on, don’t you want to get matching t-shirts?” said Nasryn as she navigated her way through the crowd. They were at their favorite clothes shop at the nearby mall.

Leto followed her best friend. She felt light, a huge weight had been lifted off her shoulders. Leto knew her new sister had down syndrome, but she also knew that it didn’t matter. The whole family would take care of her, and they would all love her.

Nasryn held up a wine-colored t-shirt with vines, which read “Forever Free.” “Want to get this one?” she asked. Leto nodded. Suddenly, her phone rang.

“Hello?” she said, answering it.

“Leto? Um… How do you wash dishes?” she heard Haul’s voice ask.

“Well, you rinse the dishes, and put some soap on if it’s really dirty… then you put it in the dishwasher,” Leto replied, trying not to laugh.

“Oh, okay. Come home soon, ‘cause I don’t want to do this alone. But don’t tell Mom I said that,” Haul whispered.

Leto smiled, “Okay, Haul. See you soon!”

Apocalypse

Day 1

Walking through the bustling streets, I slip into one of the side alleys in order to avoid the daily inspection checks and constant battles between the Chaotics and the Dynasties. The subtle creaking from behind indicates another presence as I slowly reveal a dagger from beneath my robe. I continue walking at the same pace as a second follows. From a muddy puddle ahead, I barely make out a hooded figure picking up his pace as he approaches. My hands turn white as I grip the dagger tighter. Suddenly, he grabs my hand and turns me around. I’m about to stab him when I realize he’s a she and she’s my girlfriend. I push her into a building so that no one sees us. Any kind of contact between two persons of opposite sex is prohibited because of the war going on and the opposing roles of each gender interfering with one another. I kiss her quickly and tell her to leave before someone notices but she doesn’t budge. I ask her again, this time more insistently but she just stares mindlessly at me.

“Techa, I’m leaving tomorrow. The Chaotics have decided to ship me to the Wastelands for Commencement Day.” She said. My eyes turn red, as my conflicting emotions make it hard to respond. She hugs me as she cries yet I still have no words. Speechless, I wrap my feet around hers and interlock her hands in mine like we used to. My heart rapidly beats as she walks away.

“Remember, Peace, September eighth,” I mutter and she nods with her head down.

Days 2 – 99

The days go by slowly as we push the Dynasties back to the Relic Grounds and Commencement Day nears. It’s ninety-two days after fighting on the front line, and Commander H finally transfers me to the Alpha Team where I’ll lead half of the army into direct hand-to-hand combat with the enemy. One day later, the President personally drafts a letter handpicking me to attend the Annual Chaties Meeting where the most powerful leaders from both sides meet to discuss treaties and official business. I gaze in awe for an awfully long time until I remember every word by heart like a child picking up a book for the first time.

Putting on the formal leather robe I was sent, I tuck my half heart necklace underneath the collar and hope that Peace still has hers, wherever she is now. Opening the door, I am welcomed by a man in a suit, representing his loyalty to the Dynasties. I greet him with a Chaotic three finger touch and he offers his hand for a Dynasty handshake. Remembering all the Dynasties I’ve killed in combat, I can’t come to look him in the eye and guiltily smile as he opens the door for me. During the ten-minute ride, I learn his name is John and that he has two children who are enlisted in the Dynasty army. We share in common the thought that war is not necessary to find a silver lining. When we arrive at the looming tower, I give him a handshake and he gives me a three finger touch. I sigh and open the door. The ten hour torture begins. My heart flutters when I see President Quill standing across the room with Dynasty President Madison. I greet the other military officers and sit at my assigned seat. The president comes over to greet me as I look at pictures of Peace and me. I bow and give him a three finger touch, embarrassed.  

“Mr. Techa Krii, I have some bad news. As of today, you will become the Vice President of the Kingdom of Chaotics, the Chairman of the Board of Chaotics, the Primary Heir to the President of the Kingdom of Chaotics, the Leader and Commander of the Army of the Kingdom of Chaotics, the Director of the World Order of Hollows and Grounds, a Knight of the Chaotics’ Guard, and lastly, the Underworld Leader of Tchao. Your new daily salary will be $1 billion effective immediately and all your expenses will be paid for including personal necessities such as clothes”

“How is this bad news…?” I try holding my glee in.

“I never said it was bad news for you.”

“Thank you so much for this opportunity. I will not let you down, sir.”

He puts down my first check and pats me on the back. I just sit there, without saying anything, realizing this means I have complete control over everything, and can just coincidentally move some random person named Peace into a job position that coincidentally coincides with my schedule perfectly. The meeting drags on for three hours about topics not even remotely related to peace treaties, meaning that neither sides were ready for the war to end.

Outside, a group of fifty Chaotic Servicers escort me to a brand new Bugatti Limousine which is driven by a Sergeant and is surrounded by three military trucks. I am then taken back to my house where I tell servants what to pack and not to pack. Then, we relocate to a castle just five minutes from the President’s Isle. Happily, I lay down on the comfy bed and fall asleep.

I am awoken not more than 265 hours later to breaking news: the President has committed suicide. The sound of an eerie alarm goes off in the distance. Mounds of rioters are seen starting fires in the distance. Soldiers create a circle around me but I tell them, “I’m not a goddamn politician — I am a soldier just like all of you, and tell you that this is not part of your job description. Alpha Team, flank right. The rest, flank left and center. Go!” I grab my titanium plated suit, an MRAD sniper rifle, and an electronic pistol from inside the weapon locker.

Suddenly, there’s an explosion inside the house and I immediately seal the door to the room. Two more soldiers join me from an underground bunker hole and we wait until the enemy comes closer. I open the camera visuals from hologram, where we see two unidentified men getting ready to arm explosives to the door. Taking out a phaser, I point it at the door, aim, and fire. The round phases through the door and hits one target in the throat, blood pouring out. The second man is killed not long after he runs in the other direction. We cautiously open the door and sprint for the main entrance where Teams Foxtrot and Charlie rendezvous for a recap.

After less than an a hundred hours, all fires are extinguished and I take the oath to become President of the Kingdom of Chaotics. An emergency meeting is called in by both sides to decide where we’ll go from here, and I immediately sign a treaty with the Dynasties in order to stop the fighting and become a united kingdom again. At the President’s funeral, no one mourns nor does anyone speak any gentle words about him. The President dying is the best thing that could’ve happened at the moment due to the underlying circumstances because there would be an excuse for revolt against tyranny and for a new government to form.

Day 100

Putting on my old soldier’s helmet and sneaking out of the President’s Isle by means of an underground tunnel, I am invisible to the public as I march in line with other soldiers right through the gate labeled “Women’s Manufacturing Factory.” I take off my uniform and hand it to a soldier who immediately recognizes me and salutes me. He leads me to Warehouse E-3 where I spot a beautiful, fair skinned girl working tirelessly at sewing together worker’s clothes for higher ranking officials. I press the emergency stop button which stops all material from moving on the assembly line, but everyone keeps making the same motions even though there is no material to work with.

Running to her, I pick her up and tell her to stop. She looks at me with this confused look as I run my hand down her hair. All the soldiers purposely turn their heads the other way as I carry her out into the open. We catch up and I learn that I had stopped Commencement Day just in time because the higher ups were planning to create a woman’s task force and fight on the front line along with everyone else. Dirt ran down the drain as we take a shower together and it seems as though everything has worked out perfectly. Suddenly, I remember Day 79 — it was a Saturday. My heart sinks as I remember the ambush, and the look in my friends’ eyes as the van tipped and hundreds of Dynasty soldiers rushed us back into the forest where half of us were killed as a message to our President. I start to cry but she wraps her feet around mine and interlock my hands in hers, whispering, “It’s my turn to take care of you,” as I think of everything we’ve been through. Suddenly, I see something in the sky, and remember it’s September eighth — “I love you, Peace. I always will.” She looks at me, holds my hand and everything goes dark.

Fin

Dishonored

March 1923, Tommy Malone walked down the dimly lit Brooklyn street, the dirt street soft with the heavy rainfall. Tommy stopped his trudge through the mud and hid from the rain under a drooping awning. He reflected on his day at work as he lit up a cheaply made cigarette. It had been, as always, a simple day at the factory. Everyone’s coveralls had been caked with the black grease of the machines, and the drunkards of the factory were on edge, every second seeming like an eternity due to the prohibition on alcohol.

He closed his eyes and he drew from his cigarette, then dropped it and squashed it with his muddy boot. He continued on down the street, adjusting his trench coat and bowler hat every couple of seconds to keep as dry as possible. After what seemed like months, he arrived at 2120 Hopkins Street. Walking up the concrete steps, Tommy stared at the cracked, rotting walls, deciding, “This is hardly even a life, but it’s the closest to one I got.”

All the way up, he balked at the sounds of despair that permeated throughout each floor before finally arriving home.Tommy, relieved to be home at last, proceeded to the large brown door, before noticing that it was cracked open.Without hesitation, he pulled out a heavy object from his pocket, a large revolver, loaded with ammunition. Tommy peaked in through the crack of the door. A large figure sat at the kitchen table, seemingly in waiting.

“1…2…3,” Tommy whispered, he kicked down the door and BANG!!!!

The figure at the table roused himself and ran from the table to the bedroom, locking himself in. Tommy lunged towards the door and slammed his fist shouting, “WHOEVER YOU ARE GET OUT NOW!”

The man behind the door answered quickly, saying “Tommy…T..T…Tommy, it’s me, your old pal Nick.”

At the mention of the name, his best friend before he had been shipped to Europe to fight, Tommy kicked the door down, carelessly breaking the lock before giving his old friend a hug. “I thought I’d never see you again, man!” Tommy cried with relief and excitement.

Nick sighed. “Man I thought that when those cops jumped you, you would be off to prison for life. But then I hear from a buddy that you’re back in town, after fighting in the war, so I knew I had to stop by.”

“Well it was prison or Europe. The right one’s pretty obvious.”

Tommy sat down at the kitchen table with Nick, after almost five years of separation. “I would get you a drink, but we all know the circumstances.”

The mention of the prohibition lit up Nick’s eyes, and he almost immediately said, “Well…That’s why I came here, I got an idea.”

At the mention of an “idea,” Tommy knew that it was another of Nick’s famous schemes.

“Man…I dunno, I mean I got an honest job, an honest life really. I can’t just jump right onto your schemes. Even you should know that they’re dumb anyway.”

The word “dumb” made Nick chuckle. He laughed to Tommy saying, “Come on, this is a good one. This is what we’re gonna do-”

“You just always think I’m on board, don’t ya?” Tommy interjected.

“I just know you won’t turn this one down, man,” Nick replied, his mood turning weirdly serious. “Well I got this cousin, Giovanni, he’s a taxi driver out in Kentucky. Well, he met this girl, Darla, and it turns out that Darla’s brother is into Moonshining. My cousin married Darla and he’s moving back here. I heard from him that Darla’s brother, who’s Randall by the way, that he’s pretty eager to set up some stills here in the city to get brewin’, so I’m thinkin we meet up with Randall, and we set up some stills together out here.”

“Nick…It’s time to go. I’m not going back to crime. It got me into a muddy trench in Europe dying of dysentery and bein’ shot at. I already took that choice, and prison ain’t any better.”

Tommy got up and ushered Nick to the door, but he fought stating, “Even if you do get busted, at least you’ll eat three meals a day, sleep in a warm bed every night, and if you don’t then we can be the biggest bootleggers in this city.”

Tommy pushed Nick out the door, looking into his eyes stating, “I’ll sleep on it.”

Nick jumped with joy shouting, “Trust me man, you won’t regret this! Meet me at Smilin’ Jack’s Pancakes next week so we can work things out.”

Tommy replied, “I haven’t slept yet,” before slamming the door on Nick.

Tommy walked to his room before hearing Nick shout one last thing through the door. “You won’t regret this man.”

Tommy looked at the floor, and reflected saying, “Beats this life.” He closed the door, and slept on it.

***

A week after Nick’s visit to the apartment, Tommy skipped work to visit Smilin’ Jacks. It was what many would call a “Greasy Spoon Restaurant,” nestled between a couple of factories in Brooklyn’s industrial district, but despite that, the food was better than government ham and cheese every day.

Tommy dressed up his best that day, wearing his trench coat and bowler hat over bits of his uniform from his army days. As Tommy walked up to the restaurant, he saw its occupants, factory workers: men and women covered in thick black grease, with calloused hands, wearing heavy boots. At least I’ll fit in. Now, where is Nick?

As Tommy walked into the restaurant a bell rung and a heavyset man in a oil stained apron appeared. “Welcome to Smilin’ Jacks, how may I help you?” he asked in a voice rattled by grunts.

“I’m lookin’ for Nick Dimaggio, he been here at all, with anyone?” Tommy responded, hanging up his hat and coat on a rack.

“Yeah, they came not too long ago, look in the back, round the bend,” he responded, trudging back to the kitchens.

Tommy didn’t give any thanks, and he walked, as told, “to the back, round the bend.” In the last booth of the row, Tommy saw Nick and his company, A man that was startlingly similar to Nick, heavyset with thinning brown hair, as well as a man with outgrown red hair, greased back into a mullet. The red-haired man had wild eyes, and he had a thick mustache peppered with droplets of black coffee. Tommy walked up to him and Nick looked back, a grin growing across his pudgy face.

He got up, giving Tommy a hug saying, “Sit down, sit down, meet the opportunity.”

Tommy sat down next to Nick, with the latter introducing the men to him. Giovanni, the man who appeared to be Nick’s cousin, stretched out his arm to shake hands. “Nice to meet you,” he said with the same accent that every Italian had in Brooklyn.

Next the red-haired man wiped off his hands, before stretching his lanky arms to shake hands. “I’m Randall, good to finally meet you,” he said with a very strong mountain accent.

“Now let’s get down to business,” Nick explained, eager to explain his proposition. “Now we all know what the stupid yuppies who run this country did about booze…They banned it, as if it were as harmful as the smoke that pours outta the factories. We all got talent, we can make some serious cash here if we work togetha.”

“Nick…Can you get to the point already?” Tommy sighed in boredom.

“Alright, alright…Now I’ve been hearin’ from some of the guys that some people are brewin their own booze, from right here in Brooklyn. I heard they’ve been pulling in some serious cash, and I’m about done with livin like a pig. It’s time we did the same. Randall, you say you’re the best brewer out in Kentucky. You think that you can do ya thing, so we can sell it just like the guys I heard about?”

Randall looked up from his plate of pancakes and swallowed the rest of his coffee, then answered, “I’m sure I can scrounge up somethin’ to make stills out here, it’ll be strong as hell, it’ll be booze.”

“Good.” Nick responded “Now, Giovanni, you got your cab company out here in Brooklyn. I want you deliverin’ shipments of juice to whoever wants it. You also make sure that they pay for it too. We’re not givin’ away our alcohol for free. So, you down?”

“Course cousin, you can count on me,” he responded, with a proud voice.

“Now what I’m gonna do is pay off cops, make sure our operation is safe. I’ll also work out the deals with clients,” Nick claimed.

“Now wait Nick, whatta ’bout me?” Tommy asked with surprise in his voice.

“Now you Tommy…well you’ll be runnin this thing. I know you learned a lot in the army, and I’m sure you could do betta than any of us. I also want you on security. See if you can contact any army buddies. If we can get a serious gang on our side. Honest cops will think twice ’bout tryin’ to mess with us.”

“Well then,” Tommy boomed, expressing his new role. “Let’s work things out. Randall, I want you to start makin’ stills. Also see if you can get anyone willin’ to work with you, teach them your trade. You, Giovanni, go to your cab company, find anyone willin’ to get their hands dirty delivering the booze. Also get some cars that can hold crates full of bottles. Now Nick, I need you to find a place to set up operations. I don’t care what you have to do to get it, just do it. Make sure it’s got space, and that it’s not too obvious. I’m gonna contact my old buddies in the army, see if I can get some of them to be the muscle. I’ll also get firepower, so I’m on that…Are we all clear?”

The group exchanged glances at each other, and they nodded slowly.

“Well then, let’s get brewin’.”

***

In less than a month the group had almost everything squared away. They had their base, an old factory in the part of town no cop dared visit. Randall had got a few guys off the street who showed promise, old brewery owners and vineyard workers, who accepted the job due to lack of work. They had built five stills, and they had all the chemicals and crops to make a strong moonshine. Giovanni’s cab company had plenty of willing criminals in its ranks, who all went out and stole enough trucks to make deliveries at anytime. Tommy had kept up his end of the deal, and the gang had plenty of muscle to defend shipments and deals from any customers or cops stupid enough to tread on them.

Tommy looked out to the factory floor from an old catwalk, when suddenly Nick ran up to him, pure joy in his eyes.

“Tommy!! I just got a called by some yuppies on Long Island. They heard from someone that we’re brewin big time booze, and they’re willing to pay 40,000 for 200 crates.”

The sound of hearing what Nick said made Tommy jump in excitement too. He yelled down from his catwalk to the moonshiners at the stills saying, “Hey boys, we need 200 crates in the next three days, get workin’ double time now!!!”

The brewers also yelled with excitement, and Tommy saw how their pace immediately increased after hearing the statement. He then looked to Nick saying, “Call them back, tell them that we’ll meet them in three days, and tell them to choose a location for the meetup, okay?”

“Yes sir buddy, I’m on it,” Nick answered with excitement, running back to the office.

Tommy looked down to the factory floor again. He saw the brewers brewing, the taxi drivers on standby for any minor deals, and the security on guard for any threat to their operation. For once… Nick had a good idea. Looks like it’s about to pay off. Tommy walked off the catwalk into the office, he sat down at his desk, and began to plan their first big deal.

The dark warehouse of the nameless, small Long Island town, was illuminated by old oil lamps. As the five large cabs pulled into the small yard outside, Tommy looked out the window and saw the clientele. Five silhouettes stood next to what appeared to be a large truck. Nick saw his concern saying, “This is gonna go right, trust me, I know.”

Tommy looked in his direction. “I know man…I’m just a bit on edge…this is a big deal.”

The cabs parked in random directions and the numerous gangsters got out. As Tommy stepped into the humid air he shouted to one of his nameless goons saying, “Get a sample for the clients.”

Tommy and Nick walked side by side into the warehouse, towards the clients.

“Hello…I’m Mr. Carteret,” said the middle silhouette as Tommy and his gang approached. The dim light from the street lamps gave way to a brief look at his face from Tommy.

“Show us the cash sir,” Tommy said in a gruff voice, facing the client.

One of the gangsters with Carteret stepped up to Tommy up saying with a cautious voice, “Don’t talk to Mr.Carteret like that.”

Tommy looked the muscular man in the eyes saying, “I’m sure you want booze too pal, calm down if you really do.”

He stepped back at the slight mention that he might not get any. As he did, Tommy looked eagerly at a suitcase held open by another of Carteret’s goons. Tommy quickly took the case and handed it to Giovanni, who stood behind Tommy, next to Randall. “Count it,” he said, not expecting to receive an answer.

“Now let’s get down to business Carteret,” Tommy said, grabbing a crowbar and cracking open the crate, revealing the moonshine.

“I’m sure it will be good,” Carteret claimed, grabbing the bottle from the crate.

Carteret popped off the cap, then sniffed it. He didn’t say it, but Tommy saw the wrenching look that grew across his face. Carteret silently took a sip, and relentlessly spit it up, dropping the bottle.

Tommy and his gang erupted into laughter. Tommy knelt down besides Carteret as he threw up from the unbearable mixture in the mouth of a man who drank soft liquors. Tommy gloated in his face saying, “What were you expectin’, frickin wine?”

Carteret stood up, his mouth open from what must have been a sensation of pure fire in his mouth, and remained silent.

“I hope you and your family enjoy it. BOYS!!! GET THE REST FROM THE CARS,” Tommy said before shouting to his goons.

Tommy faced Carteret, but said nothing, Carteret embodied everything he hated, the rich minority of the country. At least his money will go to good back home.

The silence of the scene however, was suddenly broken when Giovanni came running back shouting, “TOMMY!!TOMMY!! THERE AIN’T 40k IN THE CASE!!!!”

The thought of being cheated entered his head, Tommy grew furious. In an instant, he ripped a revolver from his pocket and grabbed Carteret, pushing the barrel against his head. The remainder of Tommy’s gang all pulled out the weapons as well.

“YOU THOUGHT YOU COULD CHEAT ME? WELL YOU’RE WRONG, CARTERET. GIVE ME THE REST OF THE MONEY RIGHT NOW OR I’LL BLOW YOUR BRAINS ONTO THE FLOOR!” he shouted into Carteret’s ear.

“It doesn’t have to end badly Tommy…I’ll give you the money I swear…Just…Just Please…Let me go!!!” he shouted in retaliation.

“LET GO OF MR.CARTERET!!! DON’T SHOOT…DON’T SHOOT!!!! LET US SEE THE MONEY OR WE’LL MAKE SURE YOU DON’T LEAVE ALIVE!” The screams of the gangs to each other filled Tommy’s head. The tension was high, and Tommy aimed the barrel at one of the goon’s heads.

“1…2…-”

“Don’t shoot boy…please don’t…I’ll pay you…just drop your guns,” Carteret interjected over the screams of angry men.

Carteret’s goons reluctantly dropped their weapons, and Carteret reached into his pocket, and pulled out a billfold. Tommy snatched it out of his hand and walked away, stating, “You yuppies can never be trusted.” Tommy walked off to the cabs, telling a goon, “Bring them the booze.” Ringing filled his head, and when Tommy entered the car, he fell into a deep sleep.

***

“You can’t just give away all our cash like that Tommy, we worked hard for it and now you just gonna give it away,” Nick protested on the crowded street.

Months had passed by since the gang’s first big deal, and the people of Brooklyn were now feeling the results. The people of Brooklyn now saw Tommy as a sort of Robin Hood, as he was giving all his profits back to them.

Tommy and walked down an old dirt street with Nick at his side. He carried a large satchel, and inside were stacks of cash, enough to provide plenty of families with months’ worth of food. As Tommy passed by homeless children and desperate factory workers begging, he gave money to each of them. Throughout the journey, Nick had constantly protested, and as they walked down this final street, Tommy finally paid attention.

“Nick I’ve struggled with these people my whole life, they’re my people, and it’s time I did something to help them along.”

Nick had a shocked look on his face, as if he had been betrayed. He finally blurted out amidst the shock. “This was supposed to be our opportunity, not these bums.”

“You know what Nick…Like it or not we’re the same as these people, so you can go now”

How can Nick be so careless, we grew up the same as all these people here, and now he just acts like he’s betta than them.

“Fine…I’m done here Tommy. You’ll find me back at the factory…I hope you straighten up or somethin!!!” Nick shouted in anger at Tommy before storming off.

“Now Nick come on. Now you know–” Tommy tried to protest before pausing and shrugging.

Letting Nick walk off, Tommy continued down the street, passing out money to whoever was in need, carefree about how Nick could retaliate.

***

“BIG TIME BOOTLEGGER’S A NEW ROBINHOOD” is what NYPD’s new forensic detective Leo Ford read off of the newspaper he’d bought at a stand on 8th Avenue. Never thought it would be criminals who saved Brooklyn. He walked down the street. As he walked, his assignment and his bosses’ words rung through his head.

“We need to find out who these people are. We need any leads, and I know you’re the best to find them Ford…Go out, find anything for us, then report back,” was all his boss had said.

Ford continued down the long blocks of 8th avenue, the tall buildings blocking the bright May sky. Ford was on the hunt for any leads, and he knew where he had to go. He was on the hunt for the city’s scum, the drunkards, and outcasts of NYC society, because if there was one thing he knew, it’s that they were the key.

Ford knew all the places in Manhattan to look, and it didn’t take long to get his wish.

Ford found the nameless dark alleyway that was infamous throughout the upper class of Manhattan. It was lined with beggars searching for a fix and bloodstains from constant violence over the residents’ insatiable need of narcotics and alcohol. Time to make a mark on this city for good, Leo thought before stepping into the alley.

Despite the bright daylight, the alley seemed darker than the night sky itself. Rats scurried along the muddy ground, picking up bits and pieces of god knows what from the ground, the only real edible thing they could afford to take back to their dens. Coughing and crying rang out throughout the small den, the smell of disease and rot permeating throughout. Even Brooklyn can’t be as bad as this, Leo thought, as the idea of the hardship across the East River pulled at his mind.

That’s when Leo spotted it, the silhouette of a man, obviously spoiled drunk, with a bottle beside him, filled to the brim with what smelled like moonshine. JACKPOT!!! He shook the man from his shoulder, trying rouse him from his drunken stupor. Hungover, the man barely woke up before shouting out nameless, jumbled up insults that even Ford couldn’t understand. Still shaking the man, he pleaded for him to wake up saying, “Please wake up, if you do, I can promise you a hot meal and a warm bed.” This was what ultimately roused the drunken man.

Stumbling around the dark alley, he claimed, “Les go now” before trying to walk off. Following him was easy as could be for Ford, but getting him to a diner where they could talk was the hardest part. It was as if the alcohol had made him a two-year-old again, who struggled to walk as it gathered its bearings. It got to the point where the drunken man slammed  into corporate executives and blue-collar contractors as he walked down the crowded street to the nearby Tick-Tock Diner. Eventually, after a grueling attempt, Ford stumbled into the diner, with the beggars arms sprawled out on his shoulders. “Booth for two,” Ford called to a bored waitress, who instantly escorted them to a booth with a view of the street.

“What will it take for you to talk?” Ford asked the man.

“A cup of black coffee, with the irish breakfast and a side of toast and pancakes.”

Glutton, Ford thought, but he reluctantly pulled out a wad of cash and called the waiter over, paying for the feast that the beggar requested. As the beggar stared out the window in anticipation of his upcoming feast, Ford called to him saying, “Now I have questions for you. Answer, and I won’t tell them to cancel the order.”

“Ask ahead.” He replied

“I saw that you had a bottle of unregistered alcohol, where did you get it and from whom?”

The beggar’s eyes widened before shaking his head saying, “No…I can’t answer-”

“Just do it man!” Ford shouted to him, angry over his denial.

“Alright, alright,I got it from Nick Dimaggio, he and his crew are set up in Brooklyn…My buddy told me he was sellin’ so I used my cash from beggin’ and I called him. He told me he split with them, but sold me his extra bottles.”

THE KEY!!! I need to find Nick, he can lead me to the source.

“Do you have his address, or anything else I can use to find him?” Ford asked with a sense of urgency in his voice.

“I do, but it’ll cost you extra,” the man claimed, haggling his way into more cash.

Ford, enraged at the scheming of the man, threw fifty more dollars into the man’s face.

A smile spread across the man’s face. He took a scrap of paper from his pocket and handed it to Ford. “Here you go, kind sir.”

Leo immediately stood up from his seat, and remembering the deal, he pulled 200 more dollars from his pocket.

“Find yourself a nice hotel,” he said as he rushed out the door.

When he stepped into the city air, one thing was on Ford’s mind: he needed to find a payphone. Walking down the crowded streets, Ford’s eyes scanned the terrain as a hawk would. Then, he saw it, a simple, rusty phonebooth. Not even stopping for cars, he ran across the street. He inserting one quarter into the booth and dialed the number. The old phone did not even ring as Leo waited in anticipation. Then, all of a sudden, a voice picked up stating, “Who’s this?”

“This is Leo Ford I work with the NYPD, and I want to cut you a deal.”

“Straight to the point ehh,” Nick claimed with a chuckle. “Well, what’s the deal?”

“I’m lookin’ into the case involvin’ illegal bootlegging around the city. I hear you worked with one of the top rings but left. Our precinct is offerin’ you 200,000 dollars if you give up the location of the ring, and help us in our raid,” Leo told him.

“Give me a second to think,” claimed Nick.

Tommy’s been my pal all my life. I know he cheated me by givin’ away the cash but I can’t just betray him……….Tommy needs to see that he can’t just cheat me. “I’m in, it’s at an abandoned factory in the industrial district, meet me there at midnight.”

Leo sighed a breath of relief. “ We’ll be there.”

Nick hung up the phone and Leo ran down the avenue to break the good news to his boss.

***

Tommy stayed behind that night. He was guarding the place just in case something happened.

He sat in the office, working numbers. Due to their latest big deal, their ring was pulling in thousands of dollars a week, and it was really helping the people of Brooklyn. Tommy was roused from his work by a voice of questioning.

“Tommy?” It asked.

Tommy looked up to see Nick standing in the doorway

“What the hell are you doin’ here, Nick? I thought you were done.”

Nick had an obvious look of sorrow on his face. “Man…I…I’m sorry.”

“Why is that?” questioned Tommy, now standing up.

“Cause of this,” Nick mumbled pulling out a gun and firing.

The bullet flew quickly, and Tommy couldn’t even react. It pierced his chest and he fell to the floor, blood gushing from his chest and mouth. He tried to put pressure on the wound, but he could feel the life seeping out, along with his blood.

“Wh…Why…Why Nick–” Tommy struggled to let out, in obvious pain.

“You cheated me Tommy…I helped you start all this, and then you don’t let me take my fair due…How do you think that’s fair?” Nick shouted to him in rage. “The police are comin’ and I’m gettin a large payout for bustin’ you, so I guess I can get my revenge first before this place goes up in flames.”

“Flames? Wha…What do you mean Nick?” Tommy questioned, fearful of the mention of flames.

“If I can’t have the cash, no one will. I’m destroyin’ your empire, and leavin’ nothin’ in return for any of your goons to rebuild with,” Nick told him, proud of his plot.

“You think you’ll destroy all we worked for Nick…Guess again.” Tommy said, raising his gun in the air.

“What are yo-” Nick shouted in anger before being cut off by the sound of fired shots. Tommy’s bullet flew through the air, and with a sickening crunch, entered Nick’s head and exited out the back.

As the blood spilled out of Nick’s skull, Tommy stood up, he exited the office onto the catwalk before, BOOM!!! One of the stills went up in flames. Then Tommy saw it, gasoline was spilled all over the floor, and flames spread all over the factory floor.

No I…I need to get outta here, screw the cash, screw the stills, he thought as he ran down the stairs. As Tommy reached the landing of the steel steps, the worst thing that could happen occurred. The fire spread there as well, to the point where the whole factory floor was in flames.

I’m trapped, what should I do what should I-THE WINDOW…I could use the window.

With blood gushing out of his wounds, he stumbled up the stairs, he walked into the office as it was plunged into a cloud of smoke. The air left Tommy’s lungs and it was replaced with black smoke. I need to get out……….I need to find the window.

Tommy stumbled around the office, choking on the impure air. He coughed in agony, feeling the walls. He felt and felt before feeling a panel of glass. Tommy pulled out his gun and fired, the sound of shattering glass making way to that of fierce thunder and a raging storm. Tommy stumbled to the hole in the wall, stepping into it. Glass shards pierced Tommy skin. He couldn’t even scream, but he pushed on, stepping out onto the ledge, the rain falling on his skin and washing away the thick red blood. Tommy stood in triumph before letting go, and falling off the edge.

***

Tommy woke up in the back of a wagon moving down a nameless Brooklyn alley. In his daze, he could barely hear. He tried to move his hands but they were stuck in irons that were chained to the wagon. Opening his eyes, he saw hospital staff and police officers sitting around him as the wagon dragged on. He looked up at them, unable to say words as he breathed out the last of the smoke.

One of the blurry figures noticed him. Tommy could now see the man. He looked to be a young man. He wore a police uniform, with a tag that said Forensic Detective. His name tag spelled out his name: Leo Ford. He was speaking to him but Tommy could not understand. But, ringing sounds left his ear, he heard one last thing.

“You’re going away for a long time, Mr. Malone,” was what Tommy managed to make out.

I should’ve never trusted Nick. Figures he’d get me into prison. I could’ve helped those folks without the booze, gettin’ them drunk wasn’t the right way…But hey, at least I’ll have three meals a day and a warm bed to sleep in.

Tommy let out a faint chuckle, and closed his eyes, falling into a deep sleep.

Lockdown

I grab my backpack, put on my shoes, and walk out the door of my apartment. It’s Friday, the day before the stress-free weekend. As I walk down the hallway, I hear the words, “Hello, Aaron.” I spin around and see my neighbor, Mr. Vasquez, leaning against one of the walls in the hallway, a sly smile spread across his face.

“Oh, hi, Mr. Vasquez.” Mr. Vasquez lives in the apartment next to us. He always seems a little odd, like he is always distracted by something in his head when I’m talking to him. He lives alone and doesn’t come out much. He never orders food to his door, and always wears black when he goes outside, even in the blazing hot summer days. To make some conversation, I ask, “Where are you going?”

He hesitates, and then says, “I have to run a few errands.”

“Oh. Okay, sounds like a fun Friday!” He laughs slowly. I’m late for my bus, so I wave goodbye and then walk out.

At school, I put my bag in my locker. I walk to homeroom and read. The bell rings, and I go to math. After math, I go to science. After science, I go to writing. A typical day. Boring, really. And to top it off, there is always mind-numbing homework to be done at home.

The bell rings for lunch. I go to the cafeteria and sit down with my friends.

“Hey Aaron,” Sammi says. Sammi and I have been friends since first grade. We could always count on each other.

“Hey,” I say as I slide into my seat. “Did you finish the social studies project for last period?”

“Yep. I even added a kite to Benjamin Franklin’s model. This diorama deserves to get an A.”

I grin. “I bet. Thanks for doing that, Sammi.” That’s when I feel a vibration in my back pocket. I take out my phone and turn it on. I get a text from an unknown caller.

“Hi.”

I figure it must be a friend from school who I don’t have the number of, so I say:

“Hi. Who are you?”

I wait. No reply. I feel a bit uneasy, but the person probably got caught up in something. I put my phone into my pocket again and open up my bag. I take out my sandwich and take a bite.

I go back to my locker after lunch to get my stuff for social studies when I feel the vibrating again. I close my locker door and take out my phone. There is another text.

“I am coming to kill you and your little friends. Your school is Aberdale Middle, right?”

I freeze. I don’t think this is another classmate anymore. I start running towards social studies, but halfway there, I am interrupted by another text.

“I’m here!”

My palms start sweating. I run faster. It could be a hoax, but just in case, I want to show it to Sammi. I enter the social studies room. Kids are in groups of two, putting the last few touches on their projects. I run over to Sammi.

“Hey, Aaron. Do you like the kite? Do you think there’s anything-”

“Sammi,” I say. I am shaking.

“Are you okay?”

Panting from running, I take out my phone and show her the texts. She stares at it for a few seconds.

“Um… Aaron, I think this guy is just trying to trick you. Maybe it’s just a kid from school.” I nodded.

All of a sudden, the intercom sounds. The principal, in an urgent tone, practically yells,

“Lockdown. Teachers, this is not a drill. Lockdown.” Everybody goes over towards the closets, which are unable to be seen by the door. Our teacher, Ms. Wilson, covers the window on the door with a piece of paper and locks it. She tries to look calm, but I can tell she is scared. There is a panicked vibe in the room. We all sit down on the cold floor edging towards the wall. Everybody is silent. We wait. Sammi sits next to me, mouthing the words, “Oh my god,” over and over again.

A minute later, I hear someone banging on the lockers. “I’M GOING TO KILL YOU!” A familiar voice screams. “ALL OF YOU!”

A chill goes down my spine. Sammi looks at me, her eyes wide. I can’t understand why I know that voice. It comes from a grown man. A girl starts crying.

We wait, listening to the guy yell and bang the lockers. The sound of breathing in our classroom is ragged.

There’s a banging on our door, which makes everybody jump. I curse under my breath.

“I’M GOING TO KILL ALL OF YOU!” The voice screams.

Another kid starts crying. And one screams, “No!” I am terrified. I am too young to die.

We all look at her alarmingly. She cries harder, her face florid, and puts her head on her hands.

I look at Sammi. Her eyes are closed, and she is rocking back and forth. I touch her arm lightly. She opens her eyes and looks at me. I give her a sad smile. She sighs.

The man is still banging on the door, screaming. I wonder how this guy even got my number.

Then I have a thought. Maybe it is my dad.

He cheated on my mother when I was nine. My mom, even though she hated him, gave him my number to talk to me. But I was so angry. I felt like he didn’t love me anymore. So I never added him in my contacts, and never, never picked up to his numerous calls. Finally, when I was around eleven, he never called again. Since then, I’ve forgotten his number and moved on in life without him.

At this moment, the banging on the door stops, and moves to the lockers. The man moves towards the other doors. I wonder how the other kids feel. I feel guilty. Guilty that I never talked to my dad, guilty that I don’t love him anymore.

It is all my fault.

I hear sirens outside. I breath a sigh of relief. Someone lets out some gas. Nobody laughs. Usually, they laugh and laugh when someone farts, but today is different.

After about thirty seconds I hear the words, “Hey! Hey! Put your hands up!” It is a cop. I guess the killer obeys the officer, because the officer doesn’t say that again. Instead, he says, “You’re coming with me.” I hear the clang of the metal handcuffs. There is no more sound.

A minute passes. Then another. There is no more banging or yelling. Everything is silent.

Finally, the intercom sounds. “The lockdown has been lifted,” says the principal. Everybody breathes a sigh of relief. The girl who started crying first, hiccups.

“Please wait until your door is unlocked. You may exit the building at three o’clock.” I look at the clock. It’s already last period. I don’t notice the bell, even though it is dead silent in our room. I am thinking about other things.

That night I watch the news in the living room with my mom. I tell my mother all about the day, but I leave out the part about dad. She doesn’t like to talk about him much. She is shocked that the school has that limited of security and decides to watch the news to find out more.

We have been staring at the TV screen for more than three hours. Finally, there’s a picture of my school on the news. The female reporter says, “At around 1:25 PM today, a murderer went into Aberdale Middle School and terrorized kids as they waited in their classrooms for the police to come. Police have identified the killer and have arrested him.” A picture pops up of a middle-aged man, walking out of the school towards a police car, his arms being held together by handcuffs. The man’s hair is short and black, slicked back by sweat. His skin is russet brown.

So if it isn’t my father, who is it?
I gasp. I know who it was.

Mr. Vasquez? Why would he do this? I am stunned. I press the palms of my hands into my eyes until I see nothing but sparkles. I take a breath and keep watching to get more information.

“This man has been on the FBI’s most wanted list for a long time now. He’s gone incognito and moved from Arizona to New York. His real name is George Nassos. He has a mental illness and has murdered many. If you have any other information on this man, please call the police.”

I cannot believe it. I was living next door to a murderer. And the way he looked at me this morning… A chill goes down my spine for the second time today.

Later that night, Mom and I call the police and tell them everything we know. We tell them about him never really coming out much, his made-up name, and his oddness around us. The police are very pleased and thank us profusely.

At around midnight, I am in bed playing Flappy Bird on my phone when an unknown number calls. Thankfully, it isn’t Mr. Vasquez’s (a.k.a., George Nassos’s). I hesitate and accept the call. “Hello?”

“Hi. Is this Aaron?” The voice says.

“Yeah…. Who is this?”

“It’s, uh…your dad.” I gulp.

“Hey.” There is an awkward pause.

“So, um. I heard about the killer in your school. I just wanted to make sure you’re okay.”

I pause. I didn’t think he cared about me anymore. After all, he cheated on my mom, moved to California, and stopped talking to me. “Yeah, I’m okay.”

“That’s good. Were you scared? What happened?”

I tell him everything. The texts, the banging, the yelling. Then he tells me he misses me.

“Really? Because it seems like you don’t care anymore.”
“Squirt, of course I do. I love you to pieces.” I can actually hear the affection in his voice.

I sigh, “I miss you too, Dad. I miss you too.”

Magic Essay

Why do people like magic so much? Magic has been around for many many years, and people always seem to enjoy it. Over the years, magic has changed a lot. However, two things that have remained a constant attraction of magic are its accessibility, and the feeling of wonder and confusion after a magic trick is performed. People like things they can’t explain. This is even more apparent now when we are, as a society, fed answers to questions we may not even care about. However, when a trick is known, it becomes boring and overused. This is why magic has never been about explaining, and why a magician doesn’t explain the trick after it has been completed. Another reason magic is so popular is because of the entertainment value. For many years, magic has been a source of laughter and joy for anyone, regardless of wealth and social status. Especially now with the addition of the internet, magic is both accessible and fun.

People’s fascination with magic stretches from a street performance to a formal stage, and from present day all the way back to ancient Egypt. There is one thing in common between all of these times and places: magic has been performed. That is an achievement of what is thought to be impossible. There are many different approaches to achieve, or provide the illusion of what is thought to be impossible. Some of these techniques include card tricks, reading minds, and escape tricks. It is this idea of achieving the impossible that contributes to the wonder of magic and why people enjoy it so much.

A magic trick is very similar to a movie. It is a story that works its way to the climax, or the most intense portion of the story. Most people would agree that movies or books are fun when the ending is not known. However, many people would also agree that a movie and story is much less fascinating when the end is known. Imagine a horror movie. After watching it once or twice, the entire entertainment value is gone because the scares, surprises and major turns in the story are predictable. A magic trick works in the same way. When a viewer has seen the trick before and knows exactly how it is done, it becomes a lot less fun. I believe that a magician would not get the same thing out of a magic show as the average viewer. This is because a magician would not receive the same sense of wonder that is so crucial to the enjoyment of magic.

Another reason magic and magic shows are so popular is how accessible they are to the public. Magic is everywhere. People perform magic for huge crowds and just their family. Both rich and poor are welcome to the world of magic. Another way magic is so accessible is the entertainment industry and the internet. Magic is seen in many very popular movies and TV shows, the biggest and most obvious being the Harry Potter series. Editing has allowed this movie series to push the boundaries of the human imagination even further, and while the magic in this movie series is much less “real”, it still leaves viewers with the same sense of wonder. This may be a large factor in what allowed the series of both books and movies to be so popular to so many people. Other movies like Now You See Me provide a more realistic approach to magic and show characters doing magic tricks that could happen in a real magic show. Many other realistic shows of magic are found on TV or on stage. The popular magician David Blaine has his own TV show. This allows audiences to see him perform magic on the street. Some big names on stage, especially recently, are Penn and Teller. These are two very popular magicians that do shows for audiences to see. The final reason magic is so popular is how accessible it is on the internet across many social media platforms such as Youtube. Here, magicians provide the entertainment and Youtube provides the audience creating a perfect match. This results in many talented magicians uploading videos that anyone can watch for free.

Magic is always evolving and changing to entertain viewers. Tricks and routines need to change, otherwise they get boring. However, it seems important to recognize what in magic appealed to viewers. There seems to be two reasons. The first is the rare feeling of both wonder and confusion in a completely information-based society. This is special because right now people feel a need to know what is going on, but in magic confusion is respected. Another important aspect of magic is the accessibility that allows anybody to watch it almost anytime. It allows all people the opportunity to see the same show. To me, this is what makes magic special and what does and always will draw a crowd.

Spider Story

I step forward, my eight ugly legs carrying me closer and closer to the centaur. He can’t see me yet, and I know I don’t have time to worry about dying, but I can’t help but fear the large weapon the horse-man is holding. He could easily slice me in half with that thing. I glance over at Hunter, looking for the same nervousness in his eyes. Instead, I see confidence way more than anyone should ever have in a situation like this. I don’t particularly like the man all he wants is power— but he’s my only hope. You see, he promised me that if I helped him take over this castle, he would do everything he could to turn me from a spider into a human. And that’s all that I’ve ever wanted. The question is, will he still help me once he has what he wants?

I guess there’s only one way to find out, I think, moving my focus back onto the centaur. He and Hunter are facing off in the middle of a field just outside a large castle that seems to be slowly falling apart. There are a few trees around the edges of the area, including the one I’m hiding behind. But it’s really not that nice. I wonder why Hunter wants it. I don’t think it has anything to do with the centaur. As far as I know, he’s just a guard…

Focus, Pablo, I think, forcing myself to run over our plan in my head. Once Hunter’s staring battle with the centaur is over, they’ll begin to fight, with Hunter mostly on the defensive. But the minute the centaur thinks he is winning, I’ll come from behind and hit him over the head with a rock. Or something like that. I shiver at the realization that within a few minutes, I will have murdered someone. But being human is worth it, I remind myself.

I would do anything to be human to be respected, accepted, loved. As a spider, no one ever dares to come within five feet of me, and people only ever talk to me if they wish to ridicule me, to send me deeper into a hole of loneliness. Or if they want something from me, like Hunter does.

Suddenly, I hear a loud grunt, and I realize that the fight has started. The centaur is sprinting in Hunter’s direction, weapon first. But Hunter pulls out his sword and holds him off, the metal glinting in the sunlight as their weapons meet. The centaur swings his weapon at Hunter again, but he blocks the attack. Next, he tries to hit Hunter’s head, but he ducks just in time. The next attempt slices through the sleeve of Hunter’s jacket, but he is left otherwise unharmed, so he decides to attack, but misses, and the centaur takes the opportunity to strike. His weapon nicks Hunter’s leg, who jumps out of the way to avoid major injury.

They have been fighting like this for a few minutes when I notice that Hunter is steadily moving backward on the bright green grass and that the centaur’s swipes are moving closer and closer to his body. I know this is where I come in, but for some reason I can’t get my feet to move.

Something has me cemented in place fear, maybe and I can’t seem to do anything but stand and watch uselessly as the centaur creates a deep, bloody, gash in Hunter’s chest. The human collapses onto the ground, and all my hopes collapse with him. And it’s all my fault. I guess there was no way around it I was destined to kill someone today.

Trying not to look at the bloody corpse on the ground, I slowly move from my hiding spot. What should I do now? Should I approach the centaur? Should I just leave? But before I can decide, my eyes lock with the centaur’s frightened ones. I don’t know why, but as he slowly starts to back away, I call out to him.

“Wait!”

“What are you?” he asks, clearly trying to keep his voice steady. I feel something in my stomach sink upon hearing his question, but I can’t really blame him. Giant spiders are pretty uncommon.

“I’m Pablo,” I say. I see him look around nervously, so I continue. “I’m not here to hurt you, I just need help.” He looks surprised, and a little relieved, but I can tell he’s still on edge.

“What do you want?”

I pause for a moment. “To be human.”

His mouth opens and closes a few times before he speaks. “I’m sorry… what?”

“You see, I was supposed to help that man” —I look over at Hunter “kill you. He said that if I did, he would do everything in his power to turn me into a human. But I couldn’t do it, as you can tell,” I explain, slightly embarrassed.

“The man’s a liar,” he states. Interested, I snap my gaze over to meet his.

“You know him?”

“No, no, of course not,” he says, but I can tell he’s trying to cover something up, because he’s talking a little faster than normal and won’t look me in the eye. “He just… um, doesn’t seem like the type of man to be honest, if you know what I mean.”

I’m really curious now, but I don’t show it.

“I’m Gus, by the way,” the centaur informs me.

“Okay, uh, nice to meet you,” I say, feeling slightly awkward. What now? I don’t have anywhere to go my entire future was riding on this plan. “So, bye, I guess.”

I slowly walk away, feeling hopeless and alone. But I mean, what did I expect? I just told the guy that I came here to kill him, why would he help me?

“Wait didn’t you say you needed help?” Gus asks, and I turn back to face him. He clears his throat. “I mean, do you have some sort of back-up plan?”

“Not exactly,” I say, not wanting to get myself in any more trouble. “But you really don’t

He cuts me off. “Well, maybe I can help you.”

I Don’t Remember Her Name

       

I don’t remember her name.
She’s an eager blue of some sort, with a bewitching grin that caresses warmth and ice.
Has an adolescent need for adventure, an agonizing, piercing, angelic way with words.
A haunting, spicy, zingy, sour, strange-looking stare that never seems to fade.
A big, gigantic, bitter, brilliant flame inside of her that burns and burns and burns and burns.
An introverted extrovert, with a loud mouth and a constant, electric sense of self.
Loopy sometimes and will act as an obnoxious spaniard, though she has no specific origin.
You would think I would remember her name.
She’s sizzling, dazzling, snappy, and can put on a damn good show.
She can be impolite, rude, snobby, and horrible, but only when in need of enlightenment.
Bossy, bouncy, bubbly, and deadly are all things that she is.
She’s nutty and powerful and occasionally innocent.
She’s a pessimistic optimist and isn’t afraid of exclaiming her political views of the world.
Her silhouette constantly changes, never slowing down, it’s dashing movements grasping heaven.
Eavesdropping is a talent of her’s, mostly used when least wanted.
She is reckless and crazy and indecisive and strong and fearless.
I can’t believe I forgot her name.
Sharp, ready, headstrong, brave, remarkable, beautiful, sparkly, regal are all among her traits.
Tough, loud, loose, infinite, glorious, graceful, compassionate, awesome.
She is wise, mysterious, and perfect.
Now I remember her name.
She is soul.

Smaller Than the Sky

When we were smaller than the sky
Rolling down a hill of chives
Staring at that big blue thing above us that followed us wherever we went
Laughing under the dark crayon sky as we played with glee
Discussing our secrets as if they were the twinkling sequins above us
Giggling when the molten sun came up and our eyes hadn’t yet closed
Holding hands when the blue thing turned grey
When tiny bits of clouds fell on us and tiny sparks of electricity threatened the earth
When baritone booms shook the ground and made our hairs stand on our arms
Biting our lips when there were birds in the sky
Flocking together and taking us with them
When our jealousy of each other took us to different parts of the sky not yet explored
Chewing my cuticles when you laughed at something the girl with the sunset hair said to you
Swallowing the cloud in my throat as I practiced asking you if we would still meet every Friday to watch the stars
Realizing, when the fog cleared, I would never ask
Throwing screams at each other when the sky turned red
When the clouds in the sky grew thicker and our fights grew fiercer
Quieting when the clouds parted and the blue returned, dissolving our shouts
Smiling wispily as we flew by each other
As the sun set and you weren’t there to cartwheel with me
As the rain poured down and the lightning flashed and the thunder boomed
And you weren’t there to hold my hand
Sighing when we realized, as the moon hung in the sky, that the magic was gone
The nights of sitting on that hill staring at the little balls of gas that flickered for so long
The sheet above us that seemed so big
When we were smaller than the sky

Ghost Girl, Chapter 1

 

The cream colored yellow house stood poised at the end of the road, standing in a position quite unlike the other houses, which were an infinite labyrinth of similarity, their shapes and forms identical to one another. The very last house, although it did not seem to be shunned from the rest of the neighborhood like an outcast, was vastly different. While the remaining houses were small and simple, with four windows and a single door at the front, the last house had exactly seventeen windows and one door at each side. The so-to-speak, “normal houses” each contained a mailbox at the right side of the house, coated in black paint and marked with a golden two digit number. The final house at the bend in the road had a tendency to break the rules of the development, commonly known as Kings Point,  had an ocean blue mailbox with handprints of every family member and two crimson numbers marked near the opening of it. The mailbox also stood at the left side of the driveway, puzzling occasional visitors.

People rarely drove all the way down the cul-de-sac. Some were unaware that the house at 31 Kings Point even existed, except for one man driving along the boundless, newly-paved road at a quarter to midnight. His slick white Volkswagen avoided all streetlamps and the breathtaking crescent moon hanging low in the late night sky. He parked his car just before 29 Kings Point, attempting to avoid the eyes of suspicious strangers.

The man quietly stepped out of his car, the sounds he made, faint, as he closed the car door gently in his wake. It was cold for midwinter, and the leaves, scraping roughly against the road beneath his feet, were swept into the air and blew around him in an exhilarating burst of wind. But this was no time for admiring the beauty of a silent snowy night. No. He had to push the rusty gears embedded in his brain to get them running again. He could not focus on the eerie nature surrounding him. He had to snap out of his daze. This man had a job to do.

After walking up the steep hill, his legs throbbing, his pudgy reddened face contorting in pain, he reached his destination. His target. His endpoint. The climax of his storybook. The untimely demise of his wicked rival. The end of another’s chapter, but a whole new beginning for the victor. The man could just taste his win on his ruby red lips. He could smell his delight, suck on his vengeance, as if it were a mint.

The man eventually reached the steps to the house, the glossy doorknob shimmering in the beam of the porchlight, moths flying amongst the microscopic cobwebs. He closed his eyes, taking it all in. This was the path he was taking. The man’s fate lied in the hands of none other than the man himself. This selfish, cruel man was invading another family’s life, staining their own fates, their own dreams and destinies.

No, the man thought, shaking his head to bring about his senses. This is not about what they want. They don’t have a say in this. This is what I want. This is what I need to do. This is what I should’ve done a long time ago.

“This is my time,” he said aloud, sucking in an uneven breath, his lips parted in the shape of an “O”. “This is my time,” he repeated, more sure of himself. “In five minutes, this will all be over, and I will be a mended man. My broken stitches will be sewed. I shall breathe again.” He let the words sink in, letting the word “breathe” hang in the air and blanket the darkness. It seemed to turn all the neighborhood to stone, frozen in time.

Was it right? Was it right, to pluck at the heartstrings of the young and innocent, to grasp their lives in greedy hands, to hand their souls over to the master of Death? Was this what he had become? Was this who he was?

The man blinked twice and shut the voices up inside his head. They were useless. He could feel the doubt, the guilt, the hesitation closing in, leaving cold chills snaking up his back. He could not give in to that. He couldn’t. Not so soon. Not so suddenly.

Slowly, with no regrets, the man turned the knob and entered the mansion. The plan was set. It had to be done.

The solid oak door shut behind him, the man cringing at the screech it made across the carpeted floor. He tried not to focus on his loud entrance, but instead tiptoed across the hallway and into the den. The man gasped as he opened a pair of glass double doors. He stood there, his mouth agape at the sight, then decided it was best to enter rather than sightsee. Shelves upon shelves of books lined the walls, moving along from the classics to modern fiction. Small chairs fit for one person stood in the corners, some with newspapers folded on the cushion.

“A library,” he breathed, cupping his hands over his eyes, sliding them down over his cheekbones.

The man wandered over to a rickety table where an old record player stood, ready to be played away. Burning with curiosity, not caring who would hear him, he blew the specks of dust off the disc and slowly brought the disc to life as it spun faster and faster.

To his surprise, his favorite John Denver song, “Leaving On A Jet Plane,” filled the den with music, a guitar strumming in the background. Tears stinging his eyes, the man began to hum the sad serenade, a song he knew by heart.

All my bags are packed/

I’m ready to go/

I’m standing here outside your door/

Already I’m so lonesome I could die/

When he reached the chorus of the song, the tears he had held back choked his words, making the lyrics unsteady yet beautiful.

So kiss me and smile for me/

Tell me that you’ll wait for me/

Hold me like you’ll never let me go/

Never let me go. The words cut through him like a sharp blade. They persisted through his body, stinging and picking at his blackened heart, bruised from hate, scarred from a craving of vengeance.

Evelyn,” he murmured, her name even painful to say. He had betrayed the lyrics to the song, for he had let her go. He remembered the day he left her, her bouncy bobs of curly blond hair straightened, some wisps adhering to her tear streaked face. Her perfect, doll-like face full of sorrow. The man saw her bloodshot eyes, her smile gone forever, but her four words still haunted him, words that would follow him to his grave, perhaps beyond.

“I still love you,” she called to him from the sidewalk, gingerly rubbing her pregnant belly. Her words were full of hope and courage, like someday the man would return. Evelyn had given him a second chance. He could return, and if he did, all things from his first to last days with her would be forgiven.

He never did come back, however. Gambling and drinking had taken him away from his life, his real life, and to his despair, Evelyn died two months later in childbirth, her son, his son, along with her. She was almost thirty-one.

The man wept, burying his face in his hands, wanting to wail like a child, maybe like his own child would have done. His past had all to do with him. It was all his fault that his wife and son were dead, and that he was too caught up in his addictions to barely notice his family slipping through his fingers.

He and Evelyn could have been happier together, maybe could have raised a larger family in that cottage beside the woods. Evelyn could have finished up her writing courses at graduate school. She could have gotten her master’s degree by the end of the year, even with a baby to raise. Evelyn could have even decided to pursue her dreams even further, just like she wanted, and the man knew she’d worked so hard to become a published author.

In a way, when he left her, it was like he killed Evelyn. Her spirit, her love, her dreams, her happiness. Her son. Their son.

The man wiped the tears away, a waterfall cascading down his cheeks. Reluctantly, he meandered into the family room, where a wrap-around leather couch sat in front of a large flat screen TV. He walked up to the mantle, studying every single photograph. One was of his enemy’s wife cradling an infant in her arms. He smiled at Kristina, seeing a bit of resemblance to Evelyn in her. A ping of jealousy surged through him, remembering his feelings for Kristina Thomas.

She was the only one there for the man when no one else was. She, too, like Evelyn, believed in second chances and helped him recuperate from the drugs he had abused himself with. Still, he was wrong about Kristina. Soon after, her college friend, James, proposed, and the two married under a canopy of cherry blossom trees, all in full bloom for the early springtime.

The man turned away from the picture, unwilling to look at the child in Kristina’s arms. That should’ve been his future with Evelyn.

After searching through other rooms, the man finally came to the conclusion that the family wasn’t home. Dismayed, he was about to beeline for the door when he heard the sound of a grand piano from upstairs. The man stopped in his tracks, spinning around on his heels to face the staircase. He listened once more for the sound of the piano, for the keys to be banged, creating a mighty crescendo. A sly smile spreading pervasively across his face, the man creeped up the winding stairwell, being cautious not to make a sound.

He eventually reached a narrow hallway, where he could hear the piano’s gorgeous melodies ricochet off the walls, echoing throughout the entire house. The man pressed a cold ear to the wall, trying to follow the sound until he reached his destination. He skidded to a stop, discovering the source of the music. He listened carefully, hearing Mozart through the crack in the doorway.

The man was surprised to find an eighteen-year-old girl in the room, perched like a bird on the piano bench, letting her long fingers dangle over the keys. So this must be Sara, he thought, thinking back to the child on the mantle, and suddenly, the pieces of the complicated puzzle came back together, uniting once more.

His crystal blue eyes softened the more he gazed at Sara. He felt almost guilty about what he had to do, but then, the words that stabbed the navy blue night came back to him, emphasizing the point.

This is my time.

Sara turned around as soon as she finished her last note, falling off of the piano bench in fear. She stared at him for a moment, her eyes shooting lasers at the man.

Her voice came out meek but angry. “Who are you? What do you want from me?” She wasn’t afraid to look him in the eye.

The man, speechless by how brave she sounded, did not answer at first, his utter shock depicted on his face like a splash of colors to a painting.

Sara huffed, her words spoken with less stutter. “Look, sir, if money is all that you want, you’ve come to the wrong place.” She took a step back towards the window, her body hunched over.

The man chuckled to himself. What she told him was a lie. He knew her parents were extremely wealthy people, what with James being a businessman and Kristina a lawyer.

“Sweetheart,” he began, his voice patronizing. Sara stiffened. “I’m not here for your money. I’m not here for anybody’s money, actually.” The man ran his hands through his hair in mock frustration. “Good God, why does everybody assume the silliest of things these days?”

He waited for Sara’s reply, but nothing came.

“I knew your mother,” was all the man could get out, wanting to stump this young girl.

The crease on Sara’s forehead eased back, though not enough to change her tone. “And how did you know my mother, may I ask?” she snapped, her arms crossed over her chest. She backed away from the window.

The man decided to give her a taste of her own medicine. “Well if you must know, Miss Thomas,” he said, raising an eyebrow. “Before you were born, I was going through a rather difficult time in my life.”

“I can imagine,” Sara scoffed, the sarcasm punctuated in her voice. Her eyes demanded more information.

“I had some serious drinking problems, not to mention my gambling tendencies. I was using it as a distraction from reality. My wife had just died in childbirth, making me a childless widower.”

Sara stopped glaring when he mentioned Evelyn and his dead son, but she continued to stand her ground. The man carried on with his story, learning that Sara had nothing to add.

“Anyway, Kristina…” He cleared his throat. “I mean, your mother, noticed me one day, I don’t recall how, but she took me in, giving me the chance to start my life over.”

“Yes,” Sara replied, her words more smooth and empathetic. She smiled at the ground. “She’s given second chances to a lot of people.”

The man nodded in agreement, forgetting about why he had come to Kings Point in the first place. “And she did change me. Gave me a new outlook on life, actually. She has a heart of gold, your mother. A true saint.”

Sara blushed, beginning to feel more comfortable with his presence. Maybe this man wasn’t so bad after all. He seemed kind and loving, especially when he talked about Sara’s mother. They seemed so close.

“But your father led her down the wrong path,” the man said cooly, his voice composed.

Sara’s face drained of color, and she took a step back. There was something wrong about this whole conversation. She tucked her chestnut brown hair behind her ear. “What do you mean?” Her hands clenched into fists.

The man took a step towards her. “I was in love with Kristina for quite some time–”

Sara cut him off. “What about your wife? I thought you were still in mourning. I thought you loved her.” Her legs trembled from underneath her. She wanted to run, wanted to hide.

“Will you just listen?” the man shouted, startling the teenager. Even though he wasn’t right next to her, he towered over Sara. “I loved your mother, maybe even more than Evelyn. It was James that interfered. He didn’t appreciate my past or where I came from. I was there the day he proposed to Kristina in her office. I was distraught. The traitor. Took my one chance away from me.”

“My father is a great man!” Sara snarled, her power rushing to her. This man was not to be trusted. This man was relentless, regarding the people she loved most in the lowest form of respect, trying to make her surrender to his opinions.

“If only you knew your father like I did, Sara! You don’t know anything about him, so don’t even try to defend him.”

“Oh I will!” Sara said, her shouts bouncing off the walls. “Especially against someone like you!”

The man breathed heavily through his nostrils.

This is my time.

He reached into his pocket, pulling out the object he was looking for.

This is my time.

He pushed Sara harshly against the wall.

This is my time.

“Let me go!”

This is my time.

Sara kicked and thrashed, but the man held her firm, pressing a hairy hand into her shoulder blade.

This is my time.

“You can’t do this,” Sara rasped, tears welling up in her eyes. “This isn’t right.”

This is my time, this is my time.

The man quickly realized this girl wasn’t talking about herself. She meant Kristina.

This is my time, this is my time.

He clutched the knife in his hand, and without a second glance, pushed the knife into Sara’s chest. When he finally released, Sara shrieked and fell to her knees. Blood pooled down her stomach, hitting the ground like raindrops.

“HOW COULD YOU?!” she screamed, compressing the wound with her bloody hands. “AFTER ALL SHE DID FOR YOU, AND THIS IS HOW YOU REPAY HER?”

The man looked back at Sara, who was crying not from the pain, but for her mother. For his betrayal.

“I’LL NEVER FORGIVE YOU!” Sara coughed, choking on her blood and vomit.

The man bent down to face her, lifting up her chin, so she could look him in the eye. Sara did not try to look away. “Oh, don’t you worry, Miss Thomas,” he said. “You don’t have to.”

The man twisted the knife into her chest a second time, and Sara crumpled to the ground, the blood she lost making a circle around her. She didn’t fight or protest. She didn’t beg or plead for mercy. Instead, she watched the man shut the door behind him, locking it from the inside for good measure.

Sara tried to crawl on her hands and knees to reach her iPhone, but remembered that she left it downstairs in the kitchen.

“I’m really going to die tonight,” she whispered, withdrawing her hands from the wound, letting it bleed out on the carpet. Sara winced in pain, wanting to turn back the time to two hours ago, when her parents were just about to leave for their friend’s dinner party. She dreamed of them running back to the house, sensing that something horrible had happened to her. She imagined them bounding up the flight of stairs, two at a time, to her little music studio. Her mother would rock her in her arms, telling Sara that she was going to be okay. Her father would already be on the phone with 911, stroking her hair with one hand and holding the phone to his ear with the other.

But that wasn’t what was really going to happen. It wasn’t even bound to occur. Sara’s parents were half an hour away from Kings Point, unaware that their daughter was brutally stabbed and severely close to dying.

Sara laid her head down to the floor, crying for her own loss. No one could save her. No one had seen the man come in and barge into the room. She would not be spared. Her parents would always remember February 16, 2014, as the day their daughter was killed by some stranger she didn’t even know. And who was the man anyway, and why was he out to kill her?

Sara tried to shield these thoughts as her body stopped shaking from the impact of the weapon. She closed her brown eyes, thinking about what Heaven would be like, if she even deserved to be up there. With her body shutting down, Sara felt Death close in on her, and in one swift motion, Death extracted her soul out of her body and carried it up to where it belonged.

End of Chapter One.

Thomas

Note to Readers: This piece is a tribute to my younger brother Thomas, who sadly passed away at the age of seven in the year 2011 due to neuroblastoma cancer.

I am Thomas. I have been in New York for two years now. I moved when I was ten, and now I’m eleven. Along with myself, my sister, mom, and dad came to New York. My sister’s name is Anna. She is thirteen. My mom is Dianne, and my dad is Phil. We moved from Canada. Yeah, that’s right. You know, that country with all the bears and beavers? Nice country, eh? I’m sure you’re wondering if I like to play hockey? Well, of course I do! I’m a better goalie than Carey Price!

I’ve always been the oldest guy on my teams, and I’m about a foot taller than everybody else. I feel like a giant. Why am I on these teams if I am better than Carey Price? It’s because of all the time I spent in the hospital back in Canada. And, maybe I’m not quite that good! But eventually, I will be. You see, I missed tons of school and most of my hockey practices. Actually, I missed out on the five years of my life when I was sick. It was all thanks to a stupid six-letter word: cancer.

When I was three, my dad took me to the doctor after I had been complaining about a sore knee for about four months. My parents thought it was just a soccer injury, so they didn’t take me in to get it checked out right away. Of course, even if it was just a soccer injury, it probably wouldn’t have hurt to take me in anyways. But no, it was not a soccer injury, it was not a hockey injury, it was something worse. Way worse. I was diagnosed with stage four neuroblastoma cancer. What that is, I can not say, I barely understand it myself. All I know is that it’s extremely rare, especially in children. I was confused. All of a sudden, I’d be going into the hospital all the time, and people would treat me way differently. I fought this cancer for two years. I practically lived in the hospital. It was my second home. I didn’t like it there. I knew I would have to get a couple shots or a scan that involved a giant machine that beeped like crazy every time I went in. But I got used to it after a while.

It’s always been irritating how everyone who knows me and my story treats me differently than they would others. I’m fine now, and yet I’m still being taken care of by everyone. That was one thing I was so excited about when I heard we were moving to New York. I knew it was going to be very difficult, and it would take some getting used to, but there were many things I was looking forward to. One of those things was meeting new people. I had always heard that New Yorkers were very passive aggressive. I soon learned that I was blinded by my very Canadian lifestyle. If someone bumps into you accidentally in the streets where I lived, you would soon be bombarded with thousands of sorries. That’s right, I said so-rry.

My sister would always make fun of me when we had to get flu shots in the fall. I would sit down and watch the nurse slowly put the needle in my arm. I would be smiling, completely calm. My uncle fainted every time he got a shot. Lots of people thought I was brave for being able to sit there and be fine with everything. But I had no choice. I knew there would be lots more to come.

The first bunch of blood tests I got really freaked me out. Who actually likes getting shots or their blood drawn? I mean, I don’t particularly like them, but when I had to go to the hospital at least once a week to get shots, I had to become okay with them. But not everything. Some things are just plain weird! Once, they had to put this weird tube inside my chest that would be hooked up to a machine so that it would be easier to get the medicine inside of me. It is called a “broviac.” I don’t really remember when I got it, which is probably a good thing. The important thing is that it was going to help me and help the doctors. And it did. It made it so much easier when I had to sit still, for what felt like forever, and have to be attached to a pole with bags of medicine hanging from it. Basically, if I wanted to go anywhere, I would have to carry this huge pole around with me.

This medicine is quite a common one. It’s called “chemo,” or “chemotherapy.” I have to say, after all I’ve been through, having to be put on chemo was one of the worst things. It makes you feel horrible. I would get so nauseous and tired. It makes you feel like you have the flu, but it never goes away. And the worst thing about it is that it causes hair loss. Every time I was put on chemo, my hair would fall out again. There was one point where I was so upset about having no hair upon my head, that my dad shaved his head to support me and show empathy. It made me feel happy that he was trying to let me know that I was not alone. But I still hated it. I became the king of hats. I had about thirty different toques.

At my school, I’d be the only one who was allowed to be wearing one. I was getting tired of people always telling me to take my hat off before the teacher saw, or something else indicating that they didn’t know about my situation. After a year or two of this, my mom decided that it might be a good idea to talk to the school and see if they could change the dress code. It was great because I was now not the only kid in the school wearing a hat!

We lived in Calgary, which is a fairly good sized city. When I say that, I mean that it was big, but not too big. It was small, but not too small. In our neighborhood, most people knew each other. My school was a public school, so in order to get in, you had to live in the district of the school. So mostly everyone at the school lived in the same neighborhood. I would see my friends on my way to school. After all, it was only two blocks away! Sometimes, I would walk to school with my friends who lived on the same street as me. “18A Street” was its name. It’s a cul de sac right in between 18th and 19th. The school was on 18th street, so seriously, it was super close.

I had a couple friends who lived on my street. Sam, Alex, Kyra, and Isabel. They were better friends with my sister, though. Sometimes in the evening after we’d eaten, my sister and I would go play outside with them. Sometimes, even Ian and Grant came out! We would run in the middle of the roads and play hockey. So much hockey. Sometimes, when it was just Alex and me, we would run around chasing each other and coming up with silly names to yell. I called him “Chicken.” I don’t even know why. One day, I just said “Hey, Chicken,” and it stuck. He called me “Donkey.” Again, no idea where that came from.

With all my visits to the hospital, I fell out of the loop at school. I was sad because I felt left out, even though people tried to include me. I was barely able to read, and my printing was almost impossible to understand. I still spoke like a toddler. All of my teachers were really good and supportive. They helped me get caught up. It just drove me crazy sometimes. My friends would all be talking about Benjamin’s sick birthday party on Saturday, that I missed thanks to an appointment where I had to lie in this futuristic-looking machine that took a bunch of x-rays and photos. Oh! I almost forgot! I also got seven shots in my right arm.  Ah, cancer is stupid!

Speaking of cancer being stupid, there was an incident with some of my friends that was really annoying. It was after school had ended one day. My friends and I were playing tag on the playground and the field. Actually, to this day, I don’t know what the game was. It was like a strange mix of tag, dodgeball crossed with a snowball fight, and European handball. I’m not exactly sure why, but my friend threw a chunk of ice at my face. Maybe he was more interested in having a snowball fight. But I’m telling you, this wasn’t snow. It was like a full-on piece of ice. And it had rocks in it. My parents had to take me to the hospital. It hit me right under my eye. He flung it towards me as if throwing a frisbee, double the force. The chemo I was on was making it very dangerous for me to do anything that could get me hurt. If I got a cut, and I was bleeding, I would have to go to the hospital right away. It’s because I had low platelet levels. Platelets are basically the red and white blood cells that require bone marrow to develop. If someone has low platelet levels, and they get a cut, it will bleed, and bleed, and bleed. You can actually die from this, so my parents were always making sure that I wasn’t playing any games that involved throwing knives, or anything of that sort. Basically, just anything that could get me injured, or even sick. Being on the chemo and developing low platelet levels made any small, mild cold, a deadly one. Chemotherapy is one of the many treatments that affect bone marrow and platelet counts. We actually had to cancel a trip to Hawaii because the doctors said it would be dangerous for me to be in an active environment. Usually in Hawaii, we just relax. Well, my parents do. My sister and I, we go swimming all day and play games with other kids we meet.

I’ve always loved our trips to Hawaii. I can tell that my sister and parents do too. Since it’s about a seven hour flight to Maui, we don’t go very often. And by not very often, I mean that we go once a year. But, because of that, we get to stay for around three or four weeks. My sister tells me that she feels like our trips to Hawaii are her favourite things to do! Our upcoming trip will be even better! It turns out we will be going at the same time that one of my best friends back at home will be there with his family.

I am also looking forward to our trip to Palm Springs. We bought a house there recently. It’s huge. It’s bigger than our place back in Canada! That place was four thousand square feet.  I loved that house. Before we moved and put our house on the market, my parents let my sister and me throw a party for all of our friends and family. I wish it would have been in the summer, though. We had a particularly nice and big backyard. It had a hot tub in it. We had a lot of fun hanging out in that backyard. Let me remind you, typical summer weather in Calgary is not very warm. Maybe 28 degrees celsius as an average daily temperature. 30 if we were lucky. Also, Calgary summers tend to be quite rainy. In the evenings of most summer days, we would get a quick thunderstorm. But anyways, back to the party.

We decided that we would have our party mainly in the basement. Our basement was a nice size. We had a great entertainment area there. There was a bar, a pool table, and a bunch of signed hockey jerseys hanging on the walls. If you walked past this, you would reach the movie theatre. No, there was not an actual theatre in our basement! But it was a huge TV. About eight feet tall, twelve feet wide. Actually, it was one of those projector ones. We had a separate room with about seven different systems for the TV. My parents would hate it if anyone went in there! But for the party, we thought we’d just order some pizza and put on a movie. Something relaxing and fun.

I wish I hadn’t remembered so clearly everything that happened. So many different medications and gross treatments. My doctors had me take this medicine that my parents would put in this weird, vial-type thing. They’d have to squirt it into my mouth. Now, let just make this clear, the stuff was revolting. I knew I had to take it, I knew it would help me, but that didn’t make me any more eager. Everyday at four, my parents would sit me down at the counter. In front of me, they would place my iPad. While my dad filled the tube with the medicine, my mom put my favourite show on. I was quite tired of it, considering how much time I spent watching it. Okay, now you’re probably wondering what it was that I could watch no matter how many times I’d seen each episode. Alright, I’ll tell you: I loved to watch Spongebob Squarepants. I actually think that the show is ridiculous and idiotic, but I find it very entertaining. It makes me laugh and makes me feel happy. So there I’d be, watching Spongebob with both of my parents standing beside me. My mom would take the tube full of cream-colored medicine and tell me to open my mouth. I’d do as told, and she would place it at the corner of my mouth. Then, she would insert the medicine into me. Every time I had to take it, I would have to resist throwing up. A couple times, probably the first few times I had to take it, I couldn’t take the horrible taste and texture. I wasn’t used to it. I had trouble swallowing it. I’d end up throwing up all over the place, forcing my parents to rush around cleaning up after me.

Unfortunately, there were many things throughout my experience of being a cancer patient that caused me to throw up. My sister often witnessed this. When she was old enough to understand what was going on with me and why I was throwing up, she developed a fear of throw up. It sounds a bit silly, I know. But it is a real fear, and I’m not one to judge. Any time we are watching a movie involving someone puking all over the stage while performing, or something of that sort, I have to warn her. She’ll close her eyes tightly and cover her ears. I feel bad because if it weren’t for me, she may not have developed this irrational fear. But honestly, if I apologized to her for that, she’d probably hit me over the head with a hockey stick.

Also, I would like to explain a bit about my diagnosis of stage four cancer. There are five stages of cancer. Stage 0 is when the cancer is in place, but hasn’t spread to nearby tissue. If one is diagnosed with stage 0 cancer, there is a good chance it is curable. Then, there is stage I, when there is a small cancer or tumor, but it has yet to spread to nearby tissue or to the lymph nodes. This stage is often called early-stage cancer. Then, there is stage II and III, which indicate that the cancer or tumor is larger and has spread to nearby tissue and lymph nodes, but not the rest of the body. Finally, there is stage IV, which is when the cancer has spread to the other parts of the body. This is the worst stage of cancer. And I was diagnosed with it. I was immediately one of the top priorities at the children’s hospital.

I remember one of the first things I had to get done after I got my broviac. It was horrible. I was on chemo, so I already felt like I had the flu. I was nauseous and exhausted. And then, I had to go in for a cat scan. Over time, my parents and I decided to call it “the doughnut,” which made it a little bit easier to talk about, I guess. Or maybe that’s just what they thought. Anyways, I had to go and lie on this table thing. Then, they would put this weird, blue dye-type medicine stuff in through my broviac. I’m not sure what it was, but what I do know is that it makes it easy to see the cancer. Actually, I don’t really have much of a clue about its purpose, but I knew that it was necessary and important. But it made me feel even worse afterwards. Often, the doctors would have my parents take me to Dairy Queen because they knew that was one of the most unpleasant procedures I would get on a regular basis.

Sometimes, I had to get blood transfusions. I hated those too. Basically, I would have to sit in the small hospital room with this giant machine right beside me. Honestly, it wasn’t that bad, and it wasn’t painful. It was just annoying and extremely boring. I literally couldn’t move. I had to lie there in a very uncomfortable bed and not move. And, after a little bit, the room started to smell horrible. You couldn’t escape the smell. My dad would always have to be there so he would sit in a chair, awkwardly watching. He always brought in a bunch of oranges that he would peel in the corner of the room. The orange peels would make the room smell a little bit better, but not much.

Like I said earlier, I was diagnosed at the age of three. It was in my knee. I fought the cancer for two years until I was five. By then, it had gone away. I was cancer-free. I was so happy. Though I was young and didn’t understand much of what was going on, I knew it was a good thing. About a month later, my parents sat me down at our family dinner. Everyone was there. My family living in Medicine Hat even drove up to see us. After we had eaten, my mom made the announcement. She said that I was sick again. The cancer was back. At that time, I could tell what everyone was thinking, because I was thinking the same thing. Was it ever gone? Why did it come back? Will it ever go away?

This time, when I was diagnosed, the tumor was found behind my left eye. It looked like I got punched in the face, for real. Actually, that’s what I told all of my friends. At first, they thought it was kind of cool — as first graders, it would make sense. But after having a black eye for over two weeks, people started to doubt that that’s what had happened. Eventually, I had to tell everyone the truth. Then, I was treated the same as I was before. People treated me as if I was unable to do things. Things that I could do completely fine. The cancer was stage IV, so it wasn’t any better in that sense.

***

Sometimes, I think about what it would be like if I hadn’t survived. My family would be devastated. Well, at least I hope they would! Whoops, I probably shouldn’t joke about this. I knew there was a possibility that I wouldn’t survive, but I tried to keep hope. I knew that hope was key for someone like me. But I also know that if I hadn’t survived, it would have been all over the news. Maybe not everywhere, but definitely Calgary and maybe some smaller towns nearby. That’s because it’s quite rare for young children to die of cancer. Especially since this type of cancer is extremely rare for children, and adults too, for that matter.

But all of these weird procedures and being on chemotherapy, well, they worked! I survived. I surprised so many people. The doctors, my friends, my family, everyone who knew me, actually. But most importantly, I surprised myself. I didn’t know what was going to happen. No one ever talked to me about the bad stuff. Only the good. I guess they thought they would be helping me in some way, I’m not sure. But that just left me curious. Some things I picked up from everyone being around me. When I was doing better, people would act completely different than when I was not. I could tell when something was up. My parents told me that even the doctors didn’t think I’d exceed two years. I knew I had to stay strong. I was quite young when I went through all of this, so a lot of things related to my illness were very confusing to me. I had no idea what half of the procedures actually were! I was told they were necessary and they would help, so I went with them. And in the long run, it was totally worth going through it all.

Now is the fun part. Now, I get to move on with my life. I get the chance to restart. Nobody knows my story, unless they work for my mother, who by the way, is pretty cool. She’s a CEO of this awesome digital marketing agency called “Critical Mass.” Her office is pretty cool, too. And, because of her job, my sister and I were able to get into an amazing school in Greenwich Village. It’s called “LREI.” “LR” for “Little Red School House” and “EI” for “Elisabeth Irwin High School.” It’s a private school, and it’s very progressive. I like it. I think my sister does, too. But it stresses her out a lot. She gets like three hours of homework each night. She tells me that her old school in Canada gave, like, no homework at all. She understands that going to this school is going to make it easier for her to get into a good college or university, but school is definitely not her favorite thing right now. I think it’s fun. But if I could change something about it, I’d add a hockey team.

I’ve made a lot of great friends, and I’m happier now that we’re here. They all know about my struggles in the past, but nobody really makes a big deal about it anymore. My sister told her class one day, and the next day, the entire school knew about it. Apparently, the teachers are a bit gossipy. But they’re all so nice. Overall, my life is so much better now that we’re in New York. I got to take my sick life and put it behind me. I even talked to my family about not speaking about it and treating me like it never happened. They understood. We all moved on together.

Theater

When most people think about theater, they think of a bunch of kids coming together and just performing a show, but when I think of it, it means so much more. I have practically grown up on stage, and performing is just a part of my life now. I was in my first show when I was five, so I have been in theater for seven years. Something about it just amazed me: how a group of totally different strangers could come together and in a span of  a few months could go on to perform something amazing.

My connection to performing has always been a special thing in my life. When you’re on stage, you transform. You’re not yourself in the theater anymore, you’re someone else, somewhere else. It is an escape. You forget about getting a 70% on that test. You forget about that kid making fun of you in the hallway. You forget about the argument you and your friend got into. Reality seems to halt, giving you a chance to be someone else and not worry about what is “actually” happening. I’m not the best at being confident when I first meet people. I’m usually pretty shy the first few times I talk to them, but when I get on that stage, none of that seems to matter.

Growing up with theater has taught me so many things: you don’t always get the parts you want, you are going to have to listen to authority if you want it to turn out right, six to eight hours of rehearsal really isn’t that much time, your friends are going to have to wait until hell week is over, and no matter how much you hate makeup, it’s makeup or being a ghost. No matter how big the cast is, you will always come together as a big family during the several hour dress rehearsals, tech rehearsals, and performances. You can be yourself when you’re there, and there’s always something to talk about, like that annoying kid at your school that no one else has met because none of them go to your school, but they all hate for you. You make so many friends of different ages doing so many different things like helping a little kid learn their lines, or an older kid helping you with your makeup. You always seem to find your group of friends. No one is quick to judge, and if you need help with your lines, there’s always someone to help you. Everyone helps each other, and there is no better feeling than a show going perfectly after hours and hours of rehearsals and non-stop work.

What goes on behind the curtain is one of the most important things in creating the magic and moving between settings. The stage crew doesn’t get enough credit for all of the things they do to help the production come to life. So many of the things that appear on stage are made possible by the stage crew’s endless work. So many people are involved in so many ways behind the scenes:  lighting crew, spotlights, sound crew, stage managers—and that’s just during a show. There are also set painters, costume designers, choreographers, directors, and so many more people who help put the show together.  

Though I’m almost always on stage, I also help behind the scenes. I’ll meet for several hours to paint the set, and usually my whole family will be there too. Many people don’t notice the backstage crew, and I guess they aren’t meant to be noticed, but they play a huge part in shows.  They change sets, manage props, and help with quick changes. Quick changes are basically what they sound like, but what they really mean is like ten second changes. Usually the characters with quick changes wear a leotard or something under their costume so they can make it easier. The stage crew or some cast member will wait in the wings with the costumes, and when the actor walks off, the crew helps her/him take off their costume and into their new costume before they usually walk back on.

There are some things that people who never do theater don’t understand, like the excitement and nerves of opening night. They don’t understand how many times you have to make up the words as you’ve gone along because you’ve forgotten them. The bond you all develop at the last few rehearsals. The anticipation during the director’s speech. Trying to stay quiet backstage, but ending up laughing at least once. Growing up in theater, you form a special kind of relationship with the people around you. You’re always joking around, singing Broadway show tunes, or talking about those times when you made a mistake on stage, like tripping over a chair, falling off a table, or making your friends laugh and break character. The crew and cast fooling around backstage during scenes. The frantic quick changes. Rushing to the other side of the stage after a scene for another entrance. Hurrying to put the finishing touches on your hair and makeup when they call “five minutes!” Learning the words and dances to songs you’re not in. Singing in your dressing room while changing costumes. Calling each other by your character name. And during the last show, you’re probably going to end up in tears at least once. At the last performance of one of the shows I was in, I had to carry makeup wipes in my pocket in case anybody had mascara dripping down their face.

If you grow up performing, you find comfort in being on stage or involved in productions. There are so many things that being a “theater kid” has taught me, like to never stop working and to do my best no matter what part I get, or to keep on pushing through, even if it feels like something will never end. So many people think theater kids are stuck-up and only care about how they look, their voice, and what parts they get, and that they stress over the tiniest details for their auditions, but those are the stereotypes. There are a few kids like that, but the majority of us are the opposite. We find comfort in being on stage, not stress. We don’t care what we look like when we show up to rehearsals, as long as we are wearing something we can dance in and have our hair out of our faces, and we don’t care what parts we get, as long as we’re part of the show. As much as we complain, we all love the stage, the costumes, the makeup, and everything about being a part of a show.

The Adventures of A Bird, Cat & Dog

         

Chapter 1 – Get that Crow

An orangey tinge fills the land, and puffy, pink clouds slowly tread across the sky. The sweet, rolling hills become hazy with a golden tinge. Sheep graze peacefully in the valley below. A gorgeous sea of trees above, it is quiet here. Nothing to bother me. Flying high above hills and valleys, I slowly and gracefully glide down to the farmland below, no one to be seen.

The shepherd and his dog tend to the sheep; the farm’s cat roams around catching mice and other pesky rodents. As for me, I am a crow. Considered an unwanted pest because my kind eats corn. So what? We have to survive somehow. I’m not going to eat a rotting mouse, that’s just gross. I’ll eat corn, thank you very much. Maybe if times are desperate enough, but for now I’ll stick with what the farm provides.

“Ey, Corn Head! Ged down from there! Yous ain’t allowed to eat dat!”

Oh no, that stupid cat noticed me. Great.

“My name is not ‘Corn Head.’ It is Will for the last time. And I am not eating your corn, Walter.”

“Don’t call me dat. Just ged off da corn,” Walter calls.

“No. I will not leave this corn.”

“Oh, I’m gonna get ‘cha Corn Head,” he sneers.

Oh no. Whoop, there he goes. Well, time to take off.

“Missed me!”

“Oof.” He crashes into the fence.

Stupid cat. Whoa! Up we go. I don’t want to fly into that tree. Oh hey, it’s Nix! Maybe he’ll get this cat off my trail.

“Nix! Excuse me! Hello, Nix!” I yell.

Nix ceases his herding.

“Oh hi, William, I didn’t see you there,” he calls back. “This is about Walter, isn’t it? I’ll take care of him.”

He appears to have read my mind. Oh thank heavens, that’s very helpful. This wears me out quite a bit. I look over my shoulder. Heh heh. Yes, get ‘em, Nix, go, go, go!

“AAAAAAAHH!!!!”

FWOOSH!

“Ugh, ow. Didn’t see that coming,” I mutter.

Aww man, I flew into a bush. I can’t believe I did that again. I almost flew right into the Dark Forest — that could’ve ended badly. I see Nix and Walter walking closer, they seem to be talking. I thought Nix was going to chase Walter away from the farm for good. I guess I thought wrong. They are muttering something about me. Why would they be? Maybe they are talking about my dashing looks. Or maybe they are talking about my amazing tricks. They’re coming closer. Oh, this doesn’t sound good. Nix looks mad, and oh, that wretched cat looks so smug. Oh geez.

“Uhh, hey guys,” I say nervously.

“William, come with me,” Nix growls.

“Eheheh, good luck, bird scum,” Walt hisses into my ear as he stalks away.

Nix and I walk deeper into the forest, as if we weren’t in far enough. Ugh, I bet this is about the corn. Nix gets very defensive about his farmer’s crops. Why? I don’t really know. Whenever he gives me this lecture, he always starts rambling about this thing called money. Money, money, money. When will Nix stop caring about human things and start caring about how hard it is for me to survive in the wild?

“Will, I don’t want to give you this lecture again. I have no idea how many times I have to tell you. Just please STAY AWAY FROM THE CROPS. You never listen. Why don’t you go scavenge or something? I think it would help my farmer stay in business if you left the crops ALONE. He needs money to keep his — ”

I cut Nix off. “Why should I care about all this money nonsense? You always go on about money this, money that. I keep eating his corn so that I can LIVE.” I sneer.

“Excuse me? Look, I care about you, Will, but please care about the man who provides your food. Without the farmer, you would have to look elsewhere, and elsewhere is probably farther away,” Nix explains.

I suddenly have this great idea. When Nix gets frustrated, he doesn’t really pay attention to detail. I could fly off into the woods and he would probably follow me, then I can teach him a lesson, show him how hard life is in the wild. Ah ha, that’s exactly what I’ll do.

“Okay Nix, fine I’ll go elsewhere to find food,” I say with a smug grin. “I’ll go forage in the Dark Forest.”

“William, don’t you dare fly off! I’m not done talking to you,” I fly farther into the woods. “Come back you filthy, flying corn stealer!”

Chapter 2 – Deeper In The Dark Forest

“Hey, you get back here! Don’t you dare run away from me, you bird scum!!” Nix is beginning to fade into the distance. We’ve been running for hours. I wait for him to catch up.

In the distance I hear, “Nix? Where’d ya go bud? Did yous chase dat jerk off? Hellooo?”

While I wait for those two to catch up, I look at my surroundings. The sun has set and leaves of gold, crimson, and auburn litter the ground. A river as dark as obsidian flows throughout the forest; it, too, is covered in golden leaves. A slight chill dances through the air. Twinkling crystals fill the wine colored sky. The trees appear to be in solemn wait, mourning the sun’s short disappearance. I hear leaves crunching — it’s Nix and Walter. They both look scared. Well, who wouldn’t be? Besides the residents of this forest, in fact, I live here. It isn’t too bad here; it really is quite fruitful.

“Where are we?” Walt asks quietly.

“We are in the Dark Forest, my home,” I reply. “Welcome.”

Walter and Nix exchange shocked looks. Nix’s expression immediately hardens.

“Let’s go,” Nix growls. “I want to find a good place to sleep.”

“I can show you a good place to sleep! I can even find some food for you,” I shout.

“No, you’ve helped enough. Come on, Walter.” Nix snarls.

“Well if I can’t help you, then I am going to tag along at least. Who knows? You might need me at some point,” I grumble.

We start to walk, leaves crunching under my feet. Wind ruffles my feathers. I look at Nix: his long, black and white fur flits in the wind. His ears are pricked and alert, his fluffy, black tail stiff. I have a feeling he’s worrying about being stuck in this place. He’s a brave soul, very confident in his actions. He is totally out of it right now.

Nix and I go way back. We’ve known each other for three years so far. I was a tiny chick when I met him, I was still learning how to fly. Later, I was flying with my murder, and something happened. I don’t remember what occurred, but I do remember being knocked down by a dead crow. I was trapped under its wing, both in the air and on the ground. Since I couldn’t move or wriggle out, I squealed and chirped for help. Nix had come and pulled the dead bird off me. He nursed me back to health and brought me back to his farm, and from then on, Nix and I had hung out quite a bit. I love Nix. I really hope he’ll forgive me for snapping at him…

I look over at Walter; his tail is tucked between his legs. His ears are plastered to his head. His striped, orange fur is puffed out. His green eyes are wide, and his pupils are huge. He is definitely not in his zone, jumping at every sound. Occasionally, he gives a small squeak. Walt is not exactly the most confident guy. He tries so very hard to act confident, but I don’t think anyone really buys the act.

I met Walter after I met Nix, we met in the field where the sheep graze. He was cold, wet, and hungry. No signs of living with a human, no collar, no nothing. We took him to the barn, and Nix brought him some food. I don’t really understand why he hates me even though he’s known me for a year. He is truly a good cat at heart, I know that. It’s just hard not to hate him. I guess it must have to do with his predatory instincts or something like that.

We walk farther into the forest in silence. There is a lot of tension in the air, and fear. Fear is emitting from the two farm dwellers, tons of it.

“Guys, what are we doin’ here?” Walter mumbles.

“Looking for a place to sleep. And maybe something to eat,” Nix says.

“Are we stayin’ long? I really hope not, this place is givin’ me the creeps,” Walt enquires.

“I agree, Walt. This place is also creeping me out,” Nix responds. “I don’t think we’ll stay long.”

The trees begin to thin out; silver streams of light slide through the gaps. The light brightens as we walk farther. The shining stars appear to shine brighter as the trees come to a complete stop, as if they are happy to have us among them. I stare in awe at the moon who provides the most mystifying light.

Nix walks to the middle of the clearing and stares at the beautiful painting that is the sky. Walter slowly pads over, staring at the sky as well. This is one of the reasons the forest is fruitful: it is full of life, berries, food, and gorgeous scenery.  Here in this clearing, the obsidian river thins into a creek and flows like silver silk. Stunning.

I stay at the edge of the forest, watching. I fly over to my friends and perch on a nearby rock. We sit together, staring, amazed by this scene.

I’m the first to break the silence. “It’s quite a beautiful night, isn’t it?”

“Yea, it is, ain’t it?” Walter whispers. “Why are we here? Dat’s one thing dat sticks out to me, though. It kind of feels like ‘oh here we go, let’s go run inta da forest and never go back to da farm.’ Is that why we’re here? Are we runnin’ away?”

No one answers. Nix and I exchange a look. I turn away — I’m not in the mood for this. I don’t really feel that bad, but I feel stupid now. I wanted to make Nix pay, but what am I really doing? I’m just leading my friends into danger. Soon, it will be winter, which is in a few days. I need to get them back. I shouldn’t have done this without thinking. This is my fault, and I have to fix it now. Let’s just hope I can get them out before it snows. I don’t really want to say anything yet, I think I’ll just go and suggest that we get some rest. I think we could use it. We have a long way to go.

Chapter 3 – The First Frost

I wake up and stretch my wings. I peer around, and my eyes become wide with shock. The leaves, the grass, everything is edged with sparkling crystals. Cold crystals. The chill is stronger. I fly over to the creek; it’s ice cold. I hop over to my friends. Their whiskers are covered in tiny crystals.

“Guys, wake up.” I nudge Nix’s shoulder. “Come on, you big, sleepy doofus!”

“Huh, waz happenin’?” Unsurprisingly, Walter is the second to wake up. He likes to wake up early.

“Nix won’t wake up,” I complain.

“‘Course dat big ol’ bozo won’t wake up,” grunted Walt.

“Wha?” Nix babbles. His head is in the air, but his eyes are still closed.

“Mornin’ sunshine. William here says yous wouldn’t wake up,” Walter snickers. “Ya look like a giant fluffball.”

It’s true though, his fur is all untidy. Grass bits and leaf litter are stuck in his long coat. His eyes are still closed. He’s not a morning dog.

“I’m hungry, where can we find things to eat?” rasps Nix.

I think about Nix’s question. We’re still in a part of the forest I know, so if I’m correct, there should be some edibles around. I can find nuts, berries, and practically anything for myself, and a good hunting ground for Nix and Walter. Let’s just hope we can at least get a little food. I think the frost has killed most plants, and most prey have hidden.

“Walter, you’re obviously fine with eating mice and rabbits, correct?” I question Walt.

“Ya know it!” Walter agrees.

“Nix, what about you? Would you hunt down, kill, then eat what you just killed?” I ask, addressing Nix this time.

“I suppose, I mean, I kind of have to. I can’t eat fruit or anything like that, I’m a carnivore,” Nix explains.

“Okay, so now that you two have confirmed that, I’ll lead you to a hunting ground. If I can find it,” I respond.

I fly low to the ground. We exit the clearing we had slept in. As we enter the forest, the chill becomes even frostier. I fly around trees and bushes; it gets warmer after a little. We near the hunting ground. Trees begin to thin yet again, but they are not cut short. The growth of bushes has stopped. Crimson, auburn, and gold flutter all around the area, the green grass is completely covered.

Walter takes a deep breath in.

“Smells like most of da prey scattered,” he comments. “I don’t know if we gonna have much luck, but we betta get to it. Whateva’s left is probably not dat big.”

“Walt’s right. I’m not sure if I’ll actually catch anything, due to my lousy hunting skills, but it’s worth a try,” Nix states.

“Okay, so the both of you are set. I’m not going to be staying to hunt, even though I can basically eat everything. I’m going to be foraging. I won’t be too far off. I’ll be at the edge of the hunting grounds, call me if you need anything,” I explain.

“Bye, Will!” Nix and Walt holler as I fly off.

“We will call you if we need anything!” shouts Nix.

I don’t have to fly very far, as I said. Berry bushes and walnut trees begin to appear as the trees become denser. I land close to a wild blueberry bush. I poke around it, scanning for any ripe berries. Most of them are shriveled up, another act of the wicked frost. I find about three good blueberries. I leave the berries in a small nook in a rock. I fly a little farther away from the hunting ground. Soon, I spot a clump of raspberry bushes. A majority of these leaves are as black as death. No plant is safe at the hands of the vile frost. I find only a few berries from the huge clump of bushes, maybe five or six. I bring them back to the rock. I continue my search, looking for nuts this time. I recall seeing a walnut tree before. I fly above the trees and look for the long leaves, long spindly stems, the huge branches, and of course, the clumps of walnuts.

I soon spot the walnut tree—this bears the most food so far. I search the floor for the small, brown nutshells. There are plenty of green fruits, they fill the air with a citrusy smell. Only very few fully matured nuts are on the ground. I pick up two of the large nuts in my beak and fly back to the rock to drop them off. I spread my wings and prepare to take off again when I hear the crunching of leaves under foot.

I turn around to see Nix and Walter. Their pickings are way slimmer than mine. They have only managed to catch a small vole and a boney-looking rabbit.

“Wow, that is way less than I expected!” I exclaim.

“I know, right,” Nix says putting down his vole. “I thought we’d get at least more than two scrawny critters.”

“Well, I told ya, whateva would be left wouldn’t be much.” Walt shrugs.

“Enough talking about our small catch. What’d you get, William?” inquires Nix.

“Yea, what did ya collect?” Walt asks, curious.

I look down at what I have. It’s not much, but it will keep me going for a little while.

“I have three blueberries, six raspberries, and two walnuts. It’s not much, and no offense to you two, but I have way more than you do,” I report.

“Oh, I’m not offended, it is easier to find plants and whatever it is you eat,” Nix agrees.

“I can safely say dat it would be easier to forage,” Walter comments.

“Let’s eat. We don’t have very much time left. The sun is already beginning to set. We’re going to have to find somewhere to sleep soon,” I announce.

Chapter 4 -The Badger

We are now starting to look for shelter. We have finished our puny meals. We walk and walk and walk. My feet begin to hurt. After three hours of walking, I start flying. The sun and moon battle for control of the sky. The moon slowly takes over the sun. The sky slowly begins to darken, from a beautiful, honey orange to a harsh, plum purple. We trot under the painted sky and sturdy, waiting trees. Leaf litter under foot gives off a strange, musty smell. The shining orb in the sky provides us with an enchanting light; it makes the spooky forest seem more magical.

“Hey Nix, come check this out,” I yell over my shoulder.

Nix pads over to me, Walt following. I have found a large hole. I don’t know if we can all fit inside, though.

“Um, I think that’s way too small,” Nix squeezes into the hole. “Walt, try wriggling in next to me.”

Walt doesn’t speak a word, he just attempts to shove himself into the hole. Walt slides in — it’s surprising that he fits. I slide in easily, but it’s a tight fit. I really don’t think this would be a sufficient sleeping place. I bet we look super squished right now. I’m not even on the floor, I’m on top of Walter.

“Dis is weird, man,” Walter hisses.

“Yeah, no kidding, my butt is so squished,” Nix grumbles.

“An’ poor Will isn’t even on da floor,” Walt adds.

“I do not think this is a good spot at all,” I admit.

“Okay, everyone out. This is really uncomfortable,” Nix sniffs.

We all try to scramble out at once, but we get stuck, and even more uncomfortable.

“This is not good at all,” I squeak.

“I can’t move,” Walter sputters.

“Okay, I’m going to get out first, I take up the most room. It’ll be easier when I get out,” Nix claims.

Walter and I wait as Nix scrapes himself out of the hole. It takes him a while, but soon enough, he scrambles out. Walter and I have tons of space to move around. Nix is one big dog. I flit off of Walt and let him crawl out. Then, I strut into the open.

“Well, that didn’t go very well. We should keep looking,” I comment.

No one objects. We continue to search.

***

“Huff puff huff… Can… we… please… stop walkin’…?” Walter breathes.

“Fine, we can stop for a second,” Nix sighs.

We have been following the creek for two hours now. Walter drags himself to the creek and takes huge gulps of ice cold water. Nix sits down and licks his sore paws. I decide to explore the area — I’ve never seen this place before. I hope we don’t get lost; I know most of the forest. I probably know this place in the daytime, but right now I have no idea. I think a nice badger lives somewhere around here; I’m really not sure though. I look around some more. I find an area that seems to elevate like a little hill. Near the base of the hill, there is a cave or hole of some sort.

I flap over to Nix, who is still licking his paws.

“Nix! Nix. I found a big hole or cave, it’s something like that, anyway. Back to my point, I think we could all fit in it,” I squawk.

“Show me.” Nix ceases licking his paws and stands up.

I lead him over to the big, open hole-cave thing. I look up at Nix. He looks shocked. This is the biggest shelter we’ve seen so far.

“Hey Walter, come look at this,” Nix says, eyes still on the opening.

“Why!?” Walter snaps.

“Because you should,” Nix retorts.

“Fine!” Walter shouts.

“Why are you so cranky?” I inquire.

“‘Cause I am, deal wif it,” Walt hisses.

“Just come over here,” Nix snarls, beginning to get frustrated.

Walter drags his paws as he sulks over.

“Look at what William found,” Nix says.

“Why should- oh, whoa,” Walt murmurs.

“I think it’s big enough for all of us!” I exclaim.

Nix pops in first. “There’s room for all of us!” he cries.

I flutter into the hole, then look up at Walter. He gives a small grunt and forces

himself in the hole. We all have plenty of space.

“It smells weird in here,” Walter mumbles.

Nix glares at him.

“But, we can sleep here,” Walt says, frightened.

Nix puts his head down on his paws and falls asleep. Walter turns away from Nix towards me.

“I’m sorry,” he murmurs. “This trip has just been so exhaustin’, I really hope we can ged home. I bet Nix does too, don’t ‘cha think?”

“I do, I mean he’s a been a great leader helping us through this trip. I agree, I hope we can get back to the farm,” I reply.

“Winter’s comin’. I can smell it. I don’t think wes gonna make it before it snows. So, I don’t know bud,” Walt whispers.

“Yeah…” I mumble.

“‘Night lil’ bird,” breathes Walter.

“Good night,” I murmur.

***

Rustle, rustle.

I wake up startled. I hear a strange, rustling sound. No one else seems to notice it. The sun isn’t even fully up in the sky yet. Not very much light filters into the hole.

Rustle, crunch.

“Walter. Walter! WALTER! WAKE UP!” I shout.

I end up waking up Nix and Walt. Nix falls back asleep right away.

“What?” Walter murmurs.

“Do you not hear that?” I whisper frantically.

“Hear what?” Walter asks.

Rustle rustle.

“Oh dat, it’s probably Nix. Guy fidgets a lot in his sleep.” Walter looks over at Nix.

I also stare at Nix.

Crunch, snuff.

Nix isn’t moving, he’s as still as a stone.

“Yeah okay, if dat’s not Nix,” Walter turns to face me, eyes wide. “Then who or what is dat?”

The rustling sounds begin to grow louder.

Snuff, grunt.

I feel air blow on my back; Walt seems to have felt it too. A low growl comes from behind us. Walter and I turn around slowly.

A monstrous creature, much bigger than Nix, stands in front of us. It is way taller on its powerful hind legs. Tiny ears, rounded, pointed and alert. Yellowish, deadly fangs, drool dripping from its huge mouth. Its face is scrunched up in a snarl, a white stripe down the middle of its face and small beady eyes.

“GRRROWL!” the creature roars.

Nix is suddenly wide awake. The huge animal lunges towards him. Nix scrambles away from it and hides behind Walter and I. This can’t be the end.

The Master of Water

 

They said he could make water fall from the sky. He, in fact, could control the entire water cycle, where he could make sure that water was where it was needed and use it to fight evil when he wanted to. I should know because I am him. My name is Andy something-or-whatever, and I am the master of water. I just haven’t mastered it… yet.

I live in the mountains all by myself in a nice, little cabin in the forest up top. I grow my own fruit every day and take them down to the desert to sell. I am a vegetarian, so I can’t use the money to buy meat. Instead, I use it to buy little trinkets and sheets. I also like sand. It feels so weird to touch. But I got a guy. His name is Kermit the frog, and he’s a frog. After I buy my stuff, I eat my fruit and go to bed. I also spend a few hours training my water skills, but no dice. This is gonna take more time. But really, what’s my purpose? All I do every day is sell fruit and buy trinkets. Then, the next day, I sell fruit and buy trinkets. Then, again, and again.

Okay, so let me tell you about the desert. It is the worst place you have ever seen. It’s hot, there’s no water, and there are lots of killings. You can’t walk fifteen feet without seeing a dead guy. Why does all this killing happen? I’ll give you one word: gangs. Each gang runs its own business. I sell my fruit to all the gangs and do my buying. But how do all the other gangs get what they want? Raids. They all hate each other, so they’re not just gonna give others what they need and let peace be among the desert. I don’t like to buy trinkets anymore because I really hate Jym, the leader of the gang who controls it. I heard she also took control of the weaponry business, so now, she can pretty much kill whoever she wants.

***

Kermit had been raided. That was the first thing I saw when I went to sell fruits today.

“What happened!?” I asked in shock.

“It’s Jym!” he replied. “She stole all my sand! And my money!”

“Oh, she sucks. This is why I don’t buy stuff from her anymore! Do you know she has control over the sword business?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I do. Ya know what? Someone should teach her a lesson!”

“Yeah,” I said. “Tonight, we should totally raid her. You’ll get your stuff back, and I’ll get a new sword. Or maybe, I’ll sell swords I steal from her.”

“So tonight, we steal-raid her and get our stuff back and then some.”

“But we’re only two people,” I replied.

“We’ll sneak in.”

It was set. That night we’d raid Jym.

***

“Oh, my god!” I said. “We’re gonna raid Jym! This is gonna be so fun!”

“Quiet,” said Kermit. “We don’t want her to know we’re here. If we get caught, it’s all over. And I’m selling you out.”

“Fair,” I said. We entered her gang town. Everything was pretty quiet. We saw a temple. “This is where she must be. Let’s go.”

“I don’t get it,” said Kermit. “I haven’t seen a single sword since we got in here.”

“They probably got them in the temple,” I said. We ran towards the temple. It was locked. “Gosh darn it, it’s locked!”

“A bone is very good lock pick,” said a voice.

“Oh hey, it’s Monk,” said Kermit. “He’s my master.”

“You have a master?” I asked.

“Yup,” said Kermit.

Monk opened the lock. “I just escaped,” he said. The temple was just one big room with a throne. It was vacant.

“No one’s here,” I said. “Let’s go.”

“No,” said Kermit. “We’re not leaving without my stuff! C’mon.”

Suddenly, the temple began to shake. The floor began to reel in towards the throne! Blackness was all we saw below. We all fell.

“GAAAAAAHHH!” we all yelled. We fell into a net. We heard laughing.

“HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA!” It was Jym! “Trapped like rats!” The entire gang stepped out from behind the darkness! I saw something else. This gang had an overabundance of water. Water was something everyone desperately needed. They must have been hiding it!

“Show yourself!” Kermit demanded. She did. She had black hair and was only three feet tall! I heard she was 15. She was holding two swords.

“What should we do with them?” asked a man.

“We could all take turns stabbing them,” said Jym. I thought that was a horrible idea.

“We want answers!” said Kermit. “Where’s my sand!”

“You mean our sand!” said someone. “If we take something, it’s ours! We have done nothing illegal at all.”

“That’s what sucks about this place,” I said. “There is no law, or any organization of any kind! If there was, there wouldn’t be this much killing! And you wouldn’t be able to hide water from the other gangs!”

“That’s another reason to kill you!” said Jym. “You know our little secret.”

“If you kill us,” I said, “who’s gonna buy your little trinkets that I keep in my cabin.”

“Not my problem,” she replied. “Have at them!” I closed my eyes. They slowly came closer to us. Suddenly, I felt a raindrop. Then, another. All of a sudden, it started raining.

“No!” said Jym. “Not our clouds that we made. There are only a few of those every year! Get ‘em!”

“Stop right there!” said a voice. It was female. A little girl stepped out of the darkness.

“Koli!” she said. “Get her, too!”  

Koli took out a sword, which she used to cut us free. “Take these!” she said. She threw each of the three of us a sword.

“That’s nice and all,” I said, “but how do we get out of here!”

“I have a glider!” she said. “It can hold up to four people. Get on.” We all jumped on. She ran through the crowd and took off.

“Close the gate!” yelled Jym. The gate began to close. We went up.

“We gotta go faster!” said Kermit.

“Working on it!” said Koli. She increased her speed. The top was getting thinner. We had three, two, one, and it was closed.

We made it!

“Yes!” I said.

“We have to get back to Ama!” Koli said. “She’ll be thrilled to hear this!” We flew off.

Ama’s gang town was really nice. There was no temple, but everyone lived in huts. Ama’s hut was just the largest. There appeared to be a celebration of some sort. Koli flew down.

“We need to speak to Ama,” she told one of the guards. “This is important.” The guard opened the door.

“Come in,” said Ama. She appeared to be the gang leader. I think this gang specialized in tools. They were running low.

“This is shocking,” said Monk. “There is water in the temple of Jym’s gang. They have an underground base. Now they have control over all the weapons.”

“If they have the oasis, they’ll be unstoppable,” said Koli.

“What?” I asked.

“Water is the source most needed in this desert,” said Ama. “People would kill for it. Our forefathers were torn apart by it. That’s why there are gangs. Jym’s gang is evil. They won’t stop until they have control over all the gangs in the desert. And now they have all the weapons they want. If they have control over the oasis, they will be able to control all the gangs, even ours.”

“Why?” Kermit asked.

“Because this water is so desirable, all who seek it must serve the one who has it. That person must do anything he or she says for it. It’s actually the rule created by the water itself.”

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” I said. “We can have peace. I am the master of water. I made it rain inside their temple.”

“You controlled the Jym cloud?” asked Koli.

“Yes,” I said. “At least I think I did.”

“Good,” said Ama. “We know the location of the oasis. Tonight, you will stay here, for tomorrow, we will journey to the oasis, and save this land. Another rule is that all voyages and long walks must start at dawn here.”

“Okay,” I said.

The three of us made sure we had a head start the next morning. We climbed the mountain. Wait. This was my mountain. I came down here every day.

“God, I just hope we’re going up this mountain early enough,” I said.

“Why is it we have a head start?” asked Kermit the frog.

“Because,” said his master. “I’m a monk. I sense something is fishy with them. Well, sort of. I just wanna keep an eye out. After all, they’re a gang too. They also have to fend for themselves.”

“But they want me on their side,” I said. “They want to bring peace to the world. There will be no more war, no more dead guys lying on the sand everywhere you look.”

“And that’s why I want to keep us ahead,” he replied. “To make sure that we do accomplish what you want.”

“Okay,” I said. “But let’s go. If they get to the oasis before we do, they’ll be all powerful.” We continued on. Soon, we would be at my cabin. We only had a few more miles to go. I just hoped to god they weren’t up ahead.

“How ya doing down there?” I yelled.

“Good!” Ama yelled.

***

My cabin in the forest. The summit wasn’t far.

“Hang on,” I said. “I have to get a few things from my cabin. I’ll be back soon. Just stay here.” I entered my cabin. I grabbed my pickaxe and rope. Then, a guy jumped out of the cabin and tried to strike me. Then, two other guys jumped out at me. I avoided them.

“Hey guys,” I said. “I gotta go.” I ran for the door.

“Oh no, you don’t,” one said. “Jym sent us to slow you down.”

“I know what you’re up to,” I said. “You plan to take control of the desert by getting to the oasis before we do.” I ran outside. “Guys! We gotta move! If we don’t get up top before them, we’ll be slaves! Well, I won’t. I don’t care for that stupid water!” I started climbing again.

“After them!” yelled a gang person.

“We have to go faster!” said Monk. “I have a plan. Climb sideways!” So we did. So did they. They climbed and climbed until they got to a ledge. They took a rest.

“Yes!” said Kermit. “See ya!” There was no way off.

“There’s no time to lose!” I said. “Keep climbing!”

We reached the top. The oasis was beautiful. “Yes!” I said. “We did it! Let’s wait. I’ll work on controlling the water.” I tried for five minutes. Come on, come on… nothing. “I can’t do it.”

“We only beat you by an hour and five minutes.” It was Jym.

“Were you waiting for five minutes to say that?” asked Kermit.

“Yes,” she replied. “I knew you were incapable of controlling the water. Push ‘em down.”

“Guys!” said Monk. “We need your help! Bring the giant bucket up, and we’ll fill it.”

“They won’t be able to help you!” said Jym. “We have weapons and trinkets. You have nothing. Prepare to die! Also, take care of them!”

“Protect the bucket,” said Koli. “We’ll take care of the rest. Attack!” Two gangs charged at each other. We took out our swords and buckets.

“Let’s fill this oasis,” I said.

“Get the buckets!” yelled Jym. Two guards grabbed our buckets and continued filling their main bucket. “Once this bucket is filled, it will provide infinite water.”

“No!” I yelled.

Ama and Koli arrived with the big bucket.

“Yes!”

They were charged at, but they were taking it pretty well. Jym had a duel with Ama.  

I think Jym said, “This is our water!”

“No,” Ama replied. “It is not. The thing is, that when I have the water, I will be all powerful and will rule the desert forever!”

“What?!” said Monk. “You’ve gotta be kidding me! Now, you want the water for yourself?! No. It’s what you’ve wanted all along!”

“Okay!” said Ama. “Yes! I want it!”

“But why?” asked the monk. All the fighting came to a stop.

“I don’t feel like explaining anything to you!” said Jym. “We are taking this water, and all who crave it shall fall under my control!”

“I can’t believe this!” I said. “This is too much. I’m sick of this! I am done trying to restore peace to this desert!”

“That’s why we can’t share the water!” said Ama. “We hate each other! We hate all the other gangs in this desert! Even if it were possible to restore peace, why the hell would we want to?”

“Because our forefathers were torn apart by it!” yelled Monk. “Water is all something we will have in common! We won’t be hiding it at the bottom of underground cellars and what not!”

“Are we gonna listen to this?!” asked Jym. “Because I’m done!” The bucket was full.

“Give me that bucket!” yelled Ama. “I want to be all powerful!” They both took hold of it.

I had had enough!

“Enough!!!” I yelled. I was able to pull the water up from the bucket. “Since neither of you gangs are worthy of it, none of you should have it!”

“Yes!” said Kermit. “Destroy the water! I mean, throw it away!” Jym’s guards rammed into me. I dropped the water.

“No!” said Monk. Jym took the bucket.

“Now, let’s get out of here!” she said. They vanished without a trace.

“No, no, no!” yelled Ama. “Now look what you’ve done!”

“You’re right,” I said. “I was going to throw the water away, but then Jym’s idiot guards fricking rammed into me!”

“Cut him some slack!” yelled Monk. “My gut told me you weren’t being honest! I should’ve trusted my gut!”

“Oh, go die in a hole!” yelled Ama. “We shouldn’t have peace! It will only get us into boring lives where everyone is equal and treated equally!”

“That would be perfect!” I cut in.

“You three understand something!” she yelled. “Peace will never be able to happen! And now, Jym and her gang will control the entire desert!”

“No, they won’t,” I said with determination. “I have a plan, but you have to trust me! Okay?! Look. I’m probably the last person you want to listen to, but this could work!”

“Okay,” she said. “I want power, but if peace means stopping Jym, then not having it is okay.”

“We’re gonna make it rain, and expose her water.”

“We can fill the grand well,” said Kermit.

“I’m in,” said Koli. “Let’s do it!”

“Okay.” Monk asked, “How are we gonna pull this off?”

“If they don’t need the oasis water, they won’t have to be under the control of Jym and her gang. What we have to do is expose the water she has and dump it into the grand well. Then, we have to take the oasis water and dump it into the grand well.”

I could see Jym’s village. They were assembling everyone into the center of their town. It was now or never.

“Get on!” I said. We jumped on the glider and headed for her temple. Kermit shot a bunch of arrows. “Why’d ya do that?”

“I sent all villages a message. We would reveal a big secret at Jym’s village. We have to get there before she completes the ceremony and assembles everyone in the village. She will show one jug of water, and it’s all over.” Ama’s gang was in their village, preparing for war. They were making weapons.

An arrow was shot at our glider. It hit us.

“We’re gonna crash!” said Monk.

“We have three parachutes!” said Kermit. We all put them on and jumped. The glider crashed. We opened them and floated down to Percy’s village. (They make really good wheels. You should try ‘em.)

We got on a carriage. “To Jym’s village, and step on it!” I yelled.

“My senses tell me Ama’s gang is already there,” said Monk. We took off.

“Take us through the back,” said Kermit. Monk knew of this entrance to the temple. We went in. I looked up. The Jym cloud was above us. I made it rain a bit. Then, I heard cheering.

“Yes!” Jym yelled. “Now I have control over all the gangs in this desert.” We were too late. “Now, destroy all the other water,”  she said to a guard. “We have no use for it.” The temple pit opened. We fell in, but this time landed on our feet. No net there.

“Grab all the water possible and find a way out,” said Monk. Jym jumped down.

“Not so fast,” she said. “You’re too late. I am now all powerful!”

We grabbed all the water we could and made a run for it. Guards came after us. They destroyed all the other water kegs in sight. I dropped one. No! Jym threw an axe at me. I dropped all the water I had while trying to avoid the axe.  So did everyone else on my side. We needed a new plan. There was light.We ran up a slanted hallway to the outside world. We were exposed. We saw Ama’s gang fighting everyone. They could not do it alone.

“Get them!” said Jym. We ran and fought. Then, we scattered.

I ran through the streets with a mob of people chasing after me. I was then cornered in an alley. I tried to climb, but I couldn’t. Suddenly, I was shot up. A streak of water was coming out of both my hands. I went to the top of the building. I needed the giant bucket. I could now control small streaks of water freely, but not too much. Jym was with the bucket. I used water to fly to her, but I was struck down by a guy on a glider. Ama went up to the water bucket on the temple to fight Jym. They started dueling. Now was my chance. I shot up there and grabbed the bucket. I was wide open, however, and everyone started charging at me. I shot water at a few of them, but all it did was slow them down. I tried to lift the bucket with my powers but it was too strong. Kermit and Monk helped me carry it and we hopped buildings. I could use my power to keep us in the air, but that’s it.

“What’s your plan?” asked Kermit.

“I need to get the keg to the well, fast.” I replied. There was a way down. We needed Ama’s army to protect us or we weren’t gonna get very far. Jym still had power over the water and there for over everyone else (besides us). Ama’s army agreed to hold them back so we could get out of town. Ama and Koli followed us. We turned all the corners and were almost to the exit when suddenly it was blocked.

“Did you really think that we would just let you leave?” asked Jym. “I was working on something big. It’s called a flying vehicle.” It was so impressive, when I saw it. It was made of wood, it had a real propellor, and it was powered by people peddling in a cockpit. “Get in! All of you!” We took off. “Well, you’ve officially lost. I loaded the keg in the trunk, so you won’t have the chance to join me. You will die. Throw them out, when we get to high enough altitude.”

“Don’t do this,” said Ama. “A few hours ago, I was just like you, but now I have opened my eyes thanks to these three fine, young gentlemen. I have to thank you three for this, even though we won’t get what we want, I owe you a lot. Thank you.”

“Okay,” said Jym. “Let’s cut the small talk. Out ya go.” The door opened.

“Enough,” I said. The plane then tilted sideways. “You fell for it.”

“What?” asked one of Jym’s guards. “

“This,” said Monk. The oasis water broke through the trunk and fell out…

Right into the grand well.

“Yes!” I said. “Bullseye! The water doesn’t belong to you anymore. Any oasis water that is in the well is to be shared by all. It’s one of the rules of the oasis.”

“Right on target,” said Koli.

“No! No! No!” said Jym. “This isn’t over! I can still control the well and veto that law! It’s the law! Get out, all five of you!” She held a sword to my face.

“Okay,” I said. I grabbed the five of us, and we jumped. It was like skydiving, but without the parachute. We fell right into the well! That’s not everything. It rained across the entire desert. The water lifted us out. We went back to Jym’s town. Everyone was cured.

“How did you do it?” asked someone.

“Easy,” I said. “I controlled the water and took us to the well, so I could dump it there. I actually gave away my powers to form clouds and make it rain way more frequently. Soon there will be rivers, and lakes, and streams. Now Jym can’t control the well!”

Jym came down. “I’m really sorry.” she told Ama. “We should be friends and share everything instead of being forced to raid others.”

“You’re right,” she replied. “Let’s celebrate our bringing peace to the desert and our acceptance for each other!”

Everyone cheered. Yay!

I decided I would move to the desert and sell fruits there more easily. After all, it’s the best place you’ve ever seen. It’s beautiful, there’s lots of water, and there’s no killing. Why? I’ll give you one word: No gangs. So it’s two, but you get it. I’ll stop copying what I said earlier and say this is a world I can live in.

Ode to the WiFi

Dearest, beloved WiFi,
We all know that you lie.
The “Fi” in your name has no meaning,
And your lack of stability leaves us screaming.
So, dearest WiFi, why won’t you work?
Your absurd excuses make us go berserk.
But we will keep waiting,
With expectations of connecting
Before your linking bridges
Burn against our wishes,
And our hopes of productivity
Are crushed by your insensitivity
To our feelings
And to our dreams.

The Pull

As I spread my wings to capture more air, the crisp October wind flutters the feathers on the end of my tail. A squawk escapes my beak, signaling my flock to turn. We curve across the sky like a majestic arrow. I’m flying point.

I am Sona, the first female leader of the Fortis-Volant gaggle, and close kin to our original ruler, my birth father. He is the one who named our group, after something he heard in the language of the walkers. When I reach the end of my term, it is my responsibility to christen our flock. But that problem will only arise once I have successfully led the gaggle to The Pull and back. I clear the thought from my mind and shift left.

Nudging in the same direction as me comes the second-in-line. His name is Relk, and he would have been the one to occupy my position if my egg was faulty. He lets out a throaty honk, and we fully shift position. A twinge of envy thrums in my heart as he places lead and directs the group. It’s more uncomfortable along the edge, as the wind that slides off Relk’s wing bounces off my side. I press in tighter.

“Sreeris!” I squawk out.

My sister peers over at me from her position. When she sees my discomfort, she nods her long, slender neck and swaps places with me. Now to Relk’s right, I hover in closer to him so he can hear me.

“Relk.” I hiss. “Turn the flock away from the wind. If we ram straight into it, we’re going nowhere.”

He gives me an annoyed look, but obliges, and the rest of the gaggle seems to relax the tension in their wings. I glare at Relk. If he doesn’t learn to fly true before it’s his turn, he’ll be in trouble.

A sparrow whips by my head, distracting me for a second. I watch the brown blur whiz through the air, loop-the-looping until he tightens his wings and drops down to earth in a breathtaking dive. Just before he hits the leafy canopy below, he opens his wings and soars. He’s mocking us, I know, so I ignore him and stare down at the scenery below.

Canada isn’t the most interesting of places. From the air, the only thing anyone can see is green and brown. Trees and shrubs and soil. In the place of The Pull, there are sandy beaches and sparkling waters, and all the walkers wear bright feathers. They travel in noisy swarms, honking and squawking without saying anything, and scattering paper that smells like old food all over the ground. Sometimes, they throw the food, and that is the best treat of all.

I look down and see another color, one I didn’t expect until far later: white. I shudder and puff up my feathers. This is what we were worried about. It means that winter is approaching, fast, and we need to go before it swallows up our home. It came earlier than last year. That can only mean no good.

“Sona, Sona, do you see the white?” Sreeris babbles, a tinge of fear in her voice. Relk looks over at her, briefly abandoning his position. I narrow my eyes at him, berating him in my head.

“It’s worrying, Sreeris,” he says comfortingly. “But we shall be far away before the cold comes.”

I start nudging to the front, ahead of time. It’s rude to cut one’s lead off short, but I am the leader, and he is not doing his job. Relk nudges right back out at me, extending his wings to push me back. How dare he disobey!

“My turn for point,” I say coldly. He stares at me, but with a dark look, he scoots left. I’ve scrambled the order, something no leader should ever do, and I feel my flock’s eyes burning holes in my back. But I shake them off and push onward.

“Sona,” Sreeris tries again, “what if we don’t escape the white?”

I feel myself smile. She would never give up on me. I rack my brain for an answer, and reply with, “We find a shelter. Those human farms are everywhere, we’ll be sure to find one abandoned. It’s not necessary, however. We’ll be there before winter comes,” I say as confidently as I can.

A frigid gust of wind blasts into me before I can finish, and I spin off balance. As I try to right myself, I collide into Relk who pushes me right back. The rest of the flock watches me, not reassured and unimpressed. My cheeks burn in embarrassment.

“Maybe we should rest. We’ve been flying all day. And I don’t think its best, in this case, to ‘follow the leader.’” Relk cuts in sardonically.

I stifle a honk of anger and turn to the gaggle. Noticing weary eyes and ruffled feathers, I reluctantly lead my group down to the ground. We swoop over the lush canopy, before alighting down on a grassy meadow. Sreeris seems the most happy out of everyone; she lets out a happy squawk before plopping down and snuggling into her feathers. I, too, feel relieved to finally stop flying, as I stretch out the ache in my muscles. But I wouldn’t admit it. Leaders are supposed to be ever strong.

As soon everyone huddles together, I survey our group. All five members are accounted for: Relk, Sreeris, Kalyna, Aijel, and of course, me, Sona. Kalyna and Aijel are the silent ones, the ones who always fly back while Relk and I grapple for the top spot and Sreeris babbles. Relk is bossy and arrogant, and seems intent on stealing my position as leader away from me before it’s his turn. Sreeris is by far my favorite. She’s my birth sister, kind, and sensitive, and would stick with me through anything.

“Sreeris,” I call out. She peeks out from under a wing. “Come on. I want to talk to you.”

“I’m tired.”

“You’re tired? What do you mean, you’re tired?!”

“I mean, I’m tired!”

“Sreeris, I am your leader, come here right this instant!”

My good-for-nothing-sister ignores me, burrowing her beak under her wing. I huff and curl up on the ground, tucking my feet neatly underneath me. Winding my graceful, long neck to settle my head on my back, I let out a sigh and let my beak squish into my velvety, soft feathers. My glistening eyes close, and darkness settles over me.

“Rise and shine, sleepyhead!” I open my eyes, feeling as though I had barely just closed them. Sreeris stands above me, beaming down at my bedraggled form. I bounce to my feet and steady myself, glaring furiously.

“Looks like our leader didn’t get the chance to get her beauty sleep,” a mocking voice bites from across the meadow. Relk sneers at me, preening his feathers. He would be the one to instigate our flock, getting up so… up so… unreasonably early just to taunt me! Aijel stares at Kalyna in that special way of his, and she returns the look. I feel a prickling feeling on the back of my neck. It alway seems that those two are somehow communicating.

“So, we shall head out now?” I try to sound important.

Sreeris beams, nodding her head frantically. “Yeah! I can’t wait to fly lead!”

I fall quiet, staring at her. Relk smirks and turns his back.

“Excuse me?” I ask my sister softly.

“Relk said that you said I could fly lead for most of today! I’m so, so excited!” Sreeris

honks happily. I shoot a venomous glare at my fellow flock-mate. He still isn’t looking at me.

“Why aren’t you smiling?” She asks, confused. “Aren’t you happy? I can… I can still fly lead, right?”

I take one look at her innocent, pathetic expression and break down. “Of course, Sreeris. Don’t forget to soar strong!” I let out a nervous honk as she laughs happily and waddles over to nuzzle Relk.

As we get into formation to lift off, I notice some clumps of white around the meadow. Despite the blazing sun, they refuse to melt, and it sets a chill up my spine. We have to leave soon. Winter is coming. I close my eyes and turn towards Sreeris.

I was originally destined to have two siblings. In fact, I was second-in-line to become leader before the cold happened. There was a third egg, older than me, who was also nestled close to me and Sreeris in the nest. It was supposed to be a brother, they tell me. One who would be brave and strong and complete the task of flying to The Pull better than I ever could. One who would follow my father’s wings. One who could take care of Sreeris and all her nervous babbling tendencies, and who would comfort me in the worst of times, whenever Relk bullied me when I was a chick.

Instead, the flock got me. The cold ignored my egg, but it shook Sreeris up enough to come out wonky. She doesn’t have the skill to fly. The stakes are too high.

“Aijel?” I ask, turning towards the bird. He flips his neck over to look at me, an unreadable expression on his face.

“You’re flying next to Sreeris, right? Okay, make sure she doesn’t screw up, and take over as quickly as you can,” I finish and dart over to the back of the V. I sigh. The back is only for the lowest class fliers. In fact, Sreeris would be here if I could trust her not to get in trouble!

Sreeris takes off. Lopsided, of course. Relk darts up to steady her and resumes his position as the second row propels themselves in the air, and finally, it’s my turn. Kalyna and I push off the ground, flapping our wings to catch some wind. I hate to admit I struggle a bit. Kalyna gives me a sort of funny look, and I glance away.

“Okay, Sreeris!” I yell forward. “Once you’re high enough, catch the thermals. That should bring you a little ways, and then from there –”

“Let Sreeris handle it herself!” Relk shouts back at me. He’s grinning. “She’s a big girl.”

I fall back a bit in shock at being spoken to in such a way. And he’s wrong. Sreeris is not a big girl, she’s totally incompetent no matter how much I love her. I can’t believe I ever agreed to this…

After that, I fall silent, biting back scathing remarks. My sister is just as bad as I thought she’d be. No, she’s worse. Her wings tilt the wrong way, she’s smashing against the wind, and neither Aijel nor Relk has offered to switch with her! They must be against me as the leader, it’s the only possibility. So I screw my eyes shut and try to ignore those traitors, the mocking of Kalyna’s looks, and my sister’s horrible, horrible flying.

Ignoring must take much more effort than I originally thought, because I soon grow fatigued. Nobody else in our gaggle is complaining, however, so I just keep flying. After a while, I can’t take it anymore, and I turn towards Kalyna.

“Aren’t… you… tired?” I huff. She gives me a look and shakes her head.

“Exhausted already? We’ve barely flown!” She’s glaring now. “Horrible, isn’t it? When you’re horribly fatigued, but your leader keeps pushing you more and more? She’s at the point of the V, after all, so she gets to make the decisions. And you have to follow the leader, no matter what, or you’re left at the mercy of the wind.” She turns away, seething, and guilt writhes in my chest.

I thought flying back would be much more easier than the front. The leader, after all, is the one who has to avoid smashing into the wind. But there are no thermals in the back, no little gusts of warm air that can help me soar easily. When Relk and Aijel manage to catch one, I am left flapping after them desperately. Whenever I slip out of formation, a gale of frigid wind sends me flying.

We forge on for about an hour before Relk notices my state.

“Oh-HOH? Is our little leader tired?” he mocks. I glare at him, and real concern slips over his face.

“Sona, we’re barely over halfway done!” He drops down beside me, and Kalyna gladly surges forward. “And why aren’t you in position? If you break out of the V, you have a whole sky’s worth of air slamming into you from all sides.”

“Look, I’m tired, okay?!”

“We need to rest,” he says importantly. “Flock! Fly down!”

I yawn and follow everyone else. We’ve barely reached the ground when I start snoring.

It’s dark when I wake up. The stars flicker like lightning bugs in the sky, and the moon is swathed in clouds. I feel alone and frightened, until I hear the gentle snores of my flock-mates, at the other side of the clearing. Shame burns within me. I guess no one, not even little Sreeris, wanted to sleep beside me.

“Our flock would be better if my brother was here,” I admit to myself, bowing my head. “He would be respected, the perfect leader. Everyone would get equal roles, and he would know how to fly in every position.” I flop down and glare at Relk, he’s fast asleep and curled next to Sreeris.

Something crackles in the leaves next to me, and my breath catches in my throat. Terror rushes through me, and I go stiff. There’s another crackle — footsteps. But not goose footsteps. They’re bigger. The thing murmurs something, and I recognize the sound instantly.

Walkers. I relax my tense body, because walkers are harmless. They’ve never hurt me or my flock. I stare at my gaggle, wondering if I should alert them. I decide against it. They would just get mad at me for waking them up. I bristle. Because everything is my fault, isn’t it!

“Thar theer arr!” A walker says in a quiet hiss. Their language is unintelligible. “Neese en fat, hua-hua-hua.” He chuckles.

“Un shoot weel tak them down, jess oo wait. Plump en juicy, goosey, goosey.” More laughter. I don’t understand a word of it. They must be telling jokes.

Something clicks. I open my eyes. That doesn’t sound natural. Suddenly, a thought comes to mind. I’ve heard stories of walkers with sticks that shoot fire. A nearby gaggle once told me that if the fire hits you, it will burn a hole straight through your entire body, and the walkers will carry away your carcass to… devour. I’ve always thought these so-called hunters were a myth. I hope I’m right. Another click, and I jolt my body backwards.

“BAM!” Something explodes inches away from my face, and I leap. A scream rakes out of my throat and the rest of the flock is to their feet.

“Walkers! Walkers with fire sticks?! Hunters!” Geese can’t run, so I jump and start flying. I don’t get anywhere before another something explodes, whizzing by my tail. I’m in the air before I remember my sister.

“Sreeris!” I yell. A scream answers. The hunters aren’t playing games anymore, and fire comprised of silvery pellets rains down on my flock. Aijel and Relk are already long gone, but Kalyna and Sreeris are still down there.

“Sona! Help!” Kalyna shrieks somewhere below. I flap above the clearing, waiting a second too long.

“Luk! Thar enether goose! Shoopt! Shoopt quickly!” A silver something whizzes by my tail, smacking against the feathers and whirling me into a nearby tree. The leafy fronds swallow me up, and I’m caught helpless in the branches. All the hunters are focused on me now, and they send their fire flying. The pellets sparkle in the air like deadly stars, but the tree is protecting me. I writhe free and take to the air, my throat raw from screaming.

“Kalyna! Sreeris!” I shriek. A tiny body pinwheels into the air. I recognize it as Sreeris, and my stomach lurches as I see her left wing drenched with crimson.

“Kalyna? Kalyna, where are you?!” Nobody answers. Still, I linger in the air until I hear a heart-throbbing wail. I feel bile burn my throat.

I don’t look back for my fallen flock mate. The only thing I can do is press close to my sister and try to steady her. I can see Relk and Aijel ahead, their anxiously waiting bodies illuminated by the moon. It’s full, pure and white, glowing like a halo in the sky.

“Oh, Aijel.” I sob, looking at that all-too-familiar, unreadable face. But I can see his eyes. They’re searching for his sister.

“Sona! What happened to Sreeris? Is she okay? Where’s Kalyna?” Relk says with a gasp. I almost begin sobbing. I need to be strong, a leader.

“I — It was hell down there,” I say in a wavering voice. “No fire burned me, but it got Sreeris’ wing, and I don’t know how fatal it is. There was no time to check, I just had to get out of there with my sister. K — Kalyna didn’t make it.” Aijel stiffens as I finish, his unreadable expression slipping into pure terror. Then, anger claims his face. A dark, cold fury like nothing I’ve seen before.

“Oh, Sona, I’m so sorry,” Relk says sincerely. “We’ll have to rest soon, and check up on her wing.” Sreeris is growing faint beside me. “We’ll have to rest in the forest though. Can’t risk… them finding us again. Sona, will you lead?” I shake my head.

“No,” I say stubbornly. “You and Aijel do point. Make sure Sreeris is okay.” I take a deep breath. “I’ll fly back.”

This time, I ignore any ache I experience. Everytime I glance over to my side to ask Kalyna if she’s holding up, I remember she’s not here and feel my heart drop to my talons. Aijel isn’t speaking to me, but Relk and I have momentarily put our differences aside due to our concern for Sreeris. I never realized before how much he truly cared for her. It almost makes me sympathize with him. Almost.

“Relk!” I say. “There’s a small patch of grass down there in the forest. It’s surrounded by trees. Resting place for Sreeris?” That’s another thing. Whenever we discuss a place to take a break, we always tag on, “for Sreeris” to clear up we’re not doing this for each other.

“Mmm… no. There could be predators.”

“Our time is running thin, Relk! Do you want my sister to collapse out of the very sky?”

“Fine. We can take a brief rest.”

Relk swoops us down.  As I plop to the earth, I immediately turn to Sreeris, who has fainted. Relk leans down to tenderly preen her feathers, and Aijel waddles off to the far corner to grieve.

“Oh! Oh, Sreeris, look at how you’re breathing. And bleeding!” Blood trickles down a hole in her side, staining her feathers crimson. Thankfully, the situation is a lot less dire than we originally thought. Her wing is uninjured, promising that if she survives the wound, she will be able to fly again.

As Relk fusses over Sreeris, I graze on some of the surrounding vegetation. Hunger always follow stress, and I’m currently starving. As my sister comes to, I nibble half-heartedly on a tender grass sprout.

“Sreeris? Sreeris, you’re okay!” Relk rejoices. I waddle over to her as fast as I can, letting out a squawk of joy.

“What happened?” she murmurs, twisting around to face me. “Is Kalyna okay? Sh — she was down with me… promised we’d come out together…” She yawns, and her eyes tear up. “I was about to promise her back when there was fire in my side, and sticky liquid started filling me up inside and coming out my eyes so I couldn’t see. I just kept flying, but the fire was burning me, and then I heard her scream that she was exploding, and then…” She shakes her head. “I don’t remember the rest.”

I sigh and let my beak run through her silky-soft feathers. As Sreeris falls back to sleep, this time snoring, I cleanse the blood from her body.

“Sona,” Relk says, staring at the sky.

“What?!” I snap at him. He looks at me, startled, before narrowing his eyes.

“I didn’t want to tell you this before, but now that you’re being so rude, I won’t hesitate –” I snarl. He hisses back, and continues.

“We’ve been flying off track.” Silence.

“What?!”

“I said, we’ve been flying off track!”

I stare at him. “That’s impossible.”

“No, it’s not. Funny, I think that’s the first time this has happened. You really screwed this up, didn’t you Sona? Completely butchered your mission.” He shakes his head in mock sadness. “Your father would be so disappointed-”

“Shut up!” I scream, flapping my wings threateningly. “Shut up, shut up, SHUT UP!” He turns away, so I must be mistaken when I think I see a flicker of shame cross his face. I march to the other end of the clearing and plop down. Something akin to guilt wallows in my stomach, but I ignore it. I close my eyes, still seething, and drift uneasily to sleep.

Sleep is such a beautiful thing. It heals your broken body, it washes away your fatigue, it hides you away from the problems you have to face in your waking hours. I relax myself as I drift off. At least now, nothing bad can happen to my flock.

There is the soft sound of trotting footsteps somewhere to my right and the feeling of being watched. I burrow my head deeper under my wing. Another footstep, closer to me.

“Sreeris…” I mumble, my voice muffled by feathers. “Sreeris, I don’t wanna wake up.” I stretch. The soft morning sun shines its gentle light over me, warming my night-cooled feathers. Crickets chitter in their cheerful choir. A slight breeze whooshes through the leaves, imitating the sound of the ocean. All of it wraps around me like a heavenly peaceful blanket.

A yawn splits open my beak, and I sleepily let my head emerge. Blinking bleary eyes, I find myself face-to-face with…

In a snap, all my drowsiness has disappeared.

“AUGH!”

A snarl rips from the beast’s velvet muzzle, and he leaps. I feel razor-sharp claws rake over my stomach, and downy feathers fly through the air like dandelion seeds. A ghastly pain spreads through my torso, but I can barely feel it. My eyes are focused on the beast’s dagger-like teeth, as he opens his mouth and lunges at my throat.

“Sona? SONA!” Somebody yells. I whip my head and the fox’s mouth snaps right where my neck used to be. In desperation, I kick out my webbed feet at its unexposed belly and flail my body as much as I can.

Somebody launches himself at the fox, and manages to tackle it off of me. The horrible weight lifted, I writhe to my feet and awkwardly flap out of the way. Somebody else leaps forward.

“Sona! Come quickly, you’re hurt.” Sreeris honks desperately, flapping her right wing. It’s ironic that she is now the one to protect me. I turn to face my saviors.

Relk is at the strongest I’ve ever seen him. He thrashes at the fox, clawing at its eyes, and pecking sharply at its skull and ears. Aijel nips at the beast’s crimson tail. They both saved my life. Much as I dislike them, I have to join them. It’s only fair. After all, I am the leader.

“Relk! Watch out!” I yell a warning as I fly at the fox. Relk ducks out of the way of my talons as I land on top of the creature that almost killed me. With a final scream, the fox shakes me off and darts into the shrubbery. All three of us hunch together, panting.

“Okay,” Relk states, straightening. “That’s done. Sona, any injuries?” I inspect my chest. The feathers have parted where I was clawed, and angry red marks streak across my skin. They sting horribly. Still, the wound is nothing compared to what I could have had.

“None.” I assure him. He nods and turns towards Aijel.

“Aijel, any — ”

“No.”

“Okay, then. It seems we have rested enough to start traveling again. Is everyone okay with this idea?” I wince. The assurance in his voice, the way he speaks, he sounds like a true leader. It almost hurts.

Everyone declares themselves awake and ready to face the day, even Sreeris. She is cheerful as ever, still conversing with her same bubbly tone, even with a hole burned in her side. The bleeding has stopped, meaning the fire probably glanced off her in such a way, it didn’t dig in deep. The wound is neat, which is good. A perfectly round red hole.

“So, shall we lift off?” I say dully. I’m still staring at Relk. He just seems so confident in himself! When you’re directing a ragtag bunch of geese, it should be impossible to be that self-assured. But he is, and it gives me a sinking feeling in my chest.

“Yes, let’s.” He confirms. “You’ll be flying front, I assume?” The statement is like a blow to the heart. Does he really think, right off the bat, that I would be spoiled enough to automatically fly in the most important position? Does he think I’m just a stuck-up leader? I puff out my feathers indignantly, trying to recover a few scraps of pride.

“Of course not!” I honk angrily. “I’ll be flying back. Aijel needs to learn how to avoid flying against the wind.” Aijel gives me a look, not an angry one for once, but more… confused. Relk actually smiles.

“Sreeris, your wound is okay?” I ask my sister. She nods, a stoic look in her eyes. Sometimes, she seems the strongest out of us all. AIjel shifts into position behind Relk, as quiet as always. But I can’t help analyze him, and the grief of losing his sister still lingers in his expression. I shake off my thoughts and ready my wings.

“Flock! Get ready to fly in three! One, two…” I realize for a second how much my wings ache. But if I have to sacrifice them for the flock, I will. It’s my duty, after all. Relk launches off first. Then Aijel, and finally my dear sister. I am last to take to the air, and as the wind rushes through my feathers, a sense of elation I’ve never before experienced rushes through me.

Even when I’m not in the front, flying still feels amazing. I stretch out my wings to their full extent, and swoop to catch up with the rest of my gaggle. Sreeris is inches in front of me, teetering slightly because of her injury, but still soaring stronger then I never noticed she could. It almost gives me a sense of pride. That’s my sister, the girl who survived being rattled by winter, who learned to fly even with my poor leadership, and who pushed through a could-be-fatal injury.

Relk curves us against the wind as we fly, and it slides right off of our V. I don’t have nearly as much resistance as when Sreeris was leading. Once we’re high enough, he switches off with Aijel. I think it may be his first time being the point in his life! And… he’s almost as bad as my sister. Relk murmurs to him urgent instructions, and I make sure to make my voice heard.

“Lower your head a bit, so the wind doesn’t smack it!”

“Quick, quick… turn now!”

“Wait, not that way!”

“Perfect! Now, swoop upwards, there’s a huge gale coming! You won’t be able to curve around that.”

“Not downwards, you numbskull! Up!”

Relk quickly switches out with him in time to avoid the huge blast of wind. The rest of the gaggle follows. It’s stunning how capable he is. A flush of pride creeps through my feathers. I taught him that…

As we resume flying, Aijel and Relk continuously swap out for front. Sreeris even gets a few seconds to lead the group as well. I actually enjoy myself as I watch them fool around. The whole flock is laughing for the first time in days… no, weeks… No, they’re laughing for the first time since this mission started! Even Aijel spares a few chuckles. As we spread our wings and soar, I can’t help but remember my last assignment: I still have to name the flock. It seems impossible. We’ve been Fortis-Volant for what seems like forever. What name could possibly capture the essence of this group?

I think of the hunters that took Kalyna’s life and the crimson of the fox that nearly stole mine. I think of the red burn on Sreeris’ side and then, of the everlasting loyalty to my flock, a flame that can never be extinguished. And then a name emerges that is perfect for everyone. Perfect for Relk’s flaring stubbornness, for Sreeris’ dancing happiness, for Aijel’s burning grief over his sister. And perfect for me, too, in a way.

“Fire.” I whisper to myself. Fire is beautiful and deadly and relentless. “The Burning-Fire Gaggle.” It seems to fit.

A squawk escapes Relk’s beak, signaling our flock to turn. We curve across the sky like a majestic arrow. I’m flying back. We’ve been traveling for more than a month by now, and we still haven’t reached our destination. But we’re drawing close. This, I know for a fact.

Somewhere, mere miles away, the place of The Pull is peeking over the horizon.

The Magical Place

About two years ago, there was a teenager named Josh. Josh lived on a farm where all he would do was stay in the stall all day. He lived with his sister, Cassie, who was 16; Josh was only 13. Cassie was in the middle of taking cow milk into the house so they could drink it for dinner, when suddenly, Josh came running up to her.

“I want to milk a cow,” he begged her. “You do it all the time.”

“No, Josh. How many more times do we have to go over this? You’re way too young. You’ll probably mess up or something,” Cassie explained.

Josh always wanted to milk the cows. All he would do was pet the animals in the stall all day. No one really ever paid attention to him, not even his parents. Cassie was very popular in their small house, and everyone liked her. Josh felt lonely because all day, he would stay in the stall. And whenever he tried to talk to someone, they would ignore him.

Josh went into the house where he saw Cassie and his parents laughing, as usual. He hated this life, and he wished he could live in a big house and have more things, instead of living on a smelly farm. Josh went back to the stall; he did love to look at the animals. His two favorite ones were the chicken and the baby chick. The baby chick’s name was Charlotte, and the other one was named Reggie, which he’d named. Josh was distracted while he was playing with the chickens, when he overheard his parents shouting.

“I just don’t know if we can afford to keep our house anymore. We’re so poor, and we’ve used up all our money just to buy food.”
“Calm down,” his dad said. “We can always go on a budget, we can still have our house. It’s going to be fine.”

“Do you even realize how much money we have right now?” his mom shouted.
“We have more than enough,” his dad answered, eating a piece of bread.

“You don’t understand,” she shouted, coming towards the stall. “Josh!” she called out.
Josh looked up at his mom.
“We can’t keep the house, honey. We’re too poor to — I just lost my job, and we’ve been giving all our money away to the charity and buying loaves of bread.”
“No!” Josh said. “You can’t give the house away! This is where we live, where else would we go?”
His mom bit her lip and didn’t answer. She looked nervous. Josh knew what he was going to do: run away. He packed his stuff and all his toys without his parents noticing. He packed everything he needed. But while he was running, he stepped on something.

“Ow,” he said. He picked it up, and it was a tiny bottle. It said try me. “Well, this is weird, but it wouldn’t hurt to give it a try.” He sprayed it on himself and everything got blurry. “Woah! What is happening?” he yelled.
He started spinning, and he couldn’t control himself. There was a loud bang, and his head hurt from all the spinning. He slowly opened his eyes.

“Is this heaven?” he asked softly. “Oh wait — what am I thinking? Of course I didn’t die.”

He stood and looked up. This place was amazing! He didn’t know where he was, but he was amazed. He was in a random place where there were two giant, white gates with little flowers dangling off the side. The gates automatically opened for him. He was so little compared to the gates. Inside, there was a humongous lake! It was the biggest lake he’d ever seen. He saw mermaids and dolphins, seahorses, and more. Josh sat down in front of the lake. He sniffed the air, and it was as fresh as the yummiest bakery.

“This is amazing,” he said. “That little bottle transported me here!”

A mermaid splashed Josh when he wasn’t looking, and she started laughing. Josh started to laugh too. He splashed her back, and they both did this back and forth.

“I never have had this much fun in my whole entire life!” he exclaimed. “What is this place anyways?”

“Oceania Mysty, of course,” the mermaid replied.

“Never heard of it. This little try me bottle got me here,” he said, showing it to the mermaid.  

The mermaid didn’t really listen, she just dove off. The mermaid looked really nice. She had rainbow colored, wavy hair with a light, pink tail. Josh felt like he was in complete peace. The soft, calm wind drifted slowly in front of his face. The birds were chirping. The sun was bright. The mermaids were laughing. He wanted to stay here forever.

While he was enjoying his peace, a mermaid tapped him on the shoulder. She looked the youngest out of all the other mermaids; she looked around 16.

“Hello, there,” the mermaid said. “You’re not from here. Are you trying to attack our land?”

“No, I don’t even know why I’m here. This little try me bottle randomly transferred me here… I really shouldn’t be here,” Josh said. “My parents must be worried about me.”

“Oh,” said the mermaid. “Want to come into the water? It’s as warm as a bathtub.”

Without saying anything else, the mermaid pulled him into the water instantly. He screamed, and his clothes were soaking wet. At least it isn’t cold, he thought. The mermaid was right, the water was really as warm as a bathtub. Even though his clothes were soaking wet, he started to enjoy the soothing water. He closed his eyes and gracefully drifted through the water.

“This is the life,” he murmured, giving the mermaids surrounding him a thumbs up.

The mermaid who was just talking to him came up and said, “Ya know, we don’t get a lot of visitors around here. I’m so glad that you can spend time with us.”

“Me too,” Josh said, spitting out some water. “This is like heaven — but better!”

The mermaid laughed. “Trust me, it’s not as good as heaven.”

“I didn’t get your name,” Josh said out of curiosity.  

“My name is Namie.” She happily greeted him with a pose. “And you’re… ?”

“Oh,” Josh looked down. “My name is only Josh. No one really likes me though.”

“Josh.” Namie smiled at the name. “Josh,” she repeated. “I like it.”

“You do?” Josh stepped back, and his jaw dropped open in shock.

“Oh, don’t be silly! Come on! Follow me!” The mermaid pulled his wrist farther into the water. The next thing Josh knew was he appeared in a humongous, dark cave. “This is the cave of secrets.” The mermaid showed him as he stared at it in awe.

He couldn’t help but ask, “Why is it called the cave of secrets?” He picked up a dead flower flowing his way. “It’s so plain.” Josh was right, the whole cave was pure dark with not a spot of decoration or happy colors.

The mermaid looked him in the eye. “I actually don’t know. No one really told me, we just… call it that… because…”
“Because what?” Josh asked immediately.
The mermaid shrugged. “I’d love to show you around this place more, come on! Let’s continue!”

“Wait — ” Josh caught her attention. “I really should be going, my parents must be calling the police by now!”

The mermaid looked down. “Oh, well, I don’t know how you’ll leave.”

Josh held up the tiny bottle. “Hey, this got me here, and it’s gonna get me back.”

The mermaid waved goodbye as he poured it all over himself — “WAIT!” she yelled, right before he disappeared. “Josh, you’re special. It doesn’t matter if no one likes you, you’re just… special.”

Josh smiled as she slowly faded away. His last word to her was, “Thanks.”

Josh appeared back in his regular small house, where he found Cassie sitting at the table, braiding her hair. She looked upset for once. Josh was hoping she would notice him. Josh just stood there for a minute, and a couple seconds later, he sighed and hid behind a plant. He regretted seeing his family now. Cassie didn’t even notice him when he was right there. He stuck his head out from the plant, and Cassie still was there. He continued to watch when he saw his parents approach her.

“We can’t find Josh, honey. We’ve looked everywhere!” his mom said. Her eyes were watering, and she couldn’t hold her tears back anymore.

Josh looked at her, sadly waiting for the right time to pop out. Even Cassie shed a tear, and she never cried.

“Well, I wish we could have told him sooner,” his dad said calmly, “that we do really care about him, and we have been so rude to him.”

Cassie chipped in. “I was rude too,” she admitted. “He can milk a cow if he wants,” she said sniffling.
The whole family was silent for a minute, just staring at the ground. Josh shed a tear out of happiness. Those were just the words he wanted to hear in his whole entire life! They really did care about him! He wiped the tear off his sleeve. He knew this would be a good time to come out because it was pure silence. He crept up from behind the plant and jumped out right in the center for them to see.

“JOSH?!” they all cried, screaming with excitement. One by one, they ran up to give him a hug.

“Where have you been?!” his mom said, panting with nervousness and crying all over his shirt.

“How’d you get home?” his dad asked, catching his breath. “Are you ok? Are you hurt?”
“Do we need to call the medics?” his mom yelled, checking all over his body.

Josh laughed at how freaked out they were. “No, of course not!” He laughed uncontrollably.

His mom and dad looked at each other in confusion. “What could be so funny at this moment? We looked ALL over for you, searching high and low, calling the police, endlessly tracking you down, and you’re laughing?” his mom said firmly.

“What happened?” Cassie asked, looking worried.

Josh looked nervous. Should I tell them? he thought — Wait, no! They’ll never believe me!

“I just ran away,” he answered quietly.

Little did he know, when he was talking to Cassie, his mom found the little bottle on the floor he had used to transport to Oceania Misty. “Hmm,” she answered, reading the title. “Oceania Misty? Is this where you went?”

Josh looked at her in shock. “You believe in that place?” he questioned her.

His mom explained to him that many years ago, when she was a kid, she found the same exact bottle and transported to that amazing place as well.

“Wow, that’s amazing.” Josh stared at her in amazement. He finally admitted, “Yes, that’s where I went.”

His mom understood. “Just never scare us like that again,” she said, calming down.

The whole family promised they would always pay attention to him as long as he lived. They all did a group hug, and from then on, they were always happy.

A New Perspective

This story is about race. Well, actually, it’s about me, but it’s also about race. You see, race was not a real issue in my house. We never talked about it at the dinner table, and when it would come up on the news, we would simply ignore it. It never came up at school either. I lived with my dad and my sister, so we were a pretty small family unit and mostly had the same conversations about the stock market, politics, and school. Most of the time, my dad wasn’t even home because he had to work. He always had to work because he ran one of the biggest hedge funds in the country. Every time he planned something for the three of us, I would get a call, and he would say, “Honey, I have to work. You understand, right?” It was a bit disappointing, but my sister Blake’s lively personality more than made up for his absence. She’s the best performer at school and has a small acting gig outside of school too. She would regale me with over-exaggerated stories about her day and act out almost every single action.

At school, I was just another white girl, and I was treated normally. This brings me back to race. Sure, we had the occasional conversation about the Civil Rights Movement on Martin Luther King Day, but it’s not like any of us were paying attention. I went to a pretty small school occupied by mostly white people except for one Asian teacher. Everyone knew each other, and we were all friends. There was no need to ask those awkward first-time questions because we had all been at the school since kindergarten.

My life was perfect until my dad told me that I would have to switch schools for high school. He wanted me to have new experiences before college. So I began my freshman year at a local private school named Emerson. I was not too happy that I would have to spend the entire year with my head glued to a desk, trying to catch up.

When I walked in, I took a name tag and was immediately swept up in a large crowd of people. I had never seen such a mix of people. There were black people, Indian people, Latinos, and Chinese. They were all speaking in multiple languages fluently and seemed to be star athletes, judging by their muscles. I was amazed by the bright lobby and the nonstop flow of kids just walking in as if they were stars. There was a big television screen at the far end of the room that displayed a live video feed of all the kids walking into the building. I was so overwhelmed by the school, I ran up the stairs to my homeroom. It was on the fifth floor, next to a shiny row of lockers. I chose one and then entered the room. It was big for my standards and had a nicely sized whiteboard and projector. A tall man walked up to me and shook my hand.

“Hi, I’m Mr. Kravis, and you must be Sara. You can go to the back and introduce yourself.”

Before I could answer, he walked past me and hugged the student behind me. I went to the back of the room and immediately saw that the kids had racially grouped themselves. The white girls were sitting at one corner, and the black girls at another. There was a small group of Chinese kids sitting in the middle and a few Latinas next to them. They all had very exclusive looks on their faces. I naturally walked over to the white girls and sat down.

The girls laughed before one asked me, “What’s your name?” I told them my name was Sara. Another asked, “You are so pretty, what are you?” I told them I was white, but for some reason, they did not believe me. They simply laughed and walked away.

So maybe I lied a bit. I mean, it’s not something I really talk about. My dad is white, I’ve grown up around a completely white family, but there is one dirty little secret that we don’t talk about. When my dad was young, he met a beautiful Tunisian woman on his travels to Paris. They fell in love, and he brought her back to the states. But his family did not approve and forbade him from seeing her again. They would sneak around and have dates for years. She had two children (me and my sister) before she died from a terrible accident. We don’t talk about her because my dad is still embarrassed, and his family acts like it never happened. From time to time, I feel badly that my dad does not recognize my mother and therefore does not see a certain side of me. I’ve only seen one picture of her. So sure, one could say I am black, but I don’t consider myself black. I mean, I hardly interact with them, and their problems have never affected me. I am just not black. Plain and simple.

When I got home, I checked the mail and saw a letter from the Students of Color League. I was infuriated! “I am not black,” I shouted out loud.

My sister, who happened to be in the room, started engaging me. “What do you mean, you are not black?”

“I’m just not, I… no… yuck… no!” I was surprised with my sister’s question.

“You know what, I think you should go because I think it will honestly open your eyes.” My sister was totally being an adult right now.

“Since when do you identify as black?” I had honestly never heard my sister speak like this.

“I’m not saying I identify as black, I’m just saying that I have come to acknowledge that being black is a part of who I am, and I can’t just ignore it.”

My sister was getting really persistent and kind of annoying. But she made a convincing argument, so I went to my room and asked my magic eight ball if I should go. The magic eight ball said yes, so I decided that the next day I would go.

That night, I dug out the picture of my mom and stared at it long and hard. She was really pretty and had some of the most delicate features I had ever seen. She had honey brown skin and big, red lips that seemed to be perfect. Her hair was short and frizzy, kind of like mine. Sure, I look like my dad, but I am almost my mother’s twin when it comes to facial features. Except for my fair skin, it felt like I was looking into a mirror. I took the picture into my room and fell asleep with it resting on my heart. It was a deep yearning to know my mother and a certain part of me.

The next day, I walked into the room where the meeting was held and waited for the other members to come. They were really welcoming and really had an inspiring goal. They wanted to create racial equity and diversity within the school. I thought that was pretty cool, so I decided to stay longer than I had planned. We passed around a beanbag and gave a brief description of our background and why we wanted to join. When it came time for me, I paused before I started speaking.

“Well… I really don’t know what I am, you know? I mean, I was raised by all white people, but my mom was black, so I really don’t know. I came here to learn about myself and experience the real black experience.”

The rest of the kids looked at me as if I had said something wrong. The leader of the club broke the silence and addressed me.

“There is no one black experience. I mean, look around the room. Alicia is half-Vietnamese and was born in St. Lucia. She speaks Vietnamese, French, and English. She can make the best Caribbean roti you will ever taste and the best Vietnamese noodles, too. What about Graciela? Her mom is from Peru, and her dad is African-American. She grew up eating traditional Peruvian food as well as hot dogs from Gray’s Papaya. Look, we all have unique experiences, but we are all equally black. You should be proud of all the different experiences you have had and the ones that you will encounter in the future.”

I was awestruck. I had never met so many different people who were so proud of their many different heritages. We delved into a beginner conversation on the recent events that had been happening throughout the country. Several innocent black men had been shot by the police, and the Black Lives Matter movement was speaking out. They were outraged about the police brutality that had been going on. Many of the kids in the room shared their own personal stories about being wrongfully stopped by the police and racial bias or microaggressions that they had experienced. I felt like the odd one out because I did not have a story, so I just listened intently and tried to form my own opinions. When I got out of the meeting, it was as if a white cloth had been lifted from my face, and I had finally connected with my black side.

When I went home later that day, my dad was surprisingly there. He wanted to take my sister and me out for dinner, and we happily obliged. We went to Ristorante Morini on Madison Avenue near our house. It was as soon as we sat down that I remembered all that I had learned today.

I was so excited, I didn’t even think before I opened my mouth and blurted out, “What do think about the Black Lives Matter movement?”

My dad seemed stunned. He almost choked on his pinot noir. “Well… I… um… I beg your pardon?” He seemed to be totally caught off guard.

“I said, what do you think about the Black Lives Matter?” I was sure he knew what I said, and I waited patiently for an answer.

“I think they are a bunch of crazy, black extremists that resemble the likes of the Black Panther Party that was devised from the hatred of white people. It is an anarchy that wants to destroy the very foundation that this great nation was founded on.”

I was surprised by his harsh response. “But this great nation was founded by men who had slaves, slaves who suffered for over two hundred years.” I thought it was a pretty insightful retort.

“Yes, but does that mean they need to destroy everything that we have done, reverse the progress we made?” His face was getting red, and his palms were getting sweaty.

“But what if that progress was totally against us?” I was getting angry.

“Who is us?” My dad seemed shocked that I had referred to myself and Blake as black.

“I just thought you would be more sensitive to these things considering you have two daughters who are black.” I genuinely thought my dad was more open minded than this.

“I do not have two black daughters. I have two white daughters and I will not have you insult our family by suggesting anything else. I am not black, and no one I identify myself with is black! I want nothing to do with them, and I don’t want to hear another word about this Black Lives Matter nonsense!”

For the rest of the dinner, we sat in silence. I ate a plate of pasta that tasted like disappointment in my father. Disappointment that he is racist and refuses to accept his past and our future.

After the events of dinner with my father, I decided I needed to immerse myself in the league. I started having more in-depth conversations with fellow members and writing my feelings in a small notebook I bought from Papyrus. I wrote down my frustration with my father and his lack of empathy. As I continued writing, it turned into poetry. The poetry let me enter a different world, where I was in control, and I understood exactly who I was. As well as self improvement, I also wrote about current events and all of the opinions the league held on our nation today. I used my poems to inspire young children of color to speak out against the racism of the world and the horrible violence committed against them. The poems healed me, and I was eager to share them with my peers. So one day during a meeting, I got up in front of them and just started reciting lines.

“I feel black in my bones. I feel black in my heart. I feel black in my soul. Why should I be ashamed? Why should I hide? As the black drips off of me like fresh paint, I think about my new color. Does it fit? Is this really how I want to spend the rest of my life? Yes!”  

Some of the other kids were so inspired, that they asked if they could join me in making poetry speaking to the racism in this country. I was delighted and decided to make a project of it. I asked the head of high school if we could present them at a student assembly. I was so proud that I had truly found myself, I wanted to share it with the world. I wanted to get at the forefront of black power and the improvement of the perception of black people. Secretly, I wanted my dad to come and accept me. I thought that if he heard the beautiful art I was making with a pencil, he would change his mind about black people. I knew it was going to be hard to accomplish, but I was ready to climb this very tall mountain. The headmistress was delighted by the idea and jumped at the prospect of talking about politics with the students. My friends and I started practicing most days after school, while trying various types of iced tea at Starbucks and treats from Le Pain Quotidien. It was really fun, and at the same time, I was really getting to know myself and what being black meant to me, which was my first poem. It was really short, but it definitely opened my eyes.

“What does black mean to me? It means hope. It means power. It means never giving up. And most of all, it means me.”

As the weekend approached, I thought it would be fun to throw together a family dinner with my grandparents, aunt, and uncle. I would also invite my friends so we could give them a backstage tour and preview to our upcoming show that we had named Fierce. For the dinner, I hired a chef to come over and cook a simple, yet elegant meal. She made a carrot soup, a beet salad, a pappardelle, crispy French duck breast with mashed potatoes and swiss chard, and a vanilla cake. My family arrived first, baring lavish gifts and wine.

My grandmother glided into the room.“Sara! Oh honey, it’s so good to see you! You look great! How are you?” She had this kind of fake and proper voice that made me want to barf sometimes. It was almost like a mixture of Queen Elizabeth and Kim Kardashian. We hugged, and she presented me with a mink jacket from Dolce and Gabbana. I was not much of a high-end fashion person, but I graciously accepted the gift.

“Thank you so much Grandma Muffin. It’s gorgeous.” I tried to hide my sarcasm.

After some light chatter about flowers and debutante balls, my friends came.

“Hey girl,” said Sam, Jenaveve, and Ebony.

I was so excited that I was going to have some people with real personalities at dinner. My grandparents did not engage my friends one bit. They simply said “Hello,” and stared at them the entire cocktail hour, with their faces hiding behind wine glasses as if they were better than my friends.

When we finally sat down for dinner, the chef brought out drinks first. My grandmother was really chugging down the martinis. My aunt made sure to ask for the most expensive bottle of wine we owned, and when my friends all asked for soda, my aunt looked at them like they had just flashed her.

“Don’t you want something fancier?” my aunt asked Sam.

“Oh, that’s fine, I’m good with a Sprite.”

My aunt would not take no for an answer though. She just kept pushing. “Well, if you don’t know the names, or you can’t pronounce them, I can help you.”

Sam’s face suddenly looked as though a dark cloud was blocking the usually sunny face. “I just wanted soda, ma’am.”

I wanted to stick up for her, but I just couldn’t. My family wields a lot of power in this city. They’re rich, and if they don’t get their way, bad things happen. When my dad was little, he got a B- on a final Spanish exam, so they sent him to the war-stricken Nicaragua where he was forced to take care of a large farm for sixteen hours a day. With the hot sun beating down on him, he got heat stroke and had to be hospitalized, but his parents still made him stay for another month. So if I say anything to my aunt about the blatant racism she displays, I might end up on some war base in Syria, fighting for my life.

As the soup came out, my grandmother ordered even more vodka and started totally interrogating Ebony. “So Ebony, you’re such an exotic girl! Does your name mean something exotic in your country?” My grandmother was speaking very loudly and slowly, as if Ebony was stupid or something.

“Hey Grandma, chill!” I was embarrassed and trying to keep her from going overboard.

“Actually, I’m from New York, and my parents are too. They just liked the name because it sounded pretty.”

I could tell that Ebony was really trying to have a positive attitude. My grandmother, on the other hand, seemed really disappointed. She reached across the table and touched Jenaveve’s hand.

“Excuse me, young lady, do your parents work at our granddaughter’s school?”

“Shut up, Grandma!” I whispered to her and then kicked her leg under the table.

Jenaveve, who was talking to my sister, looked at my grandmother. “My parents do not work at Emerson, but I do know some kids whose parents are teachers.”

My grandmother looked puzzled, so she kept prying. “So how did you get into Emerson?”

Jenaveve looked astonished that anyone would ask that question, but she kept her cool and answered thoughtfully. “I filled out an application and went to an interview like everyone else.” She smiled at my grandmother.

“But how? I mean, was there some connection or assistance that you got? I mean you must have gotten something special.”

Jenaveve looked utterly stunned and quite embarrassed.

“I mean, let’s just be honest.” My grandmother looked around for agreement. “It’s just not possible to have these colored people get into such a prestigious school like Emerson. All they know is violence in the ghetto. It was the same with your mother!” My grandmother pointed to me and my sister. “She acted all sweet, but what she really was, was a gold-digging piece of trash that your father picked up from the street. When he first brought her home, I knew that we could not have that nonsense in the family. So I told him to toss her out, but he would not listen. Soon, she gave birth to you, and he finally got some sense and tossed her out like the trash she was.”

“That’s enough, Grandma!” I said to Grandmother. There were tears streaming down my face.

“Why don’t we get the main course going!” my uncle said, as if he just wanted to forget this whole conversation.

“No!” I said. “I will not stand by and allow you to speak to me like this. Just because you’re rich and white does not mean you can treat everyone else like garbage. You have done nothing in your life but tell everyone else how they should live theirs. The only reason why you’re rich is because your dad made a lot of money in the Gilded Age. You judge people and you don’t even know them. Jenaveve’s parents are amazing civil rights attorneys who argued for gay marriage in the Supreme Court! That’s more than you have ever done. It doesn’t matter if a person is black or if you have more money than they do. What matters is what kind of person you are, and you are a horrible person! You are a racist, homophobic, xenophobic woman whose name is Muffin! Your name is legit Muffin! I am just disappointed in you and all of our family for behaving like this tonight.”

As soon as I had given that speech, I felt lighter. A huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I had finally said what I needed to say to my family. Although I stood up to them, they did not apologize. They simply left. Altogether, they filed out of our penthouse, tight-lipped, not saying a single word. Then, my friends thanked me for the food and left as well.

My father sat in the armchair at the head of the table with a look of disbelief and shock on his face. He looked like he had seen a ghost. When I tried to speak, he simply raised his hand as if to shun me. “Don’t say a damn thing! Just keep your mouth shut, and give me a minute!”

So I stood there, staring at him for a while until he got up. With one swift move, he grabbed my poems from the table and threw them into the fire. I instinctively ran towards the fire, but he grabbed me and threw me on the floor.

“I have never hit a woman, but I might break that streak if you continue to test me! Go upstairs and go to bed now!”

I could not stop crying that night. I stayed up all night watching Grey’s Anatomy and trying to get over the horrors of last night. Fierce was in two days, and my poems were gone.  So I decided to sleep. I was so stressed, I just slept. I slept for two whole days. I was so emotionally drained, I couldn’t move.

When I finally came to, I realized it was the day for my performance. I threw on some random clothes and ran downstairs to grab an apple. I nearly knocked down my sister as I ran out the door. I hopped onto the bus and rode it up to Emerson. It was pretty hard to relax because I had to perform in front of hundreds of people. I started reciting my poems on the bus so that I couldn’t forget them. I honestly wanted to run for the hills, but I knew that I had to do this and that it would pay off in the end. My stomach was flipping up and down so much, that when I got off the bus, I threw up on the side of the street. Through the retching and heaving, I could hear the poems vibrating through my body. A voice inside my head told me that everything was going to be fine. So I took a swig of water, pulled my hair back, and confidently marched into the school. As I walked in, everyone went quiet and let me pass. I calmly walked into the theater and waited to be introduced.

Mr. Kravis introduced Fierce and we walked up onto the stage, slowly but surely. The tech crew had positioned three microphones in the middle of the stage, and we hesitantly walked towards them. We held each other’s hands and gave each other encouraging looks. As we stepped forward, blinding rays of light hit us, and we became the complete center of attention in the theater. When I got up to the microphone, all of my nerves seemed to melt away, and I started reciting.

“They call me white. They call me black. They call me mixed. But what am I? Am I not just a person that deserves recognition for being great? Am I not just a normal girl that deserves to be treated with respect? Am I not just a person that wants to be free from stereotypes and biases? So who am I?”

I finished so strong, that the entire crowd stood up and clapped. They whooped and hollered at me. I was so happy and proud of myself. As I scanned the room, I saw my father in the back. He was smiling and clapping for me. I couldn’t believe it. In that moment, I knew I was going to be okay. I knew that I was going to be able to work everything out with my family because we’re family, and family always comes around.           

The Nightmare After My 16th Birthday

 

            

“Ouch,” I said as I bumped my head on the corner of my nightstand.

The clock read 6:00 a.m., and the sun was ever so slightly peeking out from the sky. I loved days like this when I woke up early and got to see the sunrise right out my bedroom window. It was summer, the best time of the year: no school, no rules, just my favorite thing in the world: softball.

[Pause.]

Hello world, my name is Autumn, and this is the story of something that happened in my life that changed it forever. I was just a normal teenager, living her life like a normal teenager would do, when all of a sudden, my life changed drastically. I don’t want to give too many spoilers, but let me just say that I never ever would have seen this coming. I live in Los Angeles with my mom, dad, and brother. And this tragedy happened a week after my sixteenth birthday.

[And back to the story.]

Buzzzz, buzzzz, my phone rang. It was my dad.

“Hello… Bailey?”

“Uhm, this is Autumn.”

“Hi Autumn, this is Brad. Can I please speak to your mother?”

“Yeah, is there something wrong… Where’s my dad?”

“Can you please put your mother on the phone?”

His voice sounded angry, but delicate at the same time. Like he just found out a shocking secret that he wasn’t suppose to know. Brad, my dad’s best friend slash colleague. Why would he call me on my dad’s phone asking for my mom? I sat, thinking about what could have possibly happened. They were both supposed to be gone the whole week on a business trip, but Brad would never call me just to ask to talk to my mom. I handed the phone to my mom, and as soon as she heard Brad and the light tone in his voice, she told me to go away.

I walked back to my room, stressed, scared, worried. I tried not to worry about it that much, but the thought in my head kept coming back. I got ready to go hang out at the mall with my best friend because I realized that I couldn’t wrap my head around this all day. Her name was Violet, and we’d been friends since kindergarten… Eleven years, holy cow. She was my other half and always had been. We did everything together, literally everything. Except, well, she got her license before me. Uhhh… I kind of failed my first test, so I was praying I’d be able to pass the next week.

By the time I was out my bedroom door, my mom was off the phone. I was so curious to know what the phone call was all about, but I was certain it’s none of my business. My brother, Noah, finally woke up and something about him seemed off too, but was he ever not off? I didn’t know what was going on with everybody that day but as of that moment, I really didn’t care anymore. I was out the door, ready to forget my horrible morning.

“Hey,” said Violet.

“Hey,” I said in a grouchy way.

“What’s up with you today?”

“Nothing much… It’s no big deal.”

“Come on, It’s no big deal. You only say that when it is a big deal. ”

“Okay… my dad’s best friend called me this morning, and he seemed off. He called just to ask me to put my mother on the phone. It sounded like something serious happened.”

“I think I might know what that’s about. Last night, your mom called my mom. I overheard them talking, and when my mom hung up, she told me that your dad was in a deadly car accident and sent to hospital. I was going to call you, but my mom said that you didn’t know yet, and she told me not to tell you. I’m so sorry, Autumn.”

At first, I couldn’t believe what she had just told me, but I knew that she would never lie to me. Although, something about it didn’t add up in my head. Why wouldn’t my mom or brother tell me something this big? I felt hurt that my mom would tell her “best friend” before she would tell me, but I was even more scared of finding out the truth.

I hopped out of the car and stormed into my house. I slammed the door behind me as hard as I could to make sure my mom and brother heard me coming in.

“MOM!” I shouted at the top of my lungs.

No answer. I started running around the house looking for her.

“MOOOOM!” I shouted again.

“Dude, stop yelling,” said my brother. “She’s upstairs.”

I ran upstairs to my parents’ bedroom. She wasn’t in her bed nor in her closet getting dressed. The last noticeable place I looked was the bathroom. I crept in, thinking she would be there and, to my favor, she was. There she was, sitting on the bathroom floor. Her eyes looked watery and red, and she had the most depressed look on her face. I sat down next to her.

“I want to know why Brad called this morning asking for you on dad’s phone,” I blurted out.

“Honey, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you this earlier, but I didn’t know how.” She started sobbing.

She took a deep breath and continued.

“Last night your dad was in a really bad car accident. They took him to the hospital with broken bones and blood all over his body. They did everything they could to save him, but…”

Her body began trembling and her voice started trailing off. Tears rolled down her face, and I could now see that this rumor was true. I couldn’t believe it. My dad was dead.

I thought about this for a moment and wondered how this could even be true. I just talked to my dad yesterday morning and he seemed fine, but now all of a sudden he was dead. I didn’t really know what to do, how to act, what to say. And then it hit me, and it hit me hard. Tears rushed down my face faster than I had ever known they could. I just kept crying and I couldn’t stop. At that moment I had just realized that I would never be able to see the best man I knew talk or walk or dance ever again. Memories of us going to baseball games together and riding our bikes around town flashed through my head. I remembered when I was little, my dad would always go on bike rides in the morning, and one day I said I wanted to go with him and so he taught me how to ride a bike. And I remember trying out for a competitive softball team and I was so nervous and he told me I could do it and in the end I actually made the team. My dad was basically my best friend. Besides Violet, he was the only other person who always listened to what I had to say and always had my back. He never kept any secrets from me like my mom always does, and he took care of me like a dad should. I never got the chance to even tell him that and now I really hated myself for not doing so.

***

Doors opened and closed, and I could smell the scent of hand sanitizer all around. There were loud sirens in the parking lot and a quiet waiting room filled with frantic people. I did not like that; heck, I didn’t even want to be there. The only reason I even came was to officially say goodbye to my dad before we buried him. There was no point in even trying to talk to him when I knew he couldn’t hear me. He was gone, and he was gone forever.

“The Spencer Family?”

We all stood up and followed her. I hesitated because I was not sure if I was ready to witness what would come. But I guessed I was as ready as I could’ve ever been. We walked down a long, narrow hall. It was very quiet and there weren’t many nurses around. I guessed that was where they put people who didn’t make it, for their family. We stopped at the end of the hall and the nurse turned the knob to a white door. My mom and brother rushed in, but I decided to wait outside for a moment. I took a deep breath in then out, and I followed behind, closing the door after me.

I saw Brad sleeping in the corner, waiting for us to arrive. I turned my head slightly to the right and there he was, laying there as if he was sleeping. My mom and brother huddled around him crying their eyes out. I slowing got closer and closer until I could see his face: his emotionless, pale face. I started breathing faster and faster, heart racing. I could feel water build up in my eyes. I took one more step closer and held up my dad’s hand. I tangled his fingers with mine so that I was holding on and couldn’t let go.

“Autumn,” Brad said.

I turned around and he pulled out something. He handed me a bracelet, one that I hadn’t seen in a long time. It was my dad’s; he only ever wore it when he was away from home. It said, “You will never be alone, never.” At that moment I started balling my eyes out but only because I knew that I would be alright.

         

The Phoenix’s Death

I, Leera Fenikk, was a simple girl with a simple life, and honestly, I wished for nothing else. But much to my dismay, everything flipped upside down when Illu dropped into my life. Literally.

“AAAAAAUUUUGGGH!!!”

I heard a loud scream and turned around. “What on Earth…” A strangely-clothed boy had fallen into a pile of hay behind me. “…Happened?” I finished lamely.

“Who are you? Where did you come from? Why are you here?” we both asked in rapid-fire fashion.

“Fine, fine, I’ll go first,” I said. “My name’s Leera, and I live here, on a normal farm in normal Montana. And I also have normal clothes. So, who are you?”

The boy grumbled something and slowly stood up. “The name’s, uh, Skull, um, SkullCrusher!” he said excitedly.

I rolled my eyes. That was obviously a fake name. “So now, what clothes are you wearing?”

He looked over his apparel: a long black robe, a grey fedora, and some odd looking shoes. “There’s nothing wrong with me! What’s wrong with you?”

I had no words for him. “Well, explain that,” I said, pointing to the object in his hand, a huge tree branch with an unnatural curve. In his other hand, he was clutching a small mirror.

“Okay. So, this is my staff. Um, a little strange looking, to you at least, but that’s kinda understandable, considering that nothing is going right today. Where are you even from? A different world?”

I shrugged. I had no clue. “This is Montana. You know. America? And what’s this junk about another world?”

“And this is my divination mirror. Want me to read your future?” he asked, completely ignoring me.

I just gave him a nasty look (after I considered sighing, facepalming, and punching him in the face). “Thanks for trying to scam me out of my living. But no one, and I repeat no one, will ever get my money. I need it to help someone close to me.”

“Oh, do you want me to read their future? I bet I could show you a good outlook, or junk. Wanna bet?”

“No. Now leave. And get some actual clothes.” This was the most dignified answer I could come up with in a short time.

“I can’t go back. I have to wait for the spell to recharge.”

I laughed. “You kidding me? This is nuts. Magic doesn’t exist here! Magic is just from fairy tales and movies and the crud Disney shows us. Leave,” I demanded, still incredibly confused.

He shook his head. “Not now. I’ve told you that I can’t. So, I might as well show you your future or something. For free. Here, sit down,” he said, gesturing to a nearby log.

“I have work to do, alright? So no, I can’t sit down and listen to your ramblings about odd magic and going insane.”

But this SkullCrusher dude was already sitting down, staring intently at his cloudy mirror. Wait… cloudy? “Your mirror wasn’t cloudy five seconds ago! Get out!” I demanded.

I lived on a farm, and at this point in time, it wasn’t even open. This guy was nuts — clearly we needed to up our security measures.

He started mumbling a long string of chants that didn’t sound like English, or any known language. “What language are you—”

A huge flash blinded me for a second, and when I looked at SkullCrusher again, I was astounded to see his eyes had turned green. Hadn’t they been blue just a second ago? And why was his mirror’s face glowing?

“What’re you doing? Why are you still here? And for Pete’s sake, please dim the light from your mirror!”

“Your future is a dark one, and so is that of your loved one. You might not live to see the end of this year. You will get fatal wounds, fight monsters, almost die, and see some fantastic sights, while also meeting some pretty strange people.”

His voice sounded like a deep imitation of another voice. “Morgan Freeman?” I asked, but SkullCrusher started talking again.

“You must be careful, because sometimes people harm more than they can help…”

SkullCrusher’s eyes turned blue again. “So, how was that? For free, too! A bit cryptic, maybe, but surely you can’t get that close to the future and your destiny. Now, how was it? Dire, beautiful, maybe even filled with romance?” he joked.

I just shook my head in disbelief, trying to dismiss him. “No way. This stuff doesn’t even exist. Why are you here? Maybe this is just a really, really, really realistic dream!” I punched my left arm. “Okay, no, this is definitely real,” I murmured, rubbing my now sore arm.

“And now that I’ve told you your future, I can give you my name.”

Finally. I wouldn’t have to call him by that stupid fake name anymore.

He started fumbling around with something in his robe, and finally pulled out a dirty-looking business card. “Illu, wizard in training.”

I woke up a couple hours later. Oy. My head hurts. Everything’s been going haywire.

“I’m assuming I passed out,” I mumbled, shakily trying to get up.

“Hey, pal,” Illu said, ruining my “I’m sane” fantasy.

“This is not happening to me. This is not happening to me…” These crazy things weren’t actually happening. “Oh, you again. Why are you still here?” I asked groggily, still trying to figure out why this was my life and not some other poor unfortunate soul’s.

“Well, my master said that the spell to get back takes only five years to recharge! Is that a long time?”

It was my turn to facepalm and finally know something.

“Nah, five years is only…” I attempted to do the math in my head. “One thousand eight hundred and twenty-five days,” I announced proudly. Yes! I could math!

“Oh… that’s a lot longer than I initially thought. Well, Master is always good with these kinds of things. She can fix this.”

I shook my head, laughing internally about how clueless this Illu guy really was. “I’m pretty sure she ditched you.”

“Did not! She would never do that to me!”

“How can you justify that? Have you ever done something stupid to make her not like you?

“She’s my sister!”

Oh. That changed everything.

My brother died when I was little. He went to war in some country to help fight, and he died when an enemy soldier shot him. I didn’t really know what was going on then, but I cried when I knew he wasn’t coming back.

Now, all I had left was my sickly little sister.

She had some weird disease that almost no one had heard of before. Once, we found someone who actually knew someone who got the disease. He even gave it a name: Phoenix’s Death.

But the end was horrible.

The diseased person had died and their body had turned to ash instantly, almost like a phoenix. But this phoenix would never be reborn. Rather, they died too soon, in agony. It sounded otherworldly and extremely obscure, like something out of the fairy tale Illu probably jumped out of.

There were five stages:

First, the victim got these weird spots on their skin, like bug bites. No actual bugs caused these bites, but that was the closest thing we could compare them to.

Second, the person fell into an extreme depression and lost all will to live. They would be almost impossible to sway back to living.

Third, they hallucinated. Their words never made any sense, and were usually garbled by their dream-like nightmares.

Fourth, they felt extreme agony and yelled at random points in time.

Finally, the Burning, as the relative of the man with the disease had so ominously called it. The diseased person felt as if their body was on fire for twenty-four hours until they died of dehydration, no matter what was done to help give them fluids. And right now, my sister was on stage three, morphing into stage four. She was going to die in ashes like the phoenix this disease was so aptly named after.

Yeah, I used “sickly” a little loosely.

“Tell me how to fix this!” I demanded.

Illu snapped in my face, and I was finally out of my stupor. “What? Fix what?” he asked, annoyed.

I sighed. “My sister.”

After explaining the disease to Illu, he shook his head. “I don’t know what you could do. Have you tried putting her directly into water?”

Well, that was stupid of my family not to figure out. That seemed pretty obvious, like something we’d try as soon as we realized it was called the Phoenix’s Death and included a stage known as the Burning.

“ThanksalotIllugottagotellmyparents,” I was able to say, quickly, before dashing out of the room, turning wildly into a hallway and running into my parents’ room.

“MOM! DAD! I KNOW HOW TO SAVE ZURUKA!” I shrieked. My dad instantly sat up, and my mom yelled from the bathroom, “YOU’RE NOT KIDDING, ARE YOU?”

After explaining the plan, I gently scooped up Zuruka’s limp form. “You’ll be okay, little sis. You’ll be okay,” I murmured, more to myself than to my sister.

She didn’t open her eyes or anything, not even when we dropped her body into the nearby lake and pulled her back up, but something crazy happened.

My sister’s blonde hair turned cerulean blue, and her closed eyes opened to show that her brown irises were now ice blue. Even her naturally tanned skin turned extremely pale, pale enough to rival a vampire’s.

“WHAT DID THAT DARNED WIZARD DO?” I yelled in fear.

Her entire body emitted a blue light, and when the light was gone, her clothes changed into navy blue jeans, a royal blue hoodie, and cobalt blue sneakers with white laces and golden phoenix insignias on the backs.

“YOU’RE DEAD, ILLU! WHAT EVEN HAPPENED HERE?” I screeched, infuriated.

To be Continued…

The Silver Seraph

The king stood atop the crest of the hill. The king, Sentryil, was tired of the matter at hand. Goblins were, more frequently than ever, raiding the old kingdom. His kingdom. He was 578 years old and had been on the old kingdom’s throne for many years. The goblins meant to take it from him, and he wasn’t going to give it up without a fight.

A dozen spellcasters stood on the ridge next to him. In front of them, 120 elven soldiers were arrayed for battle: 70 infantry, 40 cavalry, and ten archers. Sentryil was worried that they had too few archers, but his second-in-command, Natrelig, had assured him it was enough. Natrelig, who had been organising the troops, ascended the hill and addressed the king.

“Your majesty, the troops are positioned as ordered. Are there any other things we need?”

Sentryil responded, “I still think we need more archers. Archers are the key to an elven victory. Just five more will do.”

“We have enough,” his second-in-command assured him.

“I hope you’re right” replied the king.

Sentryil entered his leaf-green tent. He needed to do one thing before the battle began. He sat at his table and placed his scrying bowl in front of him. He knew it took a lot of effort to see into the future, but he needed to see this.

He spoke to the pure spring water. “Show me my son after the battle.”

The water swirled around and then solidified itself into an image. A young elf was dressed in an inky black robe. His head was lowered as if praying. Satisfied, Sentryil dispelled the image and walked over to his bed. He picked up his sword off the blanket and clipped it to his worg leather belt. He draped a shirt of silver chain over him. Lastly, he put his sheathed hunting knife onto his belt. Then, he walked out of his tent, ready for battle.

The king stood on the ridge once more, looking at the approaching goblin host. His dozen spellcasters were arrayed in a spearhead formation, with him at the tip. Sentryil drew his sword, which had a crescent moon imbedded in it below the tip, almost like a trident.

He pointed it at the goblins and cried, “CHARGE!”

The king’s sword stabbed a goblin through the ribs, staining his sword in black blood. The elven army plowed through the fray, cutting down many of the 250 goblins. The ten archers fired three rounds of deadly shafts into the goblin army. Sentryil hacked and slashed with his crescented sword, but then a goblin bruiser with a mace leapt in front of him.

The goblin wore leather armor the color of beige. He hefted his mace and swung, screaming, “Blood!” Sentryil parried and blocked, and then with one swift, graceful movement, he lopped off the goblin’s hand. The goblin screamed and wailed in pain, and Sentryil thrust his sword through his heart.

The king picked up the mace in his left hand, and caved in a goblin’s skull while stabbing another one with his sword. Around him, his spellcasters lay waste to the goblin ranks with magic blasts of ice, fire, energy, and lightning. One threw a stone inscribed with the symbol beneath a large goblin, and said goblin spontaneously combusted. One of the twelve spellcasters had already fallen to a goblin scimitar, and the rest were plowing through the goblins, but some were being separated from the group. Suddenly, an arrow flew into of the fray and struck the king on the left forearm.

The king uttered a short “OW!” but he staggered onward through the battle. Soon, the goblin commander was visible. He was a 5’8” goblin wearing a muddy, chainmail hauberk, and he carried a serrated shortsword. He also carried a longspear that glistened with a strange light. Sentryil gasped as he recognised the lance. It had come from the fallen city of Gondolin and had many magical abilities, the least of which was that it turned red-hot when it came into contact with goblin blood.

The royal magician’s guard had been largely separated from the king, but three of them still remained by his side. The goblin commander thrust the spear into one of the magicians, leaving him mortally wounded upon the bloodied ground. Then, he and another two goblins slashed at the king. Sentryil stabbed one of them dead, but the other two struck him. The half-elf screamed, but his mind was thinking something else: I really should have worn a shield. Blood trailed from his left forearm and ribs, where the goblins had struck him. Around them, the magicians held off the goblins, but were unable to reach their king.

The lead goblin laughed, “You are weak, and a sorry excuse for a king. I will enjoy purging this kingdom of you.”

Then, without warning, Sentryil struck. He swung his sword, but his wounds made him miss the lead goblin. His sword shattered the lead goblin’s sword, and the momentum carried it through the other goblin’s skull. The lead goblin took advantage of the opening in the king’s defenses and thrust the spear into the king’s heart.

“NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!” screamed Sentryil’s son Erevant.

Erevant had picked his weapons up from the armory and was heading to the battle. With him, he had thirty reinforcements: fifteen infantry and fifteen archers. He could see little through the tangled fray, elven cavalry leaping over goblins, archers shooting shafts into the fray, and he rushed to his father as he battled the goblin commander. And he saw his father fall. The king’s crescented sword and flanged mace struck the bloodied ground. As the goblins saw the king fall, they swarmed over his corpse, eager to loot him of his valuables. Erevant rushed the goblins, slashing them off his father’s corpse, and looked at his father’s fallen form. The king’s mail was rent over his heart and on the right side of his ribs. His mace and hunting knife had already been carried off by goblin looters, but his crescented sword was still clutched in his limp grasp.

Erevant picked up his father’s sword and addressed two of his men: “Take the king back to the castle and prepare him for burial.” As they carried of his father’s body, he shouted to the elves, “To me, spellcasters! Soldiers, charge! Avenge our king!” And with that, 110 elven warriors charged as one through the goblin enemies.

The battle was turned with Prince Erevant’s arrival. Twenty minutes later, less than thirty goblins still remained. The spellcasters had expended all their energy protecting the king from the goblin hordes, so they were of little more use in the battle. The goblins were fleeing from the elves’ wrath, but their leader wasn’t.

“Get back here, ya lily-livered, yellow-bellied cowards! We kill elves, not run from them!” he shouted at them.

Suddenly, a voice behind him said, “Well, you’re the one getting killed today.”

The goblin commander turned around to see Erevant standing atop a pile of goblin corpses. Erevant gazed coldly at the goblin who had murdered his father and leapt at him. They exchanged a few blows, stabbing, slashing, parrying, and twirling their weapons. Then, Erevant kicked the goblin in the stomach, knocking him off balance. With that, Erevant brought the crescent of his sword down on the goblin’s hand that held the spear.

There was a sharp KRAK! as the goblin’s hand broke.

“Ghahh!” he screamed as he cradled his shattered wrist.

Erevant picked up the goblin’s spear. He plunged the spear into the goblin’s chest as his father’s sword decapitated the goblin. The goblin’s headless body slumped on the spear, while the head rolled on the bloodstained ground. Erevant pulled the spear from the corpse and walked back to the castle. With his father dead, Everant was now the king of the old kingdom. He had a lot of work to do.

Erevant walked toward the birchbark burial site. All of those who fell in the battle, save for the goblins, were to be buried there. Elf after elf was lowered into the ground in caskets made of assorted wood: oak, alder, elm, but mostly yew, the wood of life and death. Finally, they reached the final elf to be buried that day: King Sentryil.

Erevant had dressed in an inky black, silk robe for the funeral. The king’s hair was bound in a silver circlet, and his sword lay across his chest. Coins, runestones, and jewelry lay beside him. Erevant bowed his head before his father’s grave. He knelt before the coffin and laid a medallion of a crescent moon on his father’s chest. The top was laid over the birch coffin, and was thus lowered into the grave.

With that, the priest recited the final verse of the funeral: “And as we all rise from the earth, we now commend the dead to the earth.”

Erevant began to walk back to the castle, and he looked up to the sky. He wondered, Where is my father now?

King Sentryil sat up with a start. Where was he? It was really bright. What had happened? He remembered the goblin’s spear, the instant of pain, and then everything went dark. He remembered a light in the darkness, and the brief image of the beautiful, moonlit forest. Then, he heard a voice speak to him through the blinding light.

“WELCOME.”

Two figures emerged before him — 9’ tall elves wearing robes of divine craftsmanship. Sentryil immediately recognised them and knelt.

“Corellon Larethian, Frond. I am honored,” spoke Sentryil.

Corellon Larethian was the god of the elves, and Frond had been the first elven king. The legend was that Frond had been raised to godhood by the elf pantheon. The spirits of the fallen kings and heros had been inducted into Frond’s halls if they were deemed worthy.

“It is rare for a hero or king to die in battle in the last life. I welcome you to my halls. You will be able to see into the mortal world, so your son will always have a guiding light,” responded Frond. “You will also fight alongside the gods and heros of this realm. We shall combat the gods of evil and monsters in glorious battle. This life is better than the last.”

“Well then,” replied Sentryil. “Let’s get started.”

THE END  

Shattered Coloration

         

ianthine wood

the moon has sunken into an aubergine pelt

the barren, lustful trees are noiseless

the night breathes as he does

soft and cavernous

into the surrounding yet choking air

I’m here to tell you I don’t love you

blurred and glowing,

[it truly was how I saw you]

gleaming dusk of cashmere and chastity

rally against Her dark influence

a moonlight divinity without vacancy,

you are a love unlike yesterday’s

gathering your philosophies,

ungiven shards of twisted memories

a serotonin charge,

tears of the clouds

insanity through clarity

susceptible to supernatural activity

but sanity is knowing,

and there is no such thing

relapsed

bullet holes and

fashion magazines line the walls

but we were the ones in smoked rooms,

the ones you were warned about

now doomed to arranging walk-in-closets

like catacombs

hiding in testosterone

wearing bottle-blue dreams

girl that you love

dark cars, darkest rise

allegories of the blushing light

they let me do this to myself

burlesque neon light

and the seldom

girl that you love

until the dawn strikes again

we will forever reign the weekend

disconsolate apology

noiseless nights

dripped over ice

always time for second guesses

a shattered, twisted, analogy

but reflect astrological intervention

our cynical minds would prevail divinity

which never could control me

daybreak

hair, voluminous of sleeping in

play of the angels

umber eyes have been smudged gray with sleep underneath

the sweater is one of ripped holes and seams,

and I watch the soft, tawny sunlight grace your neck

to assure that I or the universe did not simply dream you into being

{Theo}

dark eyed

dark haired

summer recollection

bittersweet, sly, uncontrollable creature

her empty moon eyes

not unlike those of a salem sorceress

lips now lined intricately with silver

I shiver,

the knowledge that her soul is no different than that of

a volatile cat

pricks at me,

though not deflating longing

seeing my lovat eyes pierce into the cracked glass of her mirror

she inquires if she looks alright

Imaginationland

Finals. Hudson had stayed up all night studying for his chemistry test. Hours and hours on end, he had tried to memorize all he could to complete his goal of becoming the valedictorian. However, Hudson could not focus; all he could think about were the characters from his favorite books and movies. He pictured himself fighting alongside Luke Skywalker to defeat Vader, and going on all of the journeys with all the superheroes to help save the civilians. But no. Instead, he had to study for his final for hours and hours on end as he thought about boring formulas and useless equations that he would never use in his life.

Sunday, June 12, 2016. Hudson was extremely nervous. He knew he needed to ace his final if he wanted to be the student with the highest honor. Then, he received a text message that turned his life around.

Lauren: Hudson I’m sorry this is not going to work out. You never talk to me. All you ever do is play stupid video games and read books about fictional characters. You are just too childish.

Thoughts swirled around his head. Hudson felt trapped. He began to think about being in a world on his own with nobody around him.  He tried to distract himself from the message by grabbing his notes, but he could not think straight. He picked up the phone, but realized he had no other friends to talk to because his only friends were in his mind. Hudson ran to his bed and put his face into the pillow and cried. He knew it was time to make real friends and to start growing up. He ran to his desk and grabbed his laptop. He turned on the first documentary he could find and tried to start acting like the other kids around him.

Before watching, Hudson lay down on his bed, and he began to stare aimlessly at the ceiling as he realized that it was time to become an adult. Suddenly, he heard the sound of a door opening. Hudson’s eyes darted to the location of the sound, and he glared at the dark, mysterious door with the sound of wind howling through the cracks. He began to think that he had gone crazy, as he had just seen a door pop out of nowhere. He closed his eyes for the next ten seconds, then opened them again, and he still saw this mysterious door. Too afraid to call his parents, he stood up and slowly headed for the door. Hudson then cautiously turned the knob, and inside, all he saw was empty space with a very narrow, white walkway that seemed to never end. He looked back at his bed and saw the documentary, causing him to picture himself all grown up and having his girlfriend back. But he shook his head and realized that he would be miserable not being the person he really was, so he decided to take a step onto the never-ending walkway.

Hudson was extremely nervous. He looked around and saw nothing but empty space and a narrow walkway leading nowhere. He believed he was walking toward his destiny, or maybe even a path to his past. He walked for miles and miles on end, then sat down and looked straight up. He heard a sound and jumped up and saw what looked to be a godly figure. Hudson cringed in fear as he saw this large man with a white beard and a staff that seemed to look like a lightening bolt. He walked closer to the man to a point where they were only a few feet apart from each other.

Hudson looked at this person, who seemed to look like Zeus, the Greek god. He was in shock. He wanted to ask him who he was, but was afraid to talk to this muscular, tall, and powerful-looking figure.

After staring into his eyes for a few seconds, the man said, “Welcome to Imaginationland.”

Hudson questioned himself for a second and thought that this man was crazy; he knew that there was no such place as “Imaginationland”. Hudson now looked away from him and realized he was walking on a pathway leading nowhere. He began to consider the idea that he was in a different world.

Hudson slowly moved his head back toward the man and shyly asked, “Are you Zeus?” Hudson was scared that this man may have gotten offended, but as the godly creature began to move closer to him, he saw a grin on the man’s face as he said one word.

“Yes.”

Hudson’s fear became joy as he realized he was in a new world with a character from his dreams. Zeus asked Hudson to follow him to the world where all the characters from his imagination lived. Hudson looked at Zeus and his joyful face turned to one of doubt. He began to think to himself that he was probably just dreaming, and that his mind was just playing games on him. He thought back to all the moments where he got teased for not acting his age, and to the time when his girlfriend dumped him over text, leading to him feeling depressed.

However, Zeus realized his doubt and anguish. Without realizing it, Hudson was in Zeus’s arms, causing him to snap out of his hesitation as Zeus exclaimed, “Let’s go!”

Zeus jumped off the pathway with Hudson in his arms, and they began to fly over the dark, bland, empty space. After flying for what seemed to only be a few minutes, but hundreds of miles, Hudson looked below him and all he could see was darkness, causing him to fear that he was travelling to a dark location. But then, he approached the largest gate Hudson had ever seen. He was amazed. He looked at the gate and saw his reflection in the pure gold layering, which towered 100 feet over his head. Glamoured by its beauty, Hudson went to touch it. At first, nothing happened, but then the gate shook; it felt like an earthquake, causing the gate to begin to open. Hudson saw a bright light, so he looked away as he was blinded by the brightness. Slowly, he turned his head back toward the gate and he saw all the friendly faces he pictured in his dreams. Hudson rubbed his eyes and noticed that in front of him were the friendly faces of all his favorite characters, such as Aslan the Lion, Gandalf the Gray, and Captain America. He ran into the world that seemed to be held up by white, powdery clouds and stood alongside his idols with a smile larger than his face. He looked around, and he saw a village which seemed to have been made out of golden bricks. Hudson felt free; he finally felt comfortable being himself. His favorite character was Captain America, so he asked him about all of his adventures and how his shield was designed. Then, he ran to Aslan. At first, Hudson felt dismay because he was standing a foot away from a sharp-toothed lion. But Hudson remembered that Aslan would never want to hurt him, so he ran up and greeted the lion.

Hudson met all the characters of his dreams and asked them more questions than they could even handle. He toured the land and noticed that all the people were living in harmony and joy, causing him to forget the problems he had at home. After journeying across their land, he was brought to a room. This was a dark room with no windows and room for only around two people. Then, walked in the king of the land, Aslan. Hudson looked into his eyes and saw fear.

Aslan said with a powerful voice, “We are under attack!”

Hudson dropped back in his seat as this was the first time he ever felt nervous while on the new land. He thought that everything would be adventurous and exciting, but he heard this horrific news and put his head in his hands and frowned.

Hudson then yelled, “Who is attacking us, and why?”

Aslan sternly replied, “These large, beast-like mammals that outnumber our population two to one!”

He then beamed his eyes toward the lion and cried, “Why was I brought to this land?”

Slowly, Aslan whispered, “You are the one who controls us. You created me and everyone else in my kingdom. Now, we call on you to come save us.”

Hudson felt powerful. He believed that he could now fight off the fact that he had to become an adult, and that he could live with the people he was surrounded by in Imaginationland. Aslan took Hudson to the highest point of the castle, but left him alone. It was up to Hudson to save the kingdom because he had the power in his mind to control the outcome of the battle. However, he could not focus; there was so much pressure coming from the people of the village that he could not think straight. Hudson peered over the walls, and he noticed the beasts crashing through the walls and attacking the homes of Harry Potter, Hawkeye, and Donald Duck. Hudson now felt angered, but determined. He cleared his mind and pictured Captain America ferociously attacking the beasts. Therefore, Captain America ran towards the invaders and fought off the creatures for as long as he could. Now, Hudson realized how powerful he was, so he sent everybody to fight the beasts, not realizing that he could not control all of his imagination at once.

Then, the beasts demolished every character that came in their way until they surrounded Hudson, as it was now only him left. He was frightened because Hudson thought he would be attacked any minute now. Then, the largest beast of them grabbed Hudson by his claws and held him up above his head. Hudson’s face was white, but he shook his head and remembered that he was in his imagination, so he could control himself. He broke free, causing the beasts to cry in fear because Hudson gave himself superhuman powers. Subsequently, all the vicious creatures retreated, so it was only Hudson in his own imagination. After protecting Imaginationland, Hudson sat down and pictured all of the creatures in his dreams coming back, and sure enough, Hudson was surrounded by all the heroes he loved.

Chants roared from the crowd as Hudson was congratulated for his bold and heroic accomplishments. Hudson then saw Aslan pushing his way through the crowd of people. With a sense of urgency, Aslan pulled Hudson aside and told him that it was time for him to return home. Without saying goodbye, Aslan and the other creatures walked off. Hudson was in despair; he did not want to leave. He knew that only here could he be his true self without getting judged. He cried in despair because he did not want to be set free from the teenage life that he had now become a part of. Then, Hudson saw a flash, and a door appeared, but this one was special. This door was white, and it shined brighter than a star. He walked towards the door in doubt, until he saw a message carved into the marble, reading, “Always hold on to what you love.” Hudson looked at the message for hours, trying to comprehend the meaning of the words carved on to the door. Frustrated, Hudson gave up and decided to just walk through the door and forget about what just happened. Anticipating that it would take him back to the opening gate, he took a step through the door. But this time, he ended up exactly where he started, in his room lying down on his bed.

***

Now, school was finally out, and Hudson had the whole summer to become an adult. He went, grabbed his laptop, and reopened the documentary that he thought he should have started a long time ago. Right before he hit the play button, he thought about the message he saw carved on the door that led back to his room. Hudson thought back to when the beast-like creatures were attacking his imagination and came to the conclusion that the beasts were the signs of adulthood that were bound to come. He thought for a second, then realized that he always had to hold on to his love of his imagination, and that he could not forget about what made him happy. However, he also came to understand that he was growing up and must become an adult. Hudson felt happy to finally expand his horizons while not forgetting about his love of his imagination. Finally, Hudson felt pride in being his true self.

Growing Pains

Growing Pains

I see her standing there, waiting outside my window. I know I shouldn’t go running to her. It’s the first time I’ve seen her in real life — as opposed to through a series of angry text messages — in weeks.

I look at myself in the mirror. My face, just beginning to age, stares back at me. Is that a gray hair? I sigh and release the strand of hair. When did I get so old? College is already a distant memory, and I’m just living day to day. My job is boring, even though it keeps me steady. I wish I could live without it, but there’s nowhere to go. I thought I would have an important job, making change in the world. Instead, I work a dull, entry-level job. How am I supposed to do this? How am I supposed to be mature when all I want to do is run and hide?

I don’t know what I want from Tara now. I don’t know what she could possibly give me, after betraying me like that. After not telling me — her girlfriend of almost a year — that she was married. Was it my fault? I feel like I should’ve been able to guess, but it was her who made the choice to cheat.

How can I face the pain I accidentally caused Joy?

I start heading for the stairs to talk to Tara. Three weeks ago, she would’ve come in herself with her key. Instead, she lied. Now, I’m opening my door, and there she is. I have to stand my ground with this conversation. If she cheated on Joy, then she’ll cheat on me.

“I can’t believe you did that,” I tell her.

Tara stands in front of me, her long hair waving back and forth like a willow tree. She’s Caucasian, while I’m Japanese. Her body is slender. Her neck is skinny too, in comparison to my fat body. I don’t say it negatively, just as an aspect of my body. Either way, I can’t help envying her, despite my outwardly body positive attitude. She always seemed too perfect. And now I know she’s not, because a perfect person would have never hurt me that way.

“It wasn’t even me. I didn’t know. I couldn’t have known because you lied to me,” I say.

She blinks, almost surprised by my brutality. How could I be anything but angry, with what she did to me and Joy? She’s beautiful, at least by standards of society. Of course her flawless exterior that made me so jealous every time I looked at her, would hide a rotten inner core.

“I hate thinking about that day,” I say. That day, of course, being Christmas Eve, when I found out that the beautiful girl I’d fallen for and was dating, was married. I’d gone to her place with a surprise gift, even though she’d told me she was spending it by herself. She’d lied, of course.

“Me too,” she tries to offer up. Tara, playing her mind games, twisting a lock of perfect, hazelnut hair. Like she didn’t know perfectly well about Joy. About her wife. About that ring on her finger, hidden in a pocket every time we kissed. I’m so betrayed, but at the same time, I want to go running back to her. Nobody ever told me that adult life could be so complicated.

“It’s not the same for you!” I snap. “Tara, I loved you. I did. We could’ve been happy together. I still want you,” I confess. She looks so pathetic in the cold, winter air. She’s only wearing a hoodie, and she leans into herself. She stares at the ground, her eyes hollow. I think she’s been crying too.

“Then take me back! I never loved Joy, and now she’s filling for a divorce just because of one mistake.” She tries to reach out for me, but I pull back. I turn to the side. I can’t let her know I want to take her back so much. I try to keep my head up, but I just want to go to her. I want to comfort her. I almost step forward, but I turn it into a step backwards.

“You lied to me, Tara. I can’t accept that.” It’s the first time I’ve talked to her since it happened, and now we’re already getting into a public fight. “I don’t want to be the other woman in your divorce. You can’t come running to me now that you’ve ended things with your wife.” I have to stand my ground, I try to remind myself.

“We got married too early, I’m only twenty-seven. Kat, I’ll do better. I swear.” Now, she’s crying, and I feel bad, but I have to stand my ground.

“I can’t do this,” I tell her. “Please go.”

“I can’t leave you. Then, I’ll be alone. I don’t have anywhere to go — Joy kicked me out of our apartment.”

“You told me she was a roommate, not your wife. Which is why we always, always, always went to my place. Fuck you, Tara. Go back to your parents’ couch.” I am just trying to getting out all of the hurt and the betrayal of the last few weeks, but I never want to hurt Tara.

Because I never like hurting someone I love.

Shouldn’t she feel that too? Shouldn’t she understand how disgusted I feel with myself? Shouldn’t she understand that I feel like I’m the one who ruined their relationship, as opposed to Tara?

The way Joy looked at me, as if it were my fault that her marriage was fractured, hurt. A lot. I mean, I didn’t know. I would never, ever, want to do that to someone, wittingly. Not after my first girlfriend did the same to me.

Am I just terrible at attracting people? Do I want to have people who want to hurt me pretend to love me? Because that’s what it feels like. All I want is someone to love me and to keep me safe.

“I’m sorry.” I want to forgive her. But I know I can’t. “You made a choice,” I tell her and turn back. I slam the door behind me, trying to conceal the tears in my eyes. She tries to stop the door from closing, but I don’t let her. When I get into my apartment, I drop my keys on the bedside table and curl up to sob.

The End

Survivor

Theodora, called Tedd by everyone but her parents, was lying awake. It wasn’t that she wasn’t tired. She was exhausted from her run to celebrate the beginning of spring break earlier that day. But she wasn’t sleepy, and she couldn’t get the thoughts of what she could do with her short-lived freedom out of her head. The only problem was that tomorrow, Tedd would have to go with her father to the hardware store to get a new fire alarm. Their only one was broken.

Tedd was thinking all of this when she heard a noise similar to the one that she had been hearing all night, but had dismissed as the wind. But this wasn’t the familiar whisper of the wind. This was a roar. She rose from her bed slowly, giving the noise time to go away. But it remained, even increasing. Tedd walked to the door of her room and opened it. She was struck by terror at what she saw.

Instead of the darkness of the night, the hall leading to her parents’ room — along with her brother’s — was lit by fire. This was not a small fire. This was easily four and a half feet tall, around her own height.
Logically, Tedd knew what she should do: scream for her family to hear her and wake up. But she could not summon breath from her lungs. The scream would not come out, just a pathetic whimper. And the fire drew closer to her, and she could feel its terrible heat on her skin. She ran, ran back to her room, throwing books in her backpack that she could sell and books that she could not live without. As the fire drew closer, as she heard the screams, Tedd frantically banged on the window until it cracked open. She jumped out of the window, barely feeling the pain of the cut glass and the fall, too terror-stricken to feel anything.

As Tedd’s world burned, the eleven-year-old ran on to her school, sobbing, but unable to stop, unable to save her family. She finally arrived at her school, charging up the hill. Now, she had nothing to distract from her thoughts, not even her books, for it was night, and there was no moon. And she started hearing the screams in her head, how they were drawn out before they ended, cut off by death.
Coward, she thought to herself. You could have saved them all, but you were too concerned for your own survival to do anything more than run. I hate you, me. I want you to die. You deserve death, for failing them.

But if she died, Tedd realized, there would be nothing left of her family, nobody to tell their story, to remember them, to fulfill their hopes. So she had to survive, which meant she could never, ever think of tonight again, or she would be torn apart with the memory of their screams.
In the field where she had played as a happy child, she made a plan for survival. Goal: Survive. Her first long-term priority would be to never be sent to Open Heart Orphanage. Tedd had heard all too much about that orphanage, about the abuse and starvation the orphans went through. Too many children who went to the orphanage never came out. Her second priority was school. If she was able to eventually get a scholarship to college, she would be able to work up to a job where she would be in a position to tell her family’s story and be heard. She would also have access to a dorm. But for now, she needed to survive, and for that, she needed money. And it was spring break… Yes. Tomorrow, Tedd would need to get a job.

Tedd walked across the bustling street, trying to pretend that she was all right. She winced with every step. Having lost her shoes in the fire, walking across the jagged surface of the street pained her considerably. She could only hope that she wouldn’t be hurt before she could buy shoes.

After what seemed like an infinite amount of time darting between busy crowds, Tedd finally reached the used bookstore. She had previously volunteered there, as part of a program at her school. The owner had been friendly to her before, and she hoped that he would be as friendly when she told him that she wanted money.

The bookstore, as usual, was empty at this time of day, although the owner and his one assistant were in there getting ready for the day. Tedd could just barely see them vacuuming the floor as she stood on her tiptoes to peer through the window. Taking a deep breath and summoning courage, Tedd knocked on the wooden door. She waited a couple of seconds as the assistant, a tall young woman called Carol, opened the door.

“Oh, hello, Tedd!” Carol said. “If you want to buy anything, you’ll need to wait about ten minutes while we get the store ready.”

“Actually,” Tedd replied. “I’m here because I was wondering if I could work here.”

“Oh,” Carol said, realizing that Tedd wasn’t talking about volunteering. “You’ll have to talk with the manager about that.”
“Can I ask him now?”

“Sure,” Carol said, stepping aside to allow Tedd into the doorway. Carol tapped the manager, a bearded man named Josh, on the shoulder. “Josh, there’s someone who wants a job here.”

Josh looked up. “Well, if it isn’t Tedd Smith!”

“Sir,” said Tedd, “I came to ask if you might want an extra hand around the store.”

“That would be nice,” Josh said. “But it’s … unusual, to say the least, to hire a — how old are you again?”

“Twelve,” Tedd lied. While no eleven year old would be seen as mature enough to work for money, twelve year olds were seen as slightly more responsible.

Josh paused for a second, unsure of how to proceed. “Actually …  then you might be more acceptable to our customers.”

“Look at how many books need shelving.” Tedd gestured to the endless stacks of books lying on the floor. “I worked for you for two weeks, so you know I’m competent. I won’t need any lunch breaks. And I wouldn’t ask for high wages.”

Josh nodded. “Let’s say five dollars an hour.”

Carefully, trying not to appear greedy, Tedd said, “Well, minimum wage is around seven dollars an hour. I was thinking more along that wage.”

“Minimum wage,” Josh argued, “is set with people who are independent in mind. You have parents to provide for you.”

Tedd wished that she could share the truth. Josh would probably not send her to Open Heart, but that was the thing: probably. She could not afford to take the risk of being sent there, no matter how small.
So she said, “How about we compromise on six dollars?”

Josh hesitated for a moment before nodding and sticking out his hand. Tedd stuck out her own and shook it.

Eight hours later, it was 4:00 PM. Tedd had worked hard, walking quickly away from every possible human gaze, afraid that they might see her bare feet or something in her face hinting at what she had lost. There had been close calls, but nobody had realized that they had an orphan in their store.
And Tedd had received forty-eight dollars. Maybe two days ago, she would have found some kind of thrill in having so much money, but now there was only the dull thanks. So now, she was headed to the shoe store. If any workers there asked why she had no shoes, she planned to say that she had lost them.

When Tedd entered the store, she didn’t wait for anybody to come up to her and look at her shoe size. Either her shoes would fit, or she would make them fit. She walked directly to the children’s shoe section, selected the cheapest ones that looked vaguely big enough, and bought them for thirty-four dollars, quickly exiting before the cashier could notice anything about her.

Finding an open bench, Tedd quickly sat herself down, stuffing the remaining fourteen dollars into her backpack as she slipped the plain brown shoes onto her feet. While she had had some limited feet protection with her socks, having shoes on felt much better against the pavement. And then, because she hadn’t had any food or drinks for twenty-two hours, her stomach rumbled ominously, and Tedd bent over in hunger pains.

Right then, she thought. I guess I’d better go get some food. Maybe Starbucks?

As she walked down the block, she noticed a slight decrease in the number of people. The streets were still busy, but not like before. People were probably going home — which brought up an urgent question. Where would her home be? Where was Tedd going to sleep? She could sleep in the city, she supposed, but that seemed like it would lead to getting mugged or catching a disease from the many, many people who spent their days there. Possibly the school campus? The fence was easy to climb, at least.

Tedd nodded to herself, deciding that she would check the school after she got food. She decided to have a grilled cheese for $5.25, leaving $8.75 left. Tedd then drank the rest of her water bottle’s contents, temporarily sating her.

Then, she began the long walk to the school. When Tedd arrived, the gate was closed, but she was able to easily climb through the small holes in the fence. She walked around the school, eventually selecting a small spot with hay scattered on the ground. Placing her backpack on the ground to use as a pillow, Tedd drew out Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, losing herself for a little while in Harry’s world.

She awoke from thirst and hunger. Apparently, half a water bottle around five hours before sleep wasn’t enough to satisfy her throat, which felt like a dry stone, and her stomach, which she had previously held at bay with grilled cheese, was joining in protest. Its growling was enough to awaken a nearby squirrel, which scampered off in fear of an unseen dog. Tedd decided that she could take the chance of Starbucks not being open yet and set off at a run.  

Thankfully, Starbucks was open, and Tedd was just about to purchase another grilled cheese, when the cashier asked her why she was alone.

“Because,” Tedd said, thinking fast, “My parents say that it’s important to learn how to buy things on my own.”

The cashier raised his eyebrows, but didn’t say anything more. Tedd quickly took the sandwich and paid, leaving her with just $3.50 in her backpack. She didn’t want to think about the real reason she was alone.

As the day wore on, more and more people asked her about her parents. Carol asked her why her parents weren’t picking her up or dropping her off.
“Well, my mom and dad have jobs farther out, and I can walk here,” Tedd said, trying to remain calm.

“Oh, that makes sense,” Carol said, nodding her head.

Tedd took a deep breath and went back to shelving books. At the end of the eight hours, it was four o’clock again, and Carol gave Tedd her forty-eight dollars, meaning Tedd now had $51.50 to spend. Tedd went as quickly as she could to Starbucks, buying another grilled cheese ($46.25 remained) and hungrily devouring it. As she walked to the school, she realized that tomorrow was the end of spring break. How would she make sure that she awoke in time for school, and in time not to be seen by any other students?

Tedd’s musings were interrupted when she felt a drop of rain on her head. She looked up and saw the darkest, bleakest clouds she had ever seen, ready to pour buckets of rain. Tedd ran to the school, frantically climbing over the fence. She ran all over the school as she heard the first crack of thunder and flash of lightning, too close together for comfort. Tedd didn’t know what she was looking for, other than a place of shelter.

Then, Tedd saw what she was looking for. It was a fenced-off area with a big, metal, rectangular box-like thing in the middle, but what drew Tedd’s attention was the stairs going down from it, hinting at a kind of shelter.

Even more frantically than before, Tedd practically leaped over the fence, running to the stairs down below. As she clambered down, she found that she was protected from the storm by the ground above. Tedd huddled there, alone in the darkness of the stairs for what seemed like forever, too terrified of the lightning to come out until the rain had completely stopped. By that time, it was well into the night. As Tedd walked up to the entrance of the stairway, she wondered how expensive sleeping pads were. Maybe she could get a cheap one at at L.L. Bean tomorrow.

Tedd returned to her thoughts on how to make sure that she was awake in time for morning. She decided to try and stay awake, and returned to reading her book, squinting at the pages under the moonlight.

As the sun rose, a tired Tedd went to look at the clock. She couldn’t get inside, as the building was locked, but she could look through the window and see that the clock said 3:30 AM. So that meant five and a half hours before it opened. It would probably be best if she remained here so that nobody could see her and wonder what she was doing. At least the sun meant she could more easily re-read the book she had only read ten times. Tedd stayed there with a gradually growing crowd of other children until the doors opened at nine o’clock. Then, a horde of children walked grudgingly towards the gym for the usual assembly.

As usual, Tedd paid no attention to the long speech, instead looking for her friend, Alyssa. Spotting her over by the door, Tedd crawled over.
“How was your spring break?” Tedd whispered.

“It was good. How was yours?”

Tedd hesitated. While she trusted Alyssa not to give her up to the authorities, there were plenty of kids nearby who could easily overhear them. So she said, “It was good.”

Alyssa frowned, noticing the hesitation. She knew Tedd well and could easily tell when she was hiding something. “Why did you pause just then? Anything bad happen?”

Tedd was about to respond when the bell rang, and the stampede began. Tedd grabbed her ragged backpack and dashed off to homeroom.

After the usual announcements about lunch, the class transitioned into writing.
“Your assignment,” her teacher began, “is to write realistic fiction. This story must be at least twenty pages long, and at most fifty pages. You have two weeks to write the story. Go!”
This, Tedd realized, was her chance to write her parents’ stories. Tedd lunged for the nearest computer, barely beating two of her classmates to it. Ignoring their groans as every other computer was taken, Tedd began to write about her father’s career as a journalist, writing the story of his story about the presidential campaign, how he had traveled halfway across the country to not only speak with the presidential candidates, but also the delegates of swing states and a third-party, and had successfully predicted the outcome of the election, a feat which not many had been able to accomplish.

She was halfway through at twenty-three pages when the class ended, and they were shuttled off to their next subject. This continued on until lunch, when she finally got a chance to talk with Alyssa. However, she was forced to buy the awful school pizza ($41.50).

“So, what are you writing?” Alyssa asked.

“A story about a journalist who undergoes a deep investigation about the election and manages to defy its unpredictable nature. You?”

“I’m writing a story about how students rise up against a power-hungry principal. What happened over spring break that you’re not telling me about?”

“How about we talk about this after school?” Tedd suggested nervously.

Alyssa frowned. “Okay, but don’t run off without telling me.”

“I won’t.”

Recess came, and Tedd played chess with a classmate. He won, since he was a chess champion, but the game was closer than usual.

Science and music passed, and the school day was finally over, though not without a heavy helping of homework. Tedd searched for Alyssa, finding her near the usual crowd of children waiting for their parents.

“There you are,” Tedd said. “Come on, I’d prefer to talk on the blacktop.”

The blacktop was completely empty, and therefore perfect for Tedd’s purposes. Quietly, she told the entire story to Alyssa, though she could barely get it out without sobbing.

“Wow,” Alyssa said after a minute spent in awkward silence. “That’s awful!”

“Yes, it is,” Tedd said.

Alyssa hesitated for a second, a look of pity and confusion on her face. “Tedd, if you want, I could ask my dad if you could stay overnight at our house.”

“No, but thanks,” said Tedd after a moment of thought. “But if your dad could drop me off at the library, that would be nice.”

Tedd knew that while the library had books, they also had computers. If they had computers, then she could use them to access her story and work some more on it. And while a night under a roof would be nice, there would inevitably be questions from Alyssa’s parents about why Tedd’s parents weren’t picking her up. Besides, she needed to tell her father’s story far more than she needed a night with air conditioning.

“Okay,” said Alyssa.

An hour later, it was nearly closing time at the library, but Tedd had still not finished her story. And while she was concentrating on it to the exclusion of nearly everything else, she couldn’t help but notice that everyone else was filing out of the library. Tedd sat there for a minute trying to figure out what to do. And then she saw out of the corner of her eye, the bathroom.
The bathroom! That was it! If she went into the bathroom and hid behind the toilet, a feat which she thought she would be able to accomplish, then after the janitor left, she could continue writing her father’s story. She quickly walked to the bathroom, opening the creaking wooden door. Inside, the toilet was filthy, but Tedd couldn’t bring herself to care. She crawled behind the toilet, contorting her body into the fetal position, and waited, trying to ignore the stench.

Then, a growl issued from her stomach, and Tedd realized that she was hungry again. She supposed that her focus on the story had distracted her from her empty stomach. Tedd’s stomach growled again, a threatening sound, and Tedd heard the sound of footsteps drawing nearer. It had to be the janitor. If the janitor heard her stomach, then he would find her, and she would be sent to the orphanage. The stories of her family would never be told in there.

In desperation, Tedd tore an empty page from one of her books and started to chew quietly on it. The door creaked open. Tedd froze, hoping that the page would be enough to keep her stomach quiet for just long enough until the janitor left. She couldn’t see the janitor, but she could hear his steps on the floor drawing closer and closer to the toilet. The janitor halted. Tedd heard the sound of a brush scraping against the toilet. This persisted for about a minute. Miraculously, her stomach made no sound. As the door creaked open again, Tedd couldn’t hold back a sigh of relief.

“What was that?” the janitor said to himself suddenly.

Tedd froze.

“Is there a rat in there?”

As he approached the toilet again, Tedd held her breath and became totally still.
“Ah, it’s probably just my imagination,” the janitor said after what seemed like an eternity.

Finally, the door slammed closed as the janitor left. Tedd peeked out of her hiding place. Even in the dark, she could see that nobody was there. Tedd drew in huge mouthfuls of air and began to count inside her head. She decided that after she reached ten minutes, she would look out of the room.

Ten minutes came, and Tedd opened the door an inch or so. Nobody was in the library. She opened the door all the way to leave. Quickly, she walked over to the computer and began writing again. Around midnight, she finished her father’s story and her tribute. And then, her hungry stomach reminded her that it would love some food. Her exhausted brain replied that she hadn’t slept for two nights now. She decided to pick her mind, reasoning that if she slept, there would be a period of time when she wouldn’t be hungry. After she looked up directions to the school, she started running there, knowing that criminals could be out tonight. Thankfully, she reached the school without an incident. Falling asleep almost as soon as she lay down on the hay, Tedd’s last thought was that she had paid her debt to her father.

Tedd woke up at nine o’clock, awakened by the sound of the bell. While kids were gathered on the stairs next to the building, none of them had noticed Tedd lying asleep in the field. She rose, strolling as if she had come from the side of the field. Nobody seemed to realize that anything was out of the ordinary.

Later that morning, in writing class, she approached her teacher, who was sorely tempted to back away from Tedd’s stench.

“What do I do if I’m finished?”
The teacher raised her eyebrows. “You’ve finished already? Can you show me your story?”

Tedd got on the one computer left and brought up her story. The teacher looked through it carefully, pointing out some errors Tedd had made, most of them caused by working late at night while tired and hungry. Tedd was quick to fix them.

“This is a great story, Tedd,” her teacher said, impressed. “If it would be alright with you, I would like to print this out and add it to the classroom library.”

Tedd could not believe what her teacher was saying. If it was added to the classroom library, then generations of students would have the opportunity to read her father’s story.

“That would be great! Thank you so much!” Tedd said, overwhelmed by gratitude. “But there’s another story I would like to work on…”

The teacher nodded. “Go ahead,” she said.

Sitting down at the computer, Tedd began the story of her mother.

***

Soon, Tedd’s debts to both her mother and father were paid. She began thinking of life not as a simply necessary object to remember her mother, father, and brother, but as something enjoyable and full of opportunity. So she made sure that she continued life by working after school for the bookstore. She continued to live at the school, walking to high school later. Through determination and hard work, she was able to get a scholarship to college. She became a history writer, telling the stories of others who had lost their lives. And while her guilt over not waking up her family would always remain, while she had life, she had the opportunity to become a better person and overcome her cowardice. The world was not such a horrible place.

The Great Anglo-Viking War of 987

Chapter One

A fleet of ships slid to a stop along the Ivory Coast. Viking warriors popped out of every hole and poured over the side in canoes that they used to row to the shore. They poured out of the boats and onto the shore and slaughtered the natives that ran toward their ever-twirling spears. “Það er það, menn, að búa til slóð og við munum mylja þessar sorglegt fíflum!”

The Viking army swarmed forward, like so many ants converging on a piece of bread. The grass-skirted natives ran before them, and the giant crossbows on the ships roared out in cacophony.

The war chief of the Igbo-Maszlek people sat in his treehouse. He enjoyed a cup of tea while observing the carnage below. He had known that this invasion would come for months, ever since his canoe scouts in the great seaworthy canoes had reported that superior ships were approaching the barrier islands, the last outpost of his people, before heading to the mainland. His outpost and cities in the barrier islands had been destroyed, and now the Vikings were coming to systematically mow down the Igbo-Maszlek capital. They would destroy all the buildings and kill every last man except for the war chief and the central chief.

A servant came by with a narcotic pipe, and the war chief prepared to take the herbs to see a vision from the Holy One. He descended to the stone temple, the only such stone building in a 1000-mile radius, and waved aside his acolytes at the door. He sat in the center of the heavily carpeted room, and the door was sealed. Narcotic smoke now filled the room, and soon he would see visions induced by the herbs of gods and kings of yore. With a deep breath, he set the incense and descended into the world of mind-altering. He met the bird-headed god Narasho, and Narasho told him to draw his people back. The Viking invaders were equipped with far more advanced Iron Age weapons, whilst his people were still stuck in the Bronze Age, and most of their weapons were made of wood. His people might be exterminated completely today, but they would rise again, be it in a year or a thousand.

He withdrew his people and had them surrender. Only his elite guards, armed with bronze swords, remained fighting. The Vikings’ least trained soldiers mowed down the Igbo-Maszlek elites with ease. Soon, only the war chief remained, and he alone had an iron sword. He fought off the Viking soldiers with ease and settled in for a long fight. It was only when the captain of the invasion force arrived that the Igbo-Maszlek war chief fell. All of his people were completely wiped out and thrown in the river.

The Vikings surged forward, crossing Africa in less than a year. The empire was rapidly expanding, and there was no hope for the European world. England was preparing to fall.

Impossible Reality

            

Impossible Reality

The breeze lifts my hair to the sky,

to the sun,

to the curve of my right ear.

He takes a large stride,

pauses when my face contorts,

tilts his head,

and steps back.

I can hear his mind’s voice

melting into my ear,

whispering,

desperate,

questioning.

My heart beats a mile a minute,

my thoughts blurred by

the brushstrokes of his hurt voice.

I reach out my hand to his,

but he pulls back.

His eyes glisten.

He starts to turn.

I feel half of me drift away

like a soul that leaves its body

in a horror movie.

Every stride he takes

makes me wonder

how I long for him

and still feel nothing.

How does a man love his child

but never hug her?

How does a cat feel content

but never purr?

How does a dog play fetch

but never wag her tail?

How do I let him walk away

and still not kiss him?

His feet step forward:

one on the white lines,

one on my chest.

The last of my hope shatters

as he curves around the bend

and disappears into the blinding sun.

A Moment In Thoughts

I hear them crying outside my room.

They think the walls are soundproof.

They’re not.

There are just a few seconds before I have no presence.

It’s like a blank before I faint.

This blank is forever.

I’m going blind.

I’m going deaf.

I can’t smell.

I can’t taste.

I can’t feel.

I won’t think.

I won’t love.

I won’t remember.

I won’t hope.

I will leave everyone behind.

They will keep remnants of me.

My will.

My grave.

My tombstone.

The bracelet I gave my daughter when she graduated.

The suit I gave my brother when he got married.

I will have nothing of them.

I will leave it all behind.

Slowly…

I am…

Gone…

The Master

Eep… I fell again…

Right foot forward.

Left foot forward…

And… I fall again…

Daddy, stop!

Stop laughing!

Sissy walks to me.

I am annoyed.

How does she walk?

How do humans do this?

I take another step and fall.

Mommy runs and picks me up.

I swing my legs.

I whine.

She puts me back down.

I try to run like her.

Oof… And I’m down again.

No fair!

Sissy can walk.

Mommy can run.

Daddy can run.

I just fall.

Sissy takes my doll.

She walks to her room.

I growl and scream.

That’s it.

I’m getting my doll.

I walk.

Right foot forward.

Left foot forward.

Right foot.

Left foot.

Right.

Left.

I see sissy.

I take the doll.

She claps.

She hugs me.

Daddy and Mommy clap.

I smile. I did it!

I walked!

I didn’t fall!

I am the master.

 

Back of the Class

I can’t see the writing on the board

or what my teacher is holding up

or the gestures she is making.

 

I can’t hear the videos on the screen

or when the quiet student asks a question

or what my teacher says.

 

I turn off my phone before class.

I take notes the best I can.

I never eat in the room.

 

I try my best to pass.

I do nothing wrong.

I love to learn.

 

People think I sit in the back to use my phone,

that I sneak out the back door to cut class,

that I pass notes to my neighbors under the table.

 

They don’t know that I sit in the back to hide my face,

that I sneak out the back door so I don’t panic,

that I hold a stress ball under the table.

 

They don’t know my name.

 

They Think I’m a Typical Jock

The stick hits the ball.

My hand shoots the ball.

The bat strikes the ball.

Anything with moving a ball:

You name it,

I’ve done it.

You name it,

I’ve also hated it.

But it’s better that I hit a ball

than that I get hit.

When you never do anything

at school,

before school,

or after school,

people ask questions.

No one questions a jock.

So I hit, shoot and strike balls.

If anyone asks,

my bruises are sports injuries.

I wish they were from sports.

I must have been an awful baby,

because my family hates me.

My mom starves me for a week

if I don’t do the laundry,

and my dad throws me against the wall

if I don’t make dinner for the five of us.

My older sister stops talking to me for a year

if I don’t get her a dress for her birthday,

and my older brother rapes me at night

if I don’t tutor him one day.

So I hit, shoot and strike balls.

Anything is better than being at home.

 

If My Mind Went on Strike

The pen is in my hand.

The story is in my mind.

There’s no such thing as not thinking.

I’m always thinking.

Always getting new ideas,

always mentally writing my next poem.

Always storing new quotes,

always planning a new plot line.

I don’t know what I would be thinking

if I wasn’t constantly creating.

Maybe I would be pondering

what sandwich tastes the best,

or what my favorite color is,

or what shirt I want for my birthday.

Would my mind be blank?

Void of thoughts,

of stories,

of ideas?

Would I then be able

to carry a conversation

with the teenager next door?

Or would I just lose myself?

Would I suffer eternal depression

if my mind went on strike?

If being creative makes me different,

I don’t want to be the same.

 

The Wizard (Part One: The Mage)

Chapter One: Meditate

Once upon a time, in a world that is neither yours nor mine, there was a young boy who wanted to be a wizard. His name was Salocin, but he had no last name. He was an orphan, for he had no parents. He lived in the orphanage and was not happy there. He had no friends, nor did he have siblings. He was alone and unhappy.

One day, he became determined to escape. He made a plan to leave at midnight on the 20th night of autumn. He was to leave out the window by using his bedsheets. He tied all three of the thin, white sheets together at midnight and then tied them to his redwood bedpost. This is how he made his way out.

He made his way down the bedsheets and found that they were not long enough. He only had about six meters of sheets, and he was on the third floor. The building was quite tall, the third tallest one in the small village of Jaber (pronounced Jja-bahrr). It was at the edge of the forest, which was perfect for Salocin’s plan.

He risked it and jumped. He fell down, down into a brier patch. He got so hurt and covered with scratches, scrapes, stings, and bruises, that he was afraid to proceed into the dark, black, uncanny, and very large forest. For a while, he lay there, considering his options.

Finally, he chose to leave his spot and go into the pitch black woods. The trees were not bending in any helpful way, but this was no trouble for Salocin, for he was a very dextrous child.

He was going to see a wizard, an old master of the arts of magic. He knew of one wizard, and the wizard went by the name of Egraw. Egraw had learned his magic from Colen, who had learned from Hazrah himself, the father of wizardry. Salocin was sure Egraw was in the forest he was escaping into.  

He walked throughout the night and into the day. He had not slept for two days, and one night, he finally reached a tree with a door in the side. By this time, he was famished and unquenched. The tree was very large and very thick. The door was in the shape of a heptagon and was made out of the tree. It looked exceedingly hard to notice, and Salocin was very proud to notice it. The door was so small that only a gnome would have no trouble walking through it. The door had engravings on it that looked like Elven runes, but he had no idea what they said, for he did not speak Elven. And yet… He knocked on the door, expecting Egraw to answer. The door opened quite suddenly after about twenty five seconds of waiting.

A short, old man opened the door. He was short enough to be able to have no trouble getting through the door. Based on the sound, Salocin inferred that the door had not been oiled for many years. He couldn’t help but notice the old man had wings — like that of a bird. They were as white as a dove’s, but had the texture of a bald eagle’s. He was not bald, however. Instead, he had long, white hair that matched his wings in color, but not texture. He had a long, white beard that extended to his chest and down to where his wings started. His clothes looked like those of a commoner, not like the flowing, blue robes that Sealocin had anticipated.

“Who are you, young boy?” asked the man, “Tell me of your name and what you want at old Egraw’s house.”

Salocin did not hesitate to reply. “My name is Salocin, and I would like to learn magic from you! Are you really the great wizard, Egraw?”

“Great? Tell me, child, do they tell stories of me? Am I famous?”

Salocin was confused. He thought that Egraw knew of his fame! He raised an eyebrow. “You know not your fame? You discovered the cure to season fever!”

Egraw was stumped and did not know what to say. He thought of himself as a poor, old hermit who lived in the woods.

“And made the potion of kingship! And told Aria how to make the tree of life grow! And…”

If it was true that all of this had brought him fame, and this kid was like any other, then Egraw could be famous! No, he was famous!

“… decipher the Elven runes! Where did you get your wings?”

Egraw’s heart was palpitating! This is natural for someone who suddenly finds out he is famous. He gave no thought to the question that Salocin had asked him. He was thinking about signing autographs, kissing babies, speaking in public —

“Excuse me, sir, where did you get your wings?”

— And people would go crazy over him… and then it hit him. The young boy was asking him how he got his wings!

“I was born with wings!”

… and he would be more famous than the famous bards…

“Egraw? Will you teach me magic?”

Egraw pondered the situation. Finally, he consented. “Yes, I will teach you magic!” He said this with a smile that could shine brighter than a thousand suns.

Egraw welcomed Salocin into his house. A winding staircase twisted both down and up, and went quite low. This was not surprising because after all, the tree was very tall. Egraw led Salocin down the stairs. Egraw was quite extraordinarily fast for an old man. Finally, they got to a dark, quiet room after twisting stairways in the roots.

“This is where we meditate,” explained Egraw.

“Meditate?” whined Salocin.

“Yes,” Egraw said.

Egraw sat down in the center of the room. His wings disappeared as soon as Salocin sat down.

“You see the power of meditation. The wings were fake. I used an ancient technique to fool you.”

Salocin sat down next to Egraw and held his breath.

He knew that that was how to meditate.

“Do not hold your breath!” warned Egraw.

Salocin stopped holding his breath and asked how to meditate. He received no answer, so he relaxed and stared off into space while he waited for an answer. He lost track of time, for the room was dark. Egraw knew the time well, for he had something similar to perfect pitch, just with time. He knew that they had been there for a full twenty eight hours, thirty-nine minutes, and seven seconds. That is when he left. Salocin did not notice. He only stopped when a bright white cat licked his hand with her foggy white and pink tongue. She was very small, about one foot long and not too chubby.

“What happened?” He questioned, for he was exhausted and famished. The answer he expected was from Egraw, but when he got his answer, he was surprised.

“You were staring off into space for twenty eight hours, thirty-nine minutes, and seven seconds,” stated the cat smugly. It licked its furry paw and cleaned its head with it. It seemed not to care whether or not the boy was goggling at it. “I’m a girl, by the way. You can call me whatever you want, for I have no name. Actually, I see you are a good person. I will tell you my name. I go by Snowflake, Fluffy, Ghost, Cloud, but I prefer Pickles. And don’t call me ‘Hey, you!’ My name isn’t ‘Hey, you!’ Hey is for horses, not people. Or cats for that matter. And don’t call me ‘Cat.’ I belong to the wizard Egraw, and he takes care of me promptly. Oh, have I been rambling on for too long? Let me give you a chance to speak! What is your name, Salocin?”

Salocin was dumbfounded. A talking cat that knew his name! And quite verbose too! He decided to mock the cat.

“My name? Oh, well, first off, my name is not Salocin. Salocins are for horses, not cats! Or humans, for that matter.” Then, he realized that he had been very rude and felt horrible. “I’m sorry for making fun of you,” he apologized. “But I know you know my name.”

“Apology accepted! I wasn’t even hurt in the first place. In fact, you’re right. I should stop being so mystical and be more humble like Egraw.”

Salocin thought that the cat was not that smug after all, having realized her mistakes — a rare and extravagant talent.

“Snowflake, do you know where Egraw is?” asked Salocin.

Snowflake was not so sure. “Upstairs?”

 

Chapter Two: Illusion

They crept up the twisty, windy stairways. Egraw was making lunch. He was making a pot of beef stew. Salocin knew this because of the smell. He was so starved that he could have drunk that whole pot down. He asked for a large helping and got a very large helping. He gobbled it down in mere seconds and was still hungry. So he ate more and more and more, until he was stuffed. He had only had corn, rice, and other things with little taste at the orphanage.

“Egraw, will you teach me how to make it look like I have wings?” Salocin pleaded.

He got his answer. “I use a technique called wind shifting,” Egraw explained. “I create vibrations in the air that hit you in certain ways. You don’t feel the wind, but you see wings. For example, Cthulhu is behind me,”

This was very true. A towering beast was above them both.

“I can’t see a kah-thoo-loo,” complained Snowflake. “What even is a kah-thoo-loo?”

The wizard laughed his head off. “It only works on the people I want it to work on. And it only works on humans,”

Cthulhu vanished. The wizard took a bow. Salocin clapped loudly.

“It also does not work on people who are meditating,” said Egraw. “Now, it is time for bed.”

Salocin climbed into a bed that looked like the bed he had at the orphanage, save for this one had engravings on it. It looked as if his room was all hollowed out and the bed was part of the tree. It made Salocin respect the wizard’s talent more.

 

Chapter Three: Light

Salocin woke up the next morning. Light shone through the window. It tickled his neck and his face. Or was it Snowflake’s tongue that tickled his neck and face? It was warm in the tree, and the windows were not made of glass. In fact, there were no windows, just hollowed out holes in the side of the tree. There were engravings everywhere — and not just Elven runes. There were runes that were written in the tongue of man. He started reading them until he noticed a very small, peculiar hole in the wall, which let through a narrow beam of sunlight that followed a path engraved into a tree. The beam of light was slowly, but noticeably, moving down the path and to a hole in the floor. Salocin wanted to get some more sleep, so he tried to fall back asleep.

He awoke once more to light shining in his eyes and found that all of the runes in the room were glowing with light. The small, narrow beam of light had reached the hole and had somehow lit up the whole room. He blocked the narrow beam of light with his hand, and the light crept out of the runes quickly. It looked like the light had been reflected from the tiny hole to all the runes on the wall and into his eyes to wake him up. The wizard was good at detailed work.

Salocin jumped down the stairs, skipping steps as he went. When he got down, he noticed that the whole building was covered with engravings. All of the engravings were glowing with yellow light.

The wizard was preparing breakfast and humming a happy tune. “Happy Light Day, at 9:47:38!” sang Egraw.

Salocin was puzzled. “Why is the light shining in the runes?”

Egraw thought he could teach something to Salocin. “I will tell you why we celebrate Light Day. Once upon a time, there was a spirit of light. His name was Shine. He lived in the sun. Every day, he would make the eight minute and twenty second journey back and forth to bring light to the people on earth. But people had no light during the night. Shine had a friend Bright, and they wanted to give the people of earth light during the night.

“One day, Bright said to Shine, ‘Let us bring the people of earth light during the night!’

“Shine agreed. So Shine became the moon, and Bright became fire. Every year, for one day, they follow the paths of light (if they find any) and grant the person who carved them one wish. I wish for a new hat!”

A bright red hat appeared on Egraw’s head. It had a blue pom-pom on top and shone with light for a few seconds. Salocin sat down and started to meditate to see if the hat was just an illusion. It was not an illusion. Salocin looked up. The glowing light in the “paths of light” were undoing themselves at a moderate pace. He raced up into his room and watched as the last of the light undid itself into the small hole in the ground in his room.

 

Chapter Four: Water

It was time for lunch. Salocin made his way downstairs for lunch, but the room was changed. The cauldron was in the middle of the room and was boiling by itself.

Salocin investigated. “What’s happening?”

“I am making a potion,” responded Egraw. He was stirring plain water over the fire.

Salocin only saw a pot of water. He meditated to see if this was another illusion — he was getting quite good at meditating. It simply stilled. It stopped boiling.

“Salocin, if you wanted to know anything, what would you want to know? The current location of the best hand-knitted sweater is what I first wanted to know,” proposed Egraw.

Salocin speculated his decision. Finally, all parts of his mind came to a decision. “Where are my parents, and all of my family members?”

“Salocin! You will get your answer! Your family is dead. Time for lunch!” Egraw was just cooking pasta.

“Will you teach me some magic? You said you were making a potion!” Salocin was very confused.

“I was pulling your leg! But I know your parents are dead, for I knew them myself,” confessed Egraw. “They were wonderful people, and they were my students. Not only were they studying magic, but they were blood mages. That means you were born with magic abilities, great magic potential, or have the blood of some sort of magic beast flowing through your veins,” he continued. “Your father’s name was Baelard Coffern, and your mother’s name was Ederna Ractect. They gave their lives to save you. When you were born, there was a prophesy. You were to grow up to kill your family and all people on the planet including yourself, if you were able to first kill your family. They gave their lives for you.” Egraw sniffled as he said this, and Salocin meditated to see if he was lying. “They drowned. In water. All for you.”

Salocin never knew his mother or father, but this raised a question in his mind. “What if I’m a blood mage too? Like, if my parents were blood mages, wouldn’t I be a blood mage too?”

Egraw thought, and spoke. “Yes, you are a blood mage with the blood of a phoenix and the blood of a dragon. And a unicorn. You are good with fire because of the phoenix blood. You will be good at flying because of the dragon blood (and the phoenix blood). You will also be good at seeing things, and you will be able to talk to animals and spirits when you are meditating (a gift from all three, mostly the unicorn and least the phoenix.)”

Salocin was still held by one question, for with each answer, more questions arose. “Are you a blood mage?”

Egraw could not say he was. “No, I am not. But Snowflake is.”

“I thought that Snowflake was a cat!”

“Well, she is not a human, but blood mages in animals have magic beast and wizard blood. She has both human blood and elf blood. She can read the Elven runes.”

“Can I learn Elven?”

Egraw thought that he was not to teach Salocin writing, but only magic. “Snowflake? Will you teach Salocin Elven?”

Snowflake had a crush on Salocin and would do anything for him. “Yes, master. But where should I start? Should I start with the basics? Maybe we could use the uncarved room! Or just use a blackboard. But the uncarved room would be where he could be tested. Yes, he would be tested in the uncarved room. Egraw, stop looking at me like that! Salocin would love to use it! Or maybe you want to use it for some kind of incantation, or spell, or add to the pathways of light! What’s for dinner, pasta? Ravioli? Do I smell a nice sauteed pumpkin filling and tomato sauce? What about the milk! I love milk. Can we have milk! Can we have milk? Good! Can we have more milk? I’ll go milk the cow! Yes! Milk! Milk tastes like nice, cool, or hot milk, depending on how you like it!”

Egraw had already prepared a bowl of milk. “Today, you may have a bowl of milk. Tomorrow, you will begin lessons on Elven. You know quite well that milk is like poison (at least the very mild kind) to cats.”

 

Chapter Five: Spirits I

“Salocin, what did I tell you about spirits?” Egraw stood over Salocin and smiled brightly.

“If you are nice to the spirits, they will be nice to you,” replied Salocin.

“Good. You may now begin,” offered Egraw.

Salocin meditated in the uncarved room. Nothing happened.

“Oh, I almost forgot the most important part! Carving!” Egraw had done this because he thought it would be fun to let Salocin carve the room.

They started carving. They carved patterns and more patterns, and then, Egraw told Salocin to do the trickiest part. The well of light. He carved a hole in the wall and let the light shine through. Salocin sat in meditation formation. Then, he used a special tool to carve little nooks and niches where the light fell that would make the whole room only light up if he was sitting down. And the room was filled with light when he sat down, and the wizard stepped out. The light started to move around in the small hole, and the patterns of light changed. It stopped, and Salocin started to glow. I will tell you how this worked. The light reflected in the certain patterns until finally it reached Salocin.  It reflected off of him and into the onlookers eyes. The light in the hole moved because the sun was moving in the sky, and the angle at which the light was entering in the hole was changing. This environment was needed for entering the realm of spirits.

It took them about one season to finish the carvings. As you may expect, some things happened in this time. Salocin turned thirteen, and they made sure they completed the ceremony of passing. Snowflake became bigger, now about one half more than her original size. A few other holidays also happened, such as the Fire Festival.

When Salocin finished the carvings, it was time to enter the realm of spirits. He sat down in position. He started to glow. The carvings that were dyed blue had water in them. The black ones had earth in them. Torches lined the walls in small capsules were meant for only letting out small strings of light. And there were lots of holes everywhere to stop the fire from going out. And Salocin sat there meditating, waiting, and remaining patient. In the night, his glow ceased because there was no light from outside, but he maintained meditating. Finally, he opened his eyes. He was no longer in the room he elaborately carved.

 

Chapter Six: Spirits II

Salocin looked around. He was alone in a green field, rivers running everywhere. It was a clearing in a forest. The sky was blue, and all was peaceful. Then, suddenly, clouds — dark, scary clouds — were coming in from all sides, and a head with five faces appeared in the center. It laughed and laughed and inflicted fear into Salocin’s heart. Then, strong hands picked Salocin up. Salocin fell unconscious

“Hello? Wake up!”

A boy was standing over Salocin with a perplexed look on his face. Salocin knew he was meditating, so illusions would not work on him. But this time, the boy standing over him had wings.

Salocin was curious. “Where am I? Am I in the spirit realm?”

The boy answered eagerly, “Yeah! My name’s Denartolasesgartoyeten!erlreoscoendfaresconder’dkefdert!ieskerdam, but you can call me Denarto for short.”

“Are you a spirit?” Salocin asked.

“Yes, I am a spirit. I saved you from Gretyongertoothesyenten!ertoteryunaweyerdfebezexerty’termeyhemhertyservecesrdyetheyemo, who is an evil cloud spirit. He wanted to kill you. Do you come from the true world? Are you a spirit?”

“I come from the true world, if that’s what you call it, and I am a wizard in training,” replied Salocin to all of the questions that Denarto asked him. “How old are you?”

“I’m 358 years old! I know, I’m very young.”

“I’m only thirteen. How is 358 years old, young?” Then, Salocin remembered that Egraw had told him that spirits are very old. And they live forever unless a good enough wizard teams up with a good enough spirit and they give up parts of their souls. Yeah, it’s very hard.

“Wow! You’re young! Can I come back with you? I’ve always wanted to see the true world!” pleaded Dentarto.

“That’s a thing? You can leave the spirit realm?”

“Probably in the same way you came here. Maybe I should meditate.” Denarto sat down on the grass and meditated without waiting for Salocin’s opinion. He blinked out of existence.

Salocin followed and meditated. It took him a little while longer than Dentarto, but he reached the place where he was meditating. He looked around. Dentarto was standing up straight, but the light was shining through him. Dentarto was not affecting the system.

“Egraw? Egraw! Come look at this!”

 

Chapter Seven: Wood

Salocin was practicing his meditation when he was rudely disturbed by a chopping noise. Salocin wandered downstairs. Egraw was carving wood.

“Egraw? Do you hear a chopping noise?” asked Salocin.

The chopping noise got louder. Salocin hopped out the door. He perceived a large pile of wood and several tired woodsman chopping down the forest. They all looked stronger than Salocin.

Salocin looked and found that there were stumps in all directions.

Denarto was nowhere to be found. Salocin called his name. He received no answer.

Salocin decided to talk to the men. He went outside. “What are you doing?” He asked them.

“We are cutting down trees for the king,” they answered.

Salocin told Egraw of the choppers.

“This is not good. Salocin, do you love this house?” Egraw asked.

“Yes, it is the only house I love,” replied Salocin.

“Then, I am sorry. We must leave. They will soon cut it down. Follow me.”

Salocin followed Egraw down a pathway into the roots he had never seen before. He thought that he knew every pathway in the tree. Snowflake was trotting at his side. It led to a door. The door was glowing with light, but Salocin meditated and knew it was a pathway of light effect. Egraw tapped the door with his finger in the center. It opened, and behind it, lay a small cave. On the other side of the cave was another door. Egraw entered it and climbed up a spiral stairway.

“This is as new to me as it’s new to you, Salocin,” pitched Snowflake.

Egraw beckoned for them to follow. “Salocin, listen to the dragon inside of you. It will tell you what you need to know that I can no longer teach you. Snowflake will be your humble guide. The phoenix within you will tell you about your parents. The unicorn in you will aid you with your magic. Take care, and you will learn.”

This was the last that Salocin saw of Egraw, at least for now. This is when Egraw started to glow. Salocin was forced to blink at the light, and when he stopped blinking, Egraw had vanished. Snowflake licked his hand and rubbed her head hard on Salocin’s thin leg. Salocin’s bright blue eyes filled with silver tears that ran down his pale face. It was a sad moment.

Salocin and Snowflake continued up the spiral stairway and reached the top. It led to a another door. Snowflake pressed her head against the door and forced it open. Salocin followed. “It was not the house I loved,” Salocin murmured to himself, “but Egraw himself.” That is when Salocin collapsed.

 

A Matter of Time

It was a beautiful place, the bookstore.

Some might even call it phenomenal. Inspiring. Life-changing. Hannah wasn’t sure what she expected the first time she saw it. It seemed out of place in the dark alley with just one other shop, an old newsstand that only sold moldy chips and cheap soda. The sun seemed to shine only on the bookstore, lighting up the street with an otherworldly light. Outside the bookshop, a pot of hot chocolate stood bearing the sign “Free. Take Some.” with a pile of paper cups at its side. Books stacked in orderly piles: everything from pocket sized editions of The Odyssey to the latest comics for six and seven-year-olds.

Hannah poured herself a cup of hot chocolate and took a sip. Frothy deliciousness met her tastebuds, an explosion of flavor that made her smile in delight. Hannah walked into the bookshop, still smiling, and breathed in the musty, comforting smell of old and new books. Time seemed to be irrelevant here. Tattered, leather-bound books dating back centuries stood next to the latest novels, crisp and pristine. She headed to the back of the shop where a pile of plush pillows and napping cats lay, and colored light flooded through the stained glass window. Hannah took a few volumes off the shelves and snuggled up with her books and hot chocolate. She felt that everything she loved was in in her hands: adventure, happiness, friends, mystery, animals, battles, daring missions, and magic, all in arm’s reach. Maybe, one day, she would be providing the adventure, happiness, battles, magic and friends for someone else. Maybe, one day, her books would stand on these shelves for a new generation. As she left the shop that day, newly purchased books in tow, she knew she would be back tens, hundreds, thousands of times. It was only a matter of time.

***

Thirty Years Later

The bell over the top of the door jingled softly, announcing the arrival of a shopper. Hannah had been working at the shop for over 20 years, but she didn’t think she would ever get over the shop’s understated beauty and the wonderful, woody smell of books and their history. A small girl entered the bookstore, startling Hannah and extracting her from her thoughts. The girl’s round, bright blue eyes twinkled merrily at the sight of so many books. A mound of brown curls surrounded her head and neck. She scanned the shelves.

“Do you have any books by Hannah McKinley?”

“Yes, dear. They’re over there on the third shelf to the left.” The girl’s face was etched with determination and excitement. Grinning, she pulled the book off the shelf and flipped through it, entranced. Then, she abruptly stopped. Her jaw dropped.

“No way!” she breathed. “You’re Hannah McKinley!” She looked from the photo of the author to the woman who had helped her find her book.

Hannah smiled. “That’s me.” The little girl looked at Hannah with so much wonder, awe, and bewilderment in her eyes, that Hannah felt her heart melt.

“I love your books. They’re just so… so real. They make me feel like I’m the luckiest person on earth, with the best gifts in the world: adventure, happiness, battles, magic, and friends.”

“I know exactly how that feels,” Hannah said.

“Lilly!!! We have to go now, sweetie!”

“I should go,” said the girl. “But I’ll be back.”

“I know you will,” said Hannah. “It’s only a matter of time.”

 

Erik’s Curse

Life is like a movie based on a book: horrible.

My name is Erik. I’m 4279 days and 11 hours and 23 minutes old (at least in World of Warcraft), and 7201 days, six hours, and 54 minutes old otherwise, a purebred 90’s kid who was only in the 90’s for four years, but it still somewhat counts. I live in the deep, dark lair of my parents’ basement, trapped until I find a job.

Unfortunately, my job search has been hopeless since apparently, college degrees and less hostility are required for most of them. They always tell you, “Oh, we won’t hire anyone who yells at our customers for buying Star Wars Episode I on DVD,” or something along those lines, even though it’s only second nature to me. Some people just don’t understand that everybody’s special, and that I deserve to be hired for that. Unlike those corporate stooges who decide to ruin childhoods by rebooting old franchises, trying to make them hip and edgy for those who are, well, how do I put this lightly… unfortunate enough to have been born in the 2000’s and later.

After a while of things like this and trying out three different jobs about a year ago,  I decided that a basement wasn’t so bad, and I’d rather like to be trapped there. Anything I needed, my mother would get for me. That is, until a few weeks ago.

***

My family was what I’d consider perfect. My mom let me do what I wanted. I didn’t have a dad, and yet, I never needed one. Mom always told me he left after a big fight before I was born. So I was always very close to my mother. She’d buy things for me, drive me everywhere, and get me anything I ever needed.

Unfortunately, she’d been acting strange lately. She started forgetting my name; she lost her car keys, and they ended up in the freezer; she got lost a block away from me… so I decided to venture into the outside and find out what was happening with her. We went to the doctor, and after a depressing 40 minutes, the doctor came to me with a depressing look on his face.

“I’m sorry,” he sighed. “But your mother has Alzheimer’s.”

I was just speechless. I’d seen a lot of TV where people would get down on their knees and scream, “Noooooooo!!!” when something as tragic as this happened, but I didn’t feel like that was the appropriate response. I just turned away and sat back down in the waiting area to think. The doctor told me what to do and how to take care of her, but I didn’t listen. I was just thinking about all the things she’d done for me, and how she loved me, and now it was all gone.

She’ll probably forget about me eventually, and I’ll have to take care of her.

I finally snapped out of it when the doctor asked me, “Do you have a job?”

“No, I don’t,” I replied.

The doctor had a somewhat surprised look, but he tried to hide it from me. Most people are surprised when they find out my mother has been working to support both herself and me into her late 60’s even though I’m an adult. I’ve become used to it, though I don’t really care what they think anyway. They don’t live my life!

“I recommend you find a job soon, then,” the doctor remarked. “I don’t think your mother can work in her condition anymore. After all, somebody needs to pay the bills.”

Paying the bills — that frightened me. It seemed so complicated, so many deductions and adding things and expenses. I had no idea what to do. I’d already tried and failed at being a clerk, I got through a month of law school before I dropped out, and apparently, being extremely opinionated doesn’t make you a registered critic. I could never find a job, let alone pay bills. I was stumped on that. Eventually, Mom finally came out of the doctor’s office, and we walked home slowly while I thought about my options. What could I do for her?

The doctor gave me a prescription and told me to get her meds from a pharmacy once a week. I had no idea where a pharmacy was, so I decided first on my list was to get her to a pharmacy. I used my phone to look for some nearby, but all of them had four and a half out of five stars or less. I knew from experience that anything in media under five stars was horrible trash, so, using my best judgement, I found a five-star one, ten towns over in Springfield. The only problem was, I didn’t know how to drive.

“Hey, Mom?” I asked. “Can I borrow your car keys?”

“Who are you, and why do you want them?”  she replied with fear in her eyes.

What could I tell her? She forgot all about me. She was scared of me. I’d never felt like this before; my own mother had forgotten me. Maybe she’d forgotten my name before, but never my entire existence!

I tried to explain to her, “I’m your son!”

But she kept saying she didn’t have a son. Every time, she wouldn’t even let me finish saying anything. She just kept accusing me of being a criminal and a liar. I couldn’t stand it anymore, and I slapped her.

At that moment, it was like everything went silent. Every human, animal, and even inanimate object felt like it was watching us in shock and fear. That man just slapped an old lady! Probably his own mother! What a monster! I didn’t even know what I was doing, but all the rage and anger I had been building up since finding out that my mother had Alzheimer’s, and now I had to pay bills and take responsibility for once in my life, and work, and be an adult… It all just came out horribly, and I released it on my own mother. My only family.

“I – I’m sorry, Mom.”

She just looked at me, innocently.

“I remember you now, Erik,” She said. “But you’re not my son.” She sighed.

She walked away. I didn’t know what to say to her or what to do. Should I walk with her? Should I go away for a while? I didn’t know. But I did know I needed to take care of her.

I went to the bus stop and waited for the bus to Springfield to arrive. Maybe she’d forget about this. I mean, if she forgot about me, she could definitely forget about the incident. I could even surprise her with her meds when I got home. The bus finally came, and I got on. After two hours, I was finally in Springfield. I asked around for directions and eventually, after an hour of searching (though 45 minutes of that was eating dinner in a cheap restaurant), I finally found it. I went in and was astonished to see that so many items not related to medicine were in a medicine store!

“I have to come here more often,” I said to myself.

But with Mother on the mind, I tried to ignore the figures of Star Wars characters and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle plushies to get to the medicine area.

“Hey, I  need Alzheimer’s meds. Here’s a prescription. I need them now, please!” I told the pharmacist.

“I’m sorry,” the Pharmacist replied. “But you need to put in an order first, sir.”

I started to get angry. “What?!” I said, gritting my teeth. “I spent three hours trying to get here and find your stupid freaking pharmacy, and I can’t even get meds?!”

The pharmacist just looked at me in shock. “Please leave, or I’m calling the cops,” she ordered.

I didn’t want to get in trouble, so I left after that.

***

After delays on the bus ride, I got back at midnight, expecting to see Mom. I needed to apologize to her, but when I got there, she was gone. I looked all around the house for her, but she wasn’t there. Just emptiness. I ran outside only to see her at the end of the road by our house, sitting on a bench overlooking the ocean. I walked over to her. She was staring vacantly into the sky.

“Are you lost, Mom?” I asked.

“No, I just needed to come here and think, sir.” It was horrible! Hearing my only parent, one who had taken care of me for my entire life, refer to me as sir! Like she didn’t know me!

“Listen, Mom, I’m sorry about what happened earlier. I was under shock, and I overreacted and hit you. I’ve never had to take care of anyone before, and now, out of the blue, I have to suddenly get a job and become an adult. But I promise I will take good care of you and learn how to support you. I’ll build a resumé, I’ll try every job I can think of, and I’ll make you proud, Mom!” I proudly stated. “But first, can I ask for your forgiveness for all these years of having to take care of me?”

She stared into the ocean, the waves slowly rolling in and out while she thought. I was praying she’d forget the slap, that we could start all over again fresh, that we could have that happy ending.

Then, she spoke. “Of course I forgive you, you’re my son! But why do you want forgiveness? You never did anything.”

I was shocked. I thought it would be great to not deal with that, but I realized that a part of her was gone; part of her life was completely gone! I started to cry. I hugged her lightly, and we stared out into the sky, awaiting the dawn of a new day.

 

Day by Day

I put my suitcase on the bed and look around the room. I peer behind the curtains to make sure that there are no hot pink hearses in the parking lot. When I do, I find multiple hot pink hearses, which means I am being followed. I don’t know by whom or why, but I know that my life’s in danger.  

***

It all started when my girlfriend Taylor was murdered. The night she was murdered, we were partying and drinking. She had taken me back to her place on 21 Wall Street, which was close to mine. One nightcap led to another, and before we knew it, we were both very drunk, and we passed out on the floor for a little while.

I heard her get up. “Where are you going?” I asked.

“Urghh. Have to get into bed,” she said.  

I must have opened the window to let in some fresh air, because the next thing I knew, I had been pushed out the window onto the street.

“Taylor!” I whimpered groggily. I heard no response. I wasn’t quite sure where I was at that moment because I was too drunk to even stand up, but I was worried about Taylor.  

I looked up and found a man standing in the window staring at me.  He was wearing all black so I couldn’t see his face all too well. I blinked, and he was gone. I used all of the strength I had left to stand up and figure out how to get back into Taylor’s.

The door was surprisingly unlocked, and there was no sight of Taylor or the man in the window.

“Taylor! Taylor, where are you?” I found some mud on the stairs leading up to Taylor’s bedroom, which was not there when we first walked in the door.  I didn’t know what to do, but at least I wasn’t as drunk as I was 30 minutes ago. I walked up the stairs and went to bed, not knowing where Taylor or the man at the window was.

When I woke up, I was in the kitchen, dazed and confused. The fridge was open and there was a glass of water right next to it. I started to think how I got down there, but I still had no recollection of going to the kitchen.  

When I went back upstairs to Taylor’s bedroom, I put on all of my clothes, ready to leave, not knowing what time it was or what had happened last night. For some reason, I didn’t just leave. I turned on her bed side light, and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. After I turned the light off and on about three or four times, I just couldn’t bear to look at her anymore. What the hell happened in this house?

Taylor was covered in stab marks, and blood was everywhere. I mean everywhere.

And now I am here in a cheap motel on the outskirts of Miami, and a fleet of pink hearses are following me. How has my life come to this? The world had been at our fingertips. I was a young lion on Wall Street, and so was Taylor.

I sit on the bed, trying to fight back the tears. I was a coward — I had just driven to the airport and hopped on the first available flight to Miami. A normal person would have called the police. An innocent person wouldn’t have run. I am innocent, aren’t I? I couldn’t have killed Taylor.

The crowd we run with on Wall Street works hard and parties hard. You had to keep up, but I had started blacking out on occasion, whole periods of evenings wiped from my memory. I didn’t know what I was capable of. And so, I ran.

I grabbed my keys and left Taylor’s house as fast as I could because I didn’t want to be a part of something I may or may not have done. Just before I left her house, I looked for any possible murder weapons around the bed and in the kitchen, but couldn’t find anything. I got in my BMW and drove back to my apartment, where everything was quiet and peaceful.  

But I couldn’t rest. I grabbed my suitcase and started dumping my clothes in it. My phone beeped, letting me know I had a voice message. It was from Taylor.

“I just want you to know, the answer is yes!”

Yes to what? Yes to coming to my parents for Thanksgiving? Yes to a movie on Saturday night? Or had I proposed? It was all too little, too late. I shook off all of my feelings, closed my suitcase, and left my apartment.

It wasn’t until I got to Miami that I suspected I was being followed, and not just by the police. Pink hearses…

***

I can’t run anymore right now. I lie back on the crappy motel bed and turn on the TV, flipping around stations until I see a picture of Taylor.

Taylor had very blonde hair even though she dyed it, and she was very thin, about 150 pounds and stood 5’9” tall. She was wearing her favorite white dress when she got killed — just like the picture.  I turn up the volume.

“Funeral home heiress and financier, Taylor McCormack, was found murdered yesterday in her home on Wall Street. She was last seen at a bar with her boyfriend, John Flynn. People at the bar said that they witnessed a beautiful proposal, but that they hadn’t heard her say the magic word, “yes,” although she was indeed wearing an engagement ring when she was found. No witnesses were on the scene on 21 Wall Street, but the police have been searching for John.”

Then, a big picture of yours truly appears on the screen. It wasn’t my favorite black suit with my red tie, but I still looked dashing in it. I look dashing in every suit, with my brown hair and brown eyes. I do have some gray hairs coming in, so I use “Just for Men,” which gets rid of the grays, but not permanently.

“We’re at the home of her father, Mr. McCormack, owner of thirty funeral homes in the tri-state area. Mr. McCormack would like to make a statement.”

The large, round face of Taylor’s dad appears on the screen. “John,” he said. “If you are watching this, please come home. We know that you didn’t do it. And for anybody else with any information on John’s whereabouts or anything at all regarding my sweet Taylor’s murder, I am offering a 250,000 dollar reward.”

I start to think about the pink hearses out my window and Taylor’s father. I then wonder why they are pink instead of black, like a normal hearse should look like. Maybe I am not being followed by Taylor’s father, but by someone else. I then hear a knock on the door and nearly shit myself, I’m so scared.

“Who is it?” I say quietly.

All I hear is, “Open up.”

I don’t know what to do. I have no weapons, no hiding spot, and no escape route.

The knocking grows louder. “Coming!” I say in a high pitched voice, trying to sound more feminine, trying to throw whoever is on the other side of that door off.

I close my eyes and focus on the breathing techniques I had learned back in college when I maintained my black belt in mixed martial arts. Since I’ve been on Wall Street, I’ve been practicing less and am a little rusty, but I’m hoping that I can find my fighting skills again if I need to.

The knocking is relentless, so what do I do? Mr. MMA Fighter cowers in the bathroom. This is the end, goodbye world…

But I finally walk over to the door and pull it open, as if it’s a bandaid I need to pull off really quickly. There, I find three armed men and one woman smoking right in front of them. They all have the yin and yang symbol on their leather jackets, so I think they must be part of some gang or something like that.

“Who are you?” I ask.

The woman smoking takes a long look at me, and I squirm. “I am Li Na which means “elegant,” and this is Liu Wei which means “great,” Wang Lei which means “rock pile,” and Li Jun which means “army.” We are part of the Chinese mafia. We need you to help us.”

“With what?”

Li Na blew a smoke ring in my face. “You’ll find out if you come with me.”

What the hell do I do? I can’t take all of them down, especially Wang Lei because he is the muscle of the group.  

Just man up and take them down. You took four years of MMA, you know how to fight.

I start for every single one of them by sending flying kicks and punches to the kidneys, while being punched and kicked harder from all of them. I take Li Na’s cigarette and use it as a weapon by putting it on the men’s skin and hear the sizzle of their skin being burnt.

When did I become so good at fighting so many people at the same time? After having all of the men on the floor in pain, Li Na isn’t in sight, which is worrying. The next thing I know, I’m in what must be a hearse, handcuffed to a seat with everyone squished in. They have put a sack over my head so that I can’t tell anyone where we are going, or who any of them are.

I ask Li Na, “What the fuck am I doing handcuffed to a seat?”

“If I were you,” Li Na snarls. “I would shut your fat American mouth before the boss comes.”

I almost roll my eyes. This can’t be serious — it’s almost as if I am in some cheesy gangster movie. Okay, I better shut up, so I don’t die. But now I can’t stop thinking about Taylor — she’s gone, she’s really gone. Then, my thoughts turn to her father.

***

I had met Taylor’s father about five times, and each of those times, he had always said to Taylor, “Why him? Why him? You could have picked any other guy, and you picked him. Why?”

Taylor always said, “Dad, stay of my life. I just brought John here so that you would get to know him, and maybe even like him.”

Every time Taylor and I left and went home to talk about what happened, she’d always say angrily, “Don’t worry about my father.” And I would completely ignore her and go to bed.

Back at the Chinese mafia HQ, I’m tied to a chair with the bag still over my head. I hear loud footsteps coming directly at me.  At this moment, I don’t know if I’m going to die or if “the boss” is coming to talk to me.

The bag is ripped off of my head, and I see a very fat man, most likely the boss, in front of me.

“Do you know who I am?” the fat man says.

“No, and what the fuck do you want with me?” I reply harshly.

“I am Greg McCormack.”

How is this happening? How did Taylor’s father find me? How is he involved with the Chinese mafia? These are all reasonable questions that would probably never be answered.

I then say in the calmest voice possible, “Mr. McCormack, I am truly sorry for your loss. I know Taylor meant the world to you, and she did to me as well. That’s why I couldn’t have killed her. Please don’t kill me! I still have a life to live for.”

“John, I know that you didn’t kill Taylor,” Mr. McCormack says and pauses dramatically, “even though your fingerprints were everywhere at the crime scene. You were gonna be my son-in-law, but I knew that you would run away because you were always afraid of me. So I sent all of my hot pink hearses after you in every possible state that you could have gone to.”

I want say something, but then, Greg stops me before I can even get a word out of my mouth.

“All I need you for is to help me find Taylor’s killer.” I breathe a sigh of relief, but then a feeling of dread follows. How am I supposed to know who killed her? I watch McCormack as he opens a tool box and pulls out a hammer. What’s that for?

“And I also need to interrogate you, or I beat you until you die.  Do you understand?”

“Yes sir,” I say in the most secure voice I can.

“Ok, let’s start. Where were you the night Taylor died?”

“Taylor and I met downtown at a restaurant.”

“What was it called?” McCormack asks.

“I can’t remember right now because Taylor picked the restaurant.”

“Where did you and Taylor go after dinner?”

“To her house,” I said.

“What did you do at her house?”

“We drank a lot, watched TV, drank more, and then, we were both passed out on the floor. About 20 minutes later, we woke up, and she went up to her room, and I was looking out the window to get some fresh air.”

“What happened next?”

“I’m getting there!” I yell. “Okay, so I was looking out the window for a couple of minutes, still drunk, when I was suddenly shoved out the window. I landed on the ground really hard. When I looked up, all I saw was a dark male figure looking at me, and when I blinked, he was gone.”

“John, what happened to Taylor?”

“So, I was looking around the street for ten minutes trying to find where I was. I then realized I was still at Taylor’s place, and the door was unlocked, so I walked in and looked for her. I went upstairs and went to bed. After that, I woke up in the kitchen, and I didn’t have any idea how or why I was in the kitchen. I then went upstairs to check on Taylor, and she was covered in stab wounds, and I ran as far away as I could. And that’s my story, Mr. McCormack. Please, don’t beat me to death.”

“Okay John,” he says. Thank you for sharing your story. I won’t kill you or hurt you. Now, I need your help to find Taylor’s killer. Are you with me?”

I have no choice, but to say yes because if I say no, I’ll be hammered to death. So I say, ‘’Yes!”

“John.”

“Yes.”

“I need to ask you a few personal questions about Taylor and what you know about her. Okay?”

“Yup, that’s okay,” I reply.

Now McCormack is pacing the room in front of me. It makes me even more nervous. My wrists still really hurt from the handcuffs, but I don’t dare to ask to have them taken off.

“Do you know what Taylor did for a living?”

“Yeah, she was a financial advisor, just like me.”

“Okay. Did she ever mention side jobs?”

I frown. “No, she was just as busy as me. There was no way she had any time for another job.”

“Did she ever mention anything about a younger brother?”

“No,” I said, frowning deeper. They must not have been close. “But why? Is he important?”

“Listen John, Taylor was next in line to take over all of my funeral homes. Her younger brother, Greg McCormack Jr., wanted the business so bad. He always begged me and begged me to be in front of Taylor. He said that it wasn’t fair, that Taylor was always my favorite and that she got everything. Blah, blah, blah. Kids,” he chuckles. “They never stop being kids, do they?”

“Taylor never told me. Wait, do you think your own son could have killed his sister?” I ask. What kind of family had I gotten myself involved with?

“That’s why I need you to talk to him and interrogate him, just like I did to you.”

I don’t like this idea at all. I just want to move somewhere very, very far away and drink myself into oblivion.

“Hold on,” I start to protest. “You never said anything about finding someone and interrogating someone; all you said was to help you find Taylor’s killer.”

“John, this is helping me find Taylor’s killer. He’s a possible suspect. He needs to be thrown off guard. You can’t be a nice guy here. You are the grieving boyfriend. Don’t you care about Taylor? I need your help, or you die.”

Just as he says “or you die,” I hear a gun being cocked back, and I nearly shit myself.

“Oookaaay,” I say. “I’ll help you, but only if you promise never to hurt me or kill me. Deal?”

“Deal,” says McCormack.

“And get these goddamned handcuffs off me.”

We fly back to New York on a hot pink jet. I ask McCormack, “Why all the hot pink?”

He chuckles again. This guy either chuckles or uses a hammer in stressful situations. I am glad I have him chuckling.

“Hot pink is a manly color.”

“Okay then,” I reply and stare out of the window.

The flight is about two and half hours, so I decide to sleep the whole way in order to rejuvenate myself to find Taylor’s younger brother, the possible killer.

“It’s time to wake up, Sleeping Beauty, we have a long day ahead of us,” I hear Greg say.

I scream at him, “I’m getting up.” I get really cranky if I don’t wake up naturally.

“Pipe down, Princess.” Greg glares at me.

When we get off the private jet, it’s about seven o’clock — three days after the murder.  I am still dreaming about holding Taylor’s hand and being with her all the time, like we did when she was still alive. Oh how I miss Taylor. She was so beautiful.

A hot pink limo is waiting for us, which is probably the nicest limo I’ve ever been in, even though it is hot pink.  

Greg is talking to all of his mafia friends in Chinese so I can’t understand what he’s saying, which really bothers me because he could be talking about me the entire time, and I would have no clue what he is saying.

Then, a thought occurs to me. “What about the police? What are they doing about this investigation? Aren’t they coming after me?”

“Yes John, but I told them I would handle everything since there was no evidence that you killed her,” McCormack tells me in a reassuring voice.

“Oh well, that clears everything up about the police then.” The cops must be really dirty.

We’re at Greg McCormack Jr.’s house, which is pretty big, I have to say, for him being the only person who lives there. It’s in a really nice neighborhood; I think it’s the Upper East Side or something like that, but there’s definitely a lot of nice houses and apartments.

“What’s your son’s job?” I ask.

“He works in real estate.”

“Then why would he want to possibly kill Taylor?” I ask again.

“Because all of those funeral homes have great value, real estate-wise.”

“Well now, it all makes sense,” I say, getting out of the car. I press the buzzer for Greg Jr.’s apartment.

“Come in.” Seems like a nice guy. How could he commit a murder?

I know that everyone else is downstairs waiting in the limo or hiding right outside of the apartment, so I start talking.

“Hi, I’m John Flynn, and you must be Greg McCormack.”

“Yes, how do you know who I am?”

“I know your father very, very well,” I try to speak in the creepiest voice possible. I’ve never tried to intimidate anyone before. “I’m Taylor’s boyfriend, John.”

Greg turns paler than he already is. “What do you need or want with me?”

“I need to ask you a few questions, is that okay?” I ask, noting that he looks nothing like Taylor. He’s short and fat, just like his father, while Taylor was willowy and blonde.

“I guess so. Would you like to come in?” Greg Jr. gestures to the couches in his grand living room with floor to ceiling windows and a view of of the East River. Why does he want more than his fair share of what he already has?

I don’t sit down. I need to keep the upper hand. “Okay then, where were you the night that Taylor was murdered?”

“I was downtown at a bar.”

We were at a bar downtown as well. Had he been following us?

“Were you alone at the bar?”

“Yes, I was.”

“Where did you go after that?”

“I went up to Wall Street to look around.”

Oh shit! He was at Wall Street, and so were we. Things are getting a little creepy.

“My ex-wife is planning on moving there with my kid, and I wanted to see the building she is moving into.”

“What building is that?”

He takes a deep breath. “21 Wall Street.”

“Did you know that was Taylor’s building?”

“No,” Greg said in a really high pitched voice. “Not then!”

All of a sudden, glass is breaking, and Greg McCormack Jr. has just jumped out a window and landed on the limo. I really hope they caught him.  

“YOLO,”  I scream and jump out the window to chase after him. I feel like Batman. I know that Greg Jr. must have taken some fighting classes because his dad is in the mafia, so he must know something about fighting.  

Since he’s short and fat, I catch up to him really fast, and I mean really fast.  

I scream, “It’s over. Greg, it’s over! Stop running, you’re screwed either way.”

“Catch me if you can,” he says sprinting away. For a fat dude he can sure move it.

But then, I’m right next to him, and I tackle him so hard that he lands on the ground, and I hear a crack. All I see is blood coming out of both of us. I don’t know where at the time because I’m in shock that I actually tackled him, and that I won. I really, really, won.  

I hear loud moans from Greg Jr. and I’m just lying on the ground face up, thinking back to what I’ve done with myself these past few days.

I then look over to Greg, and he isn’t there anymore. That’s when I start to fear for my life.  I see a shadowy figure that looks just like the man in the windows.

That’s when I know Greg McCormack Jr. killed his sister, just for real estate purposes.  

“This is the end for you, John Flynn. Man up and fight me, and we’ll see who really deserves to die today,” I hear Greg say.

“Is that what you want, a fight? You shall receive the beating of your life!” I exclaim.

We are both in ready-position, trying to psych the other person out, but it would not work, whatsoever.  

“Come at me. Or, are you a pussy?”

I almost laugh. My life has gotten so ridiculous that someone is calling me stupid names.  

“No one calls me a pussy,” and that’s when I go all ape shit on his ass, and give him the beating he deserves.

Punch, kick, punch, kick, punch, kick, is all that happens for a while, until he blocks one of my kicks and throws me in the air like a rag doll. I land with a thump and hear a crack on my left shoulder. He’s broken my shoulder; he really has no mercy.  But since my uncle is a doctor, he taught me how to reset a shoulder back in place, and that’s exactly what I do.

“Is that all you got, Mr. Flynn?”

“No, I’m just getting started!” I exclaim.

The pain is unbearable, but I know that I have to take down Taylor’s killer because that’s what she would have wanted. I just have to think of killing him, and the pain starts to go away.

I get up and try to be like Batman, and start to fight just like him: catching and blocking all of the punches and kicks, throwing him on the ground over and over again, hearing cracks upon cracks, taking all of his fingers and breaking them one by one, and snapping his arms, legs, feet, and toes.  

Just when I start to punch him again, I hear a voice say, “Have mercy John, have mercy.” That voice is Greg’s.

“For you Greg McCormack Jr. you get no mercy.”

I start to punch his face, both sides, until he’s bleeding and about to pass out. Then, just as I’m about to snap his neck, I scream,“Any last words, you son of a bitch?”

“Fuck you, John Flynn, fuck you, and everyone in the world.”

I then say, “Goodbye, Greg McCormack Jr.”

Right after that, I take his head, bang it on the ground gently, and then snap his neck so hard that I could spin his head around like an owl. I have such a great feeling inside of me, a feeling of relief, that I am able to avenge Taylor by killing her killer. I hear the sound of hot pink limos and hearses pulling up to see what is going on. I tell Greg exactly what happened.

He is crying. “I’m disappointed that you killed my son, but you did what you had to do. So I forgive you.”

“Thank you, sir. Thank you so much for understanding.”

I see Li Na again, and I notice that she is a very sexy Chinese woman.

Li Na says, “Nice job killing the boss’s son. I never liked him anyways.”

“Thanks, I guess… It took a lot of work to actually kill him, but it was totally worth it.”

“True, true” she says.

I take her hands in mine and look into her eyes. They are a deep brown, just like mine. I take a deep breath.  

“Li Na, do you wanna come live with me and be together forever?”

“Ummm,” she says. “Let me think… Of course, a million times yes!”

I am so happy to know that she really likes me and that we can be together forever.

I then look again at the voice mail that Taylor sent me… “Yes.”

I remember the news reporter said that the witnesses said that the man proposed, but they didn’t hear a “yes” or “no.”  Then, I think the answer must have been yes. I did propose to her, and she said yes. Well that’s good to know, but she’s dead.  Now, I have Li Na to spend the rest of my life with.  

Somehow, one of the mafia members finds my BMW and brings it to me. Li Na and I drive off into the sunset back to my apartment.

A few days later, I return to work after the news clears everything up. Everyone is so happy to see me and tells me, “Sorry for your loss.”

It may sound stone cold, but I haven’t lose anything. I’ve gained confidence in myself and a badass new girlfriend. Everything is back to normal, just how I like it.

 

A New Beginning

In his dream, Brian was in the hospital, and he couldn’t move his arm. Gears whirred and metal scraped. Then, the room exploded, and he woke up.

The landscape around him was scorched and burned. Fires raged everywhere, buildings were decimated, steel destroyed. There was no sign of life anywhere.

Brian was shocked. What happened? He remembered living a normal life in the city, talking with his friends, until a bomb hit, and he lost his right arm. There was the hospital room, and then the replacement arm. And then, after weeks… nothing. He couldn’t remember past that. Where was his family? Were they dead? Or were they somewhere waiting? Reality cut through his dream and sleepiness.

Brian suddenly thought of the replacement arm, which had haunted him since he lost his organic one. It was made of coltan, steel, and tungsten. Synthetic muscles replaced the ones he lost, and gears functioned as joints. The doctor had programmed it to be exactly like a normal human arm, except much stronger and more resilient.

He didn’t know what to do. The number one thing he still wanted to know was what had happened. He needed to know what had happened before anything else.

Suddenly, Brian heard footsteps. He seemed to be outside, sitting on the ground. The ground was burnt, upturned, and there was no grass. A million thoughts raced through his mind, mostly about death. Brian grabbed a rock for a weapon and turned around. The footsteps got closer, and Brian desperately wanted to run away, but he needed to see who it was. Eventually, a figure came into view, and it was a young boy, just like Brian.

Brian stared and shouted, “Jack, what are you doing here? What happened? The hell is going on?! Where are Cooper and Henry?!”

Jack limped towards Brian and muttered, “You don’t want to know.”

When Brian was still living in the city, he had several friends, and one of them was Jack. Jack was full of energy, passionate, and loved playing guitar and heavy metal music. Now, it looked like he hadn’t slept in three days. His right leg had a cut, and his pants were stained with blood.

Cooper and Henry were also their friends, but they weren’t here. Brian asked Jack again, “Where are Cooper and Henry?!”

“I don’t know! They’re dead! Dead! Listen to me! Everyone’s dead!”

Jack sat down on the ground and told Brian everything that happened. The reason Brian lost his right arm was because a group of renegades, who were called the Outsiders because they did not live in the city, were determined to take over the city and claim it as their own. First off, the city was where the lucky people lived after World War III; as a result, people built new communities there. However, some did not take the chance to enter these new cities, so they were stuck in the wilderness. Eventually, while the cities grew, the Outsiders banded together and started their own community. Now, they were determined to take over the cities.

One day, the Outsiders flew over the city, dropping bombs and blowing up Brian’s arm.

After Brian received a metal arm, life remained normal for weeks. Then, the Outsiders launched a full blown attack on the city. It was living hell. Fighter jets destroyed the Control Center, and soldiers stormed the ground. The only reason Jack got away was because at the time, he was taking a walk outside and escaped the carnage.

Brian had been inside his house in the living room, the sturdiest part. All the wreckage fell around him. Then, a bomb hit ten yards away, and the force caused Brian to fly through the air. When he landed, his head hit a rock, causing his memory loss. Later, the Outsiders took over the Control Center and claimed this city as theirs. Brian and Jack were stuck outside, while the Control Center was the Outsiders’ to keep.

“So, we’re basically screwed now,” Jack finished up.

Brian stared into the distance. “Well, it’s probably better to die now than to risk being captured by the Outsiders. What do you have in mind?”

Jack thought for a bit and remarked, “Well, I don’t think suicide is a very healthy way to go down. Let’s keep on walking for a bit and see what we find.”

“That’s a stupid idea! We’re gonna die!”

“Better than committing suicide!”

Brian shoved Jack. “I’m not listening to your idea!”

Jack shoved Brian back, and they started fighting. Brian was very weak, but he had his new arm, so he easily overpowered Jack. However, while they were fighting, they came across a dead soldier’s body, and a piece of paper next to him. Paper was rare, as new ways of displaying information called holograms had been invented.

Brian pushed Jack on top of the soldier and saw the paper. He ignored Jack and studied it. It appeared to be some kind of map. Jack stood up and grabbed the map. Brian elbowed Jack with his robotic arm, and Jack went tumbling three feet away. Brian was impressed.

Well! This new arm is way cool!”

He picked up the paper.  It showed the city, the wilderness around it, and a mysterious path from the city to a triangle shaped building. Jack stood up, rubbing his ribs and wincing in pain.  

Brian showed Jack the map. “Hey, what do you think this is?”

Jack peered at the map and was silent for a few minutes. Eventually, he muttered, “I think we should go there.”

Brian exploded. “What the frickin’ hell are you talking about?! We are going to die soon! We have no resources, and you are fantasizing about doing idiotic things! Are you sure you didn’t hit your head on a piece of rubble?”

Jack sighed. “Brian, you might be right. However, if there’s one thing I want to see, it’s that triangle thing. If we die, at least we tried and saw the thing, or maybe we might even survive and get there! I know I’m sounding a bit cliché, but I wanna try. Either you come with me, or I go by myself. Either way, I’m going. And you can’t stop me.”

And Brian stood there, unable to think of anything to say.

***

They had been traveling for three days now, following the map. Their share of food, all from the dead soldier, was getting low now. All the way out there, the remnants of the city were becoming less and less. However, there was one thing bothering Brian. Where were all the bodies of the soldiers or anybody else? Did barely anybody die? It was all very confusing for Brian.

Jack was in front, staring at the map and trying to figure out where they were. Along the middle of the path, there were many rocks of all different sizes. From a far distance, all these rocks together looked like a rectangle. On the map, there was a rectangle next to the pathway, meaning Brian and Jack were at that area.

Jack looked up. “Hmm. On the map, there is some kind of rectangle formation made of stone. Brian, can you run back and see if this looks like a rectangle?”

Brian harrumphed, but sprinted back. Around 150 meters back, the rocks did look like a rectangle, and from even further distances, it was certain. Brian jogged back to Jack and told him, “Yeah, we’re here. Give me the map.”

Brian looked at the map, and the rectangle was next to the path.

He thought, If we’re at the rocks, then we have one-half of the path to go. That means around four more days. If only we could get more food somehow..

Over the next two days, the pair followed the map, keeping on track with other landmarks shown on the map.

By the end of the fifth day, they had no more food left. Jack kept on trekking along, while Brian wondered if his mechanical arm was wearing down. Brian had a fear that whenever he received anything new, he would wonder if it was breaking down. He always had this problem, but now it seemed to be overwhelming.

Brian knew this trip was suicide. However, hadn’t he asked for suicide? He wanted it and didn’t want it at the same time. Mind-boggling questions tortured Brian about life or death.

Suddenly, Jack shouted, “Brian! I found a dead soldier! He might have food with him like the last one!”

Brian sprinted towards Jack and saw a soldier lying sideways. He couldn’t see any sign of injury.

“Get some food quickly,” Brian instructed. “I’ll see if he has anything else that’s useful.”

While Jack collected food, Brian searched the soldier’s other pockets. After ten minutes, Jack had found dried fruit, water, crackers, cheese, chili with beans, spaghetti, and beef stew. Brian had discovered a knife, a pistol, and a flashlight.

That was all that they could carry, and they continued their journey.

***

On the seventh day, the triangle came into view. It was made of metal and was the only modern thing around. In front, there was a hole that lead inside. Brian and Jack approached it, and neither wanted to get any closer. They argued with each other, until Brian went first, holding the pistol, and then Jack. There was nobody inside, and stairs led to mysterious places. Brian wanted to get out but a man stepped into their view. He had black hair with tints of gray. He was smiling, tall, and seemed to be muscular. Brian screamed, and prepared to shoot when the man spoke.

“Wait! I see you have the map. Lucky! Well, follow me!”

Brian and Jack were bewildered. What was this place?

They walked down one staircase and entered a small theater with a screen. The man introduced himself.

“I am John, the leader of this operation, which is called Technology and Resistance Movement, or TARM. You’ll learn a lot here. But don’t worry. This isn’t a trap or anything.”

Brian was even more confused. What was going on?

The screen started playing a video, and Brian and Jack were intrigued. The screen showed videos of the city manufacturing the signature Outsider planes and vehicles. The city secretly transported the technology outside the walls, while telling everybody the Outsiders were a rebellious group. Then, the movie cut to the top leaders accepting money in exchange for doing what the Outsiders wanted. The leaders were bribed, and every time, they accepted it. Finally, the screen showed machines building a very strange shaped base in the wilderness, far away from any civilization. The leaders were entering the buildings along with other officials. The screen cut off, and darkness filled the room.

John spoke again. “The Outsiders are fake. The city is corrupt, and the leaders have a hidden base. Overall, that attack on the city was completely orchestrated by the city itself in order to destroy most of the city and restart the process.”

Brian stuttered, “Most of the city? We didn’t see any of the city left standing!”

“Well, the very middle has a cloaking device, therefore tricking anybody still alive into thinking the city was completely destroyed,” John replied.

Brian wanted to ask another question, but his brain was overloaded trying to process the other information. The Outsiders were fake?!

John kept talking. “Before the attack, we found out about it and sent everybody who wanted to live, here. You two probably didn’t hear about it, and you’re very lucky to have found the map leading here. Anyway, the real reason the leaders decided to attack the city was to reduce the population significantly and restart the city. They only wanted the elites to live with them, the people that they knew personally and could talk with, work with. They didn’t want those lower people who wasted food, money, time, and didn’t benefit the city. It’s a twisted form of a proper society. They did not think of all the lives that would be lost, or how the civilians would feel. They only knew of their own benefits.”

Deep inside Brian, something snapped. Then, shattered. And finally, disappeared. He had wondered where his family was. But now, he knew. They were dead.

“Our plan is to attack the leaders’ hidden base. It might seem crazy, but we have to do it.”

Jack spoke up. “That’s suicide! I don’t know whether this base is powerful, but we are severely underpowered! I saw no artillery or anybody else!”

“Not so fast hotshot, just wait and see.”

John led them into what seemed like the main chamber. It had a tile floor with many lights illuminating the area. On the walls, there were many racks of guns and weapons. The most amazing thing was that there were people. Around 200 people were milling about, doing their work. Brian was shocked. This many people had come here? He had no idea.

John said something into his radio and out came two boys. Immediately, Brian recognized them. They were Cooper and Henry!  They seemed to be stronger and tougher. Brian and Jack were shocked again, as both of them thought Cooper and Henry were dead. They bolted up to Cooper and Henry.

The pair laughed and said, “We have a lot to catch up on.”

***

Cooper had been trained in archery and basic sword fighting, while Henry had learned about running operations and analysis. Brian decided to learn how to take advantage of his metal arm, using its strength and its resilience. He became the best shot TARM had ever seen. Lastly, Jack trained in stealth and shotguns, and he could sneak up on anybody.

Eventually, TARM got ready to attack the hidden base after months of training. However, on the day of the attack, Brian fell down the stairs and sprained his ankle. Everybody was in shock. How could they defeat the city if one of their main attackers was out? Brian wasn’t this clumsy! Well, sometimes he tripped and didn’t watch where he was going, but he never fell down the stairs!

“Screw it, just go. It’s not that hard, is it? Besides, this will heal soon. Go!” Brian winced at the pain.

All the fighters boarded a helicopter-like transporter and took off. Henry, along with other intelligence officers stayed to monitor the battle and fire the heavy artillery. Brian received a healing accelerator and watched the battle through cameras. The second he saw the fighters get off the plane, Brian knew something was wrong. The ground was shaking, and no enemy soldiers came out to greet them. Then, it all happened.

***

On its way back, the transporter dropped onto the landing pad, just before the engines started smoking. The fighters slowly climbed out, some not even able to walk. The transporter had picked up all the soldiers they could from the battle and flown them back, sustaining heavy fire. Jack and Cooper were lucky, as they were not as injured. Henry and Brian, with his sprained ankle, rushed up to them, and started spewing questions at them. Nobody knew the leaders would be that ready and powerful.

Cooper sat down and sighed,“The base had a hidden weapon. Right after we got off the helicopter, the ground shook, and we all fell. The shaking got worse, and right when we thought it would never stop, it stopped. However, soldiers sprinted from the base, shooting their guns at us. Most of our soldiers were shot, but because we’re twelve and thirteen, they didn’t see us. Jack and I climbed back on the transporter with other soldiers, and we took off. So you see, they have a super-weapon. Brian, I knew we would need you!”

Brian was flattered. “Need me? What could I have done, except run around in circles? I’m not that useful!”

“Well, your arm doesn’t feel pain, so it could withstand the earthquake. Then, you could, um, well…”

“See! I couldn’t have done anything!”

The medical staff rushed to treat the wounded, while the group of friends went down the stairs into a fancy parlor. They sat in silence until Jack stood up and said, “Well, let’s get to work.”

***

The wind blew in Brian’s ears. The rifle on his back seemed heavier than normal. It had been seven months of training and retraining since the last battle. Henry was at TARM’s base, running ops as usual, while Cooper, Jack, and Brian, along with other soldiers, were on their way to a final assault on the base. They were riding the transporter. Since the first fight at the base, TARM had damaged the base with heavy artillery and spied on it with drones. It was now or never.

Brian was carrying a sniper rifle and a smaller, faster rifle. Cooper had his bow and different types of arrows. Lastly, Jack carried two different shotguns, all ready for use.

Suddenly, Henry’s voice crackled in their ears through their earpieces. “You ready for some action? Yeah, you are. Cannon control, standby. Three, two, one, fire!”

Back at TARM, heavy cannons were firing missiles and rockets at the hidden base. They flew past the helicopter, leaving a trail of smoke and plasma. There had been a breakthrough of engineering when the United States was still intact, the time before the cities rose.

The leader’s base lit up, then partly exploded. Many of their anti-aircraft guns were destroyed, leaving an opening for the transporters.

Brian called Jack and Henry over and shouted over the wind, “Alright, let’s go over the plan. A, drop in front and just attack. B, flank from the left. C, come from the right, enter the base, and deactivate security. D, drop from behind, picking off whatever is left, move into the base, and confront those leaders. You ready?!”

Jack and Cooper both replied, “Yup!”

Soon, they were in range of the base. The pilot screamed, “We’re taking too much flak! Brian! Shoot the AA guns!”

Brian unslung his sniper rifle. It was made of wood, like a hunting rifle. However, inside, there were plasma magnets that powered the bullet, making it a very effective weapon. He aimed at an anti-aircraft gun and fired. The bullet flew through the air and ripped the cannon into shreds.

With the gun destroyed, there was time to land and get all the soldiers off. When the transporter was fifteen feet above the ground, Brian, Jack, and Cooper jumped off. From another helicopter, Squad D also landed. Out in front, A was busy soaking up the front line of defense and distracting the base’s soldiers. B was picking off the edge of the the soldiers, while C was fighting to get in the base.

Brian screamed to Jack and Cooper, “Alright, let’s go!!”

Jack grabbed one of his shotguns, a modern, black, and metal one. It was partly plasma-powered, which was even more devastating. Cooper’s bow used a machine to help pull the string, and had many types of arrows, like explosives, EMP, electricity, and scatter arrows.

The ground had already been marred with the signs of war, and mangled bodies lay motionless. Brian immediately turned away and tried not to vomit.

D Squad sprinted forward into the fray of battle, and instantly, a few soldiers went down. Brian had come into this battle unwilling to kill anybody, but when he saw his fellow fighters die, he knew he had to do it. Ignoring his sniper rifle, Brian unslung his smaller, fully-automated rifle, which was also plasma-powered, and fired at an enemy soldier. The bullet flew straight through his helmet and entered his head. Brian looked away and tried not to think that he killed someone.

Jack was busy sneaking off, using his stealth to his advantage, while Cooper was shooting all types of arrows. High in the sky, two orange-ish orbs were falling down.

Brian cursed and screamed at Cooper, “Hey! Two bomb-things are falling from the sky! We better run!”

Cooper and Brian bolted far away from the orbs, and when they hit the ground, most of D Squad was gone. Brian felt broken. This was going to fail. His despair turned into fury as he set his sights on another enemy soldier and fired. He fired again. After he had run out of bullets in one clip, around thirty soldiers had fallen, the number of bullets in a clip.

Cooper chose an explosive arrow and shot it through a window, straight at a group of enemy soldiers. Suddenly, right after it exploded, Jack spoke over the line.

“Aww, Cooper! I was sneaking up behind them. They would’ve been really surprised! Anyway, come over to me. I’ve got to show you something.”

Cooper and Brian ran past a few buildings, but were blocked by another building.

Cooper said to Brian, “Well, we could blow that door off, or-”

“Nah. I’ll just punch it.”

Brian used his metal arm to completely punch the door off its hinges. “See? Much more efficient.”

The whole base wasn’t one building. It was a complex of many other buildings leading to the main one. When they reached Jack, Henry screamed in their ears, “Incoming enemy fighter jets! I’m firing the long range missiles.”

The jets flew over the battle, dropping bombs and causing destruction. A bomb hit fifteen yards away, the explosion knocking the trio into a wall. Then, several missiles came screaming towards the jets, destroying them, creating great explosions that lit up the sky.

Meanwhile, three platoons of enemy soldiers started firing at the group and the thirty friendly soldiers. Brian cursed and ducked beneath rubble. Bullets flew over him, making him feel safe, until someone tossed a grenade at him. Brian panicked, until he remembered he had a metal arm that could withstand gunfire. He grabbed the bomb and threw it high and far. It landed in the middle of the platoon, and exploded. Soldiers scattered, screaming, while TARM soldiers took the chance and started shooting. Cooper fired electric arrows, while Jack pumped lead. Brian fired also, turning the ambush around.

Just when it seemed TARM had won, more enemy soldiers arrived. Brian and Jack were hysterical. However, Cooper remained calm. He took an explosive arrow and blew up the soldiers. Again, Brian mowed down dozens of soldiers, reloading and reloading again. Finally, there were no more enemy soldiers.

Henry spoke again. “Everybody except C, head towards A. They’re having trouble. C, keep on trying to get in.”

Jack, Cooper, and Brian rushed to A, where tons of enemy soldiers had pinned down A. Brian, along with everybody else, unloaded their weapons into their targets. After they had finished, Henry came over the line.

“Well, all the outside soldiers have been killed. Now, all of you, attack the base and get inside. C has already weakened them. Go!”

The base stood high and tall, even after the battle. It was silver, metal, and gleaming. It was shaped like a circle, round and able to be defended everywhere.

The D leader planted a charge on the outside, which created a hole in the wall. Gunfire followed, and the whole D Squad was dead. Brian ripped a grenade from a soldier’s belt, and tossed it in the base. He threw two more. After they exploded, the firing stopped, and Brian shot down nine more soldiers.

He signaled to Jack and Cooper that it was safe, when all of a sudden, a bullet hit his metal arm, bouncing off. In the base, very high up, protected by metal and forcefields, a lone sniper stood. Brian rolled to the side, and using the infrared option of his scope, detected him. It would be a very hard shot, even for him, as a metal bar blocked most of his view. Brian aimed at the assailant’s left hand and fired.

The man dropped, his rifle falling. Brian fired again for good measure, and the trio ran into the base. Once again, five platoons of enemy soldiers lined up.

Jack sighed and groaned, “Again?!”

Brian grinned. “Last time. I know it.”

***

They had cut through the base’s soldiers, albeit running low on resources. Brian only had ten bullets left, Cooper had five arrows, and Jack, seven shells. Brian contacted TARM, saying that all the soldiers were dead.

When they responded, he expected it to be Henry, but it was John. “Nice work there. I’m sending you a map of the place, and we’ve located the leaders. They would be the red dots. Get to them, and do whatever you want. However, get some information from them first. Oh, and this is to everybody. Out.”

The trio, followed by all the TARM soldiers, made their way to the leader’s secret room. On the way, there were a few enemy soldiers left, but they were killed instantly. When they reached the room, the door was locked, but this was nothing guns couldn’t fix.

The room was rectangular and the size of a football field. Inside, computer monitors lined the room. Graphs displayed the city, and many other ones too. It was all white, modern, and sterile. The holograms seemed almost real, while the leaders did not. They were all pale, with dread on their faces. All the TARM soldiers pointed their weapons at them, until one pressed a button. Plasma guns appeared from the walls and started shooting. Brian’s fully-auto rifle, Cooper’s bow, and Jack’s shotguns were ruined. Brian raised his metal arm, which very luckily, blocked a bolt flying towards his face and blocked lots more.

Eventually, the plasma guns were destroyed, thanks to the other soldiers, and the leaders were dragged out. Except one. He was the Head, and it was the trio that were to deal with him. He had been shot in the arm.

“You! You killed our families, destroyed our lives! Who are you?” Brian shouted.

“So?”

Cooper grabbed his last arrow, a normal one, and thrust it into the Head’s arm. “How about now? Explain!!”

He winced from the pain. Only then did Brian realize how ugly he looked. Dark hair, freckles, a scar on his face, a crooked nose. How surprising for a man who had everything.

He replied, “Still no.”

Brian stepped up and punched the Head in the face.

“Now?”

The man cleared his throat. “The world was already ruined. I had made a new utopia, the city, where we lived in peace! But you poor people that contributed nothing kept stealing our resources we worked hard for! You are a disgrace!”

The group didn’t understand. They were thinking of more ways to hurt him when Brian remembered the sniper rifle on his back. He unslung it and aimed at the Head’s stomach. “Explain more!”

“I was building a new community with people that helped society! You’ll never understand!” The Head was hysterical now, spittle between his lips. “Why don’t you die! You ruined my plans!! I hate you!!!”

He seemed to be losing control, going insane. “You all will die! Along with me!” The Head pressed a button on the wall, committing suicide. His body flopped on the floor with no control.

Suddenly, the whole base started to shake. The commander of A screamed, “We need to get out of here, fast!”

Everybody ran out of the base just before the whole thing cracked in half and blew up. It looked like an orange and red orb had surrounded the base, then, erupted. Pieces of metal flew into the sky, and the orb launched itself into the air, and split apart. The transporter was there, waiting for them, as part of the orb was falling towards them.

When they were running out, Brian noticed the leaders on the floor, crawling with blood around them. It disturbed him greatly.

On the way back to TARM, everybody congratulated each other on a mission well accomplished, but Brian stayed separate. The Head’s last words haunted him,I was building a new community with people that helped society! I hate you! You will die!”

On the ride back, Brian conferred with Jack, Henry and Cooper.

“I think he hated poor people so much, that he wanted a perfect world without any of us. Nothing was going to stop him,” Jack said.

“No. I don’t think he wanted anything.” Henry smirked. “He was just mentally retarded and insane!” He burst out laughing through the earpieces.

Cooper shook his head. “Nah. I think he was smart, but insane, and it twisted his view of the world so much. He actually thought he was right.”

Brian spoke last. “Well, I agree with Cooper. Before, he was normal and benevolent, but he became insane, resulting in a goal that he never accomplished.”

When they arrived at TARM, everybody cheered. The lights became strobe lights, and a party started. Brian and his friends stood in a corner, insulting each other and trying to beat each other up like normal teenagers. It was hilarious.

After two months, TARM had set about building a new base in a spot closer to natural resources. They decided on a democracy and not to follow in the city’s footsteps. Building was easier, and new technology existed to help. Holograms depicted exactly what to do.

***

Brian was skipping rocks, and it was frustrating. It had become harder somehow. He liked being out in nature. Even after the new base was built, he still went outside. He thought it connected with his days of finding the previous TARM base, and staying there. While he had stayed there, it felt like it was part of nature, a sanctuary to help the wounded. Now, the new base was modern, without the feeling of nature. He had looked for a replacement, until Brian settled on Nature herself.

Brian thought it symbolized something. His new arm with nature. New with old. Suddenly, his friends came. They screamed, “Brian! Come! Let’s party!”

Brian smiled. And he ran with them.

The Girl in the Portrait (Excerpt)

It was a lovely time. Haughty parties with the best orchestras, delicacies from every corner of the world, dapper suits with a ridiculous amount of accessories, fancy dresses with at least ten petticoats. She had a lovely life. At the top of her selfish society, free to bully and ridicule anyone she chose with no consequences.

The party, too, was lovely. Her seventeenth birthday celebration was by far the most extravagant party the small, rich town had ever seen. Everything about the town, the girl, and her party was ideal. She had the kind of life free of hardships that nearly everyone at that time, or anytime, might kill for. And on that lovely night, someone did.

***

The whole town has forgotten about it. It happened so long ago that the death of the girl who’d lived here before us has been long forgotten. But there is her portrait on the wall of her family’s old mansion, turned into an art museum by my mom. As I stare up at it, I can’t help but wonder what happened to her all those decades ago.

“Lucas? Why are you just staring at that old painting? I know it’s late, but you have to get back to work,” Mom scolds me. I jump. I hadn’t realized she’d been standing there.

“Who is that?” I ask, looking up at the girl’s sleek black hair and narrowed hazel eyes. Mom groans.

“You’ve not heard of her? Honestly, Lucas, I gave you that computer for research. Haven’t you learned anything about your own town?” Mom says, exasperated. “This is Adelaide Bellamy, daughter of Augustus Bellamy. Hopefully, you at least know he founded your new town.”

I look back up at Adelaide, and our eyes seem to meet. “What did she do?”

Mom sighs. “She probably would have married and taken over the town, but… well, she was, uh, murdered when she was your age. You know, I think it happened in the ballroom right over there, but they never found out who did it.”

I stare at her in disbelief. “Wait, so she died in this house? Why didn’t you tell me, Mom?”

How could something so horrible happen to someone like that? Why did it happen? Despite how creepy it is, my curiosity is instantly spiked. Mom just shrugs.

“Because, Luke. You’d constantly be looking for ghosts instead of doing your chores, and we can’t have that, right? Now, go back to work.”

I nod distractedly, turning back to face the portrait. Adelaide’s painted eyes are so alive. It makes the fact that she’s been dead for over a century even more disturbingly intriguing. Such a fascinating color. Who would want to kill someone so pretty?

“Luke!” Mom barks.

I jump. “Jeez, Mom, I’m going. Calm down!” I snap, stalking off to the old ballroom.

I plan to finish cleaning this or hanging that, I really do. But I am too distracted by how someone died in this very room. I sit on the stage, wondering exactly what had happened. There had probably been a party or gala. I can almost see Adelaide dancing around the shiny marble floor.

“Lucas! Honestly, I know you’re tired, but we’ve gotta get this place open tomorrow! Stop. Thinking. About. Adelaide.” Mom yells, snapping her fingers in front of me. I blink a few times and realize Mom has probably been standing there for a while.

“What are you talking about?” I ask, going over to straighten a frame. “I am not thinking about the dead girl. I’m working!”

She sighs. “Yeah, yeah. If you are doing it now, I suppose it’s alright.” Mom grumbles.

For the rest of the night, I go around the rooms with her and clean everything. Before I go to bed, I take one last glance at Adelaide.

“What happened to you?” I mutter.

She stares at me, silent and still.

 

My Movie is as Red as the Devil

Movies. They were my life. My life was based on movies; it was how I made a living. In fact, I was quite famous. Why? Movies, obviously.

“And the nominees for the best comedy are…” The announcer said. Then my mind clicked. I squirmed in the plush red velvet seat. This was what I’d been waiting for all night.

“Anabel! It’s almost time!” I whispered.

“The LOL movie!” Applause. Wow. What an original name. All I can infer is that it’s really funny. But really, how funny is it?

“Adultified Sesame Street!” Applause. Ew. How can you make Sesame Street for adults?

“The People Movie!” Applause. Well, you can tell so much about the movie from this name. All movies are about people.

“My Life is as Red as a Devil!” Applause. That’s my movie! Yay!

“The Zinczinczinc movie!” applause. Zinczinczinc? What type of name is that? What is this about? I wouldn’t want to watch this. I guess it’s fun to say.

“These all sound like really good movies. It’s going to be really hard to choose,” Anabel told me. I sighed.

“Even The People Movie?” I asked.

“Lilly, give each movie a chance!” Anabel reasoned, “Have you seen any of these movies besides your own?”

“No…” I trailed off.

“Lilly…” Anabel sighed.

“Ooh! They’re announcing it!” I whispered.

“And the Oscar award for the best comedy goes to…” the announcer went on, “My Life is as Red as a Devil!!!”

I gasped. Anabel and I silently screamed. That’s me! I just won the award! Well, that was unexpected. I went up to go say my speech.

“Slay the speech, Lilly!” Anabel told me, and gave a thumbs up.

Why am I so nervous? I am seen all the time online as a movie director, so why should I be nervous? Maybe it’s because I’m so young. I’m 20 at the moment, so I’m probably the youngest director here. This is also my first time here.

Lilly Bucuar, you are not a scaredy cat. You can do this.

I stepped up onstage. I cleared my throat.

“Hi,” I said into the microphone, “It’s a wonderful honor just to be here today. Thank you all who supported me. First, mom and dad –– you have inspired me so much, and told me never to give up on my dreams. To my friend, Anabel –– you always supported my work. And finally to the whole cast of my Life is as Red as a Devil- you al—”

I started coughing. Choking. Where was the water? I kept coughing.

“Water please,” I managed to croak out between coughs. Didn’t they have common sense? When someone is choking, you get them water! You don’t just leave them there to choke and get sent to the hospital because they’ve been coughing for so long!

“Oh! Sure! Ms. Bucuar!” One of the people on stage said.

While they were getting me water, apparently I fainted. AAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH! Help! Now I’ll be known as weak and afraid. Well, I’m not! The crowd gasped. I have no idea what happened in the five minutes I was out.

Suddenly, a splash of cold water hit my face.

“Oh!” I said, surprised, “It’s cold!” Maybe I said it a little too loudly. The crowd snorted, trying not to laugh. Well, it is the Oscar for the best comedy, but I’M NOT COMIC RELIEF!! I’m a movie director. Or I was last time I checked, which happened to be ten minutes ago.

I stood up. My dress was soaked, and sticking to me. The crowd burst out laughing. My face got red. Tomato red.

I ran offstage to cry in a corner. No more movie directing for me until I can speak in public. Even if I get nominated for an Oscar again, my face will hopefully not be as red as the devil onstage the second time around.

The Boy and the Dog

A boy has a birthday and turns thirteen. His parents tell him he needs to grow up and start making smart decisions and that he will be treated more like an adult from now on. He went to summer camp at the YMCA and comes home and the lights are off. When he walks in, a bunch of people pop out from behind the door, out from the back room, and from under the table. They all yell “Surprise!” After he realizes what happened, he asks if he has gifts or food. He finds out he has just one. They go to the back and bring out a big box with his name on it. He walks over and looks at it as if there is something curious about it, so he opens it. He reaches inside and pulls out a fuzzy creature and it turns out to be a small dog, a puppy.

He says, “Well, aren’t you the cutest little thing?” Then he turns to his parents and asks if it’s a boy or a girl and his mother says it’s a boy.

After a few weeks of having his now grown puppy, he has grown accustomed to feeding, walking, and cleaning it. They grow to be companions. That has helped with the little problems that he has had in past because he used to steal from peoplepick-pocketing.

But he knows that he needs to be a new boy when his mother says, “You need to grow up.” He knows that means he has to start making smarter decisions so he has more options than stealing.

After he wakes up on a cloudy Sunday he eats two waffles from his toaster and his puppy walks up to his chair. “Oh boy, you wanna go out for a little walk?” he says.

So they go outside and walk a few blocks down to the subway station. They walk down planning on filling his MetroCard, but the boy gets sidetracked by someone who is very unorganized and suddenly he has an urge. It is an urge he hasn’t felt in a while after he got his friend. He looks at his dog, but it isn’t enough. He follows the person a little bit behind and ends up getting on the train not looking at the entire situation he was in.

Meanwhile, up above the station he just left, there is a street vendor with hot dogs and other meats with a smell that you can sense a mile away. The dog quickly perks up looking in that exact direction. He pulls but his leash is tied to the metro station pole. It doesn’t budge, so he turns and starts chewing. But it starts to rip at the biting point so the dog pulls harder and it gets close to breaking so he bites and pulls and at one second it snaps and the jolt mixed with the force of him pulling sends him straight into the legs of people. He quickly turns and goes straight up the stairs and starts barking at the food. He realizes he can’t get any and he gets sidetracked by all the cars, people, and noises. He just runs, luckily not in the road, down the sidewalk past all the new people.

The boy does not get to the person in time so he walks back to the subway where he left. But when he gets back, he is surprised to see the half-chewed up leash and he immediately looks down the whole subway thinking the worst, that the small dog had fallen down in the tracks and couldn’t get up.

But, he gives a sigh of relief to see that there was no sign of a dog in the tracks so he goes to the closest stranger, a man in a black business suit and asks, “Sorry to interrupt, sir, but my dog chewed through his leash not to long ago. Did you happen to see him?”

The man thinks for a second and says, “When I was walking down the right side of the stairs, and a small dog with a small gold coat of fur ran up the stairs.”

***

When he comes back home, his mom is waiting. “Where have you been?” she asks.

“I was out walking the dog,” he says.

His mom asks where the dog was and the boy says he left him out in backyard because he was still using the bathroom. He goes to bed, but he does not sleep at all knowing that the dog could be dead or worse. This is the worst feeling in the world.

First thing in the morning, he wakes up to start the search of his missing dog which meant he goes back to the subway. He sees people. He asks them, “Have you seen my dog? The dog is gold and small.”

“No,” says the people.

He goes home.

“Where is the dog?” says his mom.

“He is in his room,” says the boy.

The boy makes fliers with the dog’s picture on it. He takes them out the next day and puts them on the walls. He put his phone number on the flier.

The boy goes home and waits for someone to call him. No one calls him for a while. He looks for the dog again on the sidewalk and on the street.

The boy goes back home and finds dog hair in his house. He looks at the hair and tries to find where the hair is going. The hair is going down to his basement. He walks downstairs and it smells like dog. He has an unfinished basement. It’s just concrete and there is no furniture, just storage space.

He sees the boiler room and there is another door. He looks in it. His dog is inside of it.

“Jason,” says the boy. He pets his dog. He is embarrassed because he knows he has been telling his mom that he knew where his dog was while the whole time she knew where it was.

Later in the day, his mom says, “Your dog found his way home.”

  

Chess

It was an average Saturday morning. The two brothers, Jamie and James, stared out of their window in the wealthy suburb of Pleasantville, Chicago. They could hear the birds chirping and flying gracefully from tree to tree. They could see their massive lawn and the sprinklers shooting water.

“Jamie,” the older brother at age twelve said, “come on, James, let’s go downstairs and get some breakfast.”

Jamie looked old. He had dark brown hair and brown eyes, and he had a faint caterpillar esque mustache and a small nose. He was rather tall for his age, around 5 10” and very skinny.

James who was Jamie’s complaisant nine year-old brother, replied, “Okay Jamie.”

James was tall like Jamie, but he didn’t look or seem older. He had a very high pitched voice with chubby cheeks, and he was always around his mom. All of the kids at Chicago Academy Private School for Extremely Gifted and Talented Students would make fun of James and call him a “momma’s boy.”

Unlike James, who was often the butt of the jokes among his group of friends, Jamie was incredibly popular. Though he was just in seventh grade, he was invited to most high school parties. Everyone knew Jamie Jenkins at C.A.P.S.E.G.T.S.

The two brothers went downstairs to the kitchen. Both boys look very confused. It was 9:07 a.m. and usually their mom, Julia, was downstairs at 6:15 a.m. on weekdays and 8:00 a.m. on weekends making a suitable meal for the two hungry boys and their father Clyde.

Julia Jenkins was only thirty seven years-old. She had dirty-blonde hair and large blue eyes. She was about average sized. She looked much younger than her age. She was very beautiful. Julia was from a small town in Oklahoma. She never went to college and instead became a housewife when she was just twenty three years-old.

Clyde Jenkins was the son of a wealthy businessman from Chicago. Clyde was fifty seven years-old and he owned part of Coca-Cola as well as a part of the Chicago Cubs baseball team. He worked very hard for his family and was rarely home at night. When he was home he was usually sleeping. His own kids barely knew him.

The boys were slightly disappointed that there was no breakfast, but they were more worried, where was their mom? They ran back up the steps and into their parents room. Usually Clyde got annoyed whenever his kids went into his room, but this was a slight emergency. Jamie pulled the large brass handle and hesitantly opened the door. The boys looked in and saw their father and mother engaging in some strange activity chess. Not once had either of them seen their parents up playing chess.

“Good morning boys,” Clyde said as he moved a pawn.

Each boy responded, “Hi, Dad.”

“Boys, I just purchased this new chess board from some antique store,” Clyde said in his Chicago businessman accent, “draw.” Clyde said.

Jamie and James looked down at the chess board and saw that sure enough, two kings were left sitting on the board. Suddenly, a bright light from the board shone around their parents.

“What’s happening?” screamed Julia.

Both of them flattened out and were sucked into the chessboard in a matter of seconds. The brothers could hear them screaming in the distance and then they were gone. Silence. At first the boys looked plain confused. They knew not of what had happened, why it had happened or how it had happened.

Then after about three minutes of silence, James said in a sad yet puzzled tone, “Where’s Mom and Dad?”

“I have no darn clue.” James said.

“James, we’re going to find where this board was made, how it works, and how we get Mom and Dad back.” Jamie said.

James looked very frightened of the chessboard. He stood close to the door while Jamie moved the two kings off of the board and on to his parents bed along with the rest of the pieces. Then, Jamie picked up the board.

As he picked it up Jamie grunted. The board was unexpectedly heavy considering it wasn’t particularly big in size. It had a very nice finish on the sides where there were two handles carved that looked like dragons. On the top of the chessboard, where the actual game was played, Jamie could see that each square was made of a very fine marble 32 black and 32 white squares. He turned the chessboard over to see the bottom and on the bottom there was a sticker that read, “Agnes’ Antiques.

“Bingo,” Jamie said.

“What?” Replied James.

“I found the place that sold this thing to Dad. We should go there and ask the shopkeeper about this thing,” Jamie said in an impatient tone.

“I mean, are you sure? We’re just two kids…alone,” James said.

“James, shut up,” said Jamie, “we are going to this antique store.”

Jamie said, “Put your shoes on.”

“Okay Jamie,” James replied obediently.

James laced up his checkered Vans, a Christmas present from his father. He could not stop thinking about his parents. Would he ever see them again?

Then, James started to cry.

While James was crying, Jamie carefully packed each chess set. He put the pieces in a shoebox of his new Kobe’s. Jamie never threw shoe boxes out because they always could be put to good use for something. He put the chess board in a Trader Joe’s bag. Then he double bagged it, and then he triple bagged it. The board was very heavy and he did not want it to break. This chess board had just taken his parents INSIDE of it and he did not know what else it could or would do. Jamie wasn’t about to be taking chances with something he knew so little about.  

As he walked down the stairs and into the family mudroom, Jamie could see James crying. “James, I know it’s hard, but there is a chance that we CAN get Mom and Dad back. But, only if we learn more about this chess board at the antique store,” Jamie said.

Jamie was really good at comforting James. James felt that Jamie was the only one around his age who could empathize with him.

“Now, make yourself useful and carry the pieces,” Jamie said playfully as he handed him the shoe box.

“Okay,” James said. He stopped crying and took the shoebox from Jamie.

James was the type of kid to cry or get mad and then stop, forget about it and go back to his normal self about three minutes later.

The two brothers walked outside of their large house. A couple rain droplets trickled on each of the boys’ heads.

“Look, James, a squirrel,” Jamie said.

“Where? Where?”James asked and panicked. He was afraid of squirrels ever since one bit him when he was six.

“Made you look,” laughed Jamie.

“That’s not funny,” James said as he punched Jamie on the arm.

Though it didn’t hurt, Jamie started grabbing his arm and said,”oww, James, I’m gonna sue you.”

The brothers walked down a small stone staircase and into their driveway. There were two empty cars sitting outside of the garage, the Land Rover and the Audi. They walked on to the street.

Jamie paused. “Hold up James, I have no idea where Agnes Antiques is, I need to google maps it.” said Jamie.

James placed the chess pieces in the shoebox down extremely carefully. “I found the route, it’s a twenty minute walk. I can get our rain coats from inside,” said James, “I think that it might rain harder as time progresses.”

James ran inside and picked up the two raincoats, Jamie’s was blue and James’ was orange with green polka-dots.

“Thanks James,” Jamie said as he grabbed his raincoat.

Each of the brothers picked up their stuff, James the pieces and Jamie the board. They walked through Pleasantville. On their block there were just large suburban homes. They crossed street after street, and avenue after avenue. The boys got lost for some time, but they found their way back. They eventually ended up in Agnes’ Antiques, though it was not a twenty minute walk.

They entered the shop, and it was quite cramped and dusty with old books on the shelves. There were old plates, coffee mugs, and utensils. Anything old one could find in this store.

“Agnes Antiques, how can I help you boys,” a man said.

James started to back away from the man while Jamie did the talking.

“Hello sir, our father recently purchased this chess board from your store,” Jamie pulled the chess board out and pointed at it, “ it sucked our parents into it, could you tell us a little more about it?”

“Ahh yes,” the man said.

He was average size and looked rather old with spectacles and a white mustache.

“Well this here chessboard has a lot of history,” said the man, “back in the Eleventh Century, this chess board was made for King Richard the IV. He loved chess. He loved playing with this chess board so much that he wouldn’t do anything else. His wife didn’t like this. So, to punish him, she told a sorcerer to cast a spell on Richard. The sorcerer did, he wasn’t too fond of the king either. King Richard was transported into the game. He was playing as white in his last game of chess, so he became the white king in the game. Nobody in the real world knew where he went. However, the sorcerer didn’t just curse the king, he cursed the chessboard. Anyone who played with this board and won or drew was transported into the game to fight in the war between the white knights and the black nights,” the man said.

“Why didn’t you tell my father of this?” Jamie yelled in rage.

“Good question. I did tell him this, however he said that it was complete nonsense. Look what happened,” the man replied.

Jamie was mad and James was scared. How could this man sell this knowing that it could trap people in it’s own world?

“Can we get them back?” asked Jamie.

“The game is complex. To start the war, each team needs an equal number of knights, and right now it seems that there are two spots left to fill on white,” the man said.

“Well,” Jamie said, “We can do this, I’ll play James and he’ll be trying to lose, and you’ll play James and purposely lose to him.”

“Sounds perfectly fine,” said the old man. He was a pretty nice guy and he wanted to help these kids get their parents back, even though the father was so rude to him.

“I have one question though,” said Jamie, “what will happen when the war is over?”

“Nobody knows for sure, but I have a strong belief that every survivor is transported back to the real world. Can you imagine? People have waited a little over 1,000 years to get out of there. You two have the ability to do this,” the man said.

Game one began: Jamie black vs. James white. James, who hadn’t said a word this whole time, was scared of the old man and of the board. Jamie started off by moving his pawns and having James capture them, it was working. Then James got his Rooks, then his Knights, Bishops, Queens, and then Jamie was left to just his King. James had nearly all of his pieces. Then, he took the King with his Rook. Any second now, the game was over and James braced himself for the worst feeling in the world. Nothing happened. He looked around the room in a confused state. Then, suddenly, the light came. It flattened James out to a pancake and sucked him in. Jamie and the man could hear his screams and it gave Jamie goosebumps down his spine.

The man slowly walked over to the table in which they had been playing. It was an old table made of wood and had red decorations around the edges. He sat down and wished Jamie the best of luck. He was even more scared than when he saw James going into the world. Jamie was white and the old man was black. Jamie easily won in about four minutes he used to play for his school chess team. Then, unlike James who waited about thirty seconds to be transported, Jamie was taken right away, flattened out and sucked into the board. The old man covered his eyes and Jamie was gone.

He knew now not to make the mistake of putting this out for sale. Even if he labeled it “cursed chessboard,” people would still buy it. He put the chess board in the back, he took the delicate pieces and smashed them with a nearby hammer. Now nobody could be trapped in the game because the ordinary pieces wouldn’t work. Also, those in the game who survived could get out because the board was still there.                       

END OF PART I

Shells

Sometimes I wonder if I live in a world of shells.

 

Chapter 1

Where is the soul? How can it be found? What if… it isn’t there?

There are soulless people all around me. Look around and you will find them, too. Like my best friend, Bianca. She’s nice. If you cry, she’ll come over and hug you, and if you get a better grade on a test than her, she’ll still congratulate you. She’s funny, and cracks jokes whenever I’m feeling down. She likes songs, but isn’t the kind of prissy girl who loves makeup and boy bands.

But she doesn’t really understand me if I ask her to define what love means to her, or if I try to explain to her why it would be natural for someone in war to truly want to die for others. She just doesn’t comprehend.

Even if I try talking about these serious matters with my teacher, she doesn’t really understand. These people lack something in them, it seems, something that would enable them to discuss with me what’s really going on in the world, and what life really is about. They just want to talk with me about the latest song that came out, or the importance of knowing what happened on the Lewis and Clark expedition.

 

Chapter 2

We each have an inner self and an outer self.

I think everyone has an outer self that hides their true thoughts and feelings. At least I do. The outer self protects the soul so that the misty dreams and hopes inside a person can be shielded from reality. My soul contains my deepest thoughts, hopes, memories; it is where I philosophize about the world.

My friends don’t hide their true feelings and thoughts from me. They come and ask me for advice, and we cry and laugh together. But somehow I sense that it’s only their outer self I see.

Bianca’s deepest worry at the moment could be an upcoming test in math. She’s completely hopeless at it. My teacher’s deepest worries could probably be more relevant. Maybe it is war in the Middle East, police shootings, or a loved one dying. But neither of them ever show a hint of their inner self, no matter how close I may be to them. Their thoughts, and worries, and feelings consist of what is related to their lifestyle. They don’t question and organize everyday things that happen in the cycle of life; they just take it for granted. None of them care why someone would want to start shooting someone else, they only want to stop it. People are too obsessed with business and their lifestyles to think about the broader and yet more important subjects in this world.

 

Chapter 3

2+2=4.

But the more I reveal my true self to them, the more confusing they become.

At lunch today I asked Bianca, “What do you think your soul looks like?”

She laughed and told me she doesn’t believe in that nonsense. Then she hugged me and changed the subject to the math test and asked me to tutor her. I sighed, and began to drill her on percentages. But was math really more important than trying to understand what the soul is at that very moment? It’s as if she doesn’t have a soul, or an inner self. It’s as if she is just a shell.

 

Chapter 4

The worst feeling is the feeling of being alone.

I am running, chasing Bianca. She is gaining more and more distance on me. “Wait!” I shout.

“No,” she yells back. “Wierdo!”

I feel a sharp pang in my heart and my vision blurs as tears fall fast on the ground.

My room swirls into view as I open my eyes and realize it was all a dream. My eyes are wet, and I am drenched in sweat. A bird chirps outside, and my heart stops beating so fast. But I am still troubled. I remember my conversation with Bianca yesterday. Does she think I’m weird? No, I think, but I am still trembling.

 

Chapter 5

Different is a crime.

Normally, English prompts are fun and easy, something I can analyze and maybe show some of my inner self in. But this time, it’s hard. I stare at the prompt: Who are you?

It is a good question, but a question that is difficult to answer. I remember what Bianca had said only yesterday. “I wish I could be you. You’re smart and nice and generous, and just plain awesome.” I had thanked her. Should I trust her judgment?

Another memory penetrates my mind. Bianca and I were in a project group with a group of boys. They were playing with cards instead of working.

“Give them to me,” I thundered, holding out my hand. “NOW,” using my best “don’t mess with me” voice, and flipping my hair back sophisticatedly. My eyes flashed as the boys cowered under my unending gaze.

I remember Bianca was so surprised. “Whoa,” she had told me, eyes large like two suns. “I didn’t know you could be so… mad and… mean, but not in a bad way,” she added quickly.

“Yeah, I can be like that.” I told her nonchalantly.

She gave me a startled look. “Weird,” she muttered.

Weird. Bianca thought I was weird. And come to think of it, I’ve seen that startled look before. Like when I fight, but not with fists. With words. I’m mean. Sarcastic. Mockingly polite. No one can get in trouble for saying nice things, because you can say you weren’t being sarcastic.

That look on Bianca’s face. That muttered, “weird.” And when she and I volunteered to help the teacher during lunch, I was quiet. So quiet. I didn’t even smile. I just did what I was told and left.

Bianca asked, “How are you so quiet? You’re never quiet.” I just smiled. That look. The mutter. She didn’t understand. I can be bossy. Or lenient. Or kind. Or horrible. I can be moody and shy. I can be loud and outgoing. I can be brilliant. I can be naive. I can be a perfect little girl. I can be mischievous. It all depends on who I’m with. Is that wrong?

 

Chapter 6

Is that wrong? What, then, is right?

I act differently among different people. Is that wrong? I don’t want to be mean, I just want to do what has to be done. Is that wrong? I used to be like Bianca when I was little. One personality. One way I’m supposed to act, one way I’m supposed to think, one way people think of me as. But that doesn’t work. People judge me no matter how well I try to shape my outer self.

So I made my outer self a combination of everything, acting differently depending on the situation. Is that wrong? It was fine, but now people are starting to notice, and they say it’s weird. Every time Bianca mutters that cursed word, I feel that sharp pang in my heart like in my dream, as if she is stabbing my heart to pieces. It’s just a matter of how long my heart will last her stabbing knives.

 

Chapter 7

A perfect world is not perfect.

I’m starving by the time it’s lunch time. Bianca and I grab our lunch boxes and race to our table. Rushing to eat, we both slam down on the bench at the same time with a loud crash. I look over to her. I can tell she is holding back giggles. So am I. I smile. She smiles. Then we are laughing so hard, our stomachs hurt. That sets the rest of the table laughing even though they don’t know what’s so funny.  Recess in summer is usually way too hot. Today is not an exception. Bianca asks me if I want to play tag.

“Nah,” I reply. “Too hot.”

She runs off and I’m left looking at the clouds. I think, Wow, those clouds can teach us a lesson. It looks like they’re still, but they are moving ever so slowly. But soon,  I’m pulled out of my reverie. It’s time to go back in for seventh period. Social Studies Project. We are choosing which image of King Tut to use for a player in our board game.

“Do the cute one!” begs Bianca.

I grin. “Yeah. So then people will want to be him. This needs to be appealing to the boys.”

Bianca whispers, “Especially, Ben.”

The cute cartoon image of King Tut kind of looks like Ben. I giggle. We finish the project. We are the first ones to finish, so we just talk and play.

Going home, I tell my mom how much fun I had at school. I run into my room and look at my wall. It has photos of all my friends from school. I touch Bianca’s face. Then I rip them all down and burst into tears.

 

Chapter 8

Before I cry, my heart cries.

My mom is trying to comfort me, trying to find out what’s wrong. I’m ignoring her. She says I can tell her.

“It’s okay,” she says. But it’s not. “I’ll understand,” she insists. She won’t. My heart is shattering under those knives. I can feel the blood pulsing, a force. Something is pushing tears to my eyes, drawn from hidden wells. I close my eyes, resisting the force. A sob creeps up my throat and bursts out of my unwilling mouth. I taste the salt of my tears.

“But you were so happy today,” my mom says, confused. “Today was like your perfect day.”

I tell her they talk with me, but it isn’t real.

“Of course it’s real,” Mom reassures me, more puzzled than ever.

“NO,” I sob into her shoulder, half-crying, half-stuttering. “Th-that’s not what I meant. Everyone t-talks about projects with e-everyone!”

I hiccup and fall silent as Mom, bewildered, asks, “What do you want to talk about then, honey?”

There is no way to explain to her that I want to share with my friends my deepest thoughts, my soul, without having to mold myself into someone they would appreciate. I am desperate for another soul who will love who I really am, unconditionally. Someone who I can pour out my heart to.

“Honey?” Mom prompts.

I look out the window. “Clouds,” I tell her. “I want to talk about clouds.” Mom wants me to talk to her about clouds. I run to the bathroom, away from the world that will always hurt me no matter how kind they seem to think they are.

 

Chapter 9

Tears reveal the hidden wounds.
I huddle on the white tiled bathroom floor, crying uncontrollably. I grab my shirt in clenched fists and pull them towards my face. My face is red, but I am cold. I tuck my knees into my chest. What was wrong with me? I have shaped my outer self into a person whom everyone can like and work with. Yet, Bianca doesn’t like me as a person with many personalities. It is like my shell is cracking, but I don’t know how to rebuild it. I have pretended and acted for so long, I don’t know who I really am.

Which personality should I become? What if I regret my choice? I watch those clouds moving ever so slowly, wondering. I want to show part of my inner self to the world, reflect it in my shell, so that people can see who I am. But will they like it? I wish I could be like the rest of them – soulless, innocent, happy, carefree. I can feel my tears pushing behind my eyelashes, and I give myself up to their power.

I feel Mom lifting me up and carrying me to my bed. My tears stream and pool in my ears as I cry myself to sleep.

 

Chapter 10

Sometimes the best comforts are wordless.

I do not go to school the next day. Nor the next. Nor the next. Bianca calls me every night, asking how I am feeling. I tell her I am sick and hang up. It is not a lie. I am sick – sick of being misunderstood, sick of pretending, sick of the people who thought they were helping me. I am sick – sick of the world, sick of life, sick of having a soul, sick of wanting others to have a soul. My skin is warm, but I feel cold, as if those wells of my tears have frozen inside me and the cold is spreading to the very edges of my finger tips. But people are trying so hard to make me feel better. I can see the pain in my mom’s eyes as I refuse her comfort. I can hear the worry in Bianca’s voice each time she calls.

My mother comes in the room. She is holding the phone. I pick up. It is Bianca. “Today is Bring-A-Friend-To-Class Day at my dance school,” she tells me. “I know you’re not feeling up to it, but can you come? I think it might help.” She pauses. I am silent. “Please? For our friendship.” I am already lost among the people in this world. If I lose Bianca, I know I will never get up from the bed I am laying in. I hang up. I grab a duffel bag. I put in an apple, a bottle of water, and a dress to wear over my leotard. I slump out the door, my mother looking at me as though I am a ghost of a dead person.

There are girls in the dressing room who are as shocked and nervous and shy as I feel. But my heart lightens slightly at the sight of Bianca’s smile. She is so happy that I came.

I put on the tights and leotard they give me, and follow Bianca to a large, bright dance studio with a mirror covering one whole wall. The instructor is slim and pretty, sparkling brown eyes complimenting her black hair. I listen to the class’ conversations. They are all of different ages, different ethnicities, different strengths, different weaknesses, but they are all unified through this class. I watch in wonder.

The instructor tells me I’m naturally flexible. She wants to see my limits. I do not answer her. We are supposed to be following her, learning the short dance routine she is showing us. I feel a soft hand in mine. I can tell it is Bianca without looking. I try hard. For her. The teacher yells,  “Tendu, arabesque, jete, pirouette. Dance your heart out, my swans, dance!” And suddenly I am.

I think I am flying, flying to heaven. One moment I am tendu-ing, trying my best to point my toes. The next moment I am spreading my arms, lifting my leg, lifting my chest, and a thrill shoots through my heart. Even my heart is soaring in my chest. A smile breaks out on my face, for the first time in ages. And suddenly, I am spinning away from the group, leaping, flying, as they watch, dumbfounded. It is as if some bizzare, joyful spirit has overtaken me as I dance, not knowing the moves, but still dancing all the same.

The feeling of flight shoots through me again, and I feel as though all the stress and worries of the past are draining out of me, replaced by endless joy. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the teacher smiling happily at me. It seems like it will never end, but it does. I stand in the middle of the room, trembling with excitement, smiling and eyes sparkling.

Bianca stands open-mouthed with awe. “Wow,” she whispers. “You’re good.”

I am jumping and running and skipping home with Bianca, the instructor’s words echoing in my ears. “You are a natural at ballet. You breathe through the moves. I’m impressed.” In my hand is a note that the teacher wrote to my mother, asking if I could attend the school. Bianca is hugging me so hard I can hardly breathe. But I’m smiling through it all.

 

Chapter 11

Everyone recognizes beauty in some way. I do through ballet.

Mom is kissing me all over. She and Bianca are thrilled, almost as much as me. She is going out to buy me dance attire right now. Bianca is going home to tell everyone how good I am.

I expect to feel the weight of my sorrows crashing down on me again, but I am no longer frustrated with life. I have found something that I can use to let out my feelings: ballet. I remember my teacher’s big brown eyes as she explained to me how good I was at dancing, how I put my feelings into it. She understood me through dance. I could see it in her eyes. They all did. And now I will be part of their community, too.

I pull the photos of my school friends out of the trash and tape them on my wall again. Then, I add everyone from dance class. Bianca’s picture stands out in the middle. Bianca. She showed me the joys of dancing, although I doubt she truly knew them herself. She had tried to help even when I wasn’t responding to her. I smile, joyful tears filling my eyes. Bianca didn’t understand me. Bianca will never understand me. But Bianca is still my truest friend.

Sometimes I think I live in a world of shells.

But that’s okay.

 

Vanished

On a bright, spring morning in Central Park, sunlight pours through paper-thin leaves suspended on branches overhead. The sound of traffic and angry drivers is gone as soon as one enters through the gates, as well as the stench of car exhaust and stray trash cans. Squirrels scamper alongside curious pigeons hiding in the bushes lining the narrow walkways.

Here, I could get away from all of the city’s bustle and noise, and just think. Because these days, the thing that I needed to do the most was think, and remember, and guess. The satisfying crunch of gravel underneath rubber soles was the only sound I made as I treaded through the park, seeking solace among the trees. When I found a bench free of people, I sat down quickly and closed my eyes. It had all happened here. I could imagine it all now.

A young boy, skipping down the path. The breeze ruffled his dark hair, causing it to pull away from his face long enough to reveal eyes wide and glittering with joy.

“Look, Skyler!” The boy, so small he barely reached his sister’s knees, twisted about so he could find her. “Look-”

“What do you want me to look at now?” Exhaling with annoyance, Skyler collapsed on a nearby bench and rolled her eyes dramatically. “I can’t deal with you anymore. Can you just let me have a moment of peace?” She shut her eyes and took another deep breath. But when she opened them, he was gone.

I came back to myself with a jolt, shaking my head to bring my thoughts back to the present. Because that boy was my brother, and that girl was me.

When I returned home, I raced to my room without a word of greeting to my parents and jotted my latest memory down in my notebook. It was all coming together now: the day my brother disappeared and left me to find where he was. For the past week, the memories have been returning in bits and pieces, hiding clues to my brother’s disappearance. Bailey, my therapist, had explained to me this was called “repressed memories,” when the mind unknowingly tries to push back memories because of extreme trauma or stress. Somehow, her telling that to me made me feel immensely lighter, as if knowing this was an actual condition other people went though made me feel less alone.

I sat back against the creaking headboard behind me, leaning all of my weight into its polished, reassuring surface. Somehow, I knew this latest memory was the most important: after all, it was the last moment before Jayce had disappeared. I reached out a hand and grasped the stiff binding of my memory notebook, smoothing a finger over the hanging threads dangling from the edges of its worn cover. Taking deep breaths as Bailey had taught me, I calmed myself down enough to clear my overworked brain, so I could think. When I had calmed myself down, I reopened the book to the memory I had just scribbled down, scanning the hasty lines for a hidden clue. What was it that my brother had told me to look at?

The muscles near my eyes twitched and I clenched my fists tightly, my fingernails digging into my palm. My lips tightened and my head began to throb painfully with the pure effort of remembering.

Jayce contorted his body so he could look at my face. “Look, Skylar,” he called.

My eyes snapped open, and I remembered. I scrawled out two words in the notebook, threw it on my bed, then leaped out of the room.

The flowers.

Downstairs, my mother was tying together flimsy stacks of papers, and she jumped when I came bolting down the stairs.

“Oh, Skylar! Good thing you’re here! Would you mind hanging these up around town for me?” She handed me one of the stacks, facedown, her false cheeriness seeping through her words and watery eyes. Months of pretending and acting had carved wrinkles and lines around her eyes and lips, as well as creases in her forehead.

I sighed. “Sure, Mom.”  

My mother, being the overbearing, constantly concerned person she was, had declared right after the kidnapping to the rest of the family to make our circumstance a “family matter,” meaning only me and my parents could talk about the situation — with the exception of my therapist, of course.

“And besides,” my mother had added that day, “we don’t want to make a big deal out of this, do we? At least if we use flyers or something, the police won’t think it’s too serious and won’t get involved. We should try to solve it ourselves, in case the police go after the man and he ends of hurting Jayce more and–” at that point, she burst into tears and ran out of the room. She was frightened of the notion that the kidnapper might do something terrible to Jayce to “get back” at us if he was caught. Weeks later, I tried to convince her that she was being ridiculous and had to report it to somebody, but she was firm about her stance and we never spoke about it again.

As I stepped outside, I flipped over the papers and glanced at them. In bold letters, they announced “Missing: eight-year-old boy,” as well as a description and picture of Jayce. I stood in shock. My parents were just going to put up ads for him, as if he was a runaway dog? And they expected me to put up these advertisements for my own brother as if it wasn’t a big deal? I was mortified, but I did as my mother asked me to do. No reason for adding on to her stress when she was clearly constantly worrying.

Half an hour later, I found myself standing in front of a local supermarket, willing myself to enter. It was as if my feet were stuck in cement, and I needed all of my strength to move them. I dragged one foot after another, pulling them until I stood at the entrance of the store. All at once I was inside the store, and facing the row of pre-wrapped bouquets. Sunflowers, daisies, roses, baby’s breath; the colors were intoxicating. I began searching for a clue, or a message of some sort. Although what I was searching for wasn’t exactly clear, I knew I would know it when I saw it. Right?

“Miss?” I looked up at the kind, smiling face of the shop’s manager. “Do you need anything?  I noticed you’ve been here a while, and you seem to be having trouble with these- these flowers.”

“I’m okay, thanks.” I wasn’t in the mood to reveal my situation right then.

“Okay. I just wanted to let you know the store will be closing in ten minutes.”

I blinked. “Oh. Sorry. I’ll — I’ll go now.” I was stuttering, and I could feel my face getting red, but I fled.

I continued back home through the city, shoulders hung dejectedly. Bailey always told me in that soft, soothing voice of hers to “feel strong, look confident,” and repeating that phrase over and over always used to help me pull myself together and quiet my mind. And now, I could feel the corners of my mouth dipping, my brow scrunching, but I made no attempt to change that. I knew I should be imagining my “happy place,” “practicing self-love,” and all of that other crap everyone tells me to do, but I felt discouraged, so why couldn’t I look discouraged?

This angry rant had been playing in my head for a few blocks when suddenly, I paused. On a streetlamp near me hung one of the signs I had posted earlier that day about Jayce, but next to it was another paper that wasn’t there before. It was a small square of computer paper folded in half, with my name, Skylar, printed in a plain font on the outside. I whipped my head around, chest thumping.

How did he know I would pass by here? How does he know my name? What if someone else had picked it up? Then one, last thought: What if he’s following me?

I was frantic. Should I take the note? Obviously, it was intended for me, because it was near impossible to find someone who had a name like mine. All I wanted to do was be safe at home. I was at a loss for what to do.

With one last second of hesitation, I grasped the note and ripped it free of the lightpost, a stray piece of tape detaching and fluttering to rest at my feet. Then, I turned around and ran, feet pounding against the pavement and the note crumpled tightly in a sweaty fist.
The next morning, I was awake and alert by dawn. No one was awake except me, so I crept out the front door, last night’s note folded neatly and pressed against my thigh.

What I had found inside the slip of paper shook me. It contained only a few typed lines of information, telling me Jayce was kidnapped and hidden somewhere in the city. The longer I took to find him, the more I would have to pay to get him back. Having this knowledge simply made me more determined to get my brother back, so I resolved to find him soon.

Along with that came a few stray insults about my parents, including that my mother was a “nosey know-it-all” who had no business doing anything with me. In fact, it specified I was not to let her help me or let her know about my situation. I was tempted to disobey the note, but who knew who I was dealing with? Better play it safe.

I wandered along, resuming my search for flowers. What could that mean? I walked down block after block, turning my head left and right as if I were a broken record. Still, nothing. My feet began to throb and sweat trickled down my back, and for the second time in two days, I felt completely, utterly lost. There was no way I would ever find Jayce in this maze of a city. It would be so easy to just give up, go home, and leave it to the adults. When the sun had crept halfway up to the top of the sky, I found myself back at the gates of Central Park. I was drawn by the joyful shouts of children laughing on swingsets and scrambling about on their light-up sneakers.

That’s when a wave seemed to hit me and I sank down to the ground immediately, spine pressed painfully against the sharp iron rods of the park’s gates. The memory washed over my mind and obscured my vision, forming a new scene:

Continue reading Vanished

Food Memories

 

Strawberry frosted donuts with rainbow sprinkles on top, eaten before going to the train store. Watching toy trains rush by on wooden tracks, licking the frosting from my fingers.

 

Long nights at the dining room table, suffering through the Passover Seder.

Each course drawn out and extended with prayer.

I only eat matzah with butter, several sheets of it, until my stomach aches.

 

Searching for the perfect hamburger, combination of juicy and charred.

Find my Holy Grail, a medium-well cheeseburger and fries, with a chocolate milkshake.

Order at Ted’s Bulletin, a restaurant nestled in Capitol Hill, secretly hiding fried fatty goodness.

 

Everything about the food in Paris.

The cheese, sharp and best paired with crunchy crackers.

Dark chocolate, melting into my mouth.

Buttery bread that unpeeled in layers, light and flaky.

 

Jewish food, passed down for generations.

My mom, like the matriarchs of old, spending hours preparing.

Noodle Kugel, steaming hot and topped with cinnamon. Served in slabs, thick and fattening. Recipes created before saturated fat and calories, when it was okay to add a stick of butter to a meal.

 

Buying popcorn and Snow Caps at Blockbuster’s, while searching for a DVD.

Looking at rows of Pez dispensers with cartoon characters’ heads on top.

Searching for which Push candy or Baby Bottle Pop I want, always deciding on the pinkest one, strawberry.

 

Stew Leonard’s in Danbury Connecticut.

Camp field trips ending with a stop at this gigantic grocery store with a buffet.

Piling carts with candy and chips, what I lacked at camp.

Getting steaming hot buffet food and hoping I have enough money to pay for my four pounds of mac and cheese.

 

Browsing the aisles of Hinata, the sushi shop my parents went to when I was little.

Looking for “boy and girl” cookies, chocolate pops with children faces on them.

Chewing several Pocky sticks at a time, the biscuit ends sticking out of my mouth.

 

New Year’s Eve 2005, ordering a fizzy pink Shirley Temple with my Chinese food.

Bubbles bouncing in my throat, popping like balloons.

Swearing to stay up until midnight, but falling asleep in the restaurant, my plate untouched.

 

MTA

     

Cleanliness is nonexistent.

The rush of the system takes over.

Dirt and love coexisting.

Flying through tunnels and darkness.

 

The rush of the system takes over.

As the young and the old unite.

Flying through tunnels of darkness.

A music and culture smoothie awaits the lips of community.

 

As the young and the old unite.

We are covered in loud rhythmic love.

Flying through tunnels of darkness.

An ocean of difference and humanity.

 

We are covered in loud rhythmic love.

Zooming through our sleep-deprived home.

An ocean of difference and humanity.

As the platform door is closed

 

Zooming through our sleep-deprived home

Cleanliness is nonexistent.

As the platform door is closed.

Dirt and love coexisting.

 

Blue Room

          

The Sleeper by the Edge of the River

 

The water receives her.

 

every day her heart is open to the sound of waves.

always the same sound, the same deafening sound.

her everyday rhythms were coordinated by

the sounds of the waves,

till they filled the marrow in her bones

and she walked, unknowingly, to the beat of the waves

and she moved, unknowingly, to the beat of the waves.

 

she became like a conch shell, and

when you held her next to you,

you could feel her body

quivering with the movement of the waves.

 

the sleeper by the edge of the river….

she made a hammock of the silken water and

the reeds, threaded together to hang in the

night sky, while the latticework of stars above her

acted as a great blanket, because all the world was enveloping her

in bed.

 

my sleeper by the edge of the river.

She holds tiger lilies in her gaze.

 

*

 

she’s a face full of blooming buttercups,

her laugh deep and rich as

those heavy hazelnuts falling from the

hazelnut tree, twirling through the air and

landing on the ground with a soft

thump, impregnating the air with their

amorous ripeness.

her freckles are nutty and brown, the color of

plum blossom branches,

while the flush of her cheeks are like

plum blossoms themselves.

 

her tempestuous eyes hold

sea storms and gales,

men have drowned

and lost their ships,

fallen under those black waters

in those eyes

 

her skin’s fair as the cream from the

top of the bottle,

but she’s got hair black as the bottom of

the coffee pot.

i ran my hands through it once.

it was soft.

like spools of clouds being threaded.

 

she’s an enchantress, my muse, a

something-sweet secret

held high above others….

though, for me,

she brushes aside her billowing clouds of hair, and

hides love in the furrows of her sleeve.

 

Blackbird

It was a bright and sunny afternoon. Suddenly, thunderstorms brewed. It was not the weather; it was the mood in the Williams’ house. A big fight between Lucy William’s parents caused dark, gray clouds to hover over the house. It ominously ended with her father slamming the door to their house.  

As soon the door closed, Lucy rushed downstairs as fast as a lightning bolt.

“What happened?” she asked.

“Since your father is such a horrible person, we are getting a divorce.”

“Oh,” Lucy said sadly and ran up to her room. “Great!” She plopped on the bed, burying her head into her pillow, tear-stained tissues strewn around her. “What should I do?”  

Lucy was used to her parents, Martha and Michael, fighting all the time. They were so different. For one thing, her mother was so sensitive and prone to childlike tantrums. Her ginger-haired dad was so overwhelming and a busybody. Lucy had known that they would get a divorce one day, but it was still a surprise. Whenever her parents fought, it sounded like they were using a huge megaphone.  

Okay, she thought, how does this change my life? Do I tell anyone at school? Wait… I do not have any friends or family to tell. Everyone thinks that I am just a pack animal who they can take advantage of. I might as well be a donkey. Today is Tuesday… three more days of torture before the weekend.

Thinking about the song “Blackbird” by the Beatles, Lucy reflected on her life. She felt as if the song resembled her life. If only I could take these broken wings and learn to fly.  However, I cannot fly.  Oh, well, I might as well do the homework for tomorrow.

She fiddled with her straight, dark hair while reading her history book about the Cultural Revolution. People were forced to accommodate to Mao Zedong, China’s Communist leader. Lucy had to accommodate to her parent’s divorce.

“Ugh, I cannot focus. If only I had a friend. I could tell them things I usually keep to myself,” Lucy said to the silver-framed picture of her deceased grandparents. They had died in a car crash when she was four years old.  

“Now… I have a plan,” announced Lucy to the picture, “I will try to make a friend and just be myself.”

With that, she nodded triumphantly and finished her homework. She then reheated frozen macaroni and cheese in the kitchen for dinner. She also tossed a leafy green salad with ranch and little croutons. While she did this, her mother was in her room, contacting a lawyer. Lucy went upstairs to Martha’s room to give her a uniform tray of food with a little salad as a peace offering.  In response, Martha snapped at Lucy to go away.

As Lucy turned away, she rolled her eyes and went back downstairs to eat her own dinner in the kitchen. She cleared the table and washed the dishes. After that, she went to her room and fell asleep on her narrow bed, listening to the Beatles.

The next day, Lucy woke up with a sigh as the red alarm clock on her dresser beeped, alerting her that it was time to get up and go to school. Deciding to sneak past her mother and father, she changed into the usual uniform: a dark blue skirt, a white blouse, and black dress shoes. After packing her wheeled backpack with homework, she lugged it downstairs.  

While preparing her breakfast of steaming oatmeal and orange juice, she realized that her father had not come back from yesterday’s debacle.

Oh, well, she thought, one last parent to sneak past.

Just as she was about to leave, her Mother snuck up behind her.

“Where are you going?” she yelled into Lucy’s ear.

Wincing, Lucy said, “To school, of course. Where else?”

“Are you sure you are not going to skip school?”

“I think I know what I am doing.  Goodbye.” Lucy walked out to go to school while her mother stared in shock.

“This is not over,” Martha yelled.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, Lucy thought, passing by Ms. Applegate’s green house.  

“Hey, girl,” Ms. Applegate yelled, a bit hard of hearing.

“Hello, Ms. Applegate,” Lucy muttered.

“What did you say, girl?”

“Hello! Now, goodbye.”

“Oh, you rude, girl, you rude.”

“Yeah, I guess I am changing,” Lucy said under her breath as she continued walking to school among the fresh evergreen trees.   

She finally reached the red brick building with a sign that said “Tenth Draft School.” Once inside, she sidled in her locker’s direction, trying to push through the crowds of people in the halls.  When she got there, she entered her combination code and started to take out of her books. Suddenly, the locker door slammed shut.  

Lucy turned around slowly, sighed and said, “What, Allison?”

Allison, a thin girl with pink hair, sneered, “Oh, look, it is the pack animal. Go join your relatives.”

“And my relatives are…”

“Just go over there,” Allison said, pointing across the hall to a girl with blonde hair and green eyes. She was clutching her books to her chest while leaning against the dented locker opposite of Lucy’s.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Lucy said, opening her locker one last time. She finished taking her books out.  

“Go, already,” said Allison.

“Calm down, already,” said Lucy.

Lucy walked across the hall to join the girl as Allison walked away, joining her clique. She could smell lavender in the girl’s hair.

“Hi,” the girl whispered.

Oh, this is a perfect opportunity to make a friend, Lucy thought. “Hi, I am Lucy.  What is your name?”

“My name is Amelie. I am new. Is everyone here like… Allison… ?”

“Mostly. What was your other school like?

“Um, I did all the work for people in my class… but I would prefer not to talk about it.”

“Sorry, I do not really know how to talk to people. On a different note, what is your next class?  The bell will ring in three… two… one.”

The bell rang. Ring!

“I just came from the principal. Apparently, I have English next.”

“I have that, too. I will take you there.”

They walked to the English class in silence. As they entered the classroom, they found only one empty spot in the front of the room to the far left. There were four windows. The room was moderately-sized with a desk for the teacher, four tables with two chairs at each one, and posters with quotes from famous authors such as Shakespeare. The lemony smell of Lysol permeated the air.

“Well, there is only one place for us to sit. We should go sit there,” Amelie said.

They crossed the room and sat at the desk hesitantly. When the teacher, Ms. Robison entered, she had a surprise.

“Attention, class. We have entered a poetry contest where you write about a global issue. It is due tomorrow. You will work with the person at your table.”

The room came alive with boos and a few cheers. Amelie and Lucy looked at each other, smiled, and rolled their eyes.

“One last thing,” Ms. Robison said, “you will have time in class to work on it. Get started right now.”

“Okay. Lucy, what issues are you worried about?” asked Amelie.

“Um… I guess water pollution.”

“Me, too. I am really concerned about guinea worm. Even though the worm is in its final days, it once infected millions. People should know about it as it could occur in other developing countries,” Amelie said quickly.

“Well, we decided on a topic,” Lucy said.

Ring!

“Do you want to meet somewhere do to work on the poem?” asked Amelie.

I can speak so freely to Amelie, thought Lucy.

“Sure,” said Lucy, “ How about the library on Massachusetts Avenue at 5:00 pm? By the way, what class do you have next? The bell just rang.”

“I have Math and then Language.”

“I will show where you where Math is, but I need to go to Social Studies. Someone will show you the way to Language class.”

“Thanks.”

Lucy took Amelie to Math class and rushed to Social Studies. She got there just in time. Lucy thought about Amelie throughout her classes until lunch when they met again. They walked over to the swings with their lunches and started talking.

“How was your class?” Lucy asked as she bit into a mozzarella sandwich with ripe, red tomatoes.

“It was okay. I got homework but that is usual. However, Allison was in that class,” Amelie said. She was eating lasagna with tomato sauce.

“Well, that is that. Enough about school. What do you like to do?”

“I like to listen to music and cuddle with my tiny kitten, TomTom. I also read about world issues such as illiteracy, and musicians.”

“Two comments.  One, what do you like to listen to? Two, your kitten must be so cute.”

“Two answers. Beatles, even though it is old, and Adele.”

Ring!

“I like the Beatles, too. How come the bell rings when we are finally getting to know each other?”

“I do not know. Well, what class do you have next?”

“Music class. I will be learning how to play the acoustic guitar. After that, the library with you.”

“I am going to Music class, too. Let’s go.”

They walked off the playground together. Pushing through the students milling around the halls, they made their way to the small classroom. Soon realizing they were the only students, they sat in the chairs, waiting for the teacher. After waiting for a short while, a broad-bellied man called Mr. Harry ambled into the room, pushing past the piano.  

“Hello, everyone. Welcome to acoustic guitar. Does anybody already know how to play?” Mr. Harry said, passing each student a guitar.

“A bit,” said Amelie, strumming the chords.  

“Yeah, a bit. You are amazing!” Lucy said.

Throughout the class, Amelie entertained them with her skillful guitar playing.  

At the end, Mr. Harry said that Amelie might be able to receive a scholarship. Amelie grinned.

As Lucy and Amelie walked out of the room, they went back to the lockers and promptly took all of their stuff out. They walked down the steps to the school on their way to the library.

“Can we stop at my place first?” Amelie asked.

“Sure.”

They passed by oak trees, other colorful houses, and dogs yapping. Amelie and Lucy soon arrived at a well-to do home. Lucy waited outside while Amelie went in and got a newspaper article about guinea worms.

They walked to the old, white building called the “Bethesda Library.”

Inside, they passed endless rows of books and tables and found a table in the corner. They started by reviewing the Washington Post article called “The Dying Days of a Parasite that Once Infected Millions.”  

“So, what have you learned?” asked Lucy.

“That the guinea worm is close to being ‘wiped out’ but the final step of preventing it is tricky,” said Amelie.

“Do not forget that clean water is scarce in many countries.”

“I think we understand it now. Let’s start the poem.”

After many drafts, Lucy and Amelie composed a poem called “All That Water.” 

 

All That Water

 

Women gaze at their sleeping children,

hoping, praying.

that they will not succumb.

 

Fear clutches their stomachs,

soon replaced by dread as

their children, their babies,

cough that hacking cough.

 

The sounds of women, children, men

wailing in the night

as the guinea worm emerges.

 

Scavenging for wood that is scarce

and that abject poverty

cannot afford,

snapping off twigs,

tearing off leaves,

just to get to the bare wood,

still unable to boil the water.

 

Forced to drink from the source of life

that harbors the flaming serpent.

 

Water.

All that water that kills.

 

“Good job, Amelie,” Lucy said.

“Thanks. I have to go home,” Amelie said as she glanced at her watch.

“See you tomorrow.”

As Amelie walked out, Lucy smiled. This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship, she thought. She put the poem in her backpack. While walking out of the library of discovery, she remembered that she would be going to a shattered household.  

The sun was setting. Passing through the oak and evergreen trees and the silent houses in her neighborhood, she tried to sneak past Ms. Applegate. Unfortunately, no such luck.  

“Hey, girl!” shouted Ms. Applegate, rocking in a chair on her porch.

“Hello, Ms. Applegate. I have to go home, but I will see you later,” said Lucy.

“Why you so nice to me right now?”

“I am in a better mood than before. I made a friend.”

“Good.” Ms. Applegate went inside and Lucy continued on.

Finally, she reached her dreary house. She could see a “For Sale” sign planted in the freshly-turned soil. Rushing inside, she found her mother talking to her lawyer.  

“What is going on?” panted Lucy.

“We are selling this house. There are too many memories of your father.”

“Speaking of my father, where is he?”

“I do not know or care.”
“Where would we even move?”

“California to join my relatives.”

Lucy ran up to her room and collapsed onto her bed. Thoughts whirled around her head.

I have finally made a friend, and now my mother wants to move to California. My “broken wings” had flown. What will I tell Amelie? Should I choose not to move with my mother? Should I ask Amelie if I can stay with her? If I did, would she allow me to? I do not have her phone number or email. What do I do? Okay. I will ask Amelie if I can stay with her while I sort my life. I am sure my mother can be without me for a few days.

As the sky was black and purple, she just went to bed. Lucy did not make dinner or talk to her mother. However, she did change, as usual.

The next day was gray and dismal. Lucy woke up and realized she had not set the alarm clock the previous day. She was late. Changing into her uniform, and packing her backpack was an ordeal. She had to be quick. Lucy snatched a granola bar, noticing the note on the door.  It said “I have gone to a hotel to sort out my thoughts. I will be back in two days. – Mother.”

Are you kidding me? Well, now I can go to Amelie’s, thought Lucy.

After exiting the house, she sprinted past Ms. Applegate’s, her wheeled backpack being hindered at every crack.  

Lucy arrived at Tenth Draft School and went to her locker. She could not see Amelie anywhere. Putting her books into her locker, she wondered where Amelie might be. Maybe she was already in class?

Ring!

Lucy started walking to Language Arts. When she arrived, she saw that Amelie was not there. Where could she be? Sitting down, she mused this over in her mind. Was there something about Amelie that she did not know?

Ms. Robison walked in. “Poems, please,” she said.

Lucy absentmindedly pulled the poem out of her book.

When Ms. Robison walked past and Lucy gave her the poem, she asked “Where is Amelie? Is she sick?”

“I do not know.”

Lucy did not see Amelie for the rest of the day. Nobody knew where Amelie was.

Where was Amelie?

 

Birthday Surprise

Piper McCarthy blinked the morning grogginess away, then rocketed out of bed.

Birthday! Thirteen! Special!, were the first thoughts to zoom through her head. Standing in front of the mirror, she checked herself. Her frizzy, brown hair was as messy as ever, and her storm-gray eyes were exactly the same as they’d been since she was born. Her warm, brown skin looked and felt fine. No fangs, wings, scales, feathers, or fur had grown overnight. No gills or claws, either. She made a red X over a box on a chart taped to her wall. Squeezing her eyes closed, she tensed all her muscles and stood on her very tippiest toes. When she didn’t float up to the ceiling, she made another X on a different box.

Several exercises later, including (but not only) staring at a match, talking to her cat, Inkpot, and trying to see what her mom was thinking from the kitchen (all of which got an X on the chart), Piper arrived at the final test.

Please, please, please! Work! she begged, panicked. Here goes.

Crouching down, she thought decisively, I am a cat. I am a cat.

She tugged on her left earlobe nervously. I am a — POP!

Suddenly, she was a lot closer to the ground than she had been before.

I am not a cat.

She glanced down. She still had human hands, and legs, and feet. Then, why was everything so big? Oh, no, no, no!

With a yowl, the cat leapt down from the bed, thumping to the floor. Running desperately, Piper tried to jump over the long bristles of her shag carpet, her now-tiny slippers falling off her feet. Piper floated up, up above Inkpot, and close to the ceiling.

Oh, no, why’d I’d have to be a Different!?

When she eventually floated into the kitchen (it took a little while to figure out she could control her flight with certain movements, although she did still flap her arms unnecessarily), her mom looked up from her newspaper and coffee at the sound of Piper’s  voice.

“Good morning, sweetie! Um, where are you? Oh, are you invisible? Wonderful!”

“Actually, Mom, not so much. I’m up here.”

“Ooh, are you super small? Are you a fly? Where are you?”

Piper floated down, bumping against the marble counter top. “Right here, Mom.”

“So you are super small! But how can you fly, then?” Mrs. McCarthy was confused.

“I’m not a Shrinker,” Piper sighed.

“Then, what are you? I didn’t think Flyers could shrink.”

“They can’t, Mom. At least I don’t think so. But I’m not a Flare, Flyer, Shrinker, Fluffy, Changer, Speeder, Stronger, or any of the normal ones at all. Not even a Sensier.”

“Oh, sweetie! A Different? Are you sure?”

“I most certainly am.”

“Oh, your father won’t be happy.”

“He sure won’t.”

Piper’s father was a Flare, someone who could manipulate fire, and he was the principal of a prestigious school for other Flares. Being very well known and respected, he did everything he could to maintain a very normal appearance to the public, despite Piper being a “late bloomer” — someone who got their powers after turning twelve. Your thirteenth birthday was your last chance, because you couldn’t get a power after that. He did not much like Differents, mostly because his brother (who had always been a rival to him) had been one. Piper’s mother was a Fluffy and could thus communicate with animals, which was why Inkpot liked her best.

“Oh, sweetie,” Piper’s mom sighed.

Piper’s stomach rumbled.

“I’m hungry.”

Her mom tried to smile.

“I’ll get you some pancakes.”

Piper sat on the counter in silence while Mrs. McCarthy puttered around the kitchen, warming up some frozen pancakes. Piper fiddled with a Post-It note, folding it into a boat big enough for her to sit in. She plopped into the boat and wished for a normal power, like underwater breathing or butterfly wings. Differents were just, well, different. They were rare, for one thing, and weird. They usually had a combination of a couple of normal powers, though there were some odd ones like the girl whose singing made turtles fall asleep. Nobody liked Differents, though Piper had never been told why. Her stomach twisted at the thought of what her classmates were going to say. At least it was better than being a Nothing, someone with no powers.

Trying to be positive, she thought, At least I can fly, what I wanted most… and shrinking isn’t too bad — I just have to do both at the same time. She tried to smile.

Her mom clattered the plate of pancakes down in front of her and thumped down into her seat. Picking up her cell phone, she began to type furiously, though trying to tilt the phone away from Piper so she couldn’t read it. Pretending to go to wash her hands at the sink, Piper glanced at the website her mom was on. Rinsing her hands in a tiny puddle on the edge of the sink, she read the title of the site: “What To Do With A Different Child.” Piper felt like she’d flown into the refrigerator. Was being a Different really that bad? With an ironic twist of a smile, she noted that her power seemed to include super senses too. She could see everything. She could hear the tiny clinks of her mom’s mug and the rustle of the paper. Although she was still hurt by her mother’s internet search, she resolved to use her power as often as she could.

It‘s probably great for eavesdropping, she thought wryly.

Zipping back to the plate of pancakes, her newly sharpened sense of smell was overwhelmed by the scent of maple syrup and chocolate chips. Looking up from her newspaper, Mrs. McCarthy pointedly glanced at the plate and back at Piper.

“Okay, you might want to get big again.”

“I can’t.”

“What? You’re kidding.”

“I don’t know how.”

“Well, how did you get small in the first place?”

“I was crouching,” Piper bent down, “and I thought that I was a cat, and it happened.”

“Do it again.”

Piper thought, I am a cat. I am a cat. I am a cat! Nothing. I am a cat, cat, CAT! Nothing. I AM A CAT! And suddenly… nothing.

“It’s not working,” her mom observed.

“I can see that,” Piper snapped back.

“You must have done something else. Think!”

“I am thinking!”

In her annoyance, she almost didn’t notice her hand tugging on her left earlobe. She looked at her hand, and remembered, I tugged my left earlobe. She did it again. Nothing. This time, she tugged her right earlobe. Pop!

She was full-size, sitting on the counter in her favorite purple pajamas. Piper and her mom just looked at each other, worried. They had both heard it: her father lumbering down the hall towards the kitchen. He was not going to be happy…

 

I’m Not People

Characters:

DARA – A high school girl who lives in a superficial world, but is searching for more. She has trouble truly understanding self-involved girls like Audrey. However, she knows how to “play the game” and blend in to survive the social scene.

LYLE –  A boy in Dara’s homebase class. He is a bit of a loner because, like Dara, he is fed up with other people’s dishonesty and shallow values. Lyle has a direct approach to life. He is frustrated with peers who are not straightforward like him and is driven away by their social climbing, political correctness, and selfishness.

AUDREY – Dara’s best friend. She is quite the diva, but not a “valley girl.” She is shallow, gossipy, and self-absorbed. Audrey likes to boss around the less dominant, more submissive Dara to make herself feel superior without being directly mean to her friend. However, she does love to criticize and judge other people.

 

(We see LYLE in an Italian restaurant. He is eating lunch alone in a booth. DARA and AUDREY walk onto the sidewalk, laughing, dressed in SoulCycle brand attire.)

 

DARA

Oh, please!

AUDREY

No, but she so did. Hold up, my shoe’s untied.

   (AUDREY bends down to tie her shoelace.)

But seriously. Why would she hook up with him? It makes no sense.

DARA

It was unexpected. I’ll give you that.

AUDREY

He literally looks like the little, green guy from that “phone home” movie.

DARA

E.T.?

AUDREY

Yeah, that’s it.

DARA

I guess she just has low self-esteem. Or maybe she’s actually into him.

AUDREY

Ew, no! Like, I love Brit, but this is an issue that needs to be addressed. If he has a beer belly at sixteen, then it’s a no-go.

DARA

Maybe his soft stomach felt like a pillow.

AUDREY

No, Dara! That’s gross!

   (beat)

Oh shit. You have a tampon?

DARA

Sorry, Aud.

AUDREY

I need a bathroom asap. Like, I’m in my Lulu’s and everything.

DARA

Right now?

AUDREY

Yes. Like Mother Nature, I don’t wait.

DARA

Wait, maybe I do have one. Hold on.

AUDREY

Finally.

   (DARA starts digging through her bag. AUDREY is impatiently waiting.)

Take your time. Really, I’m fine standing here in my own filth.

DARA

   (Gets out a tampon and hands it to AUDREY)

Relax. I got it.

AUDREY

   (noticing the restaurant)

Okay, let’s go in here.

   (DARA and AUDREY enter the Italian restaurant.)

AUDREY

   (noticing LYLE)

Wow. Some kid’s eating alone on a Saturday. That’s really pathetic.

DARA

Wait, we know him.

AUDREY

We do?

DARA

He’s in my homeroom. His name is Lyle.

AUDREY

That’s weird.

   (beat)

Where’s the bathroom in here? There’s no arrow pointing to the restrooms or anything. It’s ridiculous.

DARA

   (ignoring Audrey)

Should we say hi?

AUDREY

No way. We would look like such creepers.

   (catching DARA staring at him)

Why?

DARA

Why not? He’s really cool, actually.

AUDREY

Ooh. Does Dara have the hots for the lone wolf over here?

DARA

   (giggling)

Will you stop it?

AUDREY

You know you want it.

DARA

I do not! He just looks a little sad, and I want to comfort him.

AUDREY

   (teasing)

I’m sure you want to comfort him all night long.

DARA

Oh shut up and

   (slightly louder