The Field of Sorrow

Editor’s Note: This is a wonderfully creepy story that may be scary for some younger readers.

As the pair approached the field, they sighed in relief. “Ugh,” Olivia sighed. “I wish I could use one of the self-driving robots. I can’t believe that your mom is forcing us to walk home.”

“I know,” Emily replied. “I wish that she allowed us to ride.”

Olivia didn’t reply. She was thinking about her parents, who had died in a fire 3 years ago. She remembered her mom’s caring smile and her dad’s gruff but tender voice. She missed them so much. She wished that Emily had not gotten cyborg implants. It separated them in a way because cyborgs tended to always stick to other cyborgs. Their friendship was growing tense.

Suddenly, she felt apprehension creeping up her spine, like the claws of a cat.

“Does something… feel weird?”

“Yeah, I dunno, I feel… uneasy.”

Then, the smell struck them. It was a horrendous stench. It smelled like spoiled milk mixed with rotten meat.

“What is that?” Olivia asked.

“I don’t know,” Emily replied.

“Should we check it out?”


“What if it’s dangerous?”

“Come on, don’t be a wimp. Race you!”


As the girls charged through the underbrush, Olivia couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that something was about to go horribly wrong. As the pair reached where the smell originated from, however, they realized that they had made the worst mistake of their lives.

It was a body and a rotting one. It had been beaten to a pulp and had multiple seemingly recent stab wounds on its chest.

Olivia gasped. “Who could do such a thing?”

“I could,” a deep voice that sounded like scraping nails on a chalkboard said. 

Too late, Olivia felt eyes burning on her back. She turned around slowly. 

There was a man with cyborg legs and a cyborg eye. He was tall and had icy blue eyes. He was wearing a long black coat and a hat, yet the girls could clearly see a psychopathic smile on his scar-riddled face.

“Hello girls,” the man said. “I’ve been waiting for you. You are going home, correct?”

The girls shakily nodded.

The man tutted. “Oh well. I guess we will take… an alternative route.”

He lunged at Olivia, and everything went black. 


They woke up chained to plastic walls in what seemed like a sort of dungeon. Their captor was in front of them, wearing what seemed like a 1600s plague doctor suit.

“I apologize for bringing you here like that. I just needed some… subjects for my experiments.”

Olivia tried to scream, but she was gagged. For the first time, she noticed a horrifying sight. There was a dastardly display of several different metal… tools. They all looked incredibly painful. 

Their captor went on. “I have some tools for these experiments, as you have probably noticed. Those will be used if you misbehave. You may call me Doctor Anubis.”

He ungagged them both, and immediately they both tried to scream. 

“Ahhhh, nice try. I’ve put an implant in your throats that prohibits you from screaming. Don’t worry, you can still talk.”

Emily immediately spoke. “How dare you do this, you sick, demented, demon! Do you know who I am?”

“Why yes I do, little lady,” Doctor Anubis said. “I simply do not care.”

“Wha-what?” Emily sputtered.

“Well, you see, it’s not about who has the most riches or power. It’s about who makes the best… subjects.” With that, he turned and dug a sharp, straight tool straight into Olivia’s stomach. She gasped and passed out.


Groggily, she raised her head and looked down. Nothing seemed to be wrong, but her chest had crisscrossing scars across it. 

“I have been working on this for ten years, since 2040, and I have never had results like this before.” The man pulled out a high-tech tablet. He showed her grisly images of his “failed experiments.” 

“You’re horrible! Why would you torture innocent people?” Olivia said. 

“For the experiment. I have told you this before. Next time you ask, I will beat you.”

“Y-yes sir,” Olivia whimpered.

“Good. Now for you, Emily. Let’s see your… potential.”

“Nooo! Please! I’ll give you money! Have mercy!” Emily pleaded.

“There is no mercy.” 

With that, Doctor Anubis plunged his tool into Emily’s stomach. He sliced around horribly, digging around her intestines for what seemed like hours. Finally, he seemed satisfied. He sent a robot over, and within a few minutes, Emily was awake. She looked up groggily, then noticed the scars on her stomach.

“How dare you do this to me!” she yelled. “I will have your skin when we get out of this!”

“The problem with that,” Doctor Anubis said, “is that you won’t get out.”

There was a long, tense silence.

“I have a question,” Olivia said. “What is this ‘experiment?’”

“Good question. I am trying to link people’s consciousness together with an interface which I control.” Doctor Anubis said. “That way I can force people to give me their money and property, and as a bonus, I will have unlimited subjects.” 

The girls sat there in silence.

“Well, that was a successful day! Sleep now!” 

He turned off the lights and walked out of the room.

“That guy is a psychopath,” Emily said. “We need a way to escape.”

“But how?” Olivia replied.

“We wait until we can get one of his tools, cut our chains, then stab him.”

“I don’t want to go through another minute of that torture!”

“You have to.”

Olivia thought for a while. Why is this man so horrible? She wished that there was a better way to get out of this situation, but she couldn’t see another way out besides Emily’s way. Maybe, if she did die, she would be able to see her parents again. Eventually, she drifted off to sleep.

The next day, Doctor Anubis probed their brains, apparently trying to connect them. He continued probing them for the next few days until he seemed satisfied. He only fed them disgusting mush, and never untied them. However, one day, Doctor Anubis seemed to get cocky. He left his tools in reach of Emily and walked off. After she had waited a few minutes to make sure that the doctor was gone, she grabbed the tools and sliced herself free. She immediately went over to Olivia and cut her free as well, using her cyborg arm.

“We need to go!” Emily hissed. They snuck forward, and Emily picked the lock of the door with one of Anubis’s tools. As they emerged for the first time from their room, they realized that they had made a massive mistake.

“You fools!” Doctor Anubis’s voice boomed. “You thought you could escape me! Fine. You will provide some nice field testing for my project. Project Intuitio, activate!”

All of a sudden, Olivia felt a massive pain in her cranium, like a rabid gerbil was trying to escape from her skull. She looked over at Emily, and it seemed that she was dealing with the pain as well. She had also dropped Anubis’s tool. Olivia tried to scream, but the implant blocked her. 

Doctor Anubis walked towards them. “I see the project is working. Good. Any second you will be connected to my interface, and you will be my slaves.” 

All of a sudden, Olivia felt a sudden urge to go to the Doctor’s side and obey his every command. She gritted her teeth in order to try and resist the Doctor’s commands. It took all of her willpower to resist, but she was able to do it. She looked over at Emily, and it seemed that she was able to resist Doctor Anubis’s commands more easily, due to her half-cyborg body.

“Fine. I suppose I will just kill you. Murderbots, kill this scum!”

Instantly, 3 robots popped out of the walls. Large spears and swords popped out of the robots, and they moved threateningly towards the pair. 

“We need to go!” Olivia shouted. She looked towards the only open exit, a door that was slightly ajar. “We need to get through that,” Olivia hissed

“Ok. How do we do that?” Emily replied.

“We run.” They both took off at a full sprint, rushing towards the door, but they were intercepted at the door by a murder-bot.

“Run! I’ll hold it off!” Emily sprung into action, delivering a quick roundhouse kick to the robot’s face with her cyborg foot. The robot seemed unfazed and delivered a punch into Emily’s gut. Emily grunted and looked over at Olivia, who was standing there, frozen. 

“Run!” she croaked out.

Olivia seemed to unfreeze and sprinted out the door. She could hear a murder-bot sprinting behind her. She looked back as she ran, just in time to see the murder-bot skewer Olivia in the chest with its spear. Emily was gone. Olivia sprinted out an unlocked door, right into the same field where they were abducted. Stricken with grief, glad to feel the sunlight on her face, the feeling of grass under her feet, and the sound of chirping of birds one last time as the murder-bot caught up to her and stabbed her in the back. She collapsed, full of grief and sorrow, as everything slowly went black.


Editor’s note: This is a wonderfully creepy horror story that may be disturbing to younger readers.

As Jac swung open the heavy front door, an aroma of blood and flesh seized his unprepared nostrils. He slightly winced but he knew the smell was promising. The more rural the town, the better the meat, he decided. Fresh meat from the outskirts of Wales.

Jac examined the place. Before him, there was a counter display case with bright lights shining on glistening meat behind glass. The shelves weren’t full, but the slabs were large, damp like morning dew and appetizing even in its raw state. A small radio sat atop the glass counter that played Christmas Welsh opera from barley caught radio signals. The place looked to be aging with uneven and beaten tiled flooring but it “had character” like the barber shop your father has been to for the past four decades. Jac’s eyes met a hunk of a man that stood behind the counter. He had broad shoulders and a wide torso with rolls of fat you could see through his apron that was stained from the aftermath of which needs no explanation. He had a roughly shaved beard with slits from his razor littered across his neck and cheeks. He had droopy ears that had heard decades worth of squeals and wide eyes that had seen a lifetime’s worth of struggles and intestines. However, he wore a small smile when his eyes meant Jac’s. 

“Dine in or take out?” he said. 

“Dine in,” replied Jac. 

The butcher laid out his hand pointing to a high stool in front of the glass case. Jac awkwardly walked over and sat on the stool. His weight slightly pushed down the seat, making the already giant butcher tower over him even more. Next to the glass case, the smell of flesh and blood was stronger. Jac shuddered as he wondered what smelling the intense smell of fresh meat all day would do to someone.

“We only have pork today,” said the Butcher with a voice as cold as a pond in December.

“Fine by me,” said Jac. 

“Five and a half pound sterling for a cut.”


Jac reached into his winter coat pocket, took out the money, and placed it onto the awaiting leathery hands that laid before him. The butcher then placed it into his apron pocket, looked down, and took out a butcher knife, and a large slab of meat from the glass case. He put it onto a cutting board and cut. The knife slid through the slab so effortlessly like a scissor slicing tissue paper or a needle piercing skin. Jac began to grin. Welsh pork was a must-have, of course, every Welsh man or woman knew that. Oh, so flavorful and covered in fat too, not too little and not too much. 

The butcher laid the large slice of meat onto the grill behind the counter. It sizzled loudly even without oil and overpowered the opera playing from the radio. Jac felt his tongue roll around his wet mouth, his twitching eyes fixed upon the browning meat.

A minute or two went by which, to Jac, felt like thirty seconds. The butcher took out an old porcelain plate and placed the meat onto it, pulling the plate across the counter toward the eagerly awaiting customer.

“Thank you,” said Jac as he immediately dug into the meat.  

He stuffed a big portion into his mouth and began to chew. It wasn’t tender but it didn’t matter. Each time Jac took a bite, a flood of juices filled his mouth. It tasted as fresh as it gets, a little under done if anything.

“Do you like it?” asked the butcher.

“I — It’s great. Really great,” said Jac through a mouth as stuffed as a goose inflated with apple stuffing.

“Fresh is the key really.”

“I’m sure.”

The butcher turned off the radio. An uncomfortable silence filled the shop interrupted only by Jac’s loud and childish chewing noises.

“Fine pork is best in silence,” said the butcher.

“Agreed,” said Jac as he swallowed.

“Say, do you know about vegans?”


“Few in the Welsh countryside but still existent. No harm in it. I just think it’s wrong.”

“Yep,”  said Jac, a bit confused about the sudden change in conversation.

“It really is quite silly. I’m telling you from life experience that cows and pigs are stupid. Incompetent organisms really. Can’t tell night from day, and even if the animals were a bit smarter, they’re providing me a business right?”


“Of course. We’ve been eating animals for as long as we’ve existed. Some people just don’t see the greater good in things. Sure, it’s the death of an organism, but hell, it’s keeping me alive. What’s a few lives if it keeps business aflowing?”


“The only animal I can second guess about killing is monkeys. Chimps. Some attributes of the chimp are smarter than some attributes of the human.”

“Like what?”

“Well, I think it’s the ability to lose empathy when needed for survival. Many humans lack that and it makes the chimp in some ways better at surviving than the human.”


“How bout this, a chimp’s diet is mostly based on fruit and insects. Chimps go out of their way to get the fruit and the insects,” said the butcher as his voice started to grow playful. “But, let’s say that there’s a sudden decrease in insects. Let’s say that the fruit that their diet is based on starts growing elsewhere. The chimp realizes the only source of food that could keep himself alive is his fellow chimp. What do you think he should do?”

“E-eat the… chimp?” said Jac with an empty mouth.

“Exactly. Eat the chimp. The chimpanzee does not think twice about eating one of his kind when needed. He knows that one in the end will survive and that one will be him. With empathy, the chimp will die, but without it, the chimp will thrive. How about another example?”

“I — I… I don’t… ” said Jac as he laid down his fork.

The butcher leaned towards him.

“Let’s say there’s a man in the meat business. He’s known around the neighborhood but the winter months come and business comes to a sudden halt. He’s not making enough money to afford the number of cows and pigs that he needs.” 

 Jac wanted to get up and dash out of the shop, but his muscles couldn’t move, like he was tightly stitched to his seat.

“Then the man realizes,” said the butcher as his eyes widened and a twisted smile grew across his face, “that the perfect solution has been sitting right across from him all along.”

In a swift motion his arms reached out to Jac’s neck and squeezed. He grabbed the rusted butcher knife and Jac realized why the meat wasn’t tender. 

The Witch Girl

I’m watching my best friend get pinned down by a ghost. Maybe if Mom had listened to me, this wouldn’t be happening.

But we can’t just start here, can we?

My name is Miriam. I’m thirteen years old, and my mom is a witch.

A witch, you ask?

Well, just take a peek at my basement and you’ll be sure. It’s chock-full of glass bottles, magic powders, random dangerous liquids, and a witch’s ensemble — hat, broomstick, purple robes, etc. And to top it all off, her black cat Coco who weaves around my legs.

I’ve been begging her to teach me her witchcraft since I was 5 and discovered her secret, but she refuses to teach me. And she won’t tell me why.

Am I not good enough to be a witch? I always try to shake these thoughts from my head.

But let’s start from the beginning, shall we?

It was the middle of June. I was excited to be staying over at my friend Tat’s place for an hour. I biked over to her house, which was only a few blocks away. It was a very bright yellow color.

We talked for a few minutes, and then pulled out our art supplies: a big sheet of blank paper, wide paintbrushes, and paints in every color.

“Oh, Rayne,” I sighed when I used a brown I had mistaken for orange. It messed up my rainbow. 

“What does that mean, anyway?” asked Tat curiously. “I’ve heard you say it before.”

I grinned guiltily. “I’m not sure. I’ve just heard Mom use it so much that I say it without thinking. She’s never told me to stop, anyway.”

We eventually finished the painting and hung it up in Tat’s room. The walls were already covered in art that we had made together, but this filled up the last blank wall. Her room was a riot of color, with a rainbow blanket on her bed and a fish tank full of iridescent sea snails.

We then played games, and before I knew it, it was time to go home. I waved goodbye to Tat and then biked home.

When I opened the door to my house, my eyes widened. The living room looked like someone had been playing ping-pong, but the balls were dripping paint. Everything was covered in color.

“Mom?!” I called.

“Yeah?” said my mom from the basement.

“You better come see this,” I called.

“In a moment, Miri,” she said absently, using her nickname for me.

“No, seriously! The living room is messed up!”

She walked up the basement stairs and then stopped in surprise. “What in the name of Rayne happened?” she asked when she saw the mess.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I just got back!”

“I know, Miri,” she said. Her eyes seemed to glow. “Are you okay? Is Nessie okay?”

“I’ll go check on her,” I said. “I’m fine.”

Coco followed me up the stairs, and I opened the door to my little sister’s room. “Hey, Ness — Oh Rayne!” I couldn’t believe it. My sister Nessie’s room was covered in paint as well! I checked her bed. She wasn’t there.

“She’s not here,” I called. “Ness, you little rascal! Did you paint all of this?”

“Miriam, please come down here,” Mom called.

“Why?” I asked. “What about my room — gah!”

Coco pushed me down the stairs. My arms pinwheeled as I tried to keep my balance, but in the end, I tumbled down the steps. I rolled onto the paint-covered floor, groaning.

“Ugh… Bad kitty,” I grumbled. Coco carefully stepped around me, heading over to my mom. I carefully stood up, and then looked down at my clothes and arms. I was absolutely covered in paint.

“Rayne!” I yelled to the sky. Then I turned to the culprit. “Coco! Now I have to clean my shirt up!”

“No, Miri,” said Mom. “There’s no time for that. Besides, it will protect you.”

“What do you mean?! What in Rayne is this mess, anyway?!” I yelled, looking at the bucket’s worth of paint covering our living room.

“A ghost’s mark, Mir.”

I stopped cold. “A… A what?”

“A ghost.”

I laughed nervously. “Um… You know ghosts aren’t real, right?”

Mom sighed. “Neither are witches, Mir. Neither are witches.” She seemed to be losing focus.

The room seemed to be getting colder as well. “Where’s Ness?” I asked with a strange sense of dread.

Mom snapped back into awareness with a jerk of her head. The room suddenly seemed warm and cozy again. “Right. Nessie. I’ll track her.” Her eyes glowed violet. “This way.” She stepped out the door, Coco following behind her. I hurriedly put on my shoes and half jogged, half walked over to her. 

“Mom,” I said, “where are we going?”

She glanced at me. “To find the ghost who took Nessie, of course. She’s not in any immediate danger, but it is critical to find her as soon as possible.”

“The ghost took Nessie?” This was getting more far-fetched by the moment. “Are you sure?”

“Miri,” said Mom. “Who do you think knows more about ghosts? You or me?”

“Well… you, I suppose,” I grumbled. Then, in a sudden outburst, I said, “But maybe if you had just taught me to be a witch, I would know a little something about ghosts too!”

She glanced at me, her eyes cold. “For the thousandth time, you are not ready to be a witch, Miriam.” The comment stung. Was I really not ready? Then she looked ahead. “The ghost is in here.”

We had stopped in front of a very familiar yellow house. “Mom,” I warned, “this is Tat’s house.”

Her eyes glowed crimson, and she reached into the pocket of her coat. From her pocket, she pulled out perhaps 100 small metal spheres. They seemed to be linked to each other somehow. She handed them to me, and I peered down at them.

At a closer look, it was a net. Tiny metal threads connected every sphere in a 10 by 10 grid. The threads seemed to have a golden sheen. “What is it?” I asked, tearing my gaze away from the net. “Why are we here? Can you tell me anything about what we’re doing or what a ghost is?”

“Of course, Miri,” said Mom. “To start, you need to know that witchcraft is not a culture. It is a race, a birthright. Even if you turn away from the path of witching, you will still have the magic in you.” She stroked Coco. “Everyone in the world has a little bit of witch magic, but in most people, it’s very weak. The families with the most potent magic all trace back to Rayne and her daughters.”

“Who’s Rayne?” I pulled myself up and sat on the mailbox.

“The goddess of witchcraft. She had eight mortal daughters, seven of them good and one of them evil. We are descended from Beryl, the eldest good daughter. We have strong witch blood.”

“Okay…” I was getting a little lost.

“However, one can only start using their witch magic when they unlock the true potential of their creativity. This is why most people never manage it. Roald Dahl and Mozart unlocked theirs, as did Picasso.” She traced shapes in the air. “Of course, most people who unlocked their magic never actually knew they had it — it was just infused into everything they did.”

“How do I unlock my witch magic?” I asked, hopping off the mailbox.

Mom sighed wearily. “Everyone does it differently. But it always happens through their passion. Music. Architecture. Scientific discoveries. Anything, really. But you have to fully recognize it.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“You’ll understand once it happens to you. I can’t tell you how to understand your magic, though, because for everyone it’s unique.”

“Oh…” I said, somewhat crestfallen. Now I was worried I wasn’t going to be able to unlock my magic. “Well, tell me more about the ghost.”

“Ghosts are spirits. People who pass away can still stay anchored to this world by something called a talisman. It is a magical item. If you destroy the talisman, the ghost will leave this world and pass on to the next. Most ghosts aren’t malignant, however. I would bet that the ghost who kidnapped Nessie had a child in life, and they wanted to recreate that memory.”

I was still a little uncertain. “Wouldn’t it be… mean? To destroy a ghost? Isn’t that like destroying a person?”

“We are not destroying a talisman, just as we are not destroying the ghost.”

“What are we doing, then?” I was under the assumption that we would banish them somewhere… magic. I was reminded of how little I knew about the witch world.

“We are sending the ghost to the afterlife so that they can be released. We are freeing them.”

“Okay!” I glanced at the house, and my energy faded. “But this is Tat’s house. We can’t just… sneak in here, or whatever.”

Mom snorted. “There is no we. I’m going in, you are staying out.”

“What?!” I cried. “Then why did you give me this?!” I shook the golden net in front of her face.

“To defend yourself if the ghost decides to leave,” said Mom. “Why don’t you play with Tat for a few minutes while I deal with the ghost.”

“Okay!” I said, a little incredulously. “I am going to be having a playdate with Tat while you track down a ghost in the same house. That’s just great.” I looked up, and to my dismay, Mom was already ringing the doorbell. “Wait!” I yelled, just as the door opened. Tat’s mom was at the door.

Tat’s mom ushered me in.

“This is so cool!” said Tat, who was inside. “Let’s play a game!” I followed her, feeling sick and useless.

We went up to her room, where she pulled out some cards. I was focusing on what Mom had told me so much that I was barely paying attention to the game. After I had lost four times in a row, Tat frowned.

“You okay, Miri?” she asked. “You seem a little distracted. Are you cold?” She shivered. “I gotta ask mom to turn up the heater. It’s absolutely freezing here.”

“Now that you mention it…” It was really cold. “Um… Tat?”

“Yeah,” she asked absently.

“Do you believe in ghosts?”

“No,” she said, looking up. “They’re just stories invented to make children go to bed.”

The lights flickered on and off. I looked up nervously. “Well, maybe you should start believing in them.”

The room seemed to be darkening. My hands were shaking a little as I pulled out my net, looking around the room anxiously. My fear seemed to transfer to Tat, who looked a little nervous. 

“What do you mean?” she asked. She was glancing back and forth, and then looked at my net. “What’s that?”

The lights turned off. The window, which should have been letting sunlight into the room, seemed almost muffled. It was nearly completely black.

Light, I thought. I need light. I wasn’t sure how to make light, though. I looked around the room, noticing Tat’s glow-in-the-dark paints.

“Mind if I spill these?” I asked before opening the cap.

“I can’t see you, Miri,” Tat said, sounding scared. “Where are you?”

The green paint inside the bottle glowed faintly. In the dim light, I could see Tat to my left. “Here,” I said, throwing the paint over her. I had remembered Mom saying that if we were covered in paint, it would protect us.

“Gyah!” she yelled. She spat some glowing green paint out of her mouth. “Miri, what was that for?!”

“Do you want to be attacked by a ghost, or what?” Despite the tone of command in my voice, I was terrified. “Look, just don’t move.”

The ghost was here, I knew it. I held up the net, which I realized was glowing dimly. As I watched, some of the darkness seemed to solidify, taking shape as a person, almost. I shivered.

As I looked closer, I realized that it was a woman. She looked at me for a moment, and then turned away, seeming to lose interest. Tat stared at it, and I got the feeling that she could see it too.

I stood there for what seemed like hours. Tat stood as still as she could, shivering and covered in paint. I stood with my net in my hand, trying to pretend I was invisible. The ghost kept going back to the paintings we had put on the walls. It peeled the one we had done that morning from the wall, staring at it. Then, after a moment, the paper disintegrated in its hands.

I exchanged a terrified glance with Tat.

I saw the ghost glide up above Tat’s bed, and then it picked up Tat’s favorite, one that she had framed. The painting depicted shades of blue and pink, brushed almost carelessly all over the page. In the middle, there was a golden owl.

The painting disintegrated. Tiny colorful pieces floated down to the floor.


The sound had come from Tat. She was shaking in anger. I shook my head at her, but she clenched her paint-covered fists and…

“Why did you do that?!” she yelled at the ghost. “That was my favorite. I worked really hard on it!”

The ghost stopped. It slowly turned around to face Tat.


I heard it talk, but it sounded muffled. The single word seemed to echo around the room.

Suddenly, the ghost sprang forward. Tat let out a little yelp and then was bowled over by the ghost. Mine, it said again, Mine!

And… that’s where I am now.

Maybe if Mom had listened to me, this wouldn’t be happening, I think bitterly. Then reality takes hold. My best friend is being attacked by a ghost, and I’m standing here blaming my mom for not wanting me to get hurt. I have to do something.

What can I do? I look around the room. My eye falls upon the glow-in-the-dark paint again. There are still three bottles left. I grab them, screw open one of the caps, and toss the pink paint over the ghost. Then I repeat it with the yellow. The ghost keeps running its fingers over the glowing ooze — who knew ghosts were interested in glow paint? I try to open the orange, but the cap is stuck. 

I toss it aside and hoist my golden net. I hurl it at the ghost, and… it passes right through! What? Mom said this was a weapon!

My eyes widen as it passes right through Tat, too. It hits the glowing paint on the floor and glows a little stronger.

I snatch it out from under them, and an idea hits me. If it got stronger when it touched the paint, then maybe…

I brush it across the paint-covered walls, but nothing happens. In a desperate attempt, I grab my paintbrush and cover it in gold paint.

Golden light flares up all over it. I almost drop it in surprise and then blink a few times to get used to the light. However, a few seconds later, it goes dim again.

I splash more paint on it, every color of the rainbow. The ghost turns its attention to me.

I need a distraction, I realize. Maybe… I picture the golden owl that was the centerpiece of the disintegrated painting, and a similar golden owl flies out of the net. It seems to be made of golden sparkles, somehow. It flies at the ghost and pecks at it furiously. The ghost tries to shoo it away, and when that doesn’t work, it tackles the owl.

I cover the net in more paint, and the ghost shies away from its light. Then, it turns around abruptly, and I realize that Tat is whacking it with a blue-covered paintbrush.

“Stall!” I yell at her. Because, in the end, we’re just stalling for Mom to destroy the talisman. She had said that it would take no more than fifteen minutes. How long has it been? I try to run the minutes through my head as I brandish the net. Thirteen? Fourteen?

I throw the glowing net. Once again it passes through the ghost, and it shies away from the light.

“Rayne!” I yell as I watch my weapon fall to the floor. I need more things like the owl. More distractions. I dive for the net, and everything seems to slow down.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see Tat dump her glitter paint all over the ghost and jump for the net. I see the net about to make contact with my hand, and the ghost about to jump on me.

Just as its shadowy fingers reach my back, Tat and I touch the net and an explosion of glittery rainbow moths flit out of the glowing weapon.

The ghost falls back, confronted by the moths. It then stops. The paint, magic, liquid light, and darkness covering it seem to melt away, leaving only the faint silvery form of a woman. She looks at us as tiny sterling flecks float off of her body. She seems a little puzzled as she dissolves into thin air. The lights turn back on. The room gets warm again. I look around. We’re both covered in paint, two paintings are missing, and there are paintbrushes and paint all over the floor.

“Mom!” we both call.

Both of our moms rush up the stairs to Tat’s room. “I destroyed the talisman,” says Mom, who is carrying Nessie and is quite breathless. “But I didn’t find…” She stops in shock. “Did you guys fight the ghost?”

I run over to her. “Yeah,” I sob. “Scariest thing ever.”

“There’s a good explanation for all this,” moans Tat, before looking her mom up and down. “What are you wearing?” Her mom is in yellow robes with a pointed hat and shoes.

Mom smiles. “Both Juliette and I are witches.” Both Tat and I look at her mom with new respect. 

“Witches?” breathes Tat.

“I’m sure you and Tat will be, too. After all, Tat and Juliette are descended from Lazuli, the youngest good daughter of Rayne.”

“Mom, the net was weird. It glowed and moths and an owl came out,” I say while hugging her.

Mom looks at me. “That’s not the net, Miri. That’s your magic.”

“Magic?” I’m excited despite my ordeal. “But… I thought that I wasn’t gonna get to be a witch!”

“Why would you think that?” asks Mom.

“Well,” I say, looking down a little. “You always said that I wasn’t ready to be a witch, but…” I don’t say what I am thinking: I’m not good enough to be a witch. It seems embarrassing to admit.

Luckily, Mom seems to read my mind. “Miri,” she says, “You are going to be the best witch ever.”


I stand in the basement, staring at the assortment of broomsticks in front of me. There are long ones, child-size ones, fluffy ones, and straw-tipped ones.

I glance over at a dark hickory broom with a horsehair tip. It seems right. I smile as I run my hand down the staff and then yelp as it lets off a small shock.

“That’s the one?” asks Mom, who is standing to my right.

I shake my hand out, wincing a little. “Well, it just shocked me. Is that good or bad?”

A small smile touches my mom’s face. “Looks like that’s the one.”

I pick up the broomstick, smiling as I realized it looks like a giant paintbrush. Then I look at the hand mirror my mom is holding up to me. I am glowing gold a little, I realize. I hold my net in one hand and the broom in the other, and finally feet like a real witch in my tye-dye shirt and black pants. The golden owl swoops around me, landing on my shoulder.

This is it, I think. I’m a witch now. I realize I am beaming with pride and pleasure.

“Well,” says my mom, grinning just as widely. “Let’s get witching!”

Our Customized Future

“Alright, Mr. and Mrs. Gardner, the fetus communication device is all set up. We’re ready when you are,” the doctor said, while double checking that all the wires were in the right place.

“I think we’re ready, doctor,” said James Gardner, the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Clutching his wife’s hand, he whispered something in her ear, which made her frown mildly. The screen powered on, and James and Mary could see their fetus. Excitedly, Mary grasped her husband’s forearm, as they had been trying to have a child for a few months, with no success until then. It was a long and painful journey, but they had finally succeeded. 

“Hello? Is this my customization?” asked the fetus. The doctor gave a microphone to the couple so that they could talk to their son.

“Hello, my beautiful son. Shall we get to it?” asked Mary, wanting to get on with it.

“Yes, sorry.” The doctor opened his laptop. “Let’s start with a simple one, what are you thinking for height?” 

“I was thinking maybe 6’5, 6’6,” James said. 

“No, that’s too tall. The Inspector will see him as a freak! He’ll get sent straight to the Ugly House. 6’3 will do just fine,” said Mary, arguing with her husband, just as always. The doctor typed on his computer, inputting the requested height.

“Alrighty, now, how about eye color?” the doctor asked, still typing at his keyboard.

“We were thinking about blue, not very dark, but more like an ocean or sky blue,” Mary said, and James nodded, for once agreeing with his wife. The doctor typed some more on the computer.

“Hair color?”

“You better make me blonde. Not too yellow though, more like a pale blonde. I’ve studied the current beauty standards,” the fetus said excitedly.

“I don’t know, I was thinking brown hair, but I guess you would know better than me,” Mary said, debating whether or not to trust her child-to-be. The doctor typed that information in the computer. 

They stayed there for another hour or so. Whenever James tried to bring an idea to the table, Mary shot him down with some excuse. Eventually, James got sick of it and just let Mary and the fetus choose. He didn’t want his son to get sent to the Ugly House. He had heard about what happened there. He had heard that the Inspectors were very harsh. He had heard the rumors. He was nervous. 

* * *

Mary had given birth to Liam Gardner after 16 hours of being in labor. The Inspector was due any minute now. James had to leave for a meeting halfway through Mary giving birth. She was not happy about it. He was always leaving her to do some sort of work thing that she didn’t understand. Well, at least she now had a baby. A beautiful baby boy. Or at least she thought.

“Is this Liam Gardner with James and Mary Gardner?” a deep, booming voice asked. Mary turned toward the door. She saw a man dressed in a black and gray vest with a scar on his face. He was donning a black baker boy hat.

“Yes, I am Mary and this is Liam. James could not be here, unfortunately,” Mary said, a little bit snarkily. 

“Liam Gardner, what an interesting name.”

“Oh, the name is not final, we can change it if you think it’s odd.”

“That will not be necessary.” The Inspector walked toward Mary and the baby. “What a tall little man. He appears strong as well. He will be helpful to fight in our armies, if he is deemed satisfactory, of course.”

“Notice how beautiful his face is!” Mary said, trying very hard to get her son deemed satisfactory.

“It will not help you nor the boy if you try to convince me. I have made my decision. You will be sent a letter in the mail with instructions.”

“Instructions? For what?”

“For how to get your boy to the Ugly House. And for what to do from there. Please inform Mr. Gardner of this decision and read the letter together when it arrives.” 

Mary was shocked. Her son, going to the Ugly House? That didn’t happen to the wealthy folks. Liam had studied the beauty standards, and she had trusted him. Now he was going to be taken away. She had to speak with James about this. 

* * *

Mary stormed into their home. 

“James. Our sweet Liam is being sent to the Ugly House. I know this was all your fault, you in those meetings, when you told me in the customization that you had to sort a matter with the doctor, you knew he was going to be sent to the Ugly House all along!” Mary screamed at James, sobbing. 

“I did that to protect you, dear Mary. I knew I wouldn’t be able to help you raise a child. I was barely there when you were pregnant, I could never have time for our son,” James said, a lot calmer than his wife.

“And you thought that sending him to the Ugly House would be an appropriate response? You couldn’t have just been there for him?” Mary was really yelling now.

“Mary, you are acting obtuse. Do you not realize I was just trying to help? God, Mary, you’re impossible sometimes.” James was starting to get more aggressive.

“I’m impossible? I take care of our child, I cook, I clean the house while you just go to work all day! I don’t see you ever, and I’m the impossible one? You’re insane, James! You know what? Don’t come to our room tonight. I need my space from you.” Mary picked up Liam and went to their room. Liam’s crib was already set up in there, at least James did one thing. Mary had just gotten in bed when she heard a knock at her bedroom door.

“Hey, Mary, I just wanted to say that I’m sorry. I know it won’t help but I just wanted you to hear it. This came for us, I thought you might want to look at it first.” James slipped a letter under the door. It was addressed to both of them. 

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Gardner,

On the next page are the instructions for how to get your son, Liam Gardner, to the Ugly House. You have three days to get him there, or he will be forcefully removed from your household. 


The Inspectors

Mary skimmed the instructions and then opened the door. James gave her a hug, and then took the letter from her. They would take Liam to the Ugly House the next day.

* * *

The instructions had been very clear. Liam was to be brought to 151 Applebaum Street, and he would be taken to the Ugly House. Mary and James took their relatively-newborn and got into the car. They passed Bananabaum street, Pearbaum street, Grapebaum street, until they finally got to Applebaum. 147, 149, and then finally, 151 Applebaum street. The house was painted a turquoise color, and neither Mary nor James could say that they liked it very much. It looked very old and run-down. Almost abandoned. The instructions had said to leave Liam on the porch and not to hover. They did exactly that. Mary and James had driven home, and didn’t see Liam again, at least not for a long time. 

That’s where their stories end, but Liam’s story, well, that one is just beginning.

* * *

Liam was lying on the porch for about 15 minutes before an elderly woman came out of the house and got him. She brought him inside and gave him a bottle of milk. Then, as standard procedure for all incoming Ugly children, she gave him a dose of a serum made from maple tree bark that allows him to talk. 

“Hello, Mr. Liam Gardner. You are here because you have been deemed Ugly. Do not be alarmed, you will not be harmed just yet. You may call me Mrs. X,” the elderly woman, Mrs. X, said.

“So, I was deemed Ugly, why am I not in the Ugly House?” Liam said, confused.

“Currently, you are in what is called the ‘transition period.’ You will be transported to the Ugly House in about 30 minutes. This talking serum will wear off in about two minutes, so if you have any questions, now is the time to ask them. Don’t worry, this is standard procedure.”

“What is it like in the Ugly House? Will I be treated poorly? I’ve heard rumors that it’s terrible there.”

“I apologise, but I’m not allowed to address that. Oh, I think the serum has worn off. Unfortunately, I cannot give you more. Here, play with this.” Mrs. X gave Liam a baby toy to play with until the Transporter arrived.

30 minutes later, Liam was picked up. The Transporter put him in a seat in the back of a truck. The ground was damp and it smelled like mold. The Transporter was not a good driver. He kept on swerving and hitting potholes. About 15 minutes into the drive, the truck stopped. Liam was taken out of the foul-smelling vehicle and put into a baby carrier. He was handled aggressively and carried until he saw a mansion. If someone had asked Liam to describe what he saw in that moment, he would’ve just said scary. The mansion was huge, and looked amazing, but Liam knew it was the opposite. The whole thing was very eerie. Liam was taken inside. He was greeted by an incredibly ugly young girl. She seemed about seven years old. Her family must’ve been poor, Liam thought. Come to think of it, all of the children in this home were not from a high income family. Liam was the only outlier. Liam thought it was kind of horrible how only the poor got sent to the Ugly House. Well, mostly the poor. The girl took him to a room that didn’t have any windows. The only source of light was a small lamp in the corner. There was a black crib in the room that Liam assumed was his. Sure enough, he was placed in the crib. The ugly girl gave him a small bottle of milk that she had hidden underneath her bed. 

“Drink up. I’m Susan,” the girl whispered to him. She seemed cautious, as if something or someone was preventing her from talking to him in full volume. Liam drank the milk. Susan watched him drink, and then took the bottle from him when he finished. Liam thought this was a bit odd. This whole place was kind of odd. But it certainly was nothing like the rumors, at least not yet.

“The guard will be here any minute. I should go,” Susan said anxiously. She left the room. 

“Liam Gardener?” a woman’s voice came from outside the room. “I am here to introduce you to the Ugly House. I need to give you an injection so that we can… communicate with you better. Don’t worry, it’ll only be a pinch.” The woman came inside the room with a needle and a bandaid. She gave him the injection and put the bandaid on. Liam felt different. He felt older. It’s not possible that that injection made him older, right? It’s not possible…

“Great, it looks like the injection worked. You are now 11 years old. Can you speak?” the woman asked.

“How – how did you make me age ten years with only an injection? Why am I suddenly 11 years old?” Liam asked, confused.

“This is a standard procedure for all incoming Ugly children. Do not be alarmed.”

“That’s not possible, the girl that greeted me, Susan, she was only seven. It’s not possible for her to age ten years.”

“The injection works differently for different people. That ugly girl only aged five years. Now, let’s take you on a little tour, shall we?” The woman grabbed him by the wrist and pulled him out of the room. She took him to a room that again didn’t have any windows and sat him down at a metal table. The chair legs were uneven, and the table was sticky and smelled of orange juice. Sure enough, the woman gave him a glass of orange juice. When he finished drinking it, the woman took the glass and put it in a bin on the table. There was a small side room, which she went into and took out a pen and a notepad. She then looked at him and began to write something down. Liam was curious.

“What are you writing?” Liam asked, anxiously.

“That’s none of your concern! Don’t be so nosy, or you will not enjoy your time here. And we wouldn’t want that, would we?”

“Um, I guess not.” The woman continued to write. About ten minutes later, the woman had stopped writing and took Liam out of the room. She instructed him to follow her and took him to another room with no windows that had a chair and a barber smock in it. She told him to sit down and grabbed an electric razor from a side table. She then gave him a haircut.

“Nice hair makes someone look more Satisfactory. You stay here for three months so that we can mold you into a Satisfactory child. We transport you back to where you started, 151 Applebaum street. Your parents or whoever can come get you from there. Unfortunately, the injection never wears off, so you have lost a few years of your life. Oh well. Get up and follow me please.” She walked to yet another room. This was going to be a long three months. 

* * *

Liam looked in the mirror. I guess I’m, Satisfactory now? He thought. The Inspector was supposed to come today to reevaluate him. Liam was not sure if he was excited or disappointed. The last three months were something to say the least. He enjoyed his time here overall. He made a new friend in Susan from his room. He was considered attractive now. But despite all this, he still felt incomplete. He skipped ten whole years of his life. Ten years that he would never get back. Well, at least he would see mom and dad again. He heard a knock at the door. 

“Come in!” said Liam.

“Hello, Mr. Gardener. My, you’ve grown a lot since the last time I saw you,” said the Inspector, shocked.

“Yes, well I was given an injection which made me age ten years, as per your instructions,” Liam said, passive-aggressively.

“Do not put the blame on me, boy. I only deemed you Ugly because my boss had told me to. I have to reevaluate you now. You are a very good height for your age. And my-my, very strong too. Hair looks great. I deem you Satisfactory. Goodbye now, Mr. Gardener.” The Inspector left the room. Liam was in shock, that all happened so quickly! The woman who had given him a tour (whose name he still hadn’t learned) came into the room. 

“I’m here to discuss the details of your departure. You will leave our facility in half an hour. Please go pack your things now,” the woman said, without an ounce of emotion in her voice. Liam packed up his stuff and went to the exit of the Ugly House to be picked up. Again, he was put into the back of a truck. The ground was not damp this time, but it still smelled of mold. After a 15 minute ride, the truck stopped at 151 Applebaum street. James and Mary Gardener picked him up. They went back to the house. Mary had decided to get a divorce from James, so she took Liam and they got their own house. 

That’s where this story concludes. 

It was Him

Editor’s Note: This story explores darker themes and mentions violence & self-harm.


It’s the alarm that woke me up that morning. Not my clock that’s seemingly harmless, but the Imperial Alarm. It has never been used before. 

When we first moved to the Triwall Sector, the second thing our family was taught about was the Imperial Alarm. It’s reserved solely for emergencies such as natural disasters, and the unexpected death of a high ranking member of the Imperials. I remember the man who gave us a tour of the place, carefully pointing every single thing out. He had led us to the pedestal, holding the huge bell shaped alarm. “It’s never been used before and it never will,” he said. I guess that man was wrong. 

The bell rang, and it’s been ringing for the past half hour. It seems like no one knows what to do right now. Everyone’s scrambling around outside, frantically searching for some guards who know what they’re doing. I yank on my socks and slowly open my door to reveal the bare hallway. One step at a time, I pound down the stairs to find my family huddled around our Slim Screen that displayed the town square. The Slim Screen is honestly an extremely helpful tool. It broadcasts channels that play on TVs, and it translates over 6000 languages.

 My family’s faces are expressionless, but I see the fear beneath their eyes. I walk over to them and slip my hand in Mom’s. My mother, with her beautiful blond hair and blue eyes, the traits I inherited from her, is waiting with a worried expression and her level signal over her head. 153. Like Mom, I have her ocean blue eyes, yet take my thick, curly brown hair from my father. Mom rubs my back like she always has since I was little. I feel her hand, comforting me, and soothing me. “It’s going to be okay Alana, everything’s going to be fine.” When my mom says something, you have to believe her. The compassion and sympathy in her voice stay with you wherever you go.

 She’s squeezing my hand now too, and I can tell she is unhappy with the situation. My dad pulls me in for a side hug, and this time I didn’t resist. I mean, usually I would because who even hugs their dad when they’re 14? My head leans against his broad chest and I feel his chest muscles tense. He breathes in and out, in and out. I concentrate on his breathing. It’s ragged and heavy. I pull away and cover my eyes with my hands. I want to fall asleep. We stand there in muddled silence for about 30 seconds. The Alarm is still ringing, and it’s hurting my ears. Then, the Imperial Alarm lets out one last earsplitting shriek and falls quiet. Timmy squeaks out a sound. He moves to hold Mom’s other hand. Then, everything goes pitch dark. Even our levels are gone. 

The first thing we learned about when we moved to Triwall Sector were the levels. When you performed tasks the bots were happy with, the icons over your head gave you points. Having points gave you advantages which helped you lead a better life. As a pay salary for jobs each week, our levels go up by .25. Mom and Dad’s levels are really high for commoners, so we get lots of luxury. For example, our family, we all have levels in the hundreds. So, we are able to access the uptown of Triwall while the middle class can only visit Midtown and Downtown. For the people that have low levels, they can’t access the elevators, the cars, the luxury objects in everyday life. Points are like health levels as well. Your arm broke? Your neck broke? The levels above your head carry a value no one can imagine. They slowly drain while you’re getting better, while you’re summoning enough strength. After you’re healed, work harder. You work harder until the levels are gained back. That’s just how it is. Well, all that’s gone now. There are no more levels. There are no more levels. No matter how many times I repeat that to myself, I can’t seem to fully wrap my head around the fact that there are no more levels. 

My brother, Timmy, looks around with fear in his eyes. He’s only nine. I’ve always protected him. He’s like the best friend I’ve never really had. But now that the world is out of control, there is nothing I can do to make Timmy feel like he is safe. Because in fact, he isn’t really safe at all. I see my parents exchange that look that means, “Uh oh we’re in trouble.” But to us, they only give positive and supportive looks. Mom wrenches her hand from mine and Tim’s grip and hurries to the windows. Her forearms rest against the metal windowsill. My mom stares at the crowd, and turns to report back.

“The whole level system is gone. It’s chaos out there.” 

And indeed it was. I rush over to the window to see for myself only to find disaster. The usually lit-up streets were dark. The level symbols above our heads used to keep the streets glowing. There are no levels now. My hands fall on the windowsill. Without the level system, everyone can go anywhere. They don’t need to keep in line as they won’t be punished. I force myself to drag my feet back to the rest of my family. Timmy whispers, “Are we gonna die?” Feet shuffle, and finally, my mother says in her sweet voice,

“No, Timmy, we’ll be absolutely safe. We’re here for you wherever you go.” But somehow, even if Mom’s voice sounds exactly the same, for the first time, I don’t actually believe her. 


Mom starts soothing Timmy, who begins to cry. I can’t listen to this anymore, I’m way too tired. I’m tired of living in this world where levels control you, I’m tired of the levels malfunctioning. My feet drag with every step I take. My arms hang by my sides, like limp spaghetti noodles that Timmy throws under the dinner table. 

“I think I ought to get some sleep,” I say weakly. I mean, there is nothing I can do at this moment anyway. Mom nods, and Dad says,

“I’m heading up too, you guys should also catch a nap.” He gestures to Mom and Timmy. 

“Wait it out till the morning, nothing much can get worse from here.” Dad grins, puts an arm around my shoulder, and starts guiding me towards the stairs. Oh boy, is Dad wrong. 

We reach the top of the stairs. I leave Dad standing in front of his room and head to mine. I can barely keep my eyes open, my eyelids feel like weights. I sink down on my bed. I don’t even take off my socks. Pulling my blanket up to my chin, I immediately fall asleep and get greeted by a memory I don’t want to rewatch. 

“Alana Wilkson, walk up here please.” The levels above my head are rapidly shooting down, lower and lower. I want to stop them, but I can’t. The rest of the class is staring at me, laughing and pointing. My level is down to 33. I shouldn’t even be in school with a level that low. You need at least a 50 for that. Six, five, four, I feel myself losing strength. So this is how it feels to die. 

“I didn’t do anything wrong,” I whisper to Ms. Johns defiantly, while I fight for my eyelids not to close. She stares at me, daring me to lie. I want to sink into a small puddle, a puddle where no one knows who I am. Eventually, my levels were sorted out. I woke up in the office to find the most important man in the Triwall Sector waiting for me. That was the time I met the Elector Imperial. He drove me to his private quarters and then hired his team to fix the numbers. I watch as the symbols light up and my level is soon back to normal. The Elector Imperial fixes me with a smile, his ice cold eyes piercing into mine. “Sorry for causing you any trouble, Alana dear.” But even at the mere age of nine, I could tell he doesn’t really mean it. 

My forehead is beaded with sweat when I bolt up, wide awake. The truth is, I’m scared. I’m scared of the levels. When I used to wander downtown with Mom where the river is, where we saw the different boats coming in with shipments, I saw those homeless people, the beggars on the street. Their levels are low, really low, and their faces are blank. Like they’ve given up. Because once you’re down the ladder of levels, there’s really no going back up. Our lives are shaped by levels, and levels are vital to living in Triwall. It’s that important. So I’m scared. I’m scared because without levels, we’re nobodies, we don’t have a place in the world above anyone else. And I’m scared for my neighbors, my friends, and my family, but mostly, I’m scared for myself. 


I’m too startled. I don’t think I can go back to sleep and relive those unpleasant memories again. I walk to the bathroom quietly, as my whole family seems to be asleep. Peering into Mom and Dad’s room, I see Timmy snuggled in between them, smiling in his sleep. He’s probably thinking of good memories. Wish I could relate. I splash cold water on my face and pull on my boots. I am going outside. I am going to see for myself.

I open the door and fresh air hits my face. I need that. Walking to the Imperial Alarm, I see many people huddled in groups, even this early in the morning. It makes me uneasy, because usually no one’s around this early. It makes me scared. I pick up my pace to a jog when someone runs into me. I jump back in surprise. Without meaning to, my face lights up. He’s the most beautiful boy I’ve ever seen. Pushing those thoughts away, I analyze the person getting to his feet. He’a a carpenter, someone who fixes things that go wrong in the Triwall Sector. His badge gleams on his chest.  Can’t even call him a man, he’s barely 18. He looks flushed. Almost as if he’s hurting inside. Guilty for doing something wrong. “Sorry,” he mumbles, while averting his eyes and continuing on his way. I think I will remember that boy. With those looks, I don’t think I could forget him.


Wow. The space around the Alarm is packed four deep. People scrambled and shoved, trampled and tripped each other. Many people stay on the sidelines though. Without their levels, if you get hurt, there’s no telling what could happen. Of course, the risk takers wanted to see the Alarm for themselves. People touch it, bang it, or simply just stand in front of it. Normally, with the presence of levels, people wouldn’t dare. Points are taken off in big chunks for approaching the Alarm at all.  But now, you can do anything you want to, if you are okay with the possibility you may be in pain for the rest of your existence. After all, there are no more levels. Then, after an eternity of physical violence, people gasp.  Their faces are frozen with shock. “No!” someone screams, and all of a sudden, the Imperial Alarm rings again. Standing less than 30 feet away, the bell’s intense ringing hurts my head. I have no idea what’s happened. 

“The Elector Imperial is dead,” someone shouts while others repeat those horrid words. “Dead in his bedroom, throat slit.” 

My stomach hurts. I feel lightheaded. The world fades to black.


I wake up to Timmy’s face hovering over me.

“Alana, you’re awake! Thank goodness!” my Mom says happily. Dad hovers over her shoulder, his eyes brightening the moment he sees me smile. Timmy dances around the room, like he doesn’t have a care in the world. 

“Mom, what happened?!” I gasp, finally finding my voice. 

“Nothing you have to worry about now, honey,” Mom replies, clearly hiding something she doesn’t want me to know. 

“Mom, I want to know. I deserve to know.” I sit up and pain hits my temples. It’s like a blinding light I can’t close my eyes to. Timmy shouts and screams. As much as I want to tell him it’s okay, I don’t have the strength to do it. I see Timmy’s hazy shape over me, and a memory hits me again. The day Timmy came home.

I see my old doll Betty in my hands. I’m pacing around the same table that’s still here now. Mom and Dad should be home anytime soon. I’m so excited. I get to meet Timmy. I’m with my old babysitter, Gerta. She’s gorgeous. Her level states 72. She got a job after graduation apparently, and then became my babysitter. There’s a knock at the door. I rush to open it, but Gerta beats me. She swings it open, and smiles brightly at Mom and Dad while I stare at Timmy. My eyes are only on him. He’s adorable. I make a move to grab his torso but Dad puts a gentle hand on my shoulder. 

“Sweetie, move to the sofa, you don’t want to drop him, not when he’s this young.” I sit down on the sofa and get comfortable while Dad sets Timmy down on my lap. He has blue eyes, the same as mine. I watch with huge eyes as a level symbol starts to form over my brother’s head. I swatted it, determined to see my brother’s full face and take in his face. The symbol stays put. Timmy starts to wail and scream. Mom takes him back hugging and rocking him. As Mom heads to her room, I stare at the hovering level signal with confusion. It’s always been there, and somehow, even now, I still can’t seem to get used to it. But now, as the levels are gone, it’s even stranger to not see the flickering blue digits above someone’s head. 


I’m conscious again, and Timmy runs over to me. I think I’ve gotten used to seeing our levels over our heads because looking at Timmy now, the space above his head just seems so empty. 

“Alana’s awake!” he says enthusiastically to the whole house. Then, to me, he says solemnly, “The Imperials want to talk with you. They wouldn’t tell us why. Mom pestered and pestered, but no one told us why”

The Imperials. That means the government. What do they want from me? A fourteen-year-old girl who fainted at the site?

Timmy tugs me up to a sitting position while Mom strides into the room. 

“Hey, hon, glad you’re up,” my mom says with her sweet voice like silk. She moves around, taking my temperature, and brushing my hair. When she’s satisfied, Mom sits down and sighs. 

“I’m taking you to Imperial’s Head for questioning, I’m sure Timmy has told you. Ready in ten.” Mom pecks my cheek and walks out. 


We pass the Alarm as we head to the Imperials Headquarters. There’s caution tape around the site, but otherwise it looks the same.  Now, looking at the Alarm, it looks identical to what it looked like yesterday, but I know so much has changed. 

Mom pulls up to the huge cement block of a building. It doesn’t even have any windows. 

“Head in hon. I’ll wait for you outside.”

I’m numb as I pass through the endless metal detectors, walk by the countless stares the guards give me, and finally, when guards escort me to an office, my eyes snap open. 

There are two men sitting straight up in chairs. One is a general with badges all over his uniform. And the other is the beautiful boy I met this morning. 


He flashes a small smile, then returns to his poised state. I blush. Before I can move my mouth, the general saves me. 

“Glad to see you joining us, Ms. Wilkson.” He turns the corners of his mouth up, as if he’s teasing a smile. I nod tentatively and sit down in the chair the general points at. Once I’m seated, the general starts to talk. 

“I heard you were at the alarm early this morning. Is that correct, Ms. Wilkson? Yes, I assume that is. Judging by the face you made at Mr. Thomas Oberchy’s presence, I see that you two have met?” 

I nod again, and the general is silent. I’m still confused about why I’m here, but the general says no more. The silence is unbearable. I am here watching two men glare at each other with much hostility, and the reason? No idea.  

“Mr. Oberchy is suspected of the murder of the Elector Imperial,” the general finally says. I see Thomas clenching his fists. He must be instructed not to talk. 

“And as of now, you, Ms. Wilkson, are the only person Mr. Oberchy has interacted with this morning. I say, let’s begin. No need to make that face, Ms. Wilkson, this will only take about half an hour or so.”

The general really was trained for this type of questioning. Question after question, he shoots at me like bullets you can’t avoid. 

“Have you met this man before?”


“Do you suspect there are other people involved?”

“Um, no.”

Tens of questions later, I find myself faced with one last question. This is where I make my mistake. 

“Was there any suspicious behavior from our suspect this morning?”

“He was worried, I think, and… and, he was heading away from the Alarm.”  My voice quivers and wavers in uncertainty. The general is still sitting up ramrod straight, but he smiles. 

Thomas’ eyes snapped open. The blase look behind his eyes is gone. For the first time, he speaks up. “I didn’t. I swear I didn’t. I was heading home to see my parents and my sister. I really swear I didn’t.”

His voice is like Mom’s. Smooth as silk, and it makes you want to fall for him. He seems so genuine, and his words seem to come from his heart. 

The general winks at me and steps out of the room to talk with his elders who are waiting outside. Thomas looks at me with wide eyes. He is only a few years older than me. His expression is so innocent, so real, he just doesn’t have the capacity to kill someone, especially in front of the Alarm, where there were hundreds of people present. 

When I first saw Thomas, I thought he was 18, but now I see the youth in his eyes, the sparks of joy. He can only be about 16, and as we sit here, in this cold cement block of a room, the youth in his eyes fades away. 

“Please,” he says. “I have family at home. They need me. My sister needs me the most. If there were anything more I had to say to make you believe me, I would.” He looks so vulnerable, so fragile. He looks away, then turns back. 

“I really don’t know why I’m begging you, but you are the only person who can change his mind. So please, help me, please do.”

I look over his face one last time, those deep blue eyes, flawless skin. His face is the definition of pain. It breaks my heart to see someone in that state. It hurts more to leave them like that. And even as I will myself to believe this boy is a criminal, I can’t bring myself to. “It was him,” the boy says. I shake my head. Is he talking about the general? His position is already so high, I doubt he would risk his own life to kill someone important like the Elector, I think to myself. My heart aches for Thomas. Turning away, I walk out the door, but not before whispering to myself that I was going to make sure I would do what’s right – not for the government, but for my heart. 

The general is talking with his elders in a room that looks executive. Even royal. Unlike the rooms they use for investigating people, like the one I just walked out of. He tells me, “We’ve all agreed! 10/26/47, we’re executing him.”

He chuckles, apparently proud of himself. I glance at him, disgusted to see this man. This man who has just dished out a death sentence without remorse.

I have just given a boy death, when I just as easily could have let him live. This boy could have been the man to find the cure to cancer. He could have been the president of the world. But most importantly, this boy will not be able to give his family love. He will not be able to love his mom, his dad, he will not be able to love his sister. His sister who needs him the most. 


Mom’s car is waiting idly in front of the building. I walk up to the car and knock on the window. 

“Mom, please unlock the car.” 

My mom gives me a thumbs up and I swing the door open. 

“How’d it go, hon?”

“It was fine, Mom.” I sink into the cushioned seat of the car. She stares at me pointedly as if urging me to tell more. I close my eyes and remember how easily the government was able to give a death sentence. The general too. And me. Can one person just end someone’s life? The general was so precisely trained, taught everything he needed to know to become as high-ranking as he was. And yes, you can train people to learn things, but you need to be born with a heart.


The citizens outside their homes are doing things they wouldn’t have dared to when there were levels. Why did the levels just vanish? Who would know how to start ringing the Alarm? And more importantly, who killed the Elector Imperial? In 27 days, a suspect who may be innocent will leave this world forever. We drive home in silence. 

Pulling up to our condo, I see Timmy and Dad waiting for us outside. Dad looks so worried. I give him a reassuring smile and tell him, “I’m fine, Dad, nothing to worry about.” But inside, I am hurting. I am hurting for Thomas, because if he is truly innocent, he doesn’t deserve this. He doesn’t deserve any of it. 

I sit on my bed for what feels like forever. When I will myself to get up, I remain sitting. Now the level crisis and Thomas’s dilemma add to my problems. It’s all weighing me down. The problems are holding me under water and won’t let me breathe. The problems I don’t have 

time for. 


Thomas was arrested yesterday, right after I left the Imperial’s Headquarters. He is being broadcasted on Slim Screen. He doesn’t even look mad anymore. His eyes hold the pain he is forced to bear. Looking at him reminds me of someone who has given up. Someone who has decided that there is no reason to live. He fidgets with his hands. He moves them around in a pattern. I do that sometimes too when I’m nervous. It makes me feel more connected to him. It makes me happy. Happier to be sad. 

The camera switches over to the general in his office. His jacket is adorned with badges that gleam in the light. “It’s honestly an accomplishment that we found the culprit who killed our dear Elector. We are working on making him talk about the damaged levels. The suspect remains quiet as of now. We still wonder why he would… ” I turn the volume on the Slim Screen down. 

He keeps talking. He looks like a goldfish. Spitting out words with no value.


Laying in bed that night, I realize something so important. The levels prevent you from dying. The levels are now gone. And the Elector is gone as well. Is this a coincidence? I think of what my dad told me when I was only a little kid. “There are no coincidences in the Triwall Sector.”

Hurriedly, I sit up and turn on my lights. I swing open the door to my room and start making my way to my parents’ bedroom. Inside, it is peaceful. The dark curtains cover the windows, blocking the chaos in the outside world. I gently prod my mom with my hands. Bleary, and annoyed, she opens her eyes and stares at me, confused. 

I start, “Mom, the Elector couldn’t have died if the levels were intact. That means somebody who – ”

“ – knew how to wipe out the levels murdered him,” she finished, the twinkle in her eyes grows. This excited her, I can tell. 

“Then. Then, that means someone with access to the level system must have murdered the Elector Imperial. Someone on his side must have ended his life.”


It is October 26th. Thomas will be executed today. I spend the entire morning staring at the bright, flashing screen of the Slim Screen. The news stations broadcast Thomas’s face, bored and restless. His hands are moving again. Constant fidgeting. Almost like defined movements. Tears roll down my cheeks every time I hear someone reporting facts about Thomas’s would-be death. 

Now, you may be thinking, Thomas will live. The general is responsible for the death of the Elector, and Thomas won’t die. However, if you are thinking that, you are wrong. In fact, Thomas will die that day. In fact, I will visit Thomas’ family that day, his sister, his mother, his father, all blue eyed and blonde. I will comfort them, hug them, cry with them, despite barely knowing them at all. I will learn Thomas’ mother’s name, Lindsey. His father’s name, Landon, and his sister’s name, Anna. The sister who will get robbed of Thomas’s love because of me. 

Thomas’ family and I grieve over him. We sit in silence, the absence of sound addressing our feelings of how unreasonable it is for the General to give a death sentence merely based on my word. 

“I don’t think Tommy’s life was worth only a few words from a teenage girl. I really thought it was more,” Lindsey says, her voice cracking. Tears brim in my eyes, and threaten to spill. I glance at Lindsey, and she looks away. My heart convulses in pain. 

I watch Thomas’s family in silence. I cannot bear the responsibility of his death. I stand up, push in my chair, and I tell them, “I am truly sorry. I am sorry from the bottom of my heart.”

Thomas’ parents give me a small nod. It’s Anna who speaks up. “It’s okay.”

The most meaningful words I have ever heard. 

Lindsey comes up and wraps her arms around me. I used to think that sadness brought people apart. Now I know that sometimes, sadness brings people together. 


At home, I take a long shower, trying to wash off the grief I hold inside me. It doesn’t work. The shower thunders down in streams. My tears do too. 


I stare at the Slim Screen and the General talking like a goldfish. Spewing out lies of Thomas’ crime. He’s literally dead. Don’t pick on him more than you have to. I turn the volume down. His hands stay still, like a professional. Why were Thomas’s hands moving with so much certainty? What is he trying to tell us, and what do I need to know?

I ask the Slim Screen, “Pull up all clips of Thomas Oberchy.”

Seeing the more recent clips, I smile. His hair. His eyes. 

I scroll down the list of crammed letters and words until I’m at the year 2037. Thomas sure does have a lot of articles about him. None are particularly interesting. The math award in 2nd grade, the art competition he won when he was 5. I scroll back up. And then, something catches my eye. October 26, 2042. 5 years ago to this date. My face blanches, and I breathe in sharply. 

11-year-old Thomas Oberchy Volunteers to teach kids American Sign Language.


American Sign Language. Oh my god. I frantically order the Slim Screen to play the clip of Thomas’s last appearance on camera, and zoom in on his hands. It makes sense. His hands move with dominance, while trying to be subtle. He is trying to tell us something. 

I tell the Slim Screen, “Translate American Sign Language to English.” I hold up the video of Thomas signing. The device processes for way too much time, then finally says, “He did it himself. He did it himself. He did it himself, is the translation of the clip you have ordered me to translate.”


I sit there for a minute, trying to make sense of what Thomas was saying. Then, I shout, “Mom! Dad! This is so urgent. Come here!” 

I hear their footsteps plodding along. Like they’re on a walk! Like they are lounging by the pool and getting pina coladas for me and Timmy. No, Mom, no, Dad. This most certainly is not the time to be drinking sweet pina coladas while dipping your feet in the pool. 

“Hurry! Hurry up!” I shout. The door to my room opens slowly, and my parents step in.

“Ok. Ok! Are you listening? You know I was watching the news clips of Thomas before his execution, right?”

At this, my parents nod. 

I continue, “And, I noticed, his hands were moving very, very much. I do that too when I talk, but not to the extent of what Thomas was doing. So I thought, maybe I would figure out more about who Thomas is. I scroll back to 2042, and golly, there’s an article about Thomas teaching sign language!”

My mom turns to me. “Honey, I am impressed by what you have uncovered, but do you think there’s a chance Thomas did it? I mean – ”

“Mom. Are you serious right now? You have got to be joking.” However, my mom does not seem to be joking at all. 

“Dear, I’m not saying you’re wrong, but the people who have captured him are trained professionals. Surely they would know and can tell if someone is truly innocent.”

“Dad. These people killed a boy with their only evidence being my word. Do you understand how unreasonable this sounds?” I say. My fists are clenched. I already talked to Mom about the killer being on the Elector’s side. Just what could have made her change her mind? My mother, who I relied on, who is my most trusted human on earth. What has happened to my mother? Can’t she see she is wrong?

“Thomas said, ‘He did it himself, he did it himself, he did it himself,’ in the translation. Do you see how big this is?” 

Unfortunately, my parents do not see. I sat up, “You don’t get it. He’s innocent.”

Yanking the doorknob open, I storm out of the room.


Who knew how to disable the levels? And what does Thomas have to do with this at all? Why was he randomly taken into custody? I decide to visit Thomas’s family once again. 


Knocking on the door, I fear I have made a mistake. Thomas’ family certainly would not want to see their son’s cause of death in the flesh. Before I can turn back though, the door opens and Lindsey peeks out. 

“Hi! I just wanted to ask a few questions because Thomas’ death is so confusing and does not make sense at all. I hope I’m not bothering too much, even though I know I am.” My brilliant idea suddenly turns not-so-brilliant. I should not have come here. Lindsey opens the door fully, allowing me to come inside.

I follow her to the living room, and watch her as she takes a seat on the stiff orange sofa. I follow suit.

She asks me, “Would you like anything to drink?”

Even though my throat is burning with thirst, I cannot take more from this family. “I’m okay, thank you,” I say.

Then, I proceed, “I was just thinking about Thomas’s death, and I thought why him? Because there were certainly many other people around the Alarm. There were so many other people who actually knew how to disable the levels. But Thomas was selected for a reason.”

Lindsey sighs, her eyes red and puffy, and quietly starts telling her story. 

“Thomas was selected for a reason. But not for the reason you think. You see, Thomas was one of the few carpenters chosen to feverishly work for four whole days, to end the idea of levels at all. They were told that the levels were unhealthy for society and the growth of humans. They poked and prodded with wires, changed the programs of the levels to allow them to be permanently discontinued. There were five of them. Everyone else but the Elector and those five carpenters knew zilch about this plan. When they finally succeeded, they were to report to the Elector himself. But those four other rats of people fled, leaving Tommy the only one to report to the Elector. Those four people literally left Triwall Sector. We still don’t know why. Anyway, he was driven to the Elector’s private office, where he told him they were successful in disabling the levels. The Elector flipped the switch that would wipe out the levels totally. Tommy left the office, proud of his accomplishment, but scared of the chaos that would happen.”

Lindsey clears her throat and wipes her eyes.

“This is where things go wrong. On the way out of the office building, Tommy said there was a thwack on the floor. A thump. He rushes back to his personal room where guards are already surrounding it. He stands on his tip toes and sees a petrifying scene. The Elector’s body is in a pool of blood. A slit in his throat. A knife lying next to his limp hand. The rancid and rusty odor emanated from the blood. Thomas tried to rush away, but someone grabbed him from behind, and told him to change, then come right back. He left, and then that’s where he ran into you, Alana. And so, Thomas’ death is not actually your fault. The Elector was not supposed to end his life. Thomas was not supposed to see that. The reason Thomas was given a death penalty is because he had seen the true cause of his death and was deemed untrustworthy to keep the secret. My husband and I, now you, are the only people who are aware of this. But it still saddens me. It really does.”

My eyes are overflowing with tears. I give Lindsey a hug. Thomas was right. It was him. “Him” could be anyone. It could be Thomas, who was part of the Elector’s death. But I will choose to think of Him as the Elector. The Elector did it himself.


Breaking through 

the salty water

I swim back to shore

My feet feel 

smooth rocks 

on the shore

as I step onto

the beach

I lay my towel 

on the sand

and pull out 

a book to read 

in the sun

Walls of water 

slap the rocks

The smell of  

smoke from hot dogs 

is carried in the air

I lean back

and feel 

the warmth 

of Summer

The Passenger

A soft pinging plays as the stewardess who’s probably been working in this airport for far too long asks, for the third time, for a passenger to give up their seat on the overbooked plane. The terminal is cold and stiff, unlike the hot and stuffy air awaiting me in 600 miles and 4 hours. I look out the large windows facing the tarmac. The sun is shrouded in bright white clouds and a murky snow coats the grass. In the distance, an outline of my big gray city is barely visible. A line of older people begins to form in front of the desk of arguing flight attendants. I sit and stare at the bustling terminal until the same stewardess grips the intercom again and for the fourth time pleads, “Ladies and gentleman… This flight has been overbooked. If no one chooses to give up their place, the flight cannot leave. Southwest is willing to give away a 500 dollar voucher to another flight, if no one takes this we will randomly select one passenger.” 

She puts the microphone down and I see her begin to lecture a much younger, and likely more patient, flight attendant. The terminal falls to low chatter and the piercing screaming of three toddlers. Every person in the terminal knows someone would have to be crazy to willingly give up their spot on the only flight to Key West 12 hours before Christmas Eve. I whip out my phone and check the time, 12:22. The flight was supposed to board 30 minutes ago and now it seems that I’ll never get to escape this stiff bench and give my ears the relief of silence 10,000 ft in the sky. 

My eyes adjust to a rapidly darkening room as the layers of clouds thicken just outside the glass. I can understand why someone would want to leave Minneapolis in December. I don’t blame the passengers or the flight attendant for being so stubborn. Still, the tension in the room is tangible and all I want is for someone to just give in and let the rest of us leave. After not even a minute, for the fifth time in 30 minutes, a chiming plays again.

Instead of the gruff voice of a weathered old woman, a warm, eager voice of a man begins to play with the intonation of a grade-school PSA.

“Hello ladies and gentleman, this is Captain Pearson speaking for flight 2869. I hope you are all having a wonderful Christmas Eve with us at Southwest airlines.” 

He leaves a bit of space after an idiotic chuckle for a laugh but the room rings silent.

“Anyway… I am obliged to alert you all that a severe winter storm is approaching, and with this delay, there is the possibility of cancellation. I encourage anyone to please give up their seat so we can all go about our trip without further disruption.”

I can feel the collective stomach of the room drop. Instead of the sunny beaches and glorious sunsets of Key West, one of us will be stuck in the luxurious Minneapolis airport during a blizzard. 

How cliche, I think to myself with a grin, what Hallmark plot is this?

The minute that follows is one of the most tense moments of my life, second only to the time at work when I made an ill-timed joke about one of my colleagues’ late mother. In my defense, I didn’t realize she was a late mother at that time.

I took a week off work for this trip; I really could not miss this flight. The decision was pretty spontaneous. I was sick of the same routine over and over and I remembered how my parents would take my brother and me to Key West every winter vacation when I was young. Maybe the change of scenery or the déjà vu from my childhood would help me… 

The fluorescent lighting above seems to get stronger and stronger by the second, and the processed air seems to become more oppressive by the instant. The older people preemptively standing in a line like silver generals on a hill look around as if telling us that we were selfish for refusing to give up our seats that we paid for. I begin to think about why I’m really taking this trip.

Help me what?

Suddenly, the intercom screeches back on and Captain Perfect’s voice begins to replay like a scratched record. At this point, it probably would make sense for someone to just give up already instead of a random selection. Someone like me, I conclude. I mean, I’ll leave it up to another 5’11’’ guy on an irrationally expensive trip for no reason with a bit more honor than me. 

“Okay… since no one wants to give up their seat, uh, we will commence a random selection,” the captain states. I should interject, but I don’t. The odds I get selected are low anyways, and honestly some of these entitled rich people on their vacations should be humbled a bit. But then I kind of feel like this is some sort of Hunger Games drawing. A part of me is sure my name will be the one read out. 

“Marissa Waltzon, would you please check in at the desk to receive your flight voucher,” the captain states.

I quietly grunt a, “Yesss!” with a celebratory fist. As if I would actually be chosen at random. I guess this isn’t really a Hallmark film after all. 

I look around as the room releases a sigh of relief and the stewardess begins to check people onto the flight. I don’t really feel bad for this Marissa. She’s probably some Karen who’s been harassing the airport employees like most of the women here. 

“Sucks to suck.” I mindlessly let out with a grin as I gather my bags to board the plane. 

I then notice the woman next to me, a very young woman actually, and she seems equally offended and heartbroken. She gazes up at me like a wounded street cat. She’s an attractive woman unlike the others in the terminal. She seems to actually take care of herself. 

Her mouth hangs open as if debating whether she wants to say something or not. She definitely is one of those types. I prepare myself to back off and apologize to avoid any confrontation when she looks me up and down and scoffs before turning around to walk over to the desk. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t incredibly offended by that gesture, but I guess that’s women for you. I definitely need to go up and apologize. I’m above that. I speed over to the desk with my backpack in hand.

Right before approaching her I realize, Wait, what do I even say? Oh, sorry for having the maturity of a twelve year old boy. I hope you have a lovely Christmas Eve in an airport… There is no reason for me to even have to apologize. This is stupid.

Before I can turn around to retreat, Marrissa begins to talk to the flight attendant and I can’t help but overhear.

“Are there no other flights to Key West tonight?” she pleads.

The flight attendant shakes her head before tapping her iPad screen with ridiculously long, grotesque pink nails. 

“Ma’am, all flights for the next week are fully booked,” she nonchalantly says, not even bothering to glance up from her screen.

“How about Tampa? Tallahassee? Miami? Orlando?” she says, exasperated. Each time, the flight attendant shakes her head. “Well, is there anything you can do? Please, my mother is on her last legs and she has no one,” she begs. The flight attendant looks up at her, flaunting her wrinkled pale face and obvious wig that’s a bit sideways. 

Annoyed, she says, “Ma’am, it is Christmas week. All direct flights to Florida are booked, you should know that. The best I can do is fly you out to Missoula and get you on a flight to Miami from there in about 36 hours.” She looks down and starts typing before concluding with, “Unfortunately, the voucher can’t fully cover that and you’ll need to pay about 400 additional dollars.”

“Where the hell is Missoula? My mom doesn’t have two days, and I don’t have 400 dollars. This is ridiculous, aren’t you supposed to help me?” Marissa cries.

“Montana,” she replies, not even batting an eye. Marissa’s jaw drops and she stares at the stewardess in shock. “You can always drive,” she replies as if it were some sick joke.

Oh great, now I feel like a double asshole. This has to be some movie plot somewhere. Okay… I need to step up and help this poor woman. She’ll appreciate me so much. 

Nobly, I step up, struggling to find the words.

“Hello ma’am, uhm I’m sorry about your predicament and uhm, uhh,” I stutter.

She turns to look at me like she’s about to kill me before immediately turning back to the attendant.

“Wait no, uhmm, uh, do you wanna trade spots?” I manage to get out. Wow, this is pathetic.

“Huh?” she blurts out.

“I mean if you want to take my place… I can use the voucher,” I try to say as calmly as possible.

Before she can reply, the attendant working the line states that this is the last call to board over the intercom.

Panicked, she looks at me and gives me a nod of approval, and I try to flash a smile but it seems to fall a bit flat.

She whispers a brief, “Thank you,” before hurrying to the line and walking through the tunnel to the plane. I’m shocked. 

She’s walking through my tunnel to my plane to sit in my seat. Is that really all I get? She didn’t even ask my name or insist otherwise. Did I really give my vacation plans to a woman who didn’t even ask my name? Aren’t I owed at least that? That’s it, last time I’m being noble…  Totally unfulfilling… I really didn’t get any credit at all. Zero?!

I snap back to reality when I begin to think about my hotel reservations and my car rental. Oh my God, what have I done? I realize.

I talk to the flight attendant and she redirects me to another desk. After maybe an hour of frustrating back and forth with a much kinder employee, she issues me that ticket to Missoula and Miami for an additional 150 dollars. I go to my stiff bench to hunker down for the rest of the day as it begins to snow. The plane lifts off and here I am, still waiting to board, like I always am. As I sit and wait, I think about Marissa and her mom and the flight of ungrateful passengers and rude attendants, all waiting to get to the next place and do the next thing, moving from one boarding terminal to another while I’ll be sitting on this uncomfortable-ass bench. 

I guess that’s how the world works sometimes… 


Why You Should Love Your Kids More than Your Hat


“Here are ours. My wife, Meena, my daughter, Adrika, and my son, Ravi.”

“Okay,” the customs agent replied with an eye roll. 

He was thanked for his tireless work nonetheless, and the family continued on their way through the seemingly endless Heathrow hallways. With their flight leaving at 8:00 AM, everyone was exhausted, so the nice, cool airplane that had softish seats with a small yet noticeable recline seemed like the perfect compensation.

This was no normal family though. With Siddarth leading the pack, carrying 3 ridiculously large black suitcases in his hands, his already impossibly large size doubled, he took up half of the hallway, causing all of the passengers to stare. His gorgeous, premium suede baseball cap with luxurious foam inner linings gave him a suspicious air that he loved and the cap lived for, but which the family was forever embarrassed of. 

The rest of Siddarth’s family seemed to have all gotten his wife’s more normal, though dwarfish in comparison, dimensions. Adrika, 16, was a solid 5 foot 8, almost a foot shorter than her dad, causing her to have a weird combination of love, admiration, and nervousness whenever she got to spend time with him. Sometimes, she felt that the hats he was always wearing got more attention than she did. I doubt she was wrong.

Ravi was a baby, only 2. Adrika, being 14 years older, had her doubts about him, but she was slowly coming around. Ravi was lucky enough to be gifted with one of the Siddarth’s prized possessions: a limited edition Gucci baseball cap that he got as a wedding gift. He was wearing it today, because, as Siddarth said, “It always is good luck when father and son are matching-matching!” With the eye rolls going unnoticed, he danced around joyfully the whole morning. Yes, it did look as weird as it sounds. 

“Should we find somewhere to sit?” Meena asked her husband. 

“Of course, of course. These bones need to rest someplace. Look at me carrying all these suitcases while you guys just lounge around.” 

His rambling went ignored because no one wanted to remind him that he was the one that had insisted on carrying the bags. 

With two hours still left until boarding, the family of four managed to find an empty row of 12 seats, and filled up the middle 8. 

“It’s a good thing that no one’s here in the morning,” Adrika said. “We can get a whole row to ourselves.”

“Yes, yes,” Siddarth huffed.

 “Attention, attention! Flight Number 457 to Boston is boarding. I repeat Flight 457 to Boston is boarding. All passengers must report to the gate!”

“Oh!” Siddarth woke up with a start. “Okay. Let us go now.” With a mighty heave, he lifted himself up, grabbed the suitcases, and pushed his family to the line. 

As Adrika walked with them, she already began to dread the moment ahead, the moment where her father would embarrass them even more. 

“Boarding passes please,” the bored security agent said.

“Okay, sir. But how much can we get an upgrade for?” Siddarth asked kindly.

“You can’t do that here, you should’ve just chosen a first class ticket when you bought your tickets,” the man replied, eyeing his cap, the bags, and the whole family’s clothes. “Or when you checked in.”

“But, sir, how about you check if there are some empty seats, and maybe we can squeeze into them?” He ignored the chuckling behind him.

“I’m afraid that is not possible. You will have to sit where you were assigned.”

At this point, another security guard came up, and even though he was big, he was no threat. 

“I’m gonna have to ask you to keep it moving, you’re holding up the line.” His thick British accent made Siddarth take a second before understanding what he said, and by this time he was fuming.

“You know, I am a high-class banker! I can make you pay for what you are doing to me!” His kind tone was replaced with a loud, obnoxious one.

“No one is doing anything to you sir,” the original agent said nervously. “You’re just holding up the line, so we’re asking you to just get on the plane.”

“This is outrageous! I was only asking for an upgrade, no need to belittle me!” He always threw in some big words when he was in this situation, hoping to impress the common folk. 

“Let’s just go to our seats,” Meena said softly to her husband. “No need to create such a big scene.” Even though she usually said these things to him, and he usually ignored it, this time it was different. This time, he sensed that his entire family, not just Meena, wanted him to stop (and maybe he did too). He immediately put down all the suitcases and just left the line, walking off with his head drooped and shoes dragging. It was like a flip had been switched; what was on full blast a mere moment before was now very suddenly completely off. This shocked everyone, and when I say everyone, I mean everyone. No one knew what to say or do, because it’s not every day you see a 6 foot 8 man become a depressed shell of a person in an instant.  

“Should we follow him?” Adrika asked nervously after a moment.

“Um, yes,” Meena said determinately. 

As they walked past the shocked security guard and boarding agent, with the suitcases in tow, they all thought to themselves (except Ravi, of course) that maybe they had had something to do with the meltdown. Maybe if they had been more supportive of the move to Boston, he wouldn’t have stormed off. On the other hand, since no one had wanted to move anyway, this might’ve been their lucky break. I guess we’ll see when we get there, Adrika thought to herself.

Even though I was very much ahead of them by this point, from the corner of my eyeline I could’ve sworn I saw a smile come quickly and quietly across Adrika’s face. She wiped it off her mouth in an instant, but it stayed wistfully in her eyes. 

As Siddarth moved surprisingly fast through the airport, I felt myself struggling to stay balanced on his head. At first I didn’t know why, then I realized it was because he was sweating. If I’m not mistaken, this might’ve been the first time he had ever sweat, or at least this much. The other three were seemingly not in the biggest rush of all time, and the suitcases certainly weren’t helping with that. They were catching up though, since even though we were running, he wasn’t at all fast.

Suddenly, he stopped. He bent over and panted; he was out of breath. He looked at his watch, then quickly turned it away to not be reminded that he was only “running” for four minutes. He managed to find a place to sit and sat there, hoping his family was coming after him.

When they finally arrived, they sat next to him, and without saying anything, he immediately felt more at ease and more comfortable. They were all silent, with only the occasional boarding announcement to fill up the peace. I wasn’t surprised, since if there was one thing that I knew about this family, it was that they weren’t talkers. They were more of a keep-quiet-and-think-to-yourself kind of family. Now, that was something that I actually didn’t mind, since I used all that empty space to come up with my own ideas about their life, and why I was even there. 

Hats are for heat, the rain, the cold, or for self-conscious people. With those options, I can make a pretty good choice as to why I was perched on Siddarth’s head, and it made me think even more as to why. What did he have to be self conscious about when he had everything? He had an extremely well paying banking job, a great house, nice cars, and a family. What else does one need? 

That’s when it hit me: he had a family, but he didn’t have love. He barely saw his kids, his wife was annoyed at him half the time (and vice versa), so then what? What else do you have when the only things that you love are things that you bought, not things you made? 

Well, I guess then you have nothing.

It was at that moment, when an Aha! expression formed on Siddarth. He had realized what he was missing! Previously, he thought moving to a new place with new people and new things would bring his family closer together, but it was all right here. That was shown in the way they didn’t all board the plane when he stormed off, but they came back to him, because at the end of the day, they wanted his approval and his love. 

Love. The one thing missing in his otherwise perfect life.

So for the first time in public in probably forever, he took me off, sat me down on a dirty airport chair, and embraced his family in one gargantuan hug that seemed to last for eternity. His smile plastered wide over his chubby cheeks, he whispered the three magic words to his family, and I swear some sweat dropped down onto the chair from the top of me. 

He looked at me and smiled, and we both knew that this was the last time we’d ever see each other. 

Data Log 0003

When you live on Jupiter’s coldest moon, Europa, it takes a lot to make you lose hope.  Like if a neighboring moon, Io, were to or by chance began to deteriorate and rain chucks of itself onto Europa causing mass spread destruction. Another piece of Io came crashing down in the distance. People around me fell into a state of anarchy. From the hardest working businessmen to the pettiest thug, everyone despaired. The never-ending cold felt unbearable, more now than ever. Another meteor fell and as if waking from a daze I took off like a bullet. Where I was going, I couldn’t tell you. Away from here was the only place I wanted to be.

I made it out of the city with relative ease as the rest were trying to find a way to escape through means of spacecraft. Only the wealthy would be able to board through. The rich live on as the poor get crushed by the weight of a moon. Poetic, or maybe it just sounds that way with no real meaning. Regardless, I’m now miles away from the once flourishing city of Cryosthesia. I decided to rest. Not out of exhaustion but to internalize the spectacle around me. The city falling to its knees, much like its people in the face of their inevitable destruction. Though there is a way off this frozen wasteland, a mothership known as The Beyond. A space shuttle that is unbiased towards its passengers and through a complex algorithm chooses those who get a seat in its hull completely randomly. My last hope.

 It leaves in 10 minutes and is only a few miles away. I can make it. Once again, I fly off towards my destination. The icy lake is no match for my legs. Prosthetic, of course. If they weren’t, I don’t think I could have made it out of the city if I didn’t have them. It’s a shame more people refused to go through with the vessel project. They might have a higher chance of getting through this global cataclysm. My mad dash to the neighboring city is almost complete by the time I finish that thought. This city is in even more chaos than Cryosthesia, people crowding around the ship futilely trying to overpower the heavily armed guards in an attempt to get on the ship after presumably losing their spot on The Beyond by cruel fate. 

I go up to one of the guards and ask him for a chance to get on. He smirks, saying, “It’s full, no space for any more civilians.” Using my enhanced vision, thanks again to the vessel project, I spot more than enough seats. When I confront the guard about this, he tells me, “You think us guards would protect this ship for free? Then again, you were dumb enough to give up your humanity for a couple of upgrades.” He laughs. “Our payment is a way off this hell hole,” the guard says before seemingly disappearing into the crowd.  I feel my world start to collapse in on itself, my eyes start to blur. There is no escape. The mourning of my own life is interrupted by the thrusters on The Beyond lighting up as, in record time, it blasts off into the atmosphere. 

As I watch it leave the ground and fly up into the sky, I turn around in defeat only to hear a deafening sound. Quickly spinning around, I watch The Beyond having a mid-air collision with a colossal piece of the Io, splitting into two before crashing in a fiery end. There is no way out. 

As the other people like me fall to the ground in despair, I begin to hear something. It sounds like ringing. 

“Return to t-the, the l-l-last failsaaaaafe.” I whip around to no avail. Nothing is there. Others like me begin to look around, as confused as me. The voice sounded strangely familiar for a voice in my head. If hearing a voice in my head wasn’t strange enough, seeing a beacon shoot up from a mountain was the cherry on top. I figure I have nothing left to lose, so I begin to follow the beacon. Others of my kind follow me, bounding across the ice with such speed that the ground shook beneath us. Reaching the source of the beacon, we see what looks to be a man-made cave in the said mountain. 

 Entering it with caution, a meteor lands behind us sealing us in. The cave is nearly pitch black, though we are still able to see fine. As we travel down, we enter a strangely well-lit room? It looks like a factory. This feels like something out of the dream. Suddenly, a voice comes up over the intercoms.

 “Hello, I’m The Architect. And this is the factory where you were all made. I made you. I am the creator of the vessel project.” This is the part where I mention that not just my legs are prosthetic, but my entire body. The vessel project allowed humans to partake in putting their subconscious inside an android. However, the creator of this project died thousands of years ago. “I have truly died, just like yourselves, I transcended to a higher life form The only difference between me and yourselves is that I did not put my subconscious in a mechanical exoskeleton and instead placed it inside the factory itself. The very ground you are walking on is me.”

“That’s great and all, but it doesn’t matter as we are about to be crushed by another planet!” Yells out one of the ways to survive through anything and everything. 

“I am the greatest Inventor of all time, do not doubt my creations.” Suddenly, I slowly become almost tired. “You may feel consciousness slipping away. That is because in the end you are still mine and I will keep you dormant until you are needed by the next civilization that comes to Europa. Your memory banks will be wiped as they have been many times before. Sleep well.” 

>End of Data Log 0003

Gateway to Heaven

My heart was pounding as I peeked past the haybale to the crowd across the dirt road. I had never before seen this many demons gathered in the countryside. Was I safe? I wished profoundly that I was with my parents in the human world. The world where humans were at the top of the food chain. The world where I didn’t have to worry about being hunted down. The largest of the demons turned toward me, and I quickly ducked behind the hay bale. I peeked past the edge to see his back turned on me. I tried not to gag as the horrendous stench of human blood hit me. No doubt the demons were hungry.

“I heard there were humans hiding in these places. I can smell one nearby. Tonight, we hunt. We smell. We look. We will bring the best quality meat home. At midnight we go. We do not stop until dawn.” There were cheers. “We have families to feed,” he continued. “So do not be late.” 

Humans have families too, I thought. Humans have lives. Humans have feelings.

The crowd slowly began to thin out. Eventually, there was no one left. Only the acres of farmland I was tired of seeing. When I got to the old barn, the sun was getting low in the sky. There was not much time to run. There wouldn’t be many places to hide if I fled now. I had to stay and hope that our hiding spot was good enough. 

I brushed back the hay and opened the cellar door. I tossed down the ears of corn I had harvested. I climbed in, shut the door, and began climbing down the rusty old ladder. “Emma?” I called. “Emma?”

“I’m here,” replied a small voice. I felt my feet touch the bottom and rushed to greet Emma. “Why were you gone so long?” She saw the worried look on my face. “Is everything alright, Layla?” 

“Everything is fine.” I smiled at her. “I brought food.” Emma smiled at me with a missing tooth.

“It’s not potatoes again, right? You promised.”

“It isn’t potatoes. Promise.” I whipped out the ears of corn. She grinned. 

“Corn!” I forced a smile back and worked on peeling off the husks. I handed her two and kept two for myself. After dinner, I put out the old lantern and made a pile of hay for us to sleep on. 

As we lay there in the darkness, I couldn’t help but think that we would be dead in a few hours. I thought of that day when we were shipped off into the demon world. When a cloaked figure had snatched us up and stuffed us into a wooden crate. I had felt a jolt when the figure picked us up. He had set us down on a vibrating surface. I’d peeked through the crack and found that it was the back of a truck. We’d driven for hours, and the whole time, I had tried to break out. The wood had weakened. It had creaked. And eventually, I had made a hole big enough for the both of us. We had crawled out and I waited for the truck to come to a stop. Then, I’d lifted the truck door and ran the fastest I had ever run, with Emma on my back. I ran all the way to the outskirts of the city before I realized that I wasn’t in a human dimension. I was in a demon dimension. I had to bite my tongue so I wouldn’t scream. It was a miracle no one noticed me. That was four years ago. I was nine at the time. Emma was only two.

I lay there for a few more hours. Suddenly, I heard footsteps above us. Emma had woken up. “Layla? I’m scared.” She grabbed a hold of my arm. Then we heard voices. Demon voices.

“I smell humans. Top grade humans.”

“There are no humans here.”

“Lies. I smell them. And soon, I will find them.”

“I’ve been eating meat. Found a child a few miles down.” And that scared us even more. Emma clung onto me for dear life.

“Fine. But I’ll be back. My senses have never failed me.” We heard fading footsteps. And then they were gone. 

We waited hours upon hours clinging on to each other. We waited until bright light peeked through the cracks. It must have been at least mid-afternoon. We waited a while longer before I went over all the procedures with Emma again before I got ready to leave. 

“Don’t light the lantern by yourself. It’s dangerous, and we don’t want to waste it during the day. If you hear any noises, stay right where you are. And if there’s talking loudly close by, use the sound for cover as you bury yourself in hay. Got it?” I could tell she was tired of hearing this. She nodded, her eyes wide. 

The last night had clearly taken a toll on her. Her hair was frizzy, and her face a pale white. It made me sad, because she had always been upbeat and positive. She smiled a lot and was the type of person who would brighten your day. She was all I had left.

I knew she had a stressful life for a 6 year old, but it was my job as an older sister to make it less stressful. What I would give to be 6 years old again. I sighed and made my way to the old ladder. “Rusty” was the name Emma gave it. 

All of a sudden, the cellar door opened. “Hey. Wait.” Two red eyes peeked out from the opening. I was paralyzed with horror. I forced myself to take slow steps back. 

“Stop. Don’t come out today. It’s too dangerous.” I realized I didn’t smell human blood. What was going on? 

“Sorry if I scared you.” They flipped the bony mask onto the top of their head. It was a blond haired boy. “The name’s William. William Lewis. You can call me Will.” I realized it had been so long that I had forgotten my last name. The memory and symbol of my parents. My family. I felt like crying. William continued on. “I’ve been watching you from afar. Seen you coming out every day. You’re not very good at it. There are much better hiding spots than behind hay bales around here. This is where I used to live. Anyway, are you gonna thank me for saving your life yesterday night, or are you just gonna stare at me?”

“Wait. That demon was you?” He nodded. “But- that was a demon’s voice. I know one when I hear one.”

He chuckled, “Clearly not.” He spoke in the exact same voice I had heard the night before. “But — how?” He thrust his chin forward. “I’ve learned to talk like one. Most demons can’t tell, but you should’ve been able to tell it was a human. The high tone at the end. Humans can’t speak that low for very long. Amateur mistake.” He stood with his hands on his hips and his head held high.

I rolled my eyes. “Whatever.” Emma sat in the corner. She glanced at me. “Who are you talking to, Layla?”

I glared at William, “A friend.” He laughed. 

“A much smarter friend,” he joked.

Suddenly, he got serious. “We need to get out of here. The demons are planning another attack tonight. We have to get far from this area. They’re going to find you this time.”

Horror struck me. I had never thought that the demons would attack two nights in a row. “But where will we go?”

Will gave a short, swift nod of his head. “Just follow me.” I motioned for Emma.

“Take the lantern, Emma.”

“Where are we going?”

I forced out a smile. “You’ll see. We might not be back here for a while, so say goodbye to this place.”

Her face fell. “But — I like this place. Please, can we stay?”

“It’ll be fun. An adventure. We’ll find a big house with running water and electricity. And the whole time, we’ll be guided by my friend and expert Will. Don’t you want to spend time with my new friend? Wouldn’t you like a nice big house?” I knew this was probably never going to happen, but I would do whatever it took to get Emma on board.

She smiled. “Really?” I nodded. “Alright. But we gotta come back sometime. Promise?” I nodded. I had a churning feeling in my stomach. It was the first promise to Emma I knew I’d break. I watched as she began all her goodbyes. Goodbye to the old cellar, goodbye to the stack of hay, and lastly, goodbye to Rusty, the old ladder.

When we finally climbed out, it was almost evening. I had no idea we had spent that long just talking.

Will froze after seeing how low the sun was in the sky, “We have to go. Now.” I nodded, and we swiftly and sneakily made our way out the door. William led the way while Emma and I followed. We made our way behind the barn and walked almost a mile before I began to question Will’s abilities. 

“You know, we aren’t really traveling away from where the demons are, right? We’re just going further behind the barn.”

William nodded. “Just trust me. I know more than you do. We’re nearly there.” We walked past many more farms until we came to a grassy field with tall grass that stretched for miles. “We’re here. This will provide cover. Now we can make good progress without worrying about being hidden.”

Emma tapped me on the shoulder. “I like him,” she whispered. “He really knows how things work around here.” I rolled my eyes. Apparently, Will had good hearing, too, because he smiled smugly at me.

“Let’s go already,” I hissed. “Before it gets too dark.” We traveled many miles in the tall grass. When we were sure we were far away from the demons, we took a little rest. Emma was so exhausted she laid down on the grass and fell asleep instantly.

Suddenly, Will’s face went hard as stone. “I smell human blood a few miles away. We have to keep moving. The demons are coming.”

What? Will could smell blood from miles away? What was up with him? Did he have super senses? Will scooped up Emma and hoisted her onto his shoulders. 

“Let’s go. We have to keep moving.”

I couldn’t help but think that Will was strong. Maybe even stronger than me. I brushed that thought away and kept moving. We traveled many more miles. The sun was beginning to rise. “I can’t smell them anymore,” Will remarked. “I think it’s safe to take a break.”

Thank goodness, I thought to myself. My feet felt like they would fall off. Will put Emma down and she woke up with a start. “Were you carrying me?” she asked me. “No. William was.” I felt my face getting warm. Emma looked up to me more than Will. I should’ve been carrying her. She looked at Will. “You were?” Will nodded. “Yep. And you may have drooled a bit on my shoulder.” Emma giggled, “I did not!” Will laughed, “Whatever you say.”

Will looked up at the sky, “It’ll be lunch time in a few hours. I’d better go out in search of food. Stay here with Emma.” I opened my mouth to argue but Will was already gone. I had a churning feeling in my stomach. 

Great, I thought. There’s Will taking charge again.

“I kind of miss the cellar,” Emma sighed. “It’s way better than this field. There isn’t even a roof here.” For a moment I felt proud. Emma still looked up to me. She liked the shelter I found more than Will’s field. She grinned, “But I like Will.” The churning feeling returned. She must’ve seen the look on my face, because she put a hand on my shoulder. “Don’t worry, Layla. I still like you. You’ll always be my big sister.” She sure was smart for a 6-year-old. She grinned with her missing tooth. I stuck my pinky finger in the hole, which always made her laugh. We lay on the grass together until Will returned.

When he arrived, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Emma had fallen asleep. I sat up. “Are those really — ” Will nodded. Apples. He had apples. I hadn’t had one since I had been in the human world. In the countryside, Emma and I ate mostly potatoes, carrots, and corn. I hadn’t seen a fruit in so long.

Will sat down next to me with a soft thump. “Don’t wake Emma,” I whispered. He handed me an apple and I caressed the smooth cool skin. I took a bite of the shiny red apple. I felt a burst of flavor and let the sweet juice dribble down my chin. “So, how’d you get apples, anyway?”

“I jogged a few miles to a farmers market.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. “You went to a demon’s market? Seriously? You could have died!”

“Well, I didn’t, so it’s no big deal. I do it all the time. Nobody knows I’m a human. I’m already considered a regular. With my demon voice, red eyed costume, and herbs to get rid of the scent, I’m bulletproof.”

I sighed, “Okay. Whatever. I trust you. We gotta get moving soon, so we should probably wake up Emma.” I grabbed another apple and hid it behind my back. I shook her gently.

She looked up at me groggily. “Layla? What time is it?” I smiled wide at her. 

“Lunch time.” I handed her an apple. Her eyes grew wide and she smiled big.

”An apple?” she gasped. I laughed as she took big bites into it, devouring it in seconds.

“Why don’t you savor it?” I laughed.

 She grinned, “It’s even better if you don’t.”

 I shrugged, “Okay.”

Many more days went on like this, traveling under cover of darkness (and tall grass), and at dawn Will went to find food. There were fewer and fewer demons as we traveled, and I wondered why. “Will,” I asked. “Why are there fewer demons here?”

“The demons like warm temperatures,” he responded. “Since we’re traveling north, it’s getting colder. We can’t really tell, because we have been traveling a few miles at a time. But the demons have really sensitive thermoreceptors.” At my confused look, he added, “That’s what helps the body detect temperature. But don’t worry, I didn’t expect someone like you to know that. It’s like you haven’t learned anything these past few months.” I felt dumb when I was in William’s presence, but I laughed inside my head because he always had to add a little sassy flare at the end of a few sentences.

We traveled for many months. I started to wonder how William had survived like this. “Now that we’re in the North, wouldn’t it make sense to find shelter and stay there?” I inquired. Emma jumped in.

 “Can we go back to the barn instead?” I pulled her close. “We will, we will,” I lied through my teeth. “In good time.” Once again I felt bad for lying. Emma was growing older. She would realize eventually. Will shook his head. 

“If I wanted to find shelter, I would. Have you not realized after all this time that we’re going somewhere?”

I looked at him. It was such a simple thing. I should have realized that a while ago. But where were we going? I was afraid to ask. If Will was taking us, it must have been safe, right? We traveled a little longer until we came to a wooded area. 

“This is it,” Will whispered, gesturing toward the forest. “Stay on high alert.” I saw fear in Emma’s eyes, the same fear I had sensed in the darkness that night the demons came. We walked a little while until everything looked the same. Massive trees towered over us as we walked deeper and deeper. There was an eerie sense to the forest, with dark gray clouds looming over us and a thick fog in the air. 

“Are you sure we’re in the right place?” I began to question Will. Will nodded.

We stopped at an old tree that looked just like the other ones. “We’re here,” Will pointed out. 

“What’s so special about this tree?” I asked.

 “You’ll see,” was his terse reply. He twisted the lowest branch, muttered something I couldn’t make out. “Layla, Emma, stand back.” At first, nothing happened. The tree looked as if it had stayed that way for centuries. Then, slowly, a gaping hole opened up into the middle of the tree revealing a cement tunnel underneath. The tree creaked aside allowing us to crawl in. Emma’s eyes shined.

“This is awesome!” she gasped. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” William smiled for the first time since he had entered the creepy forest.

“Come on.” He motioned to the tunnel. We crawled in the tight space one at a time. The tunnel itself was spacious. It looked quite old and cracked. Now more than ever I wondered where we were going. We walked down the tunnel for a few hours, but it felt like days. The anticipation was killing me. The tunnel got darker and darker. “Can I have the lantern please, Emma?” She nodded and handed it to him, a big smile on her face.

He lit the lantern out in front of him and held it out to light the way. He turned around to make sure we were following, and that’s when I noticed his eyes. The light flickered against his red eyes. When I first met him, I had thought it was a part of his demon mask. How had I not noticed this?

“Your — your eyes,” I gasped. “Demon eyes.” I couldn’t believe it. This explained his peculiar sense of smell. 

“I knew I would have to tell you eventually,” he sighed. “I’m half demon. My mother was a demon. She fell in love with my father early on. Before demons relied on eating humans. Many ate humans, but not all. So despite what anyone said, they married. And they had a baby.” I gasped. 

“You.” He nodded. “But — where are your parents?” I inquired. 

“My mother died giving birth to me. Human and demon blood clash. My father was heartbroken. She was his only love. He raised me until I was 13. And then he died of heartbreak.” He sighed. “I am frozen at the age of 13. The blood formed some kind of compound that keeps me young. I am much older than you think. Now you know. Let us continue. Please.” A tear rolled down his cheek. I was speechless. All I could do was put one foot in front of the other and follow him deeper into the tunnel.

We walked in silence for many more minutes until finally, we came to a big black rimmed portal. It contained some purple fluid substance. Armed guards jumped out of nowhere and surrounded us. “Relax. It’s me,” William said calmly. “The keeper of the portal. Return to your posts.” 

“You’re the keeper to this portal?” I gasped. 

“Yep.” He stood in his familiar triumphant stance. Emma stared at him with wide eyes.

“This is the portal to the human world isn’t it?” He nodded. His eyes sparkled.

 “I’ll miss you, Emma.” He scooped her up into a big hug. Then he turned to me. “Forget everything negative I said. I have lived many long years. Saved many humans through the portal. And you truly are one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met. You sure are experienced, too.” He winked. “Goodbye, Layla. Stay safe. You will be returned to your parents.” Then I did something I thought I would never do. I gave Will a great big hug.

“Goodbye, Will. I will never forget you.” A tear rolled down my cheek.

I took Emma’s hand. “Ready?” She smiled at me. We stepped into the portal together. “This truly is our gateway to heaven.”

The Negative Side of Stereotypes

When I was in eighth grade, I was on the phone with a friend and she was telling me about a seventh grader who took an eighth grade honors math class. This shocked me for two reasons: one, because of how smart he was, and second, because he was not Asian and did not fit into that “smart” stereotype. The “smart” stereotype that a certain group of people were smarter than others had gotten in my head and almost brainwashed me into thinking and believing that. Stereotypes are used all over the world and can cause many conflicts. It can negatively affect someone because stereotypes can cause unwanted failure and can refrain someone from being their best self. 

There are many outcomes of stereotyping, and a big one is that stereotypes can cause a lack of success. They have high and/or low standards and society expects people to reach and accomplish that standard. For example, a stereotype could be that boys excel at sports. This sets up a standard and an expectation that everyone expects from all boys. However, if a girl becomes good at a sport and is better than a boy, people are shocked. If a boy isn’t good at sports, he may feel defeated and disappointed that he could not reach that standard or expectation. On the flip side, if the standards of stereotypes are too low, it does not push the person to try harder or to be better.

Furthermore, stereotypes can refrain someone from being their best self. An example would be a stereotype threat. According to the article, “The Good, the Bad, and the What of Stereotypes”, a stereotype threat is defined as, “People who face a stereotype threat are always in fear of doing something that could potentially confirm a negative stereotype.” People have trouble truly being themselves due to the anxiety or fear that they might fit into a disliked stereotype. On the contrary, if you do fit into a stereotype, people expect you to only be that stereotype. For example, as written in “The Good, the Bad, and the What of Stereotypes”, if you are a class clown, people always expect you to be funny. So, if you are upset, people expect you to hide it because you are the class clown. Additionally, a physiological source, “What is Stereotype Threat,” gives evidence stating that, “Keller and Dauenheimer (2003) showed that girls’ reports of frustration, disappointment, and sadness accounted for poor math performance under stereotype threat.” This is all because of stereotypes and the “level” the person must reach because they are a certain race or gender.

Although some people may agree with this, others would say if you fail to reach people’s expectations, it can help the person learn and try again. This is a valid point, however, if you disappoint someone’s expectations, it can cause indifference and cause them to stop trying to meet everyone’s expectations. Another opinion about stereotypes is that there are some positive and uplifting stereotypes. For example, the “all Asians are smart” stereotype. While this stereotype may seem positive, if there is an Asian who may not be as intelligent, it would make them feel unacceptable to society. Also, stereotypes could be biased to a group. The other people who aren’t included in the stereotype can become overlooked or feel like they’re being left out.

All in all, the negative effects of stereotyping could include failure and can cause one to hide who they truly are. The high standards of stereotype leaves people with unwelcomed frustration and disappointment. People do not show their real personality because they are afraid that they will be wrongly categorized into a stereotype. Meanwhile, some may think that some stereotypes are positive, but it is most likely only positive to a certain group causing the others to feel unwanted. The day I called that friend and figured out about the seventh grader made me realize the powerful effect of stereotypes. Hopefully, the future generations will ignore all different stereotypes and prevent them from being used so that they won’t have a similar situation as I did.


Prince, Karen. “The Good, the Bad, and the What of Stereotypes.” Taylor’s College 14 

May 2020

Stroessner, Steve and Good, Catherine. “What is Stereotype Threat.” Adapted by R. Rhys pp.10

Superhero Family

Today is an important day. It’s the day that everything changes. I can finally be taken seriously by my family since I am now 18. I told my family I did not want anything big, just a cake. Not that they would ever listen.  

“Hi! Happy birthday, sweetie!” my mom yells as she zooms across the kitchen. I can’t see what she’s making but I can smell the gorgeous crepes. The same ones she’s made since my 5th birthday. My dad appears with a gift box as big as him.  

“Happy 18th birthday, you will always be my little girl,” he says. My brothers come down the stairs bickering. 

“Why don’t you just put my name on your gift?” Alex says, sighing as if it’s the end of the world.

“You can fly, why can’t you just fly to the store and get her something yourself?” Jordan says.

“Because it’s 8:00 and no stores are open!” Alex yells, though it was actually 10:00.

“I don’t care! I have been working on this gift all year you are not getting the credit!” Jordan yells.

“Breakfast’s ready!” my mom yells. 

Suddenly I see a vision of my family eating Christmas dinner, my mom moving slow and lifeless. My dad quietly announced that he is going to drive to the grocery store. My brothers quietly set the table, Jordan is not even levitating the place mats like he always does. My vision ends and I come back to reality frightened. I take deep breaths, squeezing my mom’s hand. Once the shock wears off I’m determined to find out how this happens and how I can stop it. I’ve got a month till christmas there’s no way I’m letting that happen to my family. 

 “Are you ok?” my mom asks. Before I could answer, my mom gave me the warmest, tightest hug. It lasted forever and somehow it made me feel so safe and free of worries. I say with breathing deeply, the tears coming down my face mixing with the snot from my nose, 

“I had a vision that you guys were boring, not even boring, worse than boring. You were dull and lifeless and you didn’t have powers and Dad drove to the store and… ”  Before I finish the sentence my mom starts wiping the tears and snot from my face. 

“It’s okay, you’re okay, we’re okay,” she says. My gut is telling me that this is my fault, that somehow by resenting my family I’m going to take away their ability to express themselves in their odd obnoxious ways. That’s it, from now on I am going to love my family the way they are.

I walk down the stairs and grab a slice of cake from the fridge and a cup of tea for my breakfast. My mom grabs a slice and a cup of coffee and sits down, she has that look on her face, the bad news face.

“Seeing how you reacted yesterday to seeing we were in danger, I just don’t think you’re ready to be a superhero just yet,” she says.

“I can’t believe it, you still don’t take me seriously. You guys think I can’t be a superhero because I don’t have a flashy power that I can’t use for random everyday tasks. I’m sorry that my superpower is not good enough for you. I’m sorry that my feelings are a burden to you.”

My mom walked away speechless as if I had just killed her spirit.  At that moment I realized that I just broke my mom’s heart. I was so full of anger, I forgot to think about my mom’s feelings and the fact that she does what she does to keep me safe. 

“By the way, Grandma’s coming for Thanksgiving since she can’t come for Christmas. We’re going all out almost like a 2nd Christmas,” Alex says as he grabs an energy drink and runs out the door. Oh no. The vision I had wasn’t on Christmas, it was tomorrow. I have way less time than I thought. 

“Family meeting!” I yell. My whole family squeezes on the couch. “I love you guys, don’t change, don’t stop using your powers, not because of me. Mom, I’m sorry I blew up at you but I’ve wanted to fight with you guys since I was little and I think that I’m strong enough. Anyway, that’s off topic, I don’t want you guys to change, please. Tell me you won’t change, please.”

“Ok,” they say, confused as to why they had to watch this odd mental breakdown.

“You’re ready!” my dad says, opening his arms up for a hug. 

“Huh? I just completely broke down and you think I’m ready?”

“The fact that you are comfortable enough being a weirdo makes you ready to join us.”

“You excited?” Jordan asks. 

“As a superhero, you have to constantly deal with identity problems. So, you have to be comfortable enough with your flaws to be a superhero,” my mom says. 

The next day, I wake up to my mom zooming across the kitchen. I can smell the wonderful baked mac and cheese and delicious ham. I run and hug, her sobbing. At that moment, I yell, 

“Thank god!” 

Bob the Doofus

The light was blinding and he was very drowsy. He was aware that he was in some type of room. His vision was still recovering and then all of a sudden he was aware that his nose was bleeding.    

The golden idol was made by the people who created this earth and have the power of all known wisdom. Any person that holds the idol will gain knowledge of everything known to mankind.  

Boy, do I have a book for you. It is called Bob the Doofus. It is about a man who joins the army and in quest for a powerful idol on an unstable planet where it is taboo to wear a watch. Will Bob make it or will he die looking for his life’s dream? 

“Finally it’s within sight. I can see it. It’s so beautiful,” Bob said as he looked into the darkened cave.  Kabboom!Kabboom?” Bob asked. Then it dawned on him. The idol had not welcomed him with open arms. “Runnnn!”  The moment he said the word, his army scattered and Bob heard a bang, then a thud, then a slice, then a roll. The skeleton army advanced seeming to materialize out of thin air. 

The skeleton shouted something horrid and the whole army attacked. Bob pulled out his sword and ran. He got six feet away when another wave came at him. He started slashing his way through but they seemed to be immortal.

One of the skeletons knocked him upside the head and he fell. He was dimly aware of a smoke smell coming from his pants. He immediately stopped, dropped, and rolled. Then he stopped and took his pants off, and threw them at the skeleton army.  

The skeletons immediately caught fire and turned into ash. 

Dystopian Utopia Chaos

Thousands of years ago, the earth developed and developed with human safety and entertainment as the main goal because people on earth wanted to make it a better place. In their minds, if people were safe and happy, then what could go wrong? The world would be perfect. But unfortunately, by trying to create a utopia, they created a dystopian society, which people eventually realized was boring and nothing was ever happening. So people decided to smash it all, giving up everything for freedom, unpredictability, and overall chaos. But that was 10 years ago, and now everyone is living well, if not safely.

Semkantrigorenem gets up and starts walking around camp, trying to remember everything about himself just in case a stronger blackout comes to him. He is from tribe Shampenk, and he is 26 solstices. He was only 6 solstices when the collapse came. Although he is too young to remember what life was like before the collapse, he can find bits of information about it whenever his tribe wanders somewhere else. From the information he gathers, it seems like it was a very boring place where nothing ever changed and people lived twice as long as normal. Then, Semkantrigorenem remembers that he is trying to make a list and so he continues thinking. After a while, he decides to go back inside where Gem lets him in. He walks toward their main tent and goes in as a discussion on whether or not to raid a smaller tribe nearby rages. 

“They are smaller than us, and we need the supplies,” one side of the argument declares.

“Ok, let’s say we raid them, then people could just raid us as easily,” says the other side.

“But there isn’t even another tribe anywhere between here and the horizon.” 

“But we should at least always be prepared for another attack.” 

Semkantrigorenem ducks his head out of the tent now, knowing that this could take hours, but he is also a bit anxious because he has passed the age of joining raids and helping to defend against them. Although, there have not been any raids recently, so this would be his first time. When he stops thinking about this, he realizes that he has made his way back to his tent and is now standing at the entrance. Suddenly, he can hear a commotion inside. He tenses, pulls a dagger from the folds in his clothes, and carefully makes his way around the tent to the back. He presses his ear against the fabric and can hear someone inside grunt, as well as a lot of crashing sounds. Almost as if someone inside were searching through his tent. Before he can do anything about it, the person inside opens the entrance and dashes out. Semkantrigorenem, quickly but stealthily, dashes out in pursuit. After what seemed like hours of weaving through the tents, the person arrives at the barricades surrounding the temporary camp and starts to scale them. Semkantrigorenem then sees a small bag attached to the shoulders of the thief.

“Oh no you don’t,” mutters Semkantrigorenem. Before the thief can make it half way up the barricade, Semkantrigorenem throws the dagger. It hits the thief on his back, just missing the bag and whatever was inside. The thief recoils in surprise, losing hold on the wall and sliding to the ground. Semkantrigorenem jumps on them and tackles them back to the ground. Unfortunately, they have a dagger and they blindly attempt to stab him, but Semkantrigorenem is stronger than the thief. He grabs the dagger out of the thief’s hand and pulls back the thief’s hood, revealing a small, sickly boy, maybe 20 solstices or so. When he looks in the thief’s bag, he realizes that the only thing in it is food. Then, he blacks out.

Semkantrigorenem blinks and opens his eyes. He looks around and realizes he is in the medicinal tent. He is also bandaged in a few places where the thief may have struck. He tries to sit up, but groans and lies back down. On hearing this, one of the healers comes in. 

“Are you alright?” she asks sweetly. Semkantrigorenem nods and the healer gently applies a cloth of warm water on his head. She then looks at him, most notably where he was bandaged. “If it is not too much trouble, may I ask what happened to you? I saw you in a blackout covered with stab wounds.” Semkantrigorenem sighs and looks at the healer. 

“There was a thief that stole something from me,” he starts, “But it was just a boy carrying food. And then I blacked out.” The healer nods and takes the cloth off his head. “How… How long was I unconscious?” The healer thinks for a moment and looks back at Semkantrigorenem.  

“Three days,” she responds. He stares at her unbelievingly.

“What about the raid? Did the tribe go without me?” he asks quickly.

“Yes, they left last night and have not returned yet,” the healer replies. This is not that surprising to Semkantrigorenem because raids usually take quite a while whenever the tribe has a chance to go on one. The healer gives Semkantrigorenem a brief check-up and informs him that if he drinks a lot of water he will be fine. With that, the healer releases him from the tent and Semkantrigorenem walks outside. But something seems different. He notices there is a sudden decrease of people around the camp. He quickly scolds himself for allowing himself to have another blackout because now they are becoming more and more frequent, and lasting longer and longer. Eventually, I might not even wake up from one, he thinks to himself.

Later that day, he sees a band of people coming towards them from the south and runs out to greet the rest of his camp.

“What happened?” Semkantrigorenem asks. “During the raid.” The group tells him that they had raided it with ease, only suffering one casualty on their side, although a few were wounded.

That night, there is a feast in celebration of the raid and mourning of the lost tribemate Selewitzki Hor. During the celebration, Semkantrigorenem tries a strange drink that makes him feel funny, but it is bitter, and he does not have much. Eventually, he gets so tired and he makes his way back to his tent. It is still a mess from when the thief came, but Semkantrigorenem does not care. He falls on a blanket and falls asleep watching the sun rise.

He wakes up in the middle of the day, still tired and with a sudden headache. It is probably nothing, Semkantrigorenem thinks to himself. I was out late at night and had a weird drink. However, once he goes out, almost everyone else has an even worse headache or is still asleep. He learns that they will be leaving soon and that he should pack up, so that they do not leave without him. So, Semkantrigorenem heads over to his tent and starts to pack up inside. As he is packing, a large but skinny dog comes into his tent and starts sniffing for food. Semkantrigorenem slowly reaches into his pocket and pulls out a hunk of bread. He tears off a piece and throws it to the dog, who hungrily snatches it up and looks expectantly at the remaining bread in his hands. Semkantrigorenem tears up the rest of the chunk and throws it to the dog bit by bit. Once the entire thing is finished, Semkantrigorenem tries to approach the dog.  As he gets closer, the dog sniffs him but immediately then bolts outside, presumably looking for more food. Then, Semkantrigorenem remembers that he is supposed to be packing, and so he continues to pack.

Once he finishes packing and the rest of the camp is ready to move, they decide to stay a little bit longer to have a third meal, and after that they will go. They decide to go northeast because they remember there is a body of water over there to clean and fill their water skins. The rest of the camp is glad to hear this because they are starting to smell and are running low on water. 

Later in the day, everyone helps prepare for the feast again. They start eating, drinking, laughing, and getting ready for the trip. But halfway through the meal, the course is a dog on a large plate, surrounded by different vegetables and spices. Overall, it looks delicious because meat is hard to come by and as such everyone is always grateful for it. Semkantrigorenem realizes that the dog being served here is the same one he had fed a few hours ago. The realization makes him sick, but he does not want to look childish, so he does not complain. He goes up and gets a slice and a few vegetables. Even though he might throw up, he still decides that he will eat a tiny bit to satisfy his hunger and everyone else at the feast. Once he bites into it, he blacks out. 

The end.

Terms and Pronunciation: 

Semkantrigorenem – (sem-can-trig-ore-nem)

Shampenk – (sham-pen-kh)

Gem – (sh-em)

Selewitzki Hor – (sell-eh-wit-ski-hor)

There are two solstices every year


It was an ordinary Tuesday morning. The sun shone through the cracks in the blinds. A light layer of frost covered the front yard. I regrettably got out of bed to eat breakfast. I got on the bus before arriving at the bane of my existence, school. I walked into my first class, math. Yuck! Students were piling into every classroom until the bell rang, and like magic, everyone disappeared into their rooms. 

“Good morning. How is everyone today?” Ms. Reed asked the class. “Remember, the math final is on Friday.” Many students groaned. “But you are all going to fail!” she cackled. “You were such a bad class that by October, I started teaching you wrong things. Y does not equal BM plus X. Now you are all going to fail this test and class.” Some students started crying or whining. Others were pulling out their phones and notes to fact check. But some of the lazy students (like me) just relaxed and started to talk to each other. 

“You can’t do this to us. I need to get into AP Applied Physics with calculus and quadratics next year,” Jane, the extreme overachiever, complained. 

“You are too smart and cocky. Your ego is even higher than your IQ level. By failing this test, you will have to graduate with everyone else instead of at fifteen. No more pre-accepted into Harvard and Oxford for you! Mwuahaha. Now you will be at everyone else’s level. Your GPA might even lower to a 3.9.”

“No!” Jane screamed, as if the sky were falling down. “I will report you or kill you.”

“Why are you doing this to us?” Will asked.

“Because you are all horrible students.” Ms. Reed connected her computer to the projector and opened up the digital grade book. She opened up Jane’s grades and started lowering it point by point. 100% became 99% and so on. Jane was screaming and crying like this was torture. 

Jane suddenly leaped onto Ms. Reed, scratching her with her nails. Some kids pulled Jane off of the teacher, but Jane was still fighting back. She grabbed one of her always sharp pencils and tried to stab Ms. Reed. 

“Stop! Stop! Stop!” Jane screamed, punctuating every word with a stab. “I hate you!” she screamed. 

“You should only be hating each other. You all did this to yourselves,” Ms. Reed said. 

“But I’m blaming you!” Jane screeched, pulling Ms. Reed out of her chair and pushing her to the ground. 

“If you want someone to blame, look behind you.” Ms. Reed looked at me. “You are the reason why everyone will fail because you are the worst student of them all.”

Jane tackled me, holding the pencil inches from my eye. 

“You are the reason I’m not going to Harvard. DIE!” She started jabbing me with the pencil. She grabbed the ginormous book she had to prepare for her college-level botany. She started to whack me with it. 

“I will smash your nonexistent brains!” she screamed, raining strikes on my head. 

It took five people to lift her up and throw her out of the classroom. Jane clawed at the door, kicking and screaming. 

“YOU WILL FAIL!” she screamed. 

Ms. Reed cackled. “You all will fail,” she said. We watched as she lowered all of our grades. We heard Jane wail from the hallway. 

“FBI. Do not move,” a woman on a megaphone said. FBI agents broke down the door and streamed in through the windows. “You are under arrest for emotional torture.” Ms. Reed was put in handcuffs.  

“Wait!” she said. “I only tortured the brown-noser.”

“GPA?” an agent asked. 

“4.9,” Jane said. 

“That’s impossible.”

“That’s what I thought,” Ms. Reed said. 

“What classes are you taking?” the agent asked Jane. 

“All APs, and I’m auditing courses at Harvard, Yale, and Oxford,” Jane answered proudly. 

“You are free to go, Miss. Sorry for the trouble.” They took the handcuffs off, and all the agents cleared out. 

“Good luck,” Ms. Reed said. She cackled like a witch. 

My Deep, Dark Secret


Stella, I have a secret. Now don’t freak out, but you need to listen to me. I…
(Beat; sighs.) 

I’m not exactly human. I know, I know it’s a shock, but I’m a penguin. 

He turns around 180. When he faces the audience, he’s wearing a beak.


Yeah, wenk, this is my true form. Please don’t be mad, Stella, this took a lot of courage to tell you, wenk.

RANDY waddles to a stool on the stage.


I don’t have a limp, Stella, I just am a penguin, I have little penguin toes. I have to get special shoes made, wenk wenk. Why do you think I exclusively eat fish? Why do you think I cry every time we go to the penguin exhibit at the zoo? Why do you think I refuse to see the seals? Stella, baby, I’m the same man! I’m just not exactly the same species, wenk. Why? Why? Stella, the reason anyone does crazy things, for love, wenk! For love. I still love you, Stella. 

(Lowers his voice; breath shaking.)

 I still love you.

(He lets out a little penguin cry.)


(At a whisper.)



The Summer Breeze

The summer breeze whistles through my hair 

It swims through the grass and trees

Makes the gleaming sun looks like a gem, so rare

And dances on the waves in the seas

Down on the beach, umbrellas shake

Knocking over ice cream, as if it wants the treat

And in the valley, wind darts across the lake 

Water splashes as the wind dances to the beat

But the summer breeze must transform

Another wind must interfere 

The draft still enters, but more like a storm

For fall, at last, has finally appeared

Thank You, 1844!

I’ve been swimming competitively for eight years, but I’m not here to tell you about a whole eight years worth of swimming. I am here to tell you that swimming and other sports have an enormous impact on athletes who struggle with mental health. I want to spread awareness about this by sharing my story.

At the age of eight, I began to consider myself a swimmer, but I had been swimming since a day in 2008 when I was two and a half years old. On that day, I remember the sky was cloudy, and the water was cold. My uncle had taken me to the local pool in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. Filled with so much excitement, I quickly ran to the bench, threw down my towel, and jumped into the pool. I didn’t officially know how to swim yet, but I kept trying to stay afloat, kicking my legs as hard as possible. I slowly tried to get from one end of the pool to the other. Watching from the deck, my uncle had a slight look of glee in his eyes as his toddler niece tried to swim across a 25-yard pool. 

Three years later, my mother put me in swim lessons at my local YMCA. I was already able to swim across the pool. The instructors placed me in the group level called the Minnows. But surprisingly, swimming twice a week for one hour was not the highlight of my week. I dreaded going, and I was more enthusiastic about gymnastics and basketball practice than swimming. I was more interested in playing in the pool than working on my technique. Also, I was not challenged in my group — some of the children still needed floaties or the instructor’s help. As a result, I did not want to be there, and I felt restricted rather than free in the water. 

I graduated from the Minnows group as a five-year-old and tried out for the YMCA swim team. Though I did well, my age got me an automatic rejection. I moved up to the Flying Fish group and swam in the meantime, waiting for the next tryout date. I was six years old and ready to be a part of something bigger. I was still doing gymnastics too, but it did not feel the same as swimming. Trying out was pretty easy, as all we had to do was swim 25 yards and do a couple of starts on the diving board. Making the swim team felt so great, and I started to reminisce about the joy of being in the water. 

Swimming had become my outlet. Although I was just eight years old, I was expected to be more independent than most kids my age. I had to take car service to practice because my parents were not very involved as they worked very stressful jobs and had to commute. I would be home alone from when I got back from school until 9:00 at night and would often have to eat dinner by myself. Though my dad would work from home when he was not traveling, he also suffered from mental health issues and went into dark moments. That was a lot to handle, but the feeling of being with my teammates and going to practice was my way to clear my head. Even today, I use swimming to clear my head when I am going through something. Thank you, 1844! 

To clarify, I thank the year since, according to the Washington Post, this is the year that  Europeans started taking swimming seriously as a sport instead of just relying on breaststroke. Swimming has made such significant improvements as a sport. Before 1844, swimming was considered an “un-European sport.” But fast forward to 2012, and six-year-old me was playing a sport in which the British have 71 medals. 

Many advancements have been made over the years, and now the four main strokes are Butterfly, Backstroke, Breaststroke, and Freestyle. Backstroke, with its perpetual movement of the arms, always reminds me of how fast-paced my life is, and I enjoy being fast. Swimming has done so much for me as a sport, providing a mental and physical release, like a starting beep. The aerodynamics of gliding and moving in the water provided an adrenaline rush. 

My first swim team practice gave me chills; I felt like it was destined from birth. My parents named me Le’har, which means waves, so it felt like they knew from the beginning too. Press the fast-forward button once more to the present day — the 2021 summer Olympics, where athletes have conversations about sports and mental health like they never have before. And it’s only the start.

The starter has always been one of my favorite parts of swimming. It is one of the most critical jobs in a swim meet. An official standing on the side of the pool near the flags, holding a little microphone walkie-talkie, says, “Swimmers, step up!” and then presses the button. The starter is a part of swimming that represents the two-way street of anxiety and freedom. There is so much tension until you are on the “block.” But once you hear the buzzer sound, it gives you a sense of release. Hitting the water, doing your breakout, taking the first breath is all a part of the thrill and excitement of swimming. Kaplow! The race begins.


Many Harry Potter readers don’t question Lord Voldemort’s actions. They just accept the fact that he is evil and kills at least 20 people, if not hundreds more, and move on. However, I believe that there is always an excuse, or at least a reason, behind everything — even the actions of an evil wizard. That’s why I want to delve into Lord Voldemort’s crimes and why he commits them. Although Lord Voldemort’s actions are wrong, he has reasons for them. Some of them could be valid, others might just be interesting to explore.

The first reason is that Lord Voldemort is traumatized and twisted by his parents and circumstances in his early life. Even in the orphanage he grows up in, he already expresses some odd behavior, as you can see from observations he makes in the sixth book of the series, saying, “I can make things move without touching them. I can make animals do what I want them to do, without training them. I can make bad things happen to people who annoy me. I can make them hurt if I want to.” (The last two sentences are especially alarming.) Secondly, his lack of a conscience makes it easier for Voldemort to consider killing in service of his goal of immortality. The extent of his crimes and murders demonstrates a profound lack of compassion. This is worth considering, since insane people are also not held accountable for their decisions, and I posit that his lack of compassion is evidence of insanity. And third, he galvanizes the wizarding world to fight for everyone’s safety, including muggles and half-bloods. Although this is a reason that can be explored, I would not say it justifies Voldemort’s actions. Sure, those communities get their acts together, but it isn’t worth all the deaths that Voldemort causes. So let’s get exploring.

Lord Voldemort starts off life in an orphanage after his mother dies in childbirth. This is because his father has abandoned him and his mother, even after realizing that she has been pregnant. This may have been his mother’s fault as well, however, because she has used a love potion to make Voldemort’s father love her. Eventually, she can’t deceive him anymore and lets it wear off, and when he comes to his senses, he leaves. She can’t live on without Tom Riddle and dies. Virginia Zimmerman, a scholar at Bucknell University, writes in her article “Harry Potter and the Gift of Time” that “[both] Harry and Voldemort suffered from the loss of parents at a very young age. For Harry, though, his mother died to save his life; for Voldemort, his mother died because she could not live without Tom Riddle” (qtd. in Emily Anderson). Although Harry and Voldemort have similar situations at the beginning of their lives, Harry’s mother cares for her family, as opposed to Voldemort’s mother, who only seems to care about her husband. This small difference may have led to Lord Voldemort becoming evil instead of good as well as leading him to resent his parents. Once Lord Voldemort is old enough to understand what has happened, his hatred towards muggles (non-magical humans) and half-bloods (half-wizard, half-non-magical humans) grows. In the second book of the series, Voldemort says, “Surely you didn’t think I was going to keep my filthy Muggle father’s name? No. I fashioned myself a new name, a name I knew wizards everywhere would one day fear to speak, when I became the greatest sorcerer in the world!”

 After learning about his past, Voldemort later goes on to kill his father and his father’s family. This sounds brutal, but as I said, Voldemort doesn’t have that much of a conscience. He kills easily, which shows just how messed up he truly is. He goes on to kill more people in order to obtain Horcruxes, which allows him to split his soul and store it safely in objects in order to become immortal. In order to further understand Voldemort, I tried to recreate the story of how Voldemort’s first Horcrux is created. His first Horcrux is a plain, dark diary. It looks old, but it feels smooth and worn. It smells musty and dusty. Lord Voldemort, who is still Tom Riddle at the time, buys it from a Muggle store. I doubt there is much that is significant about Lord Voldemort obtaining the diary at the time — its importance comes later. In Lord Voldemort’s fifth year at Hogwarts, he manages to open the Chamber of Secrets, which is a secret chamber created by Salazar Slytherin, one of the founders of Hogwarts. A basilisk lives inside of it, a deadly monster that can turn people to stone with its gaze. He uses it to attack several students, including a girl who is always crying in the bathroom. After using it to kill her, he embeds part of his soul in the diary, making it into a Horcrux. Voldemort’s personality is expressed through the cruelty in which he kills in order to get his first Horcrux. However, if there had been another way for him to achieve immortality, he would have chased it that way instead. He wants immortality, and he is going to do anything he has to in order to achieve it. In the first book of the series, Voldemort says, “There is no good and evil, there is only power and those too weak to seek it.” In the very first book, Voldemort already shows that he believes that he is not evil, but the most powerful person alive and deserving of immortality. He is blinded by his goal and does not care for anyone. He uses anyone he could to get what he wants. Something else that could contribute to this worldview is the fact that killing in the wizarding world is so easy. All you have to do is mutter two words and a person would instantly die. Because of this, it is a lot easier to be detached when killing someone. It wouldn’t feel as personal as stabbing someone or something. Honestly, I don’t know if it makes a difference (I myself have never killed someone) but it’s a thought. Of course, killing is wrong, but Lord Voldemort doesn’t see it that way. In sum, Lord Voldemort isn’t killing these people because he wants to — he is killing them because they are in his way. He views people as obstacles rather than individuals.

The resurgence of Lord Voldemort may have been unfortunate, but one way it is actually advantageous is because it allows the wizarding world to come together in order to fight him. The incumbent Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, is extremely incompetent. He is driven out of office because he fails to recognize that Voldemort has come back. He thinks that the announcement that Voldemort is back would hurt his career. As the fourth book says, “‘You are blinded,’ said Dumbledore, his voice rising now, the aura of power around him palpable, his eyes blazing once more, ‘by the love of the office you hold, Cornelius! You place too much importance, and you always have done, on the so-called purity of blood! You fail to recognize that it matters not what someone is born, but what they grow up to be!’” From this, we can gather that Dumbledore recognizes that Fudge is not making the right preparations and tries to tell him as much, but still Fudge refuses to do anything. Eventually, it is too late, and Cornelius is forced to resign after it is revealed that Lord Voldemort has returned. In the long run, I think this led to a better wizarding world because the next Minister of Magic is more competent. However, without Voldemort, the wizards will likely grow complacent and will not be ready if another threat appears. Lord Voldemort is the main threat for a while. Without him, the wizards would not realize smaller crimes are being committed. Eventually, the criminals behind these small crimes may grow bolder and commit larger transgressions, and there would be another large crisis. An example is the unscrupulous case of Rita Skeeter, a journalist who abuses her powers as an unregistered Animagus (an animal shape-shifter who abuses her ability to spy on private conversations). A whole industry of Rita Skeeters would indeed cause a large crisis.

Although Voldemort should not be forgiven for his actions, I think they can be understood. Voldemort is twisted even as a child, changed by his trauma, which is why he commits all these horrible crimes. He feels no remorse and thinks of every terrible crime he commits as a stepping stone towards immortality. In the end, he helps the wizarding world get their act together and makes them step up to stop him. Although his actions cannot be forgiven, we can at least understand the reasons behind them and the effects they have. I hope this essay was able to show Lord Voldemort’s actions and crimes from a different lens. Will you be able to forgive him? Nah. But maybe you can at least understand him.

Works Cited

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Arthur A. Levine Books, 2005.

Zimmerman, Virginia. “Harry Potter and the Gift of Time.” Children’s Literature, vol. 37, 2009, p. 194-215. Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/chl.0.0814.

The Comrade: Part 1

The Comrade… Part I

The murder was timed perfectly. The target had no hope. 

Never call the victim by their name. It personalizes the situation and you will hesitate as you realize what you are doing. The advice seeped into The Comrade’s mind as he threw the knife. It was a perfect hit, like always. The Comrade’s real name was Braydon, but nobody called him that. He had enhanced senses that allowed him to track things easily. 

There was a meaty thunk as the knife passed into the target’s arteries. The Comrade stepped out to end the job. 

The sweet satisfaction of a kill. Especially this one. The target would pay for his arm with her life. 

The Comrade was one of the deadliest bounty hunters on earth. He did not know why the client wanted the target dead. He did not know who the target really was. A good hunter does not ask these questions. A good hunter does not hesitate to finish off the kill. The Comrade had been on many missions before, and it showed. Bullet wounds, knife scars, burns… fruitless attempts of a victim fighting back. There had been one incident where the victim had survived. Once again, now the survivor was no longer. 

Comrade would have been a normal boy, growing up in a normal school in Cornwall, and followed in his dad’s footsteps as a butcher, if not for the war… or the Neutralizer.

15 years earlier in the year 7062… 

Cornwall, The Constipated States of Russia, Formerly Europe

The bombing was ceaseless. Braydon knew he wouldn’t last long. He was huddled next to his mother on the floor of an evacuation shelter. He dreamt of better times and fell asleep with the rhythmic BOOM of the bombs. He awoke to his mother shaking him, the panicked look on her face causing an adrenaline rush. The bunker had been bombed, and now it was a smoking hole. Braydon and his mother rushed out as the rebels started to storm the bunker. He was lucky none of them saw him. 

Suddenly, three rebels popped out of a dark corner and started shooting at him and his mom. He never saw his mother again. 

In the span of about two seconds, the rebels were on the ground, dead. The sound of a jetpack made him snap around to behold the sight of The Neutralizer. He was decked out in full titanium armour with a strong blaster in his hand, a heavy sniper slung across his back, which was one of the newest models. He had a bullet carrier across his chest and leg and a cape across his back. He had an extra titanium jetpack in his hand. The helmet and knives strapped to his legs identified him as part of The Watch. 

The Watch was a mysterious group that existed before the rebels. Nobody knew which side they were on, but now Braydon knew they were going to help. 

There was a rebel sneaking up behind the warrior. Before Braydon could tell him, with alarming and cunning speed the Neutralizer swung around and shot him. The rebel fell to the ground dead. The warrior held out the jetpack to him. 

“Is this for me?” Braydon asked cautiously, the excitement building in him. The Neutralizer said nothing. Must not be a very talkative guy, Braydon thought. He took the jetpack warily, as if it might explode in his hands. He felt the cool metal soothe his skin as he strapped in. The Neutralizer pressed a button on his wrist guard, and suddenly Braydon shot up into the air. The weightlessness made him feel giddy as he landed on top of a building. 

“Come with me. You may call me Commander. Do not try anything or you shall have a terrible fate.” The warrior’s deep voice echoed through his helmet. 

“You mean, kill me?” Braydon stuttered.

“There are worse things than dying,” was the reply as he blasted off. Braydon found the button on the side of the jetpack, popping out a joystick in front of him which he could control. He followed the “Commander” through the bombs of terror. He glanced down and saw the scene he had fled, gazing at the destruction and hollowness.  

As Braydon and the warrior landed in a small dark alleyway, there was the pitter-patter of footsteps, and then a sharp cry of death. They both landed silently. The Neutralizer told him in silent language to stay and be quiet. Braydon watched silently from the corner as he took out his blaster pistol and walked along the hard ground. He looked once, lifted his pistol, and shot. The other enemy shot at the exact same time and the shots bounced off each other multiple times before flying away. They both gave a hearty laugh, embraced, and began to walk away. Braydon started to walk toward them but not before he spotted a small frilly dress rush past him in an alleyway. He thought it must be another refugee. Five minutes later, trailing the two warriors, he had the impression that someone was watching him. He swung around to catch a glimpse once again of a polka dot dress, this time catching a little bit of the girl’s hair. 

“Hey wait! Who are you?” he shouted. He ran to where he had last seen her and just saw her round a corner.

Giggling erupted from somewhere behind a wall. Braydon silently walked toward the sound, a smile spreading on his face. He jumped forward and said, “Gotcha little skunk!” 

The girl smiled and said shyly, “Hi. I’m Marybelle, but you can call me Mary.” 

“Hi, I’m Braydon. Why are you following me?” Braydon asked timidly, helping the girl up. Marybelle looked like she had just woken up from the ground. Her dress was caked with mud, and her hair was messy, sticking to her face which was covered in grime, but held a certain gleam to it which made her look pretty. 

“I was following metal man,” she replied. “He saved me.”

“He saved me too,” Braydon said quietly. “Speaking of which…” The warriors were far away, and both Braydon and Marybelle were out of breath when they caught up. 

“Commander,” huff, “where are you,” huff, “taking us?” asked Braydon.

The Commander and his buddy turned around. “Us?” he questioned. He acknowledged the little girl and said gruffly, “No friends along.” 

“But… she said she was rescued too…” Braydon protested. 

“Oh. That’s my sack. Ahaha,” his buddy “Ex-Commando” explained. 

Marybelle ran up to “Ex-Commando” and hugged him. “Metal man,” she said, pointing to the man.

Braydon gave a small laugh, which sparked giggles out of Marybelle. She was like a little ball of sunshine. She must have been only about five years old. Braydon couldn’t stand to think that people as young as her would be facing this war. 

“Come now, children. You must prepare,” the Commander ordered. Braydon followed him to a door set in a stone wall. He hit it with some sort of pattern, and they waited. About ten seconds later some sort of spyball popped out and viewed all of the customers. The spyball retracted, and a grinding sound emerged from the door as it swung inside. They all walked  though into the hall. The hall was long, with no pictures or paintings, and made out of pure marble. More “metal men” were on the side of the hall, cleaning their weapons. They all stared as Braydon walked though. 

“You found a sapling?” one of the warriors grunted.

“Yeah. The first one too!” Commander boasted. “They’re going to get the best armour.”

The Commander led Braydon away from Marybelle and brought him through a hallway to a metal door. Braydon heard a faint clanging coming from inside. 

“Put these on. Then you might not die,” Commander laughed again. He handed out something that looked like a foil cap with eye coverings. Braydon didn’t know how you would be able to see through them, but he put them on. Suddenly, his vision was enhanced. He could see things with intense clarity, from the texture on the Commander’s helmet to the finest grain of sand on the ground. 

“So… can you see anything?” the Commander asked.

“Y-Y-Yeah.. Everything looks so… pure!” Braydon stammered, looking around. 

“He is the Chosen One…” the Commander said under his breath. Braydon acted like he didn’t hear him. The last thing he wanted was more attention. 

The Commander knocked on the door three times, and the door opened. Inside, Braydon saw an armory. The clanking sound grew louder, and Braydon could see an Armourer hammering a piece of titanium into what looked like a chestpiece. 

“The sapling is here, old one.” The armourer turned around, and Braydon saw her gold helmet. 

“Gooooood,” the Armourer dragged out. “His armour is ready.”

“I believe him to be the Chosen One, Master,” the Commander explained. “He can see through the glasses. 

5 years later…

Braydon was only 14, and yet he already felt his power growing. He could sense people without seeing them, hear things from more than a mile away, and see things in clarity. He had been admitted into the creed of the Watch when they discovered his powers. They had changed his armour to be smaller, so now he could stay safe from enemies. He had been given two blaster pistols as well as a considerably weak sniper which would only damage his target. 

This new mission was the hardest mission yet. He was to assassinate Will Hye, a Russian spy who worked for the Soviet Hye. This would be his first time on an assassination mission.

Braydon had been given the nickname “Comrade” because of how loyal he was to his teammates. This time he had been given the other child in the creed: Marybelle. Marybelle was only 9, but she was still experienced. She was a much better sniper than Braydon was, which made him envy her. She had the same armour as Braydon’s except for the blue design on the front of her helmet and limbs. 

They were camped out on a building very high. Marybelle was to snipe Will Hye, and if the shot missed, Braydon would go down on his jetpack and gun him down with his pistols. This mission was sure to be a success. 

Will Hye had just finished a meeting with another spy, Bill Nye. The two spies had been discussing plans on how to invade the Constipated States. They had decided to discuss these plans with their boss. Little did they know, that meeting wouldn’t happen. 

As Will walked out of the building, he felt like someone had punched him. He stepped back a few steps. People were screaming all around him, but he couldn’t figure out what all the fuss was about. Then he looked down and saw the blood spilling out. His eyes began to swim, and black spots clouded his vision. The screams grew softer, and he could barely see. Will tried shouting, but no sound came out. He fell down and sunk into black oblivion. 

The mission was complete.

Whatever Happens In The Dark

There are three types of small towns: the happy-go-lucky town, the murder town, and the normal one. Our town just so happens to be the last one. 

We all go to one school, shop for food at one store, eat out at one restaurant, and buy clothes at the same department store. It’s all very simple. 

All of our grades are very small, so they’re squished into one class per year. However, if you ask one of us what it was we did or learned last year, we won’t know. None of us know. All we know is that we went to school and learned something. As far as we know, we get taught the same thing every year. 

My name is Claire. I live in this town, like all people do. We all know there’s nothing else out there, and we’ve accepted it. It’s just miles and miles of grass. So you can imagine the surprise when our teachers announced we would be going on a “field trip.” 

None of us knew what a “field trip” was, so it had to be explained. Basically, it’s when you get on a yellow bus and drive somewhere other than here. That would be fun if there was somewhere else to go. But there’s not. 

“Where would we even go?” Nathan asked one of our teachers, Ms. Harper. 

“Outside of the town line,” she said. “Obviously.” 

We all exchanged a look. Was Ms. Harper going crazy? 

But nevertheless, we all packed our lunches and got on a bright yellow bus the next morning. 

I sat next to my friend Kira. Across from us were Emma and Sammi, who brought candies for us to share. But Jake, the brute, stole them. He and his pig friends Lucas and Finn ate them all. It was disappointing, but Sammi is always prepared. She brought extras, and we were sure to keep them hidden. 

“Does everyone have their things?” Ms. Harper asked. 

“Yes ma’am,” we all chorused. 

“Wonderful.” She clapped her hands, and the bus door shut. 

We all jumped. 

“We’re off!” Ms. Harper said.

The bus began to drive, and we were all a bit nervous. Here we were, in this large yellow thing that hardly seemed safe, crammed together like a can of sardines. 

“Kira!” someone called out (I think it was Shawn). “How high can you get your leg?” 

“Yeah!” someone else cheered. “Do it!” 

It was no secret that Kira was the most flexible person our age, perhaps in our town, and we all took great pleasure in watching her stretch every which way. 

Kira lifted her leg up past her head and then back down onto the brown seat. Everyone on the bus cheered and clapped, and Ms. Harper stood up. 

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are approaching the town line! Prepare for some… changes.” 

Kira, Sammi, Emma, and I all held hands as the yellow bus crossed the town line, and drove past the sign that read, “Thank you for visiting! Come again soon!” 

That’s when we heard the scream. That’s when it all came flooding back. 

It was pure chaos. People were tripping over each other, trying to get to the bus door, but Ms. Harper snapped her fingers and banished us all back to our seats. 

“Enough!” she commanded. “You will speak one at a time, just like you’ve been taught.” 

“Let us go!” Charlie pleaded. “Please, we’ve done nothing wrong!” 

Ms. Harper smiled, and we all turned a shade whiter. “Neither did the other children, but you’ve been chosen.” 

Emma started crying. “Please!” 

“You!” Lucas roared, standing up and pointing at our ‘teacher.’ “You’ve brainwashed a whole town, and you expect us to sit quietly and twiddle our thumbs?” 

There were sounds of agreement, and Ms. Harper waved her hand. A layer of skin grew over Lucas’ mouth, and he screamed silently. 

I gasped and covered my own mouth. 

“You have been chosen by the Merciful One! Like all the children before you, you will meet your fate!” Ms. Harper said with a wicked grin. 

“Let us go!” Sammi cried. 

“The other children had similar reactions when their memories came back, but none of them escaped. None of you will either.” 

Emma stood up and threw a gumball at her, then another, and then another one until the whole bag was empty. Ms. Harper’s face was red with rage. 

“You dare to hurt me? Me, the Merciful Lord’s messenger? You will pay, girl.” Ms. Harper cackled loudly and Emma screamed. She clawed at her throat, and her pale skin began to grow black. 

Sammi screamed and tried to run to the back of the bus, but she fell in the aisle before she could reach the back door. 

An invisible force dragged her to the front, and then suspended her in the air. Her blue eyes became red, then black, then white before completely dissolving before us. She began to twitch before she, too, was engulfed in blackness. 

Emma was still struggling on the seat, and Kira was trying to help her. She touched her ashen arm, and then the darkness spread. Kira screamed, and then fell onto Emma’s body, becoming a corpse herself. 

I covered my eyes as I heard Emma’s crying grow louder and Jake’s screams of “get her!” eventually turned into him choking. 

Just like those other children, we would go missing. We would be wiped from the town’s memories and replaced with new, shiny versions of ourselves. Just like those other children, we would be eradicated. 

I couldn’t let her do this. I couldn’t. My friends were all dead or would be in a few moments. 

So I uncovered my eyes and ran. I ran to the front of the bus and tackled Ms. Harper to the ground. She screamed her horrible scream, and I fought the urge to cover my ears. I took off my shiny black shoe and hit her in the head with it over and over again until her wriggling stopped. 

I searched the dashboard for something to open the door, and after what seemed like an eternity of endless button pushing, one yellow button made the door swing open. 

“Quickly!” I shouted, running down the little steps. “Run!” 

I had expected to hear people shouting for joy and running to safety, but there was nothing. The screams and cries had stopped. There were no sounds of joy. There was only silence. 

I slowly walked back into the bus and saw nothing. Nothing at all. My classmates were gone. My friends’ bodies were gone. Ms. Harper’s body was gone from the floor. I was alone. 

I walked up the aisle and searched the seats for anyone who might have been hiding when I heard the noise. A person. Someone was clearing their throat behind me. 

I turned around expecting to see someone to help me, but I fell to the ground. Ms. Harper was standing there, large black wings stretched out. Her eyes were white and her nails were long and ragged. Her sharp teeth were stretched into a terrifying smile, and her hand was curled around a knife. 

“Poor Claire,” she cooed. “All alone.” 

“Please,” I said. “Please don’t do this.” 

She tutted. “I thought you knew better than to run, my dear. I always thought you’d know not to look into the dark.” 

“Let me go,” I begged. My blue dress had been torn, and I was trembling like a baby. 

“I thought you knew,” she continued, her voice dropping to a whisper, “that whatever happens in the dark is none of your business. But I was wrong. You, like all children in that filthy town, don’t know any better.” She stepped closer to me and knelt to the floor where I was cowering. “Now you may join them, my dear Claire. That is my final gift to you. Hopefully there, you will know not to fight your destiny.” She gave me one final smile before it was all black. 

Ms. Cressida Harper walked back into the town later that day with twenty-two children that looked just like the ones she’d left with. But they weren’t them. Fortunately, no one would know but her. Just like every year. 

The yellow bus was parked in a lot and left for the next class, and Ms. Cressida Harper walked into the cafe where she drank a cappuccino. She smiled at the waiter who brought her the drink and smoothed out her yellow and red dress. 

Ahh, there really was nothing sweeter than the darkness.

The Otherworld, Book IX: The Shadow Legion

Trigger Warnings

  • Death
  • Animal Death
  • Burning People (though not graphic)
  • Death of a Loved One


“Producat in flamma.” 

Clufa walked over to the edge of the cliff, a small flame flickering in her hands. 

“Junge currum suum fortitudinem.”

It began bouncing around her. Clufa didn’t mind. She was harnessing it, after all, so if it touched her, it would do nothing to her. She peered at the edge and saw the shadowy being.

Clufa didn’t bother to hide a small smile creeping across her face. She faced the man, and from behind her, she felt a cold chill. As she turned, Altzeroil let out a small breath.

“Facite hoc meum,” Clufa concluded. She grabbed the flame and, with a flick of her hand, an enormous flame appeared above her. She peered out to the edge of the cliff, and in an instant, she threw the flame towards the cliff. An\ huge explosion from the other side was heard, and Clufa could do nothing but grin.

As the smoke cleared, Hana walked over to the edge. A flower came onto her hand. She beamed at it. Clufa groaned, not having much more patience for her easily distracted little sister.

“Hana,” Clufa said through gritted teeth. “The wizard, remember?”

“Oh, um, right.” Hana quickly withdrew her flower. She stretched out her hand, and a large vine came from their cliff towards the other that Clufa had blown up.

Clufa heard a couple of shouts from the cliff, and she knew that they were planning on evacuating.

Altzeroil drew his staff, and instantly, a large trail of ice grew from their cliff to the other, creating two paths. They didn’t really need the paths, of course. Altzeroil was just doing that to be dramatic, because what would life be without that?

Altzeroil levitated from the ground and began floating to the other side. Hana followed on her own vines (she was the only one of the three who couldn’t fly), while Clufa, being the impatient brat she was, flew like a rocket to the other side. As soon as she got there, she found the closest human she could and grabbed their collar.

“Where is Divino?” hissed Clufa, a flame flickering in her hand, getting dangerously close to the human’s head.

“I — I know nothing!” cried the human. “Please, have mercy!”

“Mercy is for cowards,” Clufa hissed, and she dropped the human, letting him fall down through the fog. She faced the rest of the humans. “You have two opportunities: surrender Divino and die together, or I will destroy you all now and give you no chance to bid farewell to your loved ones.”

“Clufa, please!” Hana reached the cliff. “No one deserves to die alone.”

Clufa rolled her eyes. “Hana, just find Divino, and we’ll be over with this.”

Altzeroil reached the other side. He looked across the humans, grinning.

“Altzeroil, NO, we do not have TIME for this!” Clufa spat.

“Please, just one?” Altzeroil asked. “I haven’t tortured anyone in weeks, I want to torment just one of these humans.”

“Oh, Altzeroil, don’t be horrible,” hissed Hana. “These humans are merely trying to protect their home — they aren’t the ones we’re here for.”

“But if we can’t find him, what else are we going to do?” Altzeroil muttered. “We’ve been searching for weeks. I’m not in the mood to go looking again.”

“Then don’t,” a powerful voice echoed from the edge, and the three primordial wizards turned and saw Divino, standing with a strange magical aura surrounding him.

“Finally,” hissed Clufa, and she summoned her staff. “Occidere,” she said, and a blast of fire spewed from her staff and hit Divino… but his aura protected him.

Clufa roared in fury and flew over to him. She tried to manually strike him down, but the second she got too close, the aura around Divino blasted her backwards. She immediately got up.

“How is this possible?!” Clufa screamed. “You’re a MORTAL!”

“It seems we mortals are capable of more than you thought we were,” growled Divino. “Surrender, Shadow Legion, before I’m forced to use this.” He raised a small globe in his hand.

Clufa let out a small scoff. “You plan to trap us in the limbo dimension? Pathetic fool, don’t you know that we are the primordial wizards of the ELEMENTS? We cannot be defeated!”

“Correction — you can’t be killed,” said Divino. “You can, however, be defeated and locked away for millennia to come.”

“Then it seems all we must do is keep you from using that,” Altzeroil said with a grin. “From inside your protection aura, you are unable to use that thing. You must come outside to face us, and to do that, is to risk death.”

“Some things are worth risking,” snarled Divino, “so that you can’t bring out your genocidal apocalypse!”

“Your kind has abused the magic that we gave you,” growled Clufa. “You use it to torment other creatures and even some of your own kind. You do not deserve this power.”

“That’s hardly a valid excuse to destroy and remake everything!” Divino cried.

“Everything will be as it was, with one thing changed: you will no longer have magic,” Altzeroil explained. “Everyone will only be dead for a few moments, so calm down.”

“We can’t trust you, not after what you did,” Divino growled.

“Then get out of your shell and fight us!” Clufa yelled, more fire erupting from around her.

Hana hopped towards them, grinning.  A large vine carried her upwards, and she gazed down at her siblings and Divino.

Divino, to Clufa’s slight surprise, chanted an incantation and the aura around him vaporized.

Clufa wasted no time. She raised her staff and an enormous fire erupted from it, and it struck Divino.

However, Divino was prepared, and he conjured another shield to deflect her power as he conjured his item. Altzeroil noticed this, and flew over, attempting to grab it, but in the nick of time Divino grabbed Altzeroil and blasted him with the object.

Altzeroil was highlighted with white magic. He gave a yelp as his form suddenly vanished.

He’s in limbo, Clufa realized. That man… his magic worked!

“Altzeroil!” Hana cried, looking horrified.

Clufa let out a frustrated growl, but as she attempted to attack Divino once more, Divino leapt upward to Hana and attacked her with it too.

Hana immediately vanished as well and all her vines disappeared.

Clufa scoffed. “Looks like it’s just you, and me then. Once I destroy you, I will release my siblings,” she growled.

“If you destroy me,” corrected Divino.

“Or if I do,” another voice came from the sky, and Clufa looked up in time to see a woman encased in blue armor floating in the sky. She gazed down at them.


Zadus came down to the ground. As Divino launched at her, Zadus simply grabbed his arm and held her hand inches away from his neck, holding a spell in her hand. “Surrender, Divino. You can’t overpower me.”

“We cannot let you unleash the titans,” Divino said.

“And you think you’ll be able to stop me?” Zadus questioned, stepping closer. “May I remind you that I have the power of the cosmos?”

“Then your weakness is down here,” Divino said, and he blasted Zadus with the object. Of course, it did nothing, but the second Clufa went to attack Divino, he leapt at her and her magic hit Zadus instead, suddenly encasing her in amber.


“Perhaps it’s destiny,” Divino admitted. “Perhaps the time of the primordial wizards has come to an end.”

With one more blast, a ball of light hit Clufa in the chest. Clufa had the luxury of seeing her spirit shoot up to a space unknown as her body went completely limp.

When Clufa opened her eyes again, she was in some white room. She saw Altzeroil and Hana in the room as well.

“What — what happened?” growled Clufa. “Where are we?”

“We are in the limbo dimension,” Altzeroil answered. “That wretched wizard put our physical bodies in stasis and imprisoned us here… It will take us millions of years to return to the physical realm, if we are able to at all!”

“Then we will wait for millions of years,” Clufa declared. “Zadus has been imprisoned in amber, and she won’t be released until we release her. We will wait until the balance of magic has been altered, and then… we will break free.”

“You know, on the bright side, we have each other,” Hana interjected. “And we can still use our magic here, and it’s just the three of us! So we can be as chaotic as we want!”

“That does sound fun,” Altzeroil admitted. “What do you think, Clufa?”

“I think this will be a long prison sentence.”

Chapter 1

That was the end.

I guess not the end of the story, because, well, you’re still reading.

But that was the end of the reign of the Shadow Legion… at least for now.

See, my name is Ash. I was a sorceress who lived about three million years after the reign of the Shadow Legion and have lived for about two thousand years since. Lucky me, right?

Not exactly. Since apparently I was violating the rules of “disrupting connection between magic, risking releasing ancient beings, blah blah blah,” I was imprisoned… no, not in an alternate realm, but in my own house.

Exactly how humiliating can a defeat be, especially for a powerful sorceress? I personally can’t see how it could be any worse than this.

But I’ve been wrong before, so I really don’t know.

Anyway, you’ve probably read a bunch of other stories about stuff like heroes saving their world from some kind of big threat that’s going to cause catastrophe, and the heroes are flawless and perfect snowflakes who are never questioned and always save the day.

And you probably find that annoying, don’t you?

Well, if you do, I have good news for you! I’m not biased towards the winning side. If you really want to know why books are always so biased towards the heroes, it’s because they’re the ones who won. But here I am, someone who lost, with no hint of bias towards those who’ve won!


Because, as you can guess, I’m a little irritated with how my life has turned out!!!

You know, trapped in my house, forced to give anyone who wanders here some blessed magic powers so that they can think they’re some precious little snowflake who has done no wrong.

But anyway, enough of that. I did my research, I stalked the limbo realm… and I know about the Shadow Legion. And I can tell you about them because I’m sure you’re wondering: what exactly happened to them? And is there any chance that they could come back?

In short, they were trapped in limbo to keep them from becoming titans and remaking the Fantiverse, and yes, there’s a very good chance that they’ll come back because a magical connection was severely altered in another world.

If you want a more detailed explanation of what’s happened, well, that’s what I’m here for.

So yeah. The Shadow Legion.

Clufa, Altzeroil, and Hana started by redecorating the limbo realm, at least the part of it they were imprisoned in. I guess they figured if they were going to be imprisoned there, they might as well make it just a little bit hospitable.

They each stuck to their own corner most of the time (except Hana, who had literally no regard for personal space, and honestly, I respect her for that) but had meetings in the center and often could temporarily break the connection between their plane of existence and the physical realm by communicating with those below.

Yes, limbo is above the physical realm. Don’t ask me why, I have no idea.

Anyway, so a couple of things happened in the million years they were imprisoned — namely that they did a LOT of manipulating.

And I mean, A LOT. All of them, even the temperamental Clufa, were pretty much experts by the end.

Perhaps I should give a couple of examples?

Well, here’s one.

(Please pardon the way it’s written, I was just taking notes on what was happening, so it’s written in script form.)


Daemones magnanime nomini tuo me benedicite mihi scientiam.

A large pile of smoke appears, and from it, a shadow that is shaped like CLUFA appears. The shadow is orange, with a redhead and yellow limbs.


Greetings, young wizard, and thank you for communicating with us. It’s been so long since we’ve had contact with those from the world below.


It’s an honor to meet you, master of the flame.


The flame is an art anyone can learn, but it is true that I am the creator of it.

CLUFA bounces around a couple of flames in her shadow form to show what she’s doing.


I’ve summoned you to ask: how may I topple the Wizarding Committee?


(scoffs) So there’s a wizarding committee now? Love that these pathetic humans pretend they’re the ones in control of the magic and try to hide that they have primordial wizards lurking over them right now.


Indeed; I wish to topple them, and take control of this world.


I can help you, and I’d rather you than the Wizarding Committee rule. But may I ask just why do you think you’re worthy of this?


Because I’ve studied magic for far longer than they have, and I work hard to learn it for myself rather than greedily taking it from others.


You’d be a step up from them, I’ll give you that, little cat. Just what kind of animal are you?


Tiger, technically, though most just call me a cat.


Yes, I can see that.




Hana, shhh, I’m TALKING to someone, and we have to make a good IMPRESSION. PLEASE go back to your corner and… play with plants or something.


But… but it’s a CAT!


Just summon a cat of your own! Can’t you do that?




Well… can’t you make a sculpture of one?




Ugh, fine, come on.

HANA’s shadow appears in the smoke. Her’s is green all over with a few lighter shades of green in her limbs and head.




Um… hello I guess.


Okay, you saw the cat, now please go. 

CLUFA pushes HANA away, and her smoke disappears.


Hi. Sorry. My sister’s crazy about cats. Runs in the family, I guess, since cats are one of the only species my brother doesn’t like torturing.


That is… um… quite alright. ANYWAY. I’ve been told that you can bless others with your power.


You’ve been told correctly.


Well, I want to know if you can do that. If you can give me that power.


Can I? Yes. Will I? Maybe. It depends on what you do for me.


What can I do for you?


I am currently in the limbo realm, and I need an external force to help me escape. That’s where you come in.




Yes. You must alter the balance of magic so that the barrier between limbo and the physical realm is shattered — only for a brief moment, mind you — but enough for three demigods to escape.


You’re demigods?


Well, we call ourselves that, but, technically we weren’t born to a god or a human, so… JUST LISTEN TO ME!


Yes, of course, um, sorry.


Now, I will bless you with some of my flames, and you may be my host. With this power, you must destroy the Wizarding Committee.


Hold up, hold up, what do you mean, ‘host’?


I mean, the Shadow Legion can use any willing sorcerer as their host if they’re in limbo, to shatter the barrier between worlds. That is what I plan on doing with you, but I need two others.


Fortunately, I know where to find two others. But why should we believe you?


How else do you plan on getting this power?


Hmm. Very well. Grant me your strength.

So yeah.

That’s all I remember from that scene because a bunch of humans came and asked for a bit of magic, and of course, I had no choice but to say yes because of this ANNOYING CURSE THAT KEEPS ME HERE FOR ETERNITY.

Anyway, I suppose that leads into a little of what happened, right? Clufa eventually possessed Freiza and used her to start creating havoc in the Wizarding World (the planet in which that was located).

But there is a lot more to this story. Why? Because many unexpected things happened on the journey.

For one thing, the Wizarding Committee was, in fact, toppled, but not because of Clufa or Freiza. It was because of the citizens of Tulgey Wood, who waged a massive attack, allying with Gnome and Cat Island in order to achieve this. It resulted in two major casualties (not counting the Wizarding Lord, whose death was the goal).

As you can imagine, it caused some shaking of the realms, but not enough.

It wouldn’t be until several weeks later that a true shaking would occur…

Chapter 2

Ah. You again.

You certainly are hungry for more information?

Greedy human.

Assuming you’re human, of course. I really don’t know at this point. Last week I heard that a strange creature with purple eyes and black fur was the one who struck down the Wizarding Lord at the cost of his own life.

Guess that means more than just humans have large intelligence now?

Not that humans are very smart, of course.

Anyway, I won’t jump to any conclusions, and I’ll just give you what you came for.

So a few things happened in the three weeks before they were released. Some external things involving Clufa manipulating her way into getting out with her siblings, but I must say, much to my surprise, observing these demons actually turned out to be a really interesting character study!

I almost feel like I’m watching a movie when I’m watching Clufa, Altzeroil, and Hana all together (maybe a horror drama sitcom? I don’t know), because their interactions and clashing personalities are just delightful.

Take one night, for instance.

Clufa was conjuring some kind of magic aura that was causing tension in limbo. Guess she thought that would lead to some magic misconnections, but if she actually read the books like her brother did, she’d know that would be pointless, as nothing that happened in limbo impacted the world below.

As she was doing this, she was suddenly interrupted by a large bush that took the shape of a cat, that suddenly pounced on Clufa, and bounced off her, destroying her incantation.

Clufa growled in frustration.

“Sorry!” cried Hana, running by Clufa, chasing after the cat. “Lost pet!”

“Hana, what did you do?!” Clufa barked.

“I finally learned how to bring things to live!” Hana answered enthusiastically. “I created a cat, made of leaves! He’s now my best friend ever and for all eternity!”

“Well, can you please just take it away from here?” demanded Clufa. “I’m trying to cause balance shifts from here!”

“You realize that’s pointless?” Altzeroil questioned sassily. “Nothing that happens here impacts the physical realm. We can cause an earthquake, and the physical realm will be untouched.”

“Well, it’s worth a shot, since no one else is trying anything!” Clufa responded irritably. “Now, WAIT.” She closed her eyes and spread her arms out. “Omnis virtus mea, et adducere magicae.”  A yellow string appeared between Clufa’s hands. She began circling her hands around each other, as the string began vibrating. “Utere ea ut conteram nos.” She began levitating, and when she opened her eyes, they were glowing. She looked down and brought her hands inches apart. The string turned into a ball. “Claustra perrumpere!”

Clufa threw the magic ball down the limbo barrier, but it simply bounced off and hit Clufa in the head as though it was a basketball. Clufa fell down, clutching her head, as the ball evaporated. Her eyes stopped glowing.

“Clufa!” yelped Hana, hopping over to her sister. “Are you alright?”

“I’m… I’m fine,” Clufa answered, shaking off the pain in her forehead.

“As I said,” muttered Altzeroil, levitating down, “that was pointless. It got you hurt, and it could have gotten one of us hurt.”

“What have you been doing?” Clufa demanded, getting up. “I’ve been trying to get us all out of here, you’ve just been floating around your precious ice palace and reading stuff, being a nerd!”

“That’s a compliment,” Altzeroil replied with a sly smile.

“IT’S NOT SUPPOSED TO BE!” Clufa roared, losing her temper again, and a bunch of fire erupted around her. She levitated into the air, glaring sharply at Altzeroil.

“Clufa, calm down,” Altzeroil told her. “You’ll burn Hana’s things, which isn’t very polite.”

Clufa muttered as she levitated down and the fire died away. Clufa walked away to sulk her magma fortress.

“Um… was it something I said?” asked Hana, nervously clutching her cat.

“No, dear,” replied Altzeroil, floating back to his ice palace. “It’s no one’s fault.”

Fun, right?

Clufa was constantly throwing temper tantrums, yet at the same time was the most productive of them all, Hana had the IQ of a rat while she was probably the nicest of them all (not saying much), and Altzeroil was the sassy best friend who thinks he’s better and more chill (get it?) than everyone.

It was almost like being in limbo brought the best out of these people, which is interesting, because personally, I became a lot more insane while in this prison. I used to be much more level-headed, I guess you could say (though the people who imprisoned me here will probably tell you otherwise). Now, I’m pretty chaotic, so yay. They’ve gotten a lot closer and developed more antics. I guess not being alone definitely served a role in it.

Anyway, guess you’re done with all this “FUN FUN” stuff and want to get to the actual interesting stuff.

Fine, you cranky person.

Later, though. I need to get my sleep. Goodbye.


Alabaster metal met obsidian with a clang that resonated throughout the courtyard, early morning light striking the pale blade in such a way that it seemed to glow from within. The trimmed maze of shrubs snaked around the two figures as they danced over and under in a deadly tango of reflex and skill. To a casual observer, it would seem that the pair were evenly matched, accustomed to each other’s fighting styles over years of practice. Yet a sharper eye might notice a slight misstep, a strike just off mark, a parry almost a second too late. 

“Watch out, Princess,” Emity smirked as her blade barely missed her opponent’s arm.

Adhara narrowed her eyes. “How many times do I have to tell you not to call me that?”

“Once you get this move right,” the woman shot back. Adhara’s only warning was a flash of dark silver before she found herself stumbling backward, the sound of her sword clattering to the ground ringing in her ears. Emity bowed down in an overly low curtsy. “I believe that I’ve won, Your Highness.”

Adhara pursed her lips in a failed attempt to keep from smiling. “Manners don’t look good on you, you know.”

“Nor do they look good on you.” Emity grinned, straightening up as she tossed an auburn braid over her shoulder.

“Nope, they don’t,” the princess agreed as she picked her sword up from the ground, her dark eyes twinkling. “Why don’t I prove it to you? Ready to lose?”

“Oh, you’re on. I admire your — ”

“Princess Adhara,” a nasal voice bellowed. “Just what are you doing?”

Adhara spun around and couldn’t help the frown that sprang to her face. Before her stood a middle-aged man dressed head to toe in blue velvet robes embroidered with gold. A matching feather hat sat atop his meticulously coiffed hair. Adhara rolled her eyes. The royal advisor had the uncanny ability to appear at the worst of times. “Does it matter? I can do whatever I want. It’s my castle.”

“Now, now, Your Highness. That’s where you’re wrong. This castle belongs to the Astel Dynasty, to the benevolent rulers of Cordin. It belongs to the King and Queen, and afterwards, it shall go to the Prince, which means you must follow their rules, and that starts with ceasing these… activities.” He wrinkled his nose as he waved his hand in Emity’s direction. The woman glared daggers at the man but said nothing.

“Too scared to come up with a comeback?” he sneered.

Emity set her jaw. “No, I just don’t want to get fired.”

“No one’s getting fired,” Adhara cut in, trying to ignore the sudden flurry of butterflies that had risen in her chest. “Your commands hardly have any weight to them, you know, especially with that awful hat. Honestly, where in the world did you find that thing?”

The man’s face turned scarlet — either from embarrassment or anger, Adhara could not tell. “As the official advisor to the King and Queen, I refuse to accept this type of behavior. Now you are to return indoors for your lessons right this instant.”

“You can’t tell me what to do.”

Something in the advisor’s eyes darkened dangerously. “Oh, I’m not telling you.” He moved to the side, and almost reflexively, any sign of emotion dropped from Adhara’s face.

The King of Cordin had always been taller than average. Once upon a time, Adhara had been convinced that her father could touch the Sun itself. She knew better now, but the way he was towering before was formidable, to say the least. He frowned as he took in the scene; the silence was palpable, Adhara’s face a carefully composed mask, Emity’s bold features a display of uncharacteristic fear.

“I looked out at the sunrise this fine morning, and what do I see but two shadows staining my gardens. Shadows,” he repeated. “Like dirt on ivory walls, tar on white marble, blood,” he took a step forward, “on silk tablecloth.”

It took Adhara a surprising amount of energy to keep from rolling her eyes a second time.

“It’s impudence,” the King continued. “Outright disobedience. It’s rebellion, which will lead to Darkness. Light must eliminate Darkness by all means possible. Whatever it takes to keep the flame burning. Hence, I have made a decision. This was by no means an easy decision, but it must be done. I regret to inform you,” he turned to Emity, “that you are no longer a part of the royal army, no longer part of this castle. Never were, it seems, if this has been going on for as long as I think it has.”

Yet another clang sounded throughout the courtyard as the black blade tumbled from trembling fingers. “I — w-what?”

“No!” Adhara cried. “You can’t do this. It was… it was my idea! I dragged her into this. Please, it’s not fair.”

The King ignored them. “Adhara, I won’t have you contaminating Light. Never let me catch you with this sort of peasantry again.” With that, he turned on his heel and left, the royal advisor scurrying after him like the weasel he was.

Adhara couldn’t hold back any longer, and she rushed towards Emity. Her vision was blurring — tears, she later realized — yet somehow, paths intersected, and the two friends found themselves stumbling into a wordless embrace. Seconds stretched into minutes, and for once, Adhara was grateful for it.

It was Emity who pulled away. She tried for a small smile, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “I should — ” she drew a shaky breath. “I should probably go now.”

Adhara had never thought that the combination of these five words could render her speechless, particularly not when spoken by the person before her. A thousand possible replies tumbled through her head, and a thousand of them all seemed wrong. All she could do was look up at her friend, memorizing every detail for the final time. Brown met blue, and though they were very different colors, in that moment they shined with the same light.

Emity swallowed hard. “The sword,” she managed, gesturing to the obsidian black blade on the ground. “Take care of her for me.”

Adhara cleared her throat, blinking hard. “It’ll be here the next time you dare to challenge me. R-ready to lose?”

The former guard wiped her eyes and gave a small smile. “I admire your confidence,” she replied, voice trembling only slightly.

If beginnings were celebrated with fanfare, perhaps it was only fitting that this was an ending in silence. Adhara gazed at the courtyard gates long after Emity had passed through them. How strange it was that not long ago, adrenaline had coursed through her veins, her movements quick and deliberate when now, she didn’t want to take another step. The hedge around her hardly reached her waist, but the maze seemed infinite, twisting around her like vines that crawled up her arms and stole the breath right out of her chest. They created a labyrinth with her at the center.

As the sun rose higher in the sky, rose gold receded to cerulean, and the morning mist drew away. But the tears still remained. Soon the courtyard was flooded with light, void of all shadows.

* * *

Night was the best time to brood. As the sun sank below the horizon, the darkness deepened so that it was almost tangible, velvety drapes that wrapped one in perfect silence. The princess silently cursed the wide windows of her room that ensured that it would never be completely void of light. The full moon tonight was unusually comforting, though, its wide face non-judgmental as it shined down upon the sleeping kingdom below. Starlight illuminated the tears on Adhara’s cheeks, turning them silver as they fell through the air before disappearing into the stone of the windowsill as though they’d never existed in the first place. From the East Tower, a sea of trees stretched out before her, curving around the edges of the kingdom in a delicate embrace. If she squinted hard enough, Adhara could see the tips of a distant mountain range between the line where the land blurred into sky. The cool night air caressed her cheeks, drying her tears for the time being. Adhara sighed. Her breath curled into gossamer mist that sailed out across the moonlight before disappearing completely. Not even the night bothered to preserve any sign of her sorrow. 

And suddenly there was fury, blazing white-hot from within. 

The constant darkness seemed to mock her, taunting her with the way that it sat still, unmoving, unchanging. Adhara wanted to shatter it all, tear the solid sheet of moonlight into shreds, rip every star one by one from the sky, destroy the night and show everyone her pain. She wanted to scream and shatter the darkness, make them all suffer like she was. 

And then she’d laugh. Laugh at the pleasure of watching such destruction, smile at their fear as she waltzed through the kingdom, and reveled in the look of betrayal painted on every person that, no matter the face, would be one and the same.

I admire your confidence.

For a space in time, her heart seemed to stop. Adhara could imagine her friend’s face, jaw set, ready in a fighting stance, but in her eyes — shards of a broken mirror. Haunted. Haunting. In an instant, the fire evaporated. Neither smoke nor ashes remained, just suffocating emptiness.

She was hollow.

Adhara pinched herself. Who was she becoming? How could she let this happen? Why?

The final question echoed in her mind. The ground seemed to tilt until it was rushing closer. The walls were caving in, the darkness heavy, and she couldn’t breathe.

She was falling, falling, falling… spiraling downward, inward forever… 

And then there was a scream.

Adhara’s first instinct was to clap a hand over her mouth before common sense kicked in. Her throat didn’t feel raw from the sheer volume of producing such a noise, and there were no frantic servants or family members crashing through the door. The scream had really sounded far away, too far to have been coming from her. Surely her mind and heart weren’t so far apart? 

Maybe you’re losing it, a voice in Adhara’s mind said helpfully.

The princess frowned; it didn’t help that some part of her brain was actually considering that possibility. She closed her eyes against the breeze and attempted to mimic a sense of serenity… and there was the sound again, piercing the night.

It was really a chorus of sounds, closer to yells than screams, that clamored over one another like waves crashing against the coast. Her eyes shot open, and she found herself searching for the source of the sound. It wasn’t difficult to find. A spot of brilliant red-gold hovered before the steps of the castle. The shouts ricocheted off of cobblestone streets and granite pillars, twisting around wrought iron lamp posts with shrieks that clashed with the hum of steel blades. Torches seemed to set the swords aglow, blazing in the night, the fire too bright to be warm as it lit the faces of commoners and guards alike.

And yet, as Adhara glanced at the finery of her bedroom, the colors seemed muted, the sounds muffled as though she was watching the scene unfold through a veil. Three stories up above it all, the distance was palpable. She turned away from the window, the din fading into nothingness. Perhaps she just needed to sleep.

The Goose is the Garden

The goose is the garden

Is becoming overgrown we need to trim the weeds

Take over the driveway

Is really falling apart

From you I can’t seem to think 

About the mountains outside the window

Casts a shadow on the ground

Is made of water 

Reflects the clouds

Are shaped like a wolf chasing sheep

Escaped again the German shepherd 

Is so cute though how can you blame

Me every single time 

I see the milky way I think of all the milk I’ve spilled

The beans

For dinner do you mind if we have them again this week

Has been weird without you

I am nothing.

My Bright Blue Dreams

Editor’s Note: This story references self-harm and contains homophobic characters who use offensive slurs. 

Chapter One

Hello. I hate the word “hello.” I hate the word “shower.” I hate the word “cheese-stick.” I hate the word “hate” most of all. It puts a bitter taste in my mouth, and that’s why I hate it so much. Jeez, here I go again, thinking of a word that makes the sides of my mouth droop down even more. The teacher turns around to the class to see my scathing expression. 

He laughs. “Rain, does the scientific advancement of the printing press really make you want to burn the world down? I happen to think it is a very important part of history, and I would appreciate it if you give it some attention so you won’t have to go to summer school, despite the printing press’s pure and utter boringness.”

The nerds in the class laugh. I fake a little smile, but when he turns around again, I give such a goddamn dramatic eye roll at his goddamn obnoxious comment that my goddamn eyes hurt. I put my head down on the desk and wrap my arms around them like a little comforting burrito. Due to ordering a small instead of a large coffee this morning, I pass out until the bell rings, and I have to force myself up. 

I try not to meet the stares of people in the hallway because keeping eye contact is an extremely laborious process. Only when I get my life saving energy drink in 3rd period can I have the mental and physical motivation to cover myself with a plastic bag and suffocate the true person I am. To be the Rain that everyone loves to see. No one wants to be friends with a broken, sassy, gay boy. 

Chapter Two

Lunch comes around, and I am forced to sit with my friends and laugh and smile and wink at girls and act like a complete and utter jerk. You see, everyone wants to be me, everyone wants to have my friends, everyone wants to have my sense of humor, everyone wants to have my girlfriend, everyone wants to have my popularity. I wish I could give all of those things — except for the humor, of course — away. I wish it was as easy as giving someone a birthday present. But alas, I am known for not being a generous person, so maybe, just maybe, I keep these dreaded parts of myself because I like being able to taunt people about the things they don’t have. 

My friend, Brandon, snaps his fingers in front of my face. “Get out of your dumbass head, bro. Is it stormy in there, Rain?” he says, very amused by the extraordinarily idiotic pun that he made with my name.

Everyone at the table cracks up, and Brandon lightly shoves my head. They all go back to talking about who has the hottest girlfriend. You see, I never space out, I always listen — I can be in deep thought, but I will always hear what everyone else has to say. That’s the only way that I have been able to withstand these stupid conversations for so long. 

After my friends finish talking about girls, they move the conversation to one of my most dreaded topics: who can list the most reasons why Gregory is a f*g. The thing that perplexes me most is how I contribute the most to this conversation topic whenever it is brought up. With each fiery, disgusting word that comes out of my mouth, my throat burns more. And that burning of my throat travels down my body to my heart, my stomach, my legs, arms, feet, and everything else. When it travels everywhere, that’s when I act like the stupid jerk I am expected to be.

Chapter Three

Eventually, the school day ends, but I have to stay back in detention with Ms. Peder’s class because apparently drawing dicks on the whiteboard is “inappropriate.” I personally think it’s just gay. Either way, I drag myself to the classroom, but upon looking into the room, I stop dead in my tracks. In the back row of the seats are these blue, magnificently bright eyes shining though shiny, windswept hair that is dark as night, but an inviting kind of dark, a dark you want to explore. 

Ms. Peder clears her throat. “Rain, come in already, we don’t bite.” 

I reply with something smart and bitchy that I say purely out of instinct, but I don’t really realize what I say because all of my brain power is focused on not blushing and not staring at this boy. I hobble into the room and almost trip over a few desks until I find my favorite seat. This seat is right next to the window, and through that window you can look out into the pile of rubbish, overly enthusiastic lights, and broken but loyal people that come together to form what we like to call New York City in the 1980s. 

Looking out of this window distracts me from blushing and thinking about the guy right behind me. It’s kind of mesmerizing — the crowded landscape feels so small from the 5th floor, it makes me feel powerful. So I just sit there staring and craving to feel this power more intensely and craving to feel control at least over myself until the hour is over and I am free.

Chapter Four

As we get let out of the classroom, I feel a hand on my shoulder and turn around. I jump with surprise as I see those bright eyes again. He gives me a gentle smile.

“You never thought that you’d talk to one of us nobodys before, did you, Mr. Popular?” He says this in a very sly, unashamed but extremely cute and somehow flirtatious way.

No no no no. He’s got this all wrong, I don’t want this popularity, I don’t want any of this. I just want to escape. I really hope he can see that. I really hope he is joking. 

I mumble, “I — ”

“Save it.” And he smiles through one half of his mouth, winks, and walks away.

I stand there and stare as he leaves until I realize how dumb I look and how if anyone saw me gaping at this boy, my reputation would be ruined. But isn’t killing this reputation that I have what I want? Why am I so afraid of getting what I want? Maybe it’s because you can’t take back what you let out. The words of your truth will be permanently branded on your forehead for all to see.

Sometimes I wonder why I fear permanence when I practice the art of it, when all I want everlasting change, when I try all I can to secure something for the eternity of my existence. Hypocrites, aren’t we? Like writing on the bathroom wall, “Don’t write on the walls.” We fear becoming total hypocrites. But when we are what we fear, that’s when something even greater than permanence overtakes us. And that thing, that feared thing that we become, that dreaded thing is called being human.

It’s unavoidable.

Chapter Five

I head out of school, longing for something to clear my mind, not to erase it or change it, but just to clear enough space for happiness and satisfaction. So instead of doing what most people my age do, which is drugs, I lug my cans of spray paint with me in my backpack to the place that I always go to when I have this longing. You see, I bring spray paint with me most days at school because I never know when I am going to need to use them to distract me from my overflowing thoughts.

Chapter Six

I walk to the subway, past the guys sniffing cocaine on the stairs, past the turnstile, onto the platform. I press my back against the pillar on the platform based on habit so that no one can push me into the tracks in front of the train and smile as they watch my body get crushed. I don’t want to offer anyone that amusement.  

I get out of the train and drag myself up the steps. I walk and walk and walk and eventually stand below my destination, gazing up at it. I check behind me as I walk into the alleyway. Once I reach the end, I climb onto the dumpster and jump to reach the bottom rung of the fire escape. Upon hoisting myself up onto the fire escape, I start my exactly 284 step journey to the top. I climb up hearing the familiar and calming clank of my footsteps on the iron rungs. 

Eventually, at step 107, I get to the roof, but I don’t stop there like I used to when I was younger and afraid. So I run and leap from this roof onto the next. I live for the thrill of that jump, knowing that there is nothing under you but trusting that you will be safe. 

I use this momentum to jump onto the wall on a higher part of the building. From there I walk along the wall until I reach a ladder and from the top of that ladder, I carefully step onto the brick oasis I love more than my home. 

Underneath me is a pretty large brick floor and roof for whatever rats are living in the building. In front of me is a brightly lit, but not too obnoxiously bright, sign. The word “Pepsi” is spelled by these white cursive lights. Behind the sign is a brick wall about 12 feet high. On this wall is a mural that I have been creating for the past 3 years. Every week I come up here once to add patterns or images depicting what I wish myself to be, or what I wish the world to be. In my head I call it the dream mural — it’s what I dream to see if I were to kick that wall down and look out at the world. It is my own world, it is under my control, I can create anything I want and I can destroy anything.

If I turn around away from the sign, away from my dreams, I will see the city and its vastness. I will see the lights of buildings, cars, and the moon. It feels like standing at the edge of the world.

Chapter Seven

I decide to plug and unplug the Pepsi sign, making the light flicker. After a minute of flickering it to the beat of the song that is stuck in my head, I look across the street and see the sign spelling out “Cola” flickering to the same beat. I close my eyes in disbelief, but when I open them again, I see that sign flicker in the same way. Yes, that sign always flickers, but I swear, this time it is different. I smile at the thought of someone across the alleyway doing the same thing, and I suddenly don’t feel so alone. 

I look to the side of the sign and my heart skips a beat at what I see. I rub my eyes but when I look again, I see the same thing. To the left of that sign, I see the same two bright fluorescent eyes gazing back at me. I see a smile light up on his face. Not caring if I am imagining this or not, I smile back. 

I lift up my hand and begin to wave, but as my hand goes up, the light from the sign across the street flickers to black, and I am left waving at this big city. Little insignificant me, waving to this expanse of so much that is so much greater than me. But this time I am satisfied because I know somewhere in that city are those blue eyes, and at that moment, those blue eyes are mine.

Chapter Eight

I will never forget that moment, seeing or not seeing those eyes, because that was the last time I ever saw them. The next day at school I searched the halls, but I couldn’t find him. The principal said that he wasn’t coming back to school. No one really knew where he went, but there were rumors that he had to run away from home that night because he was gay or that his neighbors chased him away or that his father beat him to death or that he left without motive. No one will ever know what happened to him, and I will never know if I actually saw my bright blue dreams that night and his smile that illuminated the city stronger than all of those overly enthusiastic lights. 

The End

The Pen is Mightier Than the Sword

In 1839, the highly revered words of “the pen is mightier than the sword” were first written by novelist and playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton in his historical play Cardinal Richelieu. Ever since, the use of this phrase has skyrocketed and is now commonly used and applied to everyday life. Despite the extremely common use of the phrase, in many cases, it has little effect due to the fact that many continue to question the might of the pen. And their uncertainty is valid, for the pen is an object that is barely longer than three inches. Comparatively, a sword is not only large, but is also a sharp, hefty, and possibly even lethal weapon. After all, the sword has the ability to maim and injure, while the pen’s abilities are limited to words on a page. And while one may be tempted to use physical might and strength to intimidate and therefore have control over another person, they might find that it is not the most influential tactic. On the other hand, though it may not seem so, the pen possesses infinite power. The words we use may influence others in unimaginable ways, and we can use these words to impel others to believe what we believe in, spreading positive influence even further than we realize.

Firstly, imagine two people facing each other. One holds a pen, clutched beneath their index finger and thumb, and the other wields a sword. If they were to fight against each other, there would be a clear victor: the wielder of the sword. The person holding a pen simply has no chance. Now imagine a different scenario. One person, holding a sword, is faced with thousands of people. Another, holding a pen and able to use their voice, is in the same situation. If the two were to try to fight against the mob of people in front of them, who would have a better chance of winning?  A sword is meaningless against so many people. It is so heavy and moves so slowly that it could only attack a few people at once. However, the other person is in luck, for they have the ability to use words, which can not only be used against all thousand people at once, but can also express a much more meaningful idea in the same amount of time. We should all feel lucky, for if we are ever faced with a thousand people, while we may not have a sword, we definitely can use words. And those words, if used correctly, can express a thought-provoking, life-changing thought in just a few seconds.

Furthermore, without causing harm to people, both written words and spoken words allow people to express their complete thoughts. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the most notable leaders of the civil rights movement in the United States, is a profound example of this. According to Forbes, the famous and highly influential quote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” comes from one of his writings. In April of 1963, King had been arrested for leading a demonstration in Birmingham, and one of his most extraordinary works is his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” He constantly used his striking rhetorical abilities and finely honed way with words to persuade others to join his cause. Thus, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a tremendous influence on millions at the time, becoming one of the most prominent civil rights activists in the history of the United States. And yet, the question remains, why not use violence? Not only is it a more tempting option, it is much easier. However, physical strength only instills fear in people, forcing them to agree to our demands. On the other hand, speaking and writing allow other people to choose to believe in our cause and be encouraged to spread it further. Put simply, one slash of the sword has only one consequence, and its influence likely ends there. But a scribble of the pen can have a thousand outcomes, reaching thousands of people, spreading across nations and breaking barriers.

Finally, words have the ability to evoke emotions from those we choose to influence, and this can greatly help to convince them to believe what we believe. According to CXL, Antonio Damasio was a neuroscientist who conducted a famous study which demonstrated the impact that emotions people feel have on their decisions. He discovered that those with brain damage, who were not able to feel emotions, could not make decisions. Ultimately, he realized that emotions are almost entirely what affect all of the decisions we make. Additionally, within our brain, there are two systems: system one and system two. System one is on consistently and is the emotion processor, while system two is the logical processor. Consequently, there is an ample chance that you will make a decision solely based on your emotions. Therefore, when the words that we use in our writing affect others and can make them evoke emotions, every future decision of theirs is impacted, underscoring the importance of targeting people’s emotions. However, the only emotion that violence can establish is fear. Writing can do so much more. It can tug at our heartstrings, put a smile on our face, make our heartbeats quicken, make us laugh or cry, and bring out the best in humanity. The possibilities are simply endless. For this reason, the ability that words have to impact others is tremendously increased.

Ultimately, our words have a profound impact on those we influence; an impact that is far greater than any form of violence, force, or threats. The pen is considerably more efficacious and eloquent than the sword due to its ability to influence thousands, if not billions of people at once; its ability to make people believe in our cause rather than simply fear us; and its ability to target people’s emotions and impact their decision-making for the rest of their lives. We cannot really measure how far the influence of our words travel. Therefore, we can choose to use the great power and mightiness that our words have to influence change on the future world. Our writing can inspire change in ways that we cannot begin to conceive by spreading our ambition and belief to others, and if we do this for good purposes, we can make the nation we live in — nay, the planet we live on — a better place. If we all use the exceptional power that is writing in the forthcoming years, decades, and centuries, we will be able to accomplish more than ever before. Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s words were thoroughly accurate; though swords are larger, sharperm and more intimidating, when all is said and done, it is the pen, which is powerful enough to be able to impact and alter decisions and beliefs of others, that can spread influence throughout the entire world, that is truly the mightiest of all.

Works Cited

Carmine Gallo.

“Leaders Who Master The Power of Words Inspire Change.” 15 January 2018. Forbes. 19 December 2020. 

Shanelle Mullin. 

“Emotional Persuasion: The Advanced Guide.” 25 September 2020. CXL. 19 December 2020.

Why the World’s Population is Only 7.8 Billion

This book is dedicated to my breakfast bagel.


The Dictatorship of America, 3789 A.D.

The following letter has been retrieved from an archive and is believed to have been written by Jim Nlocnil.

Palermo, Sicily, 1915 A.D.


There was a suitcase. There was a bed. What was it doing there? The bed was the first bed that the legendary bedmaker would make. Now, the bedmaker would prefer if his name was not mentioned in this book, though it perplexes me, for he is already quite famous indeed. But from here on out, I will call the legendary bedmaker “Gustavo.” Gustavo was not always famous, for he grew up in a humble cottage on an island in the Sardinian sea. This island was called Sicily, and it was quite a magnificent island indeed, for tourism and commercialization had not found the island yet, letting the locals live a happy life with no one to disturb them. 

Gustavo had a father named Monee, who, despite the name, was a very poor bedmaker. One day, Monee stumbled across a stream. He looked into the stream. He then walked away. Another day, he ran into a beautiful untouched beach, and when he put his hand into the pristine crystal waters, it was a pleasant temperature — refreshingly cool but not uncomfortable. He took off his hat and filled it with the water and took the hat full of water home. Now, Monee was quite a forgetful man, and he forgot to show the fresh, pure water to his family. The next morning, to his surprise, the water was still the same perfect temperature it had been when he first discovered it. He was intrigued but not frightened by this discovery, for he was still curious about this liquid. He went back to the beach, and, sure enough, the water was exactly the same temperature it had been the afternoon he had found it. Monee’s mind instantly whirred into action, thinking about the possibilities of making this water into a product he could sell.

The first thing I should do, he thought, is tell Gustavo. As soon as Gustavo had heard about this “cool water,” he got some leather, sewed together a water-tight bed, and filled the bed with the water. And, though Monee and Gustavo did not know it, they had just created the first water bed. Monee gathered his savings, and soon, they patented this water bed, though they did not mention this, for they wanted to keep the water a secret.


Nazi Controlled Poland, 1941

Jakub sighed. He and his best friend, Filip, had made a secret organization for boys like them. They had “special powers,” though they were more like a curse. They could do “amazing things” like climb up brick walls and shoot energy from their fingers. This did nothing against the tanks, soldiers, machine guns, and other terrible things that the Nazis used to invade. But because of these “special powers,” they were targeted by soldiers, who were ordered to execute any boy who used “magic.” Jakub probably had the worst power of all. He could see and hear through any solid object. What use was seeing through a tank when it was about to shoot a shell at you? The other boys were younger than him but were far more powerful. They respected him, though, for he was the leader. 

“Quick!” Filip screamed. 

The soldiers! Jakub and the other boys dove behind a bush as Filip started making hand signs to release an energy shield. Another boy closed his eyes and opened them, although this time his eyes were red. He looked at a soldier and instantly paralyzed him. 

“Jakub, help! My shield is going down!” Filip screamed. 

  Filip only had enough energy to sustain the energy shield for a few minutes, which, until now, had been plenty enough time. It seemed that the soldiers heard Filip too because they instantly rushed his way.

  “No!” Jakub yelled.

They had Filip. Without his shield, he was helpless, and one of them was dragging Filip onto the Jeep while the other one held a rifle to his head. 

“You can’t do this!” Jakub screamed.

By then, the Jeep had driven off to the forest, and the only person who could see and hear Filip was Jakub. The last words that Filip uttered before he passed out were: “under the bench.”

Palermo, Sicily, 1924 A.D.


Meanwhile, Gustavo and Monee were raking in the profits from their successful bed-making business. The beach still looked untouched, and Monee suspected, though they had drained many gallons of liquid from it, that the beach would still make more.

“Gustavo,” Monee said, “when I die, you have the choice to lead the company. Will you continue the family legacy?”

“Of course I will!” Gustavo exclaimed. “But I hope that I do not take it over soon.”

Kepler-443b, circa 5.55 billion years ago

“Rumor has it that there is a habitable planet only 2,500 light-years away!” Bob said. 

Bob and his family lived on a planet called Logic, and it was about to explode. It was rumbling violently, and they needed to get off it as soon as possible. They first considered moving to the puny moon, Ableton, or the dwarf planet, FL Studio, which was circa 600 light-years away. But then they discovered that the planet would make such a shockwave that all of the habitable planets and moons would be terminated. The scientists of their colony searched desperately for a habitable planet, and it seemed that they had found one. 

 “Quick!!!” Martha (the mother) screamed. “The spaceship is going in 10 minutes!!!”

“Okay, Mom. My UltraBomb is not going with me, right?” Tommy said.

“Of course it is! Now come on!” Martha said.

The UltraBomb was a safety device that some scientists had discovered in the Renaissance Period. They had discovered many things, but the UltraBomb was by far the coolest. A child, if threatened, could deploy this UltraBomb and vaporize every living thing except itself for a 1,000-mile radius. To trigger it, you needed to pour a special type of liquid onto a compressed plasma ball. It would then kill everything around it except for the child itself. The Logic government-issued UltraBombs to every kid colonizing Earth, but they were strictly told to only use it if necessary. Tommy thought they went overboard on the liquid, though. They brought more than a thousand gallons!!!

“Watch your step, little guy,” a crew member said.

Tommy sat down in his seat and prepared himself for this new adventure.

The Dictatorship of America, 3789 A.D.

The following snippet has been retrieved from an archive and is believed to have been an advertisement from “Palermo Daily.”

Palermo, Sicily, 1956 A.D.


Gustavo flopped down on one of his many waterbeds and cried. His father had died the day before today, and he was sad. Even worse, he had to give a speech at the funeral, and his words were unrecognizable from his sobs. But he had to move on and keep the family legacy.

One month later

Stress. SO much stress. Gustavo had reformed the waterbed, spreading business outside of Sicily, and it was spreading quickly. He had also put advertisements in newspapers all around the world, and his company had gone public. (NASDAQ, GWB ^1.27%,1598.7) The Mariott had replaced all of their beds with Gustavo’s, and his business was doing well. Gustavo was having a good life.


Nazi Controlled Poland, 1942

Under the bench, under the bench, under the bench. Jakub kept rolling this around in his head. What? He had checked under every bench he had seen for the past year. Unless… The stone bench!!! Filip had chiseled a miniature stone bench for Jakub, but before he could snatch it, Filip had thrown it way off into the woods to tease Jakub. Jakub thought that Filip had thrown it in a random direction, but Filip was very precise with his arm, so Jakub now knew that this was not the case. Jakub searched for hours and hours in the dark woods until he finally found the bench. He dug the soil under it and found a mysterious ball of light.

Suitcase & Bed

Warsaw, Poland, Marriott hotel, 1963

Filip was dead. Who cared about him anyway? Jakub had been trying to sell this weird ball of light to museums, but they said it was just some lights in a glass ball. He slammed the suitcase (containing the ball) onto the bed. The waterbed burst, and the suitcase cracked open. The ball bounced out and fell into the liquid.

The Dictatorship of America, 3789 A.D.

The following letter has been retrieved from an archive, and is now known to have been written by “Zadinsky.”