Laughter Heals All Wounds

  

Laughter heals all wounds, and that’s one thing that everybody shares. No matter what you’re going through, it makes you forget about your problems. I think the world should keep laughing.” – Kevin Hart

 

During some of the most difficult moments of my life, I would use comedy to cope. I remember dashing up the stairs, and bolting into my room in search of my iPad with its bulky, green case. I’d swipe through page after page looking for the YouTube app. After finding and clicking on it, my fifth grade self would type “Kingsley” in the search bar. I admired his sense of humor. The way he talked about the unfortunate events in his life were not only amusing but relatable. Kingsley’s videos would rid that feeling of loneliness that lay inside me. It helped me realize that I am not the only person dealing with people who would judge me based on some characteristic that I can’t change. He influenced me to laugh at and belittle ignorance instead of allowing it to tear me down.

Whenever people first meet me, they usually think I am shy and reserved.  But over the years, I have realized that people who know me really well think of me as “the funny one.” After spending hours of free time watching comedians like Kingsley or Kevin Hart, I decided to start expressing my sense of humor to everyone. Well, scratch that, I expressed my jokes to small groups of people I know, or that I am getting to know. Making people laugh allows me to find confidence in myself. When I am laughing with my friends or my family, it distracts me from the sadness and sappy emotions that I feel on the inside.

Now you are probably wondering, What on earth is making this girl so sad?? I will answer your question with a brief story about my life. But I don’t want to share a depressing story with you because as you can tell, I prefer to think happy thoughts. I will tell you about some of the remarks and actions people have directed towards me regarding my race. Although the experiences completely diminished my self-esteem, looking back, I often realized that my reaction to these situations were so ridiculous that they were actually quite funny. Be prepared to read the unfortunate yet amusing story that is my life.

To start off, I would love to thank the Hill School for shaping me into the kind, compassionate person I am today. Also, fuck the Hill School for blinding me to the world of racism and mean people. From preschool to third grade, I attended that “crunchy granola” place with its unrealistic views of the world. Hill School is located in New York City, and the campus is every child’s dream. The building is yellow and resembles a castle resting upon a grassy hill. There are vivacious colors from the flora and fauna surrounding the school, and a beautiful creek that can only be crossed if walked over the wooden bridge they built to make us feel special. If this does not sound ridiculous to you, then you need a reality check.

We literally spent the majority of our time talking about having “good moral values” and “sticking together as a community.”

At 8:30 in the morning, every student walks single file into the gym, and then proceeds to disperse into groups based on grade. The music teacher walks to the front of the gym with a guitar in hand, and smiles at all the children waiting to start the school day. He strums the chords of the “Garden Song,” and all the students put their hands in the air creating motions that represent the lyrics of the song: “inch-by-inch / row by row / I want to make my garden grow / all it takes is a rake and a hoe and a piece of fertile ground.” It was as if we were preparing ourselves to plant flowers together.

Since we spent so much time learning how to collaborate and how to be inclusive, students were never really mean to each other. Well, of course every now and then, there would be some traces of bullying. However, mean behavior was not tolerated – especially among the kids. The kids who would lash out at their peers were often isolated by the rest of the class. One girl, Nora, was the biggest bully in our entire class. During recess, she actually had the nerve to push me down the slide with aggression, screaming, “Go down the stupid slide! The slide is stupid and you’re stupid too!” I hope you are all laughing at this scene. I really thought this was a big deal as a kid, but looking back this is now mildly amusing to me. Anyways… a group of my friends went and told the teacher, and Nora was put in time out for the rest of recess. Just for calling me stupid! Hill did not stand for this type of behavior.

My parents began to realize how cushy the Hill School was, so when our family moved to New Jersey from New York City, they decided I needed a change. So they pulled me out of the granola paradise and sent me to the Valley Girls School in an affluent New Jersey suburb.  I had a lot of mixed emotions about transitioning. There was a sadness in my heart because I had to leave the comfort of my old school. However, part of me was really looking forward to a change.

Growing up, I watched a tremendous amount of TV. For some reason, I took all the shows I watched very seriously. My expectations for life were quite high because of these ridiculous shows. I am honestly still trying to understand why I believed the plots could even be close to reality. Literally, 20-year-olds were playing high/middle-schoolers living the most perfect life, and so I thought to myself,  “Lol, when I go to this new school, I am going to have a glow up and make so many friends on the very first day.” By the time I walked into the building on my first day at Valley, everything hit me. The television had been lying to me!

Valley marked the beginning of the rest of my life. My view of the world was suddenly altered. At Hill, everything seemed to be one color. The idea of difference was never really addressed. For example, when looking at my friend, I wouldn’t see her as my “white friend,” I’d see her as my friend. However, at Valley, everyone emphasizes how we are different and the same. We wear uniforms to make us all the same, so we spent all our time emphasizing all the ways that we were different. In some ways it is a good thing, but in other ways, it is quite demoralizing.  My new school suddenly brought my race into focus.  For the first time, I started confronting what it meant to be different: a black, dark-skinned girl, growing up in a predominately white city in America.

First off, Valley has a very different way of running their morning meetings compared to Hill. As I sat in the gathering room at Valley, I was expecting an old man to walk to the front of the room and sing about the greatness of nature. Instead, a young British man stood in the middle of the room and told us to stand up and face the flag. Now I am thinking to myself, What on earth is going on? People put their hands to their hearts, and start pledging allegiance to the flag. Even though I spent the majority of my life in America (I lived overseas for a couple years), this pledge was unfamiliar to me. I’m not sure what was going on at Hill, but we did not learn the Pledge of Allegiance and my parents are foreigners, so we never really talked about it at home either. I didn’t really consider myself to be living in America or really understand what that meant. In my ten-year old brain, I just thought that we are living in a tiny corner of the world with people that I care about. So, I was feeling really confused during my first day of morning meeting at Valley. I didn’t know the words to this pledge and didn’t know what to do with my heart. So my fourth grade self looked around aimlessly trying to mouth the words to the pledge of allegiance, with my left hand on the right side of my chest. D-I-S-A-S-T-R-O-U-S. That morning foreshadowed what I was about to experience at this school.

One thing I wanted to accomplish at Valley was to be “popular.” On the TV shows that I would watch, the pretty, blonde white girl would usually be the one with all the friends, and would have guys falling all over her. This girl is typically a strong reflection of American stereotypes. So going into Valley, I thought to myself that I needed to find the blonde, preppy girls so that I could become popular. Some of you may think, Why assume that there is a certain look for popularity? Well, in this affluent suburban town, there is a group of white girls placed at the top of the social hierarchy. I know that I am correct because as soon as I got into the classroom, there they were. Two blonde, preppy girls standing in the corner of the room, giggling and twirling their extremely light hair. And let me tell you, those girls carried a lot of power. Our grade made a conscious effort to name that little clique by combining their names. From what I remember, a lot of people were kind of jealous of them, and low-key yearned to be a part of their little, privileged bubble. I was one of those people, and at first, I really thought that I could be friends with them. Remember those Hill values? Everyone should be friends with everyone. That can work at Valley too, right? L-M-A-O! Oh boy, was I wrong.

When my dark-skinned, goofy self came up to “the populars” attempting to make convo, they looked at me as if I were crazy. I felt as if I didn’t have the right to be friends with them because of the way I looked. This is the first time in my life, that I remember wanting to be white so badly. One day, I saw one of the blondes brushing her hair after swimming. The bristles went through her hair so elegantly. I wanted my hair to do that, so for some reason I thought that if my friend and I could take out my cornrows with scissors and a huge brush, my kinky hair would do the same. However, I am black as ever, and my hair is so thick that running a brush through it would be like biking through wet cement. On that day, I lost a lot of hair trying to be white. Funny how six years later, I am still trying to grow out my hair after that incident (and the relaxers and blow-outs too, but that is another story.)

Eventually, I understood that I will never be white.  And my friends will not be friends because they are popular or pretty. But, there were feelings of shame for being black. I really had trouble looking in the mirror and being happy with what I see. My school worsened my self esteem. On my 12th birthday in the sixth grade, I was waiting in the lunch line. As I was staring at the chicken on the platter, there was a tap on my back. This girl kept trying to talk to me while I was just trying to get some food. She kept on rambling, but I was so focused on that chicken that could have been in my stomach. This child kept running her mouth, and eventually she said something so ignorant. “Your nose is big because you black.” At first, I was not phased because one, I hear shit like that all the time, and two, I was hungry and food was more important to me than addressing that dumb comment. One of my close friends Charlie heard what Ms. I-don’t-have-an-off-button said, and she proceeded to tell the whole grade what happened. The Ms. Off-Button got in a lot of trouble which was a bonus, but unfortunately, I kept replaying the situation in my head. The more I thought about it, the angrier I became. My nose became one of my biggest insecurities. As I went into middle school at Valley, racist comments were thrown at my face. My own friends would comment on the versatility of my hair. Whether it was braided, straightened, or had a weave, my white friends would always have something negative to say. With all that negativity, I really started hating myself.

Do people at this school only come for their friends’ appearance? Lol nope, they literally judge your wealth (or lack thereof) as well. It is shocking that kids in middle school would make fun of someone for living in a small house. These girls would feel so powerful for having the money for a big house. But I am just sitting here thinking, Your ten-year-old ass is not doing anything to make money, so why do you think you have the audacity to talk about other people’s social class? When I went to Hill, everyone lived in a relatively small house. Then I came to this superficial school, and children are out here comparing mansions… I would feel embarrassed inviting friends over because they would make remarks about my house like, “Don’t you feel crowded in here??” and I would just say in my head, Well I can move my arms and legs. I have the ability to walk around. Does it look like the walls are closing in or something, Ms. Privilege?

Now on top of my appearance and status, there is another issue. My personality. Don’t worry, I am not a mean person, but throughout middle school, my peers thought I was not “black enough.” First of all, the majority of my friends were not black, and they were kinda on the emo side. So, I spent a lot of time being with them and embracing emo music (I was already feeling depressed because of the way I looked and I ended up connecting with those songs.) I started to be made fun of by my black peers who are the complete opposite of me. They are outgoing, have the ability to twerk, listen to rap music, and they’re popular because of it. Fantastic. I am not white enough to be with the popular white kids or black enough to be with popular black kids. What does that make me? Raceless??

So there I was. Antisocial. Emo. Black. Ugly. Confused. At the start of eighth grade, I really couldn’t tell who I was looking at in the mirror.

I had to do something. The feelings of confusion and depression needed to go. There needed to be a good change around this heinous school.  There needed to be a good change within myself.

Let’s take it back to the beginning of my story. I am good at making people laugh. Not only my friends, but the rest of the people in the school. Comedy is the one thing that makes me feel like I know who I am. After all those hours of Kevin Hart and Kingsley videos, I decided to take my humor in front of larger groups of people. During my presentations in Chinese class, I was able to encourage my peers to laugh in a language that I don’t even understand that well. Before middle school ended, we were all forced to tell a story about our lives. Since my life is ridiculously hilarious, I managed to get a lot of laughs out of all my classmates. Once I started getting comfortable with my jokes, I started to actually gain confidence in myself.

I am now going into eleventh grade. The person I am now is completely different to the Hill girl who just stepped in the building several years ago. I am embracing my black beauty, and have found a group of friends who appreciate me for who I am rather than the stereotype I should be a part of. Am I 100% happy with my appearance? Nope, but now I am on a path where there is a possibility for me to achieve happiness. If I didn’t focus my energies on making people laugh, I could still be an emo black girl. Moral of the story is: there will always be shitty people who will make you feel less than. And if you are as sensitive as me, the comments will always hurt you. But once you’ve found something about yourself that you admire, the sky is the limit.

Leaving Hill transitioning to Valley was one of the most difficult experiences of my life. However, the whole process is shaping me into a developing superstar.

Hill has taught me to be a caring person, to treat everyone equally, to join together as one. Valley has taught me to fight back negativity with grit and a huge punch of comedy.

 

Moving From the Sea to the Mountains

  

I buy clean white sheets;

I do not want to feel sand on my ankles

when I sleep under Appalachian stars.

I get rid of the purple sea-wind torn furniture.

I buy sleek wood, brushed oak, instead. Ikea.

I research down duvets, stuffed with the same feathers

as the birds that will circle

my future house

on a hill.

For some reason, that is comforting.

 

I want nothing

to do with the sea. I

want mountains that change shape

with every Spring rain pour

and cars that swerve around

curves of red clay dirt. I want heavy mountain breathing

and green eager ticks and sap bleeding

from the trees.

 

No.

I want nothing

to do with

the mountains. I

want waves that inch like

breaths and

collapse like lungs.

I want sand that sticks to skin

and lifeguard towers that stand

like egrets. I want beach weddings

ruined by the tide and feet tans that depend

on what shoes you were willing

to ruin.

 

The real truth,

yes,

the real

truth,

is that I spend

not much time

at either. Instead,

I lie

in my manufactured

cocoon of plaster

protection, with its

waterlogged porch and square lots

of yellow grass,

sorting nature’s phenomenons

into like and dislike piles.

 

Truth and Lies

ALEJANDRO

JULY 5, 1999. 10:00PM

I stood in the corner of a dark bar, smoking a cigarette. I called for the bartender to pour me another drink even though I knew I shouldn’t have. I looked around to find my cousin, Sebastian, playing poker at a nearby table. I caught his gaze and waved.

“Alejandro, come play cards with us,” he called, and I lazily strolled over. “You have any money?” he asked.

I reached into my pocket, my hands touching a warm twenty dollar bill I had picked up at the bank earlier that day. That wasn’t for spending, I remembered, and I pulled my hand back out, shaking my head.

“I must have forgotten it,” I told him, who, judging by the dazed look on his face, had already had one too many drinks that night.

Getting into trouble with him would be serious business, and if I wanted to come home with my limbs still attached, I’d better remove myself from this risky activity. Sebastian often came to the bar, and he had been known to get into fights. But Sebastian was smart, and he had caught onto what I was doing.

“Are you lying just to get away from me?” he said in his low voice, slowly pulling back his chair and standing up.

Backing away, I shook my head. When I realised that he was following me, I broke into a run. I had to get away, back home to my family. It was a warm night, even for Colombia, and I was panting and sweating. I hid myself behind a large dumpster, realizing that even now, there was little chance of me getting away safely. When he leaves, you’ll get into your car and make a run for it, I told myself. But tonight the moon was full, and it was easy to see, even in the dark. A single movement and he would be able to find me, even in his drunken state.

Suddenly, I heard a loud bang, like the sound of a car backfiring. Wincing, I fell to the floor, but not before capturing a glimpse of Sebastian, dangling like an ape from the tree above.

“Adiós amigo,” I heard him call in a raspy voice.

Seconds later, the whole world turned pitch black.

 

LUCIA

JULY 6, 1999. 2:30AM

It was just past two-thirty in the morning when I got the call.

“Is this Lucia Rodriguez?” a solemn voice asked me.

“Yes. Who is this? Why do you call me at this hour?” I mumbled.

“Do you know Alejandro Garcia?”

“Yes, yes. What is the matter?”

“We have grave news. Mr. Garcia died this evening. Your daughter, Josephina, requests your presence.”

I hung up the phone, bewildered. This had come so quickly, so unexpectedly. Wiping away tears from my eyes, I took a deep breath, quickly slipped out of bed, threw on a robe over my nightgown, and wearily drove to Josephina’s small apartment in the city. The police had already arrived and had begun to bombard her with questions. Pushing and shoving, I fought my way through an endless web of them to reach Josephina.

Cálmate, calm down, my daughter,” I told Josephina in a soft voice.

Then I turned to the policemen, who were all waiting and disapprovingly watching this spectacle.

¡Largate! Get out!” I shouted, pointing at the door.

Obediently and with little objection, they quickly proceeded to leave. How careless of them, interrogating a poor woman, I thought, before shouting “NO VUELVAS! Don’t come back!” before slamming the front door. This was a personal matter. Before I could ask any more questions, Josephina began to speak.

“It was Sebastian,” she said in a mix of anger and tears. “Tio Sebastian killed Alejandro!”


All I could do was shake my head in despair. I bent down, trying to hide the tears that were pouring down my face. My first thought was why would mi hermano, my brother, ever do such a thing to his own nephew? But on the other hand, I knew what Sebastian was capable of when he was drinking, and I had been expecting it, although I never quite knew just how devastated I would actually feel.

“Does Sofia know?” I whispered, trying not to wake the sleeping toddler in the other room.

I already knew the answer just by the look on Josephina’s face. Upstairs, I heard a loud wail, and I watched as Josephina wearily walked into the baby’s room. She picked up the baby, and began to rock the baby to back to sleep, humming quietly.

 

SOFIA

APRIL 1, 2011. 12:30PM

I stepped out of the airport, taking my first gasp of fresh air since I had left smoggy Los Angeles six hours earlier. I could smell the palm trees, see the bright blue sky, and feel the warm rays cast off of the sun. I loved it. Instantly, I saw my aunt calling for me. My uncle followed a few steps behind, lugging a large cart full of gifts that my aunt had likely selected from the marketplace a few hours earlier.

“Hola! Sofia! You are so tall!” Tia Lucia called out in her loud voice as she plopped a large, straw hat onto my head.

She was a short, large woman who always was full of happiness and excitement. Her English was rusty, but I could tell the pure sense of joy she was feeling.

Seconds later, my cousin, Santiago, appeared, carrying what seemed to be a baby carriage. I peered inside and was greeted by the smiling face of my youngest cousin, already covered in the odor of my aunt’s strong floral perfume. I wanted to reach for the baby, to carefully rock it back and forth, singing the same lullabies that my mother had sung to me. But now wasn’t the time for singing. I followed them through the crowd, rushed by my cousins past groups of other reunited families. Loud music was playing, and I could smell fresh fruit being sold at nearby street carts. I saw an old woman selling paella, my favorite dish, but before I could stop, I tripped and fell. By the time I got myself up, my family had already gone. I was lost.

Seconds later, my uncle, Tío Diego, appeared, grabbing me by the wrist and pulling me back.

“We must stick together here,” he said in his deep, plangent voice, before continuing on to catch up with my aunt.

It was then that I noticed just how tall he was. While he didn’t ever bear any expression, I began to realise the difficulty of his job. It was his obligation to take care of me, to keep me safe while I was in Colombia. At that moment, the image of my dead father flashed in my head. I had only known him from pictures, but in that moment, I could feel his comforting presence. But it was that softness that ultimately got him killed.

“We must be strong,” she had told me.

Before we left for America, I had felt that God was there for me. But first, after my father’s death, and then after my mother, Josephina, started to stay out late and drink too much, I began to question his actuality. Here, back in Colombia, with my cousins and aunts and uncles, I felt truly at home.

I stepped into my uncle’s rusty pickup truck. Tia Lucia had insisted that I sit in the passenger seat, and I had obliged. Santiago mumbled something under his breath, and I could tell he disapproved. In Colombia, life was different, and he was not given the same opportunities that I had been given back in America. School was my only hope for a better future, and Santiago didn’t have that hope anymore. As we drove by rows and rows of empty fields on dirt roads, I thought of my abuela. I used to think she was the smartest person in the world. I remember us sitting on the rocking chair on her porch, telling me stories about Paris and London and New York. Back then they had seemed so fantastical, utopian, like faraway dreams. But years later, I now knew that those stories weren’t always true. Moving to America and learning about the world had taught me just how multi-sided the world is. These faraway lands had once seemed like they were fit for fairy tales. It made me bitter and frustrated just thinking about it, about the real truth and our world, full of lies.

Back in the realm of reality, I glanced out of the window to find all of my excited cousins and family members. The car stopped, and I got out, welcomed with hugs and kisses. There was Tio Mateo and Tio Diego and Tia Luciana and Tia Valentina with my eight cousins. Lurking in the corner was someone who I didn’t recognize.

“Meet your Tio Sebastian, my brother,” Tia Lucia told me, and he held out his hand.

I didn’t know why, but both of them exchanged glances. Anyway, I was too tired to find out.

 

SEBASTIAN

APRIL 1, 2011. 10:15PM.

I grabbed Lucia and pulled her into the kitchen. We had just finished dinner and everyone had finally gone upstairs. I bolted the door.

“What were you thinking, bringing the girl here?” I asked in a hushed voice.

“Sebastian, she is family. We must put the past behind us. I am already doing you a great favor by keeping you here. If Josephina were to find out…” She said, her voice trailing off.

“Silencio, Lucia!” I said, practically growling.

Nobody could know our little secret or it would be the end of me.

“Okay, okay, Sebastian, what more do you want me to do? I secretly kept you in this house all these years. You’d be in jail if it wasn’t for me,” Lucia told me.

She looked tired and was beginning to sound quite frustrated with me.

“Nothing! Just keep quiet, please! The girl can’t know I killed her father!” I didn’t realise how loud I was being.

Maybe I shouldn’t have drank so much with dinner. Suddenly, I heard a noise from outside the door.

“What the…”  

 

SOFIA

APRIL 1, 2011. 10:20PM

I had gone down to get a drink of water, only to find the kitchen door bolted. Hushed whispers were coming from inside. I quickly realised that it was Tia Lucia with Sebastian. I knew something was up with them! Peering through a crack in the door, I watched Sebastian pace around the room indecisively. Their conversation kept on growing louder and louder. Then Sebastian’s voice.

“Nothing! Just keep quiet, please! The girl can’t know I killed her father!”


A sinking feeling took over me. How could he do such a thing? How could Lucia, my precious aunt, have hidden this from me? I was shocked! All these years, it was Sebastian, su hermano, her brother, who had killed my father. I had known something was wrong, but I never suspected it to be this horrible. Suddenly, the door opened, and Tia Lucia peered out. For a couple of moments, she caught my gaze, horrified.

“Aye, Sofia, come back!” she called from the doorway.

But I was already gone.

 

M.

The water was dirty. He could see the grime washing off with every move of his hands over his dirty body; specks of blood flaked off into the water and opened old wounds that he didn’t know he had. His toes poked against the surface of the water, hair slicked back with shampoo. Months without relaxation, and he was tense. His long curls were matted and dirty, their once shiny brown now a dirty black from the soot and soil in the places he was sleeping. When you are on the streets, you don’t look for luxury.

There was something so odd about being in a stranger’s house, a stranger’s bed. But Haven House was filled with strangers, was it not? No one here had known him before this had happened, and that was completely fine by him. He closed his eyes. He needed to stop thinking. He needed to stop thinking about all this. His momma’s words swirled in his mind as he lathered his arms up to wash away the grime from the streets, and his green eyes glanced around the neat bathroom.   

One: Talking about yourself in the third person makes things easier to handle. It’s like disassociation, this method, but it isn’t as intense. It can come and go as you please.

Two: Words never really mean anything. A promise is just air out of lungs. A promise can always be broken.

Three: He wasn’t worth her spit.

Four: The lord would save his soul if he would just stop calling himself a boy. He wasn’t a boy. He wasn’t a boy, he would never be a boy. Dreams like that aren’t meant to come true.

Take a deep breath. One more. Then another. Release. Wash the soap out of your hair and run your fingers over the bruises. Let the water drain from the tub and towel yourself off, watch as your skin slowly turns caramel again instead of the dirty brown.  Stop referring to yourself in third person. You are here, you are safe, you are here.  

I am here.

***

I step out onto the cold floor. My feet hit the linoleum and I stiffen as the hairs on my arms stand up. The towels are comforting as I wrap them around my form, and I remind myself that I am alive. I am a human being.  All my life, I have been told to be a good girl. My momma, with her teeth rotten and yellowed, spoke in harsh tones. I was brought into this world as a mistake, an accident waiting to happen. The moment he touched her, she told me once, her entire body was ignited in a high that the pills had never given her. And as a result, I became a life. I became alive.

She isn’t here, though. She’s somewhere a few towns over, working for her pay in a diner and winking at customers as she pours their coffee. At night she’ll shack up with whomever decides to have her, and she’ll get extra pay, and she’ll use it to rot her teeth even more until they fall out of her head like her Daddy’s did and his Daddy’s before him. It’s a never-ending, spiral addiction at its finest. My momma belongs on a drug PSA.

When she goes to church, though, that doesn’t matter. She washes her hands in the baptism tub and all her sins are gone. She is a new being, a deity of pure blood again. Gramma always told me that the second my Momma was born, Gramma knew she was “inauspicious.” She was the only one of her children who never dreamt of growing up to be something monumental.

There were nine. Stacy said she wanted to be a princess; Gilbert, an astronaut; Bimmie, a movie star; Eugene, a singer; Clarice, the president; the twins, secret agents. Pangea said she was meant for stardom. Momma just said she wanted to grow up.

***

I put on the clothes they gave me for bed and tie my hair back with a borrowed scrunchie, my tan hands fumbling with the thick waves as I reach for the electric razor. One of the other kids knocks on the door and I clean up my mess before opening it for them. His eyes glance over me, razor in hand. I recognize him from the front office. Devin. He has a soft face and red hair that brushes over his skull softly — in a way that makes him look sweet — but I get the feeling there’s an edge inside him, that he did some regrettable things to stay alive on the streets. Then again, we all did. That’s how they found us.

***

He reaches his hand out for the razor, quirking a brow at me as his deep voice fills the stiff air between us. It takes me a moment to process his offer to give me a haircut. My suspicion about his character is proven when he tells me my long hair makes me look like a girl.

He’s invalidating my existence already, and I’ve only just met him.

He seems like what I imagine my father to be like.

***

I sit down on the floor and pull at his shirt to tell him to sit, and he obliges and plugs in the razor for me. “You’ll have to be still so that I don’t nick you,” he says.

I nod, understanding. Before he turns it on, the tool emits a soft buzzing as he presses it against my skull, his other hand holding the back of my neck. I don’t like people touching me — but could I tell him that? He runs the razor over my head in a long streak, my hair falling onto my legs as he continues working to get my hair off.

“Damn.” He says, blowing off the razor. “You got that thick Indian hair, huh kid?” He asks, and I grit my teeth. It has always been this way. My thick hair, my Indian skin, my green eyes that Momma says my Pops gave me. She has blue eyes. They’re light and gentle, like a loving touch to the shoulder, and if you weren’t in her family you might even go as far as to say they looked kind.   

He lets me go, and I don’t even realize until I reach up to touch my head and feel the fuzz. My head is now bare, the locks all over my legs and the floor beneath them. Devin grins like he’s about to catch his prey. His teeth are all crooked, and they remind me of the man who works with my Momma and always offers me free milkshakes, since Momma told him they are my favorite. They’ve been working together since I was six, and until I was nine, I never realized what the milkshakes meant. I stopped liking milkshakes that year. I stopped going to the diner. I started wanting braces to fix my crooked teeth. The trouble with trauma is that, to this day, my gut still turns when I see him.

They got married last spring.

***

Devin leaves. I am still sitting on the floor, glancing down at the pale blue tiles on the bottom edges of the tub. As I crawl up to sit on the edge of the bathtub, I feel like a child again. This happens often, the feeling of reducing myself back into a smaller, naive version of myself. Most people like to talk about being young and only having to worry about things like coloring inside the lines, but I never had that luxury. Most often, I was wondering who would be sleeping next to me at night. I stand up, dust myself off, walk to the next room to grab a broom, and sweep my thick hair up and into a dustpan to throw it away. In Japan, they like to say that cutting your hair off is a form of letting the past go. Like cutting the pain away, as if it were a dead limb. In a way, it is. What I feel is a lot like having a ghost limb. Except, maybe, it’s not your own arm, but someone else’s — with a constant hand around your neck.

***

As I make my way downstairs to the office, my feet pad along the floor.  In the hallway, some of the doors are open; I see the other kids, straightening their rooms for the night. One girl, or I assume she’s a girl because of her fuzzy pajama pants, is putting her phone under her pillow and shutting off the lights. I leave the lights on, always, because there’s something vulnerable about being in the dark.

When I walk in, the woman at the desk starts talking to me. Her voice is softer than my momma’s constantly angry tone — it’s almost like the sound equivalent to melting butter. I really don’t understand half of what she’s saying, because I’m too focused on the way her lips curve upward in a sympathetic smile; one that I can tell she puts on for every kid here. She stands up, and I notice that she’s wearing a skirt. Her name tag says “Imogene”. Judging by her neck and her facial structure, she looks like an artist’s model. I remind myself to test her structure with my charcoals later, wondering if I’ll be able to swallow my anxiety long enough to ask for paper.  I follow after her as she leads me to a closet and hands me a pair of sheets, a comforter, and other bedding. The hallway walls are a pale yellow color with white trim. The cleanliness of it comforts me in a way, and for that I’m thankful. Especially because I’ll have to meet my new roommate in just a moment. Imogene knocks on the door to one of the rooms on the lower end of the hall, and a tall boy (or at least he seems like a boy) opens it and stares me down before stepping out of the way.

She instructs me to make my bed and put away what I have in my bag, then tells the taller youth to show me to the clothes’ room for new garments, since mine are fairly dirty and torn. He nods, and holds a hand out to me. It’s much bigger than my own, swallowing my tan fingers beneath his pale palm. Once the bedding is made, he shows me to the closet, tells me his name is Wyatt, and waits for me at the door as I grab a few shirts and jeans.

As we go back to the room, my eyes already start darting around the room. In my head, I take notes about my surroundings, already figuring out how easy it would be to run away if things go bad. There’s one window between our two beds, above a nightstand that I assume is to be shared. On the nightstand is one lamp, with a dirty white shade and a silver base that reflects the shining overhead light. The walls are a pale basche and the bedding is a soft yellow that makes it seem almost unreal, like something out of a retro movie about teenage runaways. Wyatt has small metal structures. They look like they’re mostly made out of tin cans, scattered around surfaces in the room. Different types of flowers are made by bending the thin metal, others are small robots and things of the sort. I was just starting to think of what his fascination with them might be when he pulls out a wallet, shaking it in my direction.

“If you touch this, or look through my things without my permission, shit will hit the fan. My side,” he pauses, draws a line with the toe of his sneaker. “Your side.” He gestures to my side of the room, then sits on his bed and starts stripping to get ready for bed. I quietly crawl into my bed.

“If possible, I’d like to leave the lamp on for the night. I’ll get something to replace it soon, but for right now I want it on if it doesn’t bother you,” I quietly request with my eyes trained on my nails. He nods, stands up to turn the lamp on, then shuts the bright overhead light off. The lamp is dim, but gives off just enough light for me to see if anyone walks into the door. Perfect.

There’s always been something about a dark room that made me nervous. The vulnerability of it, perhaps. That’s why the alleyways I slept in were comforting, in a way; there was always light. Trusting that whoever you’re sleeping with isn’t going to decide to strangle you in the middle of the night, or something just as awful. It’s never been easy on me; I’ve never dealt well with roommates. My trust is always tested by the second day.

Regardless, Wyatt seems decent so far. He doesn’t seem too alarming, though it’s a bit surprising that the facility leaders are actually allowing me to sleep in the same room as someone who is, more than likely, biologically male. It hadn’t really occurred to me that my gender identity would be respected, even in a place like this.  Even after the light is off and the lamp dims in the night, it takes me a while to go to sleep.

***

When the morning comes, it’s easy to pry myself from the bedsheets and convince my tired brain to let me calm down for a few seconds. My legs dangle over the mattress and I take a few deep breaths, looking at Wyatt still fast asleep on his bed. And then standing up, I make my way to the bathroom and brush my teeth with one of the unopened toothbrushes from the large container on the counter. I turn the water on in the bath tub and pick at the scabs on my arms, looking at my frail form and my freshly exposed features. I debate whether or not I should just leave now and save everyone the trouble of actually getting to know me. I’ve always thought like this; my brain is constantly poised for fight or flight. It’s tiring, at times, to be as on edge as I am.

***

I step into the bath, letting the warm water pool around my legs and slowly up to my stomach. There has always been something about questioning my existence while taking a bath that I find fitting. So, thinking about how life has been for the past few months, I start to come to a conclusion.

It’s like being a tadpole. In the large pond we all call life, there are frogs and fishes and so many things that are capable of eating you alive. And in order to stay alive long enough, to grow into a frog and make your way up the food chain, you first have to figure out how to maneuver your way around the pond without getting swallowed by so many bigger species. And once you finally do make your way up, you don’t have a choice but to prey on those smaller than you to survive. And I don’t want to do that, but it’s the only way to stay in the pond.

Sometimes I think maybe I should just give up now and save myself the trouble. Drowning is always a possibility, like a flashing emergency exit in the back of my skull telling me that if I REALLY need to leave, it’s always there. Drowning victims can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds, and once you’re sinking, you only have a matter of minutes to get yourself to the top again before everything dies and your light goes out for good.

The tub isn’t large enough to submerge my entire form without my nose poking through the surface of the water, so I rule out that option. I would rather stay alive than have to live with the embarrassment of getting caught in the middle of an attempt to drown myself in the bathtub of a youth home for troubled queer kids.

Nonetheless, I can feel the large hands of gravity pulling me down to the Hell my momma always talked about. It’s a soothing thought, eternal nonexistence, but I can’t entertain the thought for too long. If living is wishing to survive then I’m doing something incredibly wrong, because my chest continues to pulse and it doesn’t feel like a heart is actually there, even though I know it is. There’s a wasp nest in my head, and they constantly fling themselves against my skull, hoping that eventually they’ll break through. It won’t go away, making me second-guess my decision to live. The wasps want me to die more than I want myself to die. I feel, most of the time, like my head is a totally different city than my body. Thinking of  myself as something inanimate makes it easier to handle things that are plaguing me.

By now, the water has tinted my skin pinker than its normal brown hue, and I realize that I’ve probably spent the last thirty minutes thinking about something that isn’t any more than a headache. Someone is banging on the door telling me to get out so that they can get a shower, so I open the drain and watch as the water swirls out before standing up and drying off, tugging on my clothes and leaving the bathroom with a muttered apology.

I’ve only been diagnosed with a hand full of disorders, but none of them relate to being transgender. They all just happen to be side effects of my childhood, and I don’t see my gender, my desire to peel off these breasts and stuff my pants, as a side effect.  It’s more like a fate that waited to come to me. When I start down the hall, I see a man in a suit, and it seems like the entire weight of the world is pressing against my back telling me to run because men in suits never come just to shake your hand and tell you good job. It always means something serious.  I rush off to my room, put my things in the laundry bin, and pick at the scabs on my face as I look in the mirror. This has become religion for me, messing with my face every morning, trying to pick off the imperfections.

 My train of thought is interrupted when a woman walks in and tells me the psychiatrist is here to do a mental evaluation in order to make sure I’m a “fit” for the home. She assures me that it isn’t going to be my job to pay for the expenses and then ushers me out of the room, down the hall to where the man is standing with a clipboard in hand and pencils sticking out of his jacket pocket. I find myself starting to draw away.

His blazer is navy blue, and the shirt underneath is white with diagonal stripes that match his blazer and pants that are a light khaki. It’s unsettling how professional he looks, how rich he seems just by his fancy haircut and his outfit. Like he could come to this place dressed casually, or at least more casual than this, but he would rather not because he has fancy suits to spare. He shakes my hand, and it’s then that I notice his frame is much larger than mine. When his palm swallows mine, he gives me a smile that plainly reads “I’m only here to get paid so that I can keep buying these ridiculously expensive outfits, and I can already tell you’re fucked up” before holding the door to a small office open for me. I run over a list in my head, trying to reassure myself that it’s not going to end too badly. It can’t.

  • He’s only here to make sure I’m healthy. He isn’t going to make me feel bad if there is actually something wrong with me.
  • He’s seen worse people than me.
  • I have problems, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be fixed; being out of my momma’s house was the first step.
  • If I really want to, and if I put in the effort, I can get over what happened in my past and finally be a kid. I can stop worrying.
  • I’m safe here.

 

I’m standing at the edge of the doorway when I hear the front door to the house slam and two women trying to sternly usher someone out.  I look over to see what the commotion is all about, when an adult from the other room comes over and tries to hurry me into the office, giving the doctor a concerned look as she places a gentle hand on my shoulder. And that’s when I hear it. The Spanish cursing, her words sharp enough to cut through an artery, and I freeze as my momma comes into my view, her hollowed out cheekbones just as sharp as ever. If I had to guess, she and my stepfather got high right before they came. For now, though, my brain is stuck in panic mode. She figured out where I was and traveled all the way here. As she comes through the doorway, her husband is beside her, holding her hand tight, and she’s screaming at the top of her lungs, mostly directed at a nurse who’s trying to hold her back. From what I can tell, it looks like Imogene.

Momma is busy looking at the nurses but as she glances over to target another with her screeching yells, her eyes fix on me. I can tell she notices my freshly shaved head, and that she’s raging inside because of it. She knows better than to act angry towards me when I’m surrounded by professionals, though. She knows they have the authority to keep me out of her grip for good, and then what would she do? So she uses a softer tone, trying to let them know that all she wants is to get her little girl back. Trying to sound like a half decent mother:

“Marissa, baby,”

And that’s when it all snapped. That’s when I couldn’t take any more, and the voices in my head were all screaming, and I just couldn’t hold it in any longer, and there weren’t any tears. I couldn’t help it, I had to stop myself, I had to pause and make a new list, because that’s all I could do to stop myself from screaming at her. The tone of my own voice in my head, threatening to spill from my lips, was so threatening that I scared even myself.

  • I can be the boy I’ve always known I am, and she can’t change that.
  • Violence won’t change their minds.
  • My name doesn’t have to be Marissa if I don’t want it to be.
  • Everyone here, everyone in this house, is here to help. She can’t hurt me.
  • The restraining order is already in place, she shouldn’t be here in the first place. 

 

So I take a deep breath. I call myself down from the ledge of a psychotic episode, and I speak.

“It’s Michael.”  The proclamation of my new name is the last thing out of my mouth before I walk into the psychiatrist’s office. I watch the doctor lock the door behind us, while my momma keeps screaming as they drag her out of the house. But I know I can do this, I know I can tell him what’s wrong, and I know I can be honest. The last thing I hear is her promise that she’ll come back to get me, to make sure I know how much I’ve hurt our family and our “good name.” But if I know anything in this world, it’s that words never really mean anything.

A promise is just air out of lungs.

 

Death by Misadventure

Winnie’s short curls waved in the hot air. The ground was hot. The air was humid. She looked up at the figure beside her. Death looked back. A small smile spread across his face. Silence filled the space between them.

“You’re early,” Death finally said.

***

Alexander Martin crossed the street, his mind swirling with thoughts. He wiped away the tears building up under his round glasses. He stared down at his sneakers, anger and shame churning in his chest. In the distance, a horn sounded, growing closer yet staying in the back of Alex’s mind. His feet hit the pavement, one after the other, moving quickly but not quickly enough. Brakes screeched next to him, and he turned to see headlights inches from his face. His mind slowly processed the situation around him, but he felt the impact of the car slamming into his body before he could reach a single conclusion.

Alex awoke to find darkness surrounding him and a pit in his chest. He looked down at himself. Nothing had changed, except for his surroundings. He walked around, unsure what had happened. His last memory was of the car coming towards him. He put the clues together; he wasn’t at home, or school, and he had just been hit by a moving vehicle. Could he be in a coma? Or dead? The thought filled him with terror, and fear filled his bones, making his legs shake. His head spun, and he sat down on the cool ground, curling up and letting hot tears run down his cheeks and onto his jeans.

He felt a hand on his shoulder, warm and comforting in an eerie kind of way. He looked up to meet the eyes of a tall man wearing a black and red cloak. His eyes were golden, his face obscured in darkness. “Alexander,” he boomed. “Welcome to the afterlife.”

Alex stood, wiping his tears away with the sleeve of his jumper. “What’s happening to me?” he whispered. He studied the man’s attire, his face, his voice, his demeanor. He was terrifying, yet somehow comforting. Maybe anything could be comforting in this predicament.

“Think of yourself as an angel now,” the man said. “I am a spirit left to guide those who enter our world and send them on their way. That is your job, but for the living. You will be assigned a human to protect.”

“Protect?” Alex repeated. “From what?”

The man’s expression darkened. “Demons. Angry spirits setting out to avenge themselves. Spirits with a dangerous amount of power to wield.” He gave Alex a reassuring look. “Don’t worry. Such things are rare and can be resolved easily. Now that you’re caught up, let’s find you a human.” He walked off, as Alex struggled to keep up.

“Wait!” He cried. “Can the human hear me? See me? What if I mess up? What if I ruin their life?” His voice trailed away. As the person paused, the room began to twist and turn like a camera struggling to focus on an object. He looked in every direction in an attempt to make sense of what was happening. A small room came into focus, with hardwood floors covered in clothing, and a desk overflowing with books and papers. On the center of the floor sat a young girl, maybe fifteen or sixteen, with a notebook opened on her lap and a pencil grasped tightly in her hand. A quick look around showed the spirit in the ominous cloak had left. He was on his own.

Alex sat cross-legged on the floor next to her. The room was humid, a small fan on the desk blowing the girl’s short brown curls into her face. Her walls were a light yellow color, paint chipping and falling to the ground in some places. Small pencil marks and drawings covered the faded paint, barely noticeable from far away. She wore a light yellow blouse made of a thin, soft material. A halo of shoulder-length brown hair sat on her head in thick curls. Bangs nearly covered her eyes, but small flecks of green shot out at Alex every once and awhile. Her brow was furrowed in concentration, her eyes narrowed and shoulders tense.

All of a sudden, she jumped to her feet, leaving the notebook open on the floor. She paced, her bare feet making the floorboards creak with every agitated step. Alex watched, intrigued. She paused and stared at a crack, next to the window covered by a small wire screen, in the wall. He stood next to her and stared at the wall, listening to the sounds of birds chirping in the distance and the girl’s heavy breathing. He turned to face her, a determined look on his face. Slowly, he reached out his arm to touch her. His hand seemed to go right through her without touching her at all.

She remained in the same position, completely unfazed. Alex looked down at his hand in disappointment and crossed the room to the desk. He plopped down on the floor in frustration, letting out a defeated sigh. His head knocked against the desk, but he felt no pain where he had hit the hard wooden object. A flurry of papers fell from the top of the desk and landed on the ground, making a small whooshing noise. The girl spun around in shock, looking around the empty room. Her eyes fell on Alex and quickly moved away, scanning the rest of the floor. She looked afraid, distrustful. Alex felt a small pang in his chest. She looked just like — no, better not to dwell on that. Not now, at least.

“That’s weird,” she whispered. Sitting down, she organized the papers into a small pile, then stood to put them back on the desk. Alex looked at the abandoned pencil and notebook on the floor and inspiration struck him. He began writing, quickly and quietly to ensure that she wouldn’t see him writing. By the desk, she was rearranging books and papers and creating a great amount of noise, just enough to conceal his pencil scratches. When he finished writing, he set the pencil aside and sat in the corner, watching. She grabbed the pencil and resumed her writing, pausing when she found his writing.

Hello, it read. I’m Alex. Sorry for dropping your papers. There’s no way to make this sound normal, but I died. Now I’m here, protecting you, and I’m completely lost. You can’t hear me or see me. But I’m here, and I’d rather not be alone in death as well as life.

She looked around in horror, and Alex shuddered in his corner. Small tears welled in the corners of her eyes, and she wiped them away furiously. Shame burned like an oven in Alex’s chest. He stood and retreated into the dark corners of his mind where he could forget about all the misfortune that had befallen him.

***

Alex spent a week learning about her. He didn’t attempt to communicate with her, but he could tell she was still curious by the way she waited for words to appear when she sat down to write or turned excitedly at any small sound. He learned her name was Winnie, she was sixteen, and she didn’t have many friends. She spent a great deal of time writing and drawing. She would write about her aspirations and thoughts and anything else that occurred in her life. She wrote about how she had moved from New York City to Columbus, Ohio, a small suburban haven away from the city life she was used to. She had lived in Columbus for four months.

One cool August day, Winnie was sitting on her porch watching birds fly above. Alex sat next to her, feeling very uncomfortable in the same yellow jumper he had been wearing since he died. He hadn’t figured out how to change his appearance yet. They sat in silence, until finally Winnie let out a frustrated sigh. “I know you’re here. Do something if you’re here. Show me a sign or something like that.” She pushed her hair away from her forehead, her eyes glimmering with excitement. Alex searched for some way to alert her of his presence. His eyes fell on a small rock sitting on the sidewalk, about the size of a nectarine. He picked it up, tossing it into the center of the cul-de-sac where Winnie’s house sat. Her eyes widened like a deer caught in headlights, and she ran after the rock. She held it in her hand, smiling widely. “I knew it,” she said. “I knew you were here.”

Alex smiled, her happiness spreading to him. She tossed the rock up and down, watching its journey intently. He barely noticed the world around him turning back to black, until it was all around him. He spun around, confused and scared.

“Winnie!” he shouted. He yelled her name again, then felt a cold hand turn him around. It was a boy, similar to him. He had an evil glint in his eyes, something malicious and almost demonic. Alex was taken aback and stepped away from him. “Who are you?”

The boy grinned. “Why, I’m shocked you don’t remember me. I certainly remember visiting you in your last moments.” He twisted and changed form, and suddenly resembled Winnie, though less joyful. “I’m a spirit, I died like you. You remind me of myself quite an amount, actually. Except you obey the rules.” He waved his hand and an image of Winnie appeared into darkness. “She’s not worth your time. You see, everyone says that she needs you, but she doesn’t. People die every day, they can replace you. Why not have some fun?”

Alex looked at the boy, shocked. Sure, he enjoyed looking after Winnie, but was it worth it? Besides, Winnie couldn’t even see him. “What do you mean, you visited me?”

He smiled slyly. “Well, I always love watching angry or troubled humans. You seemed plenty troubled that day.”

“What’s your name?” Alex asked.

“I used to be Benjamin,” he said, “though nobody has called me by that in centuries.”

Alex considered his words. “Is that when you died? Centuries ago?”

The boy nodded. “War,” he said solemnly. Alex looked at his appearance more closely, noticing for the first time that he was dressed in older-looking clothing — clothing covered in dirt and blood that had most likely been worn on a battlefield. Alex felt his blood churn just looking at the boy and picturing how his last moments must have been. “Anyways,” Benjamin said, clearing his throat, “we’re not here to talk about me. Nor are we here to talk about you. I’ve brought you here to talk about this girl you’ve been assigned.”

“Her name is Winnie,” Alex interjected.

“This is why I’m here,” Benjamin said. “You’re becoming attached to her. It’s rather pitiful to watch. You need to stop pretending that you’re still alive, because you’re not.”

“What are you suggesting I do?”

“Prove to me you aren’t becoming more attached than you should,” Benjamin said. “Prove you won’t go down the same paths I watched you take before.” Their surroundings began to twist and turn, Benjamin’s appearance becoming blurry and unfocused. Slowly, Winnie’s house appeared with her sitting on the stoop as if she had never moved. He raced towards her, feeling like his feet were stuck in quicksand. He reached the step where she sat and sat down, breathing heavily. Next to him, Winnie stared at the sky, lost in thought.

“Winnie?” Alex said tentatively, knowing fully she wouldn’t hear him. “Are you there, somewhere? I’m in trouble. I don’t know what to do. I’m scared of becoming attached to you. I’m scared of trusting Benjamin. I’m scared.” He covered his face with his hands and shook his head. “I’m lost, completely and utterly lost.”

Winnie looked in his direction in confusion. “Alex?” she whispered. “I feel as though I can hear someone talking in the back of my mind, but I don’t know whether to trust it.”

Alex looked up in surprise. “Could it be because you know I’m here? Because you’re more open minded and welcomed to the idea of communicating with me?” He stood, energy and excitement coursing through him. He looked down at his body, which had begun to become slightly transparent the longer he spent as a spirit. He closed his eyes and concentrated, trying to make himself solid again by some random chance. “Please work,” he whispered, “God, please let this work.”

He heard a small gasp from Winnie’s direction, and opened his eyes to see her staring at him, her eyes wide and full of wonder. He looked down at his body, which was no longer see-through. She stood and walked towards him, a smile spreading across her face. He felt a tingling, excited feeling in his stomach.

“Hello, Alex,” she said, extending her hand for him to shake. “Nice to finally meet your acquaintance.”

***

“What happened to you? Why are you here? What’s death like?” Winnie asked intently. The pair were sitting on the floor of Winnie’s room, a bag of chips open between them. Alex tried to pick one up, but he felt lightheaded and decided against it. He was already pushing his limits by remaining somewhat visible.

“I got hit by a car,” Alex replied.

“Did you see it coming? Did you try to get away?”

“I was thinking about something,” Alex answered, feeling uncomfortable. “I wasn’t paying attention.”

“What were you thinking about?” Winnie pressed.

“My girlfriend,” Alex blurted. “Anyways, why don’t you tell me about yourself?”

“I’m Winnie, I’m sixteen, I just moved here from New York City because my parents got divorced and my mom wanted to get away from the city life. Besides, she has family here. I have no friends yet, but hopefully I’ll make some. I would assume you already know some of these things after watching me.”

Alex nodded along as she spoke, every word reminding him of his life. He had spent it in a small corner of Manhattan for his entire life, one nearly absent of cars and teenagers. He had gone to a high school fairly nearby, about thirty minutes by cab depending on traffic. He had been standing just outside the school when she had approached him, her long brown curls blowing in the wind, her lips painted a bright red. Guilt was evident on her face, though she was trying hard to hide it. She gave him a hug, short and emotionless.

“Jen!” came a voice from behind them. She pulled away to face a tall, attractive boy in a basketball jersey. She skipped over to him with a glowing smile on her face and kissed his cheek. A red smear of lipstick remained where her lips had rested. Alex felt a dull pang in his chest, a feeling of betrayal and loneliness filling him. He started away, his eyes to the ground, tears welling.

Then pain, immense pain. And then darkness. Then Winnie, who was now staring at him with a concerned look. “Memories,” Alex whispered. “They resurface sometimes.” Her hair was just as curly as Jen’s, though a quarter of the length. Her face was free of makeup, with only her freckles and the occasional spot of acne. He reached out to touch one of her curls, but he barely felt the hair against his skin. He wiped his eyes, though no tears had formed. “I don’t understand,” he whispered. “I can do certain things, insignificant things, like walk and talk, yet I’m disconnected still. I’m here, but I’m not truly here. It’s like Benjamin said, I’m not alive anymore.”

“Who’s Benjamin?” Winnie asked.

“He’s a ghost,” replied Alex. “He travels around, trying to wreak havoc on humans and ghosts alike. I don’t know much about him yet, but I’m not sure if I trust him.”

“Of course you shouldn’t trust him!” Winnie cried. “He could be plotting with the devil or something.”

“No one has mentioned the devil,” Alex mumbled. “Heck, I don’t even know if he exists. At least not in this part of the afterlife.” He considered the figure that had met him when he first entered the afterlife. Could he have been a devil of sorts? He seemed fairly opposed to devils, though.

Winnie shuddered. “This whole thing gives me the creeps. I don’t like the sound of this Benjamin character. I suggest you keep your distance.” Alex nodded, trying to reassure her. He decided it wouldn’t be wise to tell Winnie what Benjamin had told him.

That night, Alex went outside to walk around the neighborhood. He relaxed and allowed himself to be invisible as he explored, not wanting to be suspicious. After circling the block a few times, he returned to see Winnie’s mother sitting on the steps, talking on the phone. The door was closed. Alex was stuck. He drew closer, catching small bits of conversation.

“How’s dad doing?” She asked. “Are you enjoying the summer? When does school start again?” as she nodded and conversed,  Alex sat down next to her to try and listen to the person on the other end. It was a girl with a high-pitched, hysterical voice. She sounded as if she had been crying, or still was. “I know it’s hard, sweetie,” the woman replied. “It’s always hard to lose someone, especially someone so close. I wish Winnie and I could be there to comfort you and pay our respects, though we didn’t know him as well as you did. You dated for quite awhile, after all.”

Alex’s legs went numb, and he tried to steady himself on the side of the house. Millions of thoughts spun his mind like a record.  “I loved him, I really did. He was so sweet. It’s high school, everyone experiments. I can’t help but feel it’s my fault he died. He wouldn’t have gone storming off if not for me. He wouldn’t have been staring at the ground instead of the street.”

His heart was beating faster and faster, and panic grabbed his heart and squeezed it. He found it hard to breathe, or think, or function properly.

“They’re talking about me,” he gasped. “She’s talking to Jen. Winnie is Jen’s sister. That’s why I got assigned to her; her sister is overwhelmed with guilt. I’ve broken a family that’s broken enough on its own.” He paced the porch, no longer paying attention to whether he could be seen. He opened the door and stormed in, scaling the stairs and entering Winnie’s room. She looked up groggily when he entered.

“Alex?” she said. “What’s going on?”

“Your sister,” Alex said. “I’ve ruined your sister’s life.”

“What do you mean?” Winnie said.

“I dated your sister,” Alex whispered, breathless. “She cheated on me and I went storming off. I got hit by a car, and she’s driving herself mad with guilt.”

Winnie’s eyes were wide and full of sadness. She reached for Alex, but before she could the world had spun and twisted back to a black emptiness. In front of Alex stood Benjamin, a big smile on his face. “I must admit,” he laughed, “that was one of the best things I’ve witnessed.”

Alex walked towards the boy and punched him across the face. He fell to the ground, crying out in pain and anger.

“How could you?” Alex yelled. “Why, why do you feel so happy watching someone drown in their misery? Why do you prey on me in life and death? And Winnie! What did she do to you?”

Benjamin clutched his eye. “Don’t you see? I was forced into a war I didn’t want to fight, sent to my death in a battlefield. I wasn’t given a chance at life. No love, no happiness. So I see you, a boy with everything I ever longed for but had stolen from me. And you waltz around taking this for granted. And you have the audacity to try and act alive again! Winnie will never love you, because she is alive and you aren’t. So don’t you see? I do this because I despise you, Alexander. I despise you from the very depths of my soul; if you weren’t dead, I would kill you.”

Alex looked at him, anger pulsing in his chest. “What are you going to do, then?

Benjamin thought for a moment, then grinned maliciously. “I can hurt the people you love.” He started disappearing, and Alex followed. They appeared next to a somewhat busy street, in the daytime. Winnie was walking down the crosswalk, looking at her phone.

“How did you do that?” Alex exclaimed. “How do you have so much power?”

Benjamin laughed. “I told you to join me, Alexander.” They watched as a truck barreled towards the young girl crossing the street. The driver was on his phone, typing something. He was far over the speed limit. Alex screamed Winnie’s name, and she turned to face him. Her eyes widened, her mouth opened, and his name almost left her lips. Alex ran to her, but Benjamin grabbed his arm. Time seemed to move slower as the light turned yellow, then bright red, like the blood on Benjamin’s shirt.

The horn shook him from his thoughts, and it was so loud the earth seemed to shake beneath him. Winnie turned, her eyes filling with fear and panic as she tried to escape. The truck slammed into her small body and came to a halting stop a few moments later. Emptiness consumed him. It was the same emptiness and hopelessness he’d felt when Jen ran to greet the other boy. Here he was, in the position she had been in, the cause of Winnie’s death but powerless to stop it.

The ground fell away, and darkness devoured him. He was in the same room he had appeared in after death, but something was different. There were people present. The man who had greeted him upon arrival stood a few feet away, a sad look on his face. He refused to meet Alex’s eyes. On the floor beside him, Benjamin was curled up in fear, his face discolored from where Alex had punched him. Alex was proud at this sight.

In the distance, a red light shone, illuminating a small ledge jutting out of the wall. Winnie sat at the top, her feet dangling down into the darkness. A tall figure stood beside her, humanlike in appearance but with an air of magic around him. He wore a shiny golden cape, and scars covered his gnarled face to the point where he no longer looked human. His eyes were black as the night sky, with small flecks of light like stars dancing in his pupils.

“You’re early,” the figure said, a smile spreading across his face. His voice was deep and chilling, yet kind and gentle.

Winnie looked at her sneakers, the wind pushing her hair into her face. “I’m still not sure what’s happening,” she whispered, her voice trembling.

The figure sat down on the ledge, putting his arm around her shoulders. “You’re dead, Winnifred. I am Death, the unseen power your kind try their best to escape. This is my home, my domain, where I send spirits on their way. But some of these spirits are restless. They seek life, and instead bring about death.” He looked at Benjamin, his eyes burning with anger. “It seems a spirit here today had too much power for his own good.”

Winnie looked down, her eyes falling on Alex. “What happens to Alex now?”

Death sighed. “He was supposed to protect you. I spent quite a long time consulting my brother,” he gestured to the figure in the red and black cape, who nodded, “about where to send you. We decided on Winnifred because your fate and that of her family were intertwined, but we didn’t want to be too direct by sending you to her sister. This method is a test to deviate the trustworthy from the untrustworthy and decide which shall be given a happy afterlife. By my own rules, he hasn’t qualified.”

Winnie stood up angrily. “But it’s not his fault I died! It’s his!” She pointed at Benjamin, who buried his head in his hands. “There has to be some other solution.”

Death looked at Alex, pity in his dark eyes. “I suppose we could send Benjamin in his place, but we have a greater issue; you aren’t meant to meet me yet.” He looked over at his brother. “Fate, any ideas?”

Fate tilted his head in thought. “I don’t know of any foolproof way to fix this, but we could always try another way.” He strode over to Alex, reaching out to touch him but deciding against it. “It’s not easy, but it might work.”

“Tell me,” Death said impatiently.

“We could reverse time, using Benjamin as a battery of sorts, and prevent Alex from dying in the first place. This will reverse the timeline. He will die another way, but hopefully we won’t have to see him in a long while,” Fate said. His face fell. “Though you wouldn’t remember Winnie.”

It felt like a slap in the face. Winnie, with whom he had spent countless days, bonding, talking, and more, had become his closest friend, a person he felt as if he had known for his entire life though he had only met her after its end.

“What are we waiting for?” Death cried. “If it’ll work, we have to try immediately.” He disappeared in a cloud of smoke, leaving Winnie alone on the ledge. She dropped about six feet to the ground and ran over to Alex, tears streaming down her face. She hugged him tightly. “I don’t want to forget you,” she sobbed.

“Neither do I,” Alex said, hugging her back. “But you deserve a full life, and I won’t let myself deny you of that.” He pulled away to face her, wiping the tears from her face. A small smile formed at the corners of his mouth. He reached out to touch her, pushing it away from her forehead to show her green eyes. His heart melted thinking of Jen, and how similar they were, though something about Winnie felt different. She made him feel at home, like he had the power to live forever. She was genuine, and full of emotion, and made his thoughts fuzzy and disjointed.

“Alex, Winnie,” Fate said from behind them. “We were about to begin, if you wanted to say a goodbye of sorts.” He turned away from them, as if trying to give them as much privacy as possible in the situation.

Alex turned back to Winnie. He felt anxiety course through his veins, like red-hot snakes eating away at his insides.

“Goodbye, Winnie,” he whispered, planting a small kiss on her forehead. Her face turned red, her eyes soft and full of affection. White light filled the dark room, nearly blinding Alex. He kept his eyes open, squinting through the light to focus on Winnie’s face as it slowly disappeared.

***

She skipped over to him, a glowing smile on her face, and kissed his cheek. A red smear of lipstick remained where her lips had rested. Alex felt a dull pang in his chest, a feeling of betrayal and loneliness filling him. A small voice in his head told him to shake it off, and he decided to listen.

“Whatever, Jen,” he said. “Life is about experiments, right?” He gave them a glowing smile and walked away from the school, his spirits dampened yet still high.

That night, Jen sent him a text message reading, “Want to hang out? My family is visiting and I don’t want to invite anyone they wouldn’t like.”

Alex smiled at the message, excited at the idea of a new friendship. “Sure,” he replied. After arranging the plans with Jen, he pulled on an old yellow jumper and walked over to her house. He knocked on the door, checking the time on his phone anxiously and adjusting his glasses. Worries swam through his mind. Were his clothes too casual? Too formal? What if her family hated him?

The doorknob turned and the door swung back to reveal a girl about a head shorter than him, hair identical to Jen’s brown curls other than the fact it had been cut into a shoulder-length bob and bangs. Her eyes were green, the color of grass with flecks of brown like the soil it resided in. She wore a pink blouse made of light material and red sneakers. Something about her was familiar to Alex, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it.

“I’m Alex,” he said. “I’m Jen’s friend. I don’t think we’ve met, have we?”

She shook her head, her hair blowing in her face. Alex felt more memories come back to him, but there was still a barricade preventing them from returning fully. “I’m Winnie,” she said. “I’m Jen’s sister, but I moved to Ohio. I visit every once and awhile.”

Alex nodded. “Well, it’s very nice to meet you. I have a weird feeling we’ve met before, but regardless I’d like to get to know you.”

Winnie laughed. “You know, I had that feeling too. Strange, isn’t it? Anyways, people are probably waiting for me, so I’ll have to go socialize or something.”

Alex smiled, his anxiety calming down ever so slightly. “Mind if I tag along?”

Winnie grinned, her cheeks turning pink. She stepped aside to let Alex in, and the two disappeared into the house, talking like old friends. The door slammed shut behind them, sending an echo down the street. The world operated as normal, everyone moving and interacting seamlessly without any inkling of the change that had taken place. Alex and Winnie’s lives had been entwined by Fate, twisted together with great care. Far in the distance, beyond the realm of the living, he watched proudly at what he had accomplished.


THE END

 

On Conspiracy Theories

According to Merriam-Webster, a conspiracy theory is a theory that explains an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful conspirators. People formulate conspiracy theories in order to cope with the fear of the unknown and to explain unprecedented phenomena that are frightening. Because the population is afraid of the unknown, it creates conspiracy theories in order to deal with its anxiety. The public uses theories as “logical” answers; however, conspiracies are illogical because they deny scientific fact and official records. Conspiracy theories exacerbate society’s fear and anxiety. I am going to show how the Bermuda Triangle, Area 51, and the moon landing have contributed to conspiracy theories being harmful to the public.

Area 51 is a United States Air Force facility in the southern part of Nevada. Though the purpose of the base is unknown, historical evidence suggests that it supports the development and testing of experimental aircrafts and weapon systems (Popular Mechanics). Conspiracy theorists believe that the remains of crashed UFOs (Unidentified Flying Objects) are stored in Area 51, where government scientists reverse-engineer the aliens’ leading technology. Allegedly, the government has made advanced weapons and aircrafts including stealth bombers and reconnaissance planes. This conspiracy came after many supposed sightings of UFOs and a testimony from an army colonel who says he was granted access to extraterrestrial material from an alien spacecraft that crashed in the nearby desert (Time Magazine). This conspiracy has hurt society because it has caused people to distrust the government. It makes it seem as if the government isn’t telling us about potential dangers. Losing trust in the government is treacherous since it might influence us to be reluctant to vote in elections and follow the law. This becomes a vicious cycle because the government might respond by trusting the public less and so on and so forth.

Apollo 11 landed on the Moon on July 20th 1969 at 4:18pm EST. At 10:56pm EST, Neil Armstrong was ready to put his foot into another world. He climbed down the ladder and said: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” (NASA). Four decades after the presumed “giant leap for mankind,” there are doubters who say America was so desperate to defeat Russia in the Space Race that they hired Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the other astronaut in the Apollo 11, to stage their mission on a secret film set in Hollywood. Theorists speculate that because the American flag planted on the moon swayed, Aldrin must not have been in space. The flag’s movement suggests that there was wind, but there is no wind on the moon. However, NASA states that the flag’s ripples derives from Aldrin’s twisting motions to firmly install the flag into the moon. In addition, filmmaker Stanley Kubrick may have helped NASA fake the lunar landing because his 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey proves that the technology existed back then to create a spacelike set. As far-fetched as it may seem, a 1999 poll conducted by Gallup shows that 6% of Americans believe the lunar landing was fake and 5% were undecided (Time Magazine). This conspiracy theory is harmful to the public because it contributes to people denying scientific evidence that the Apollo 11 indeed landed on the moon. Humanity will suffer if people continue rejecting modern science. For example, global climate change is a reality that impacts people everywhere. If the general public chooses to stay ignorant, we will inevitably destroy our environment and ruin the planet for future generations.

The Bermuda Triangle is a region between Florida, Puerto Rico, and Bermuda. In this triangle in the Atlantic Ocean, there have been many puzzling disappearances of planes and ships (Department of Defense). These mysteries have caused people to develop many conspiracy theories to answer the question of how these ships and planes disappeared with no bodies or wreckage ever found. One of them is a space-time warp. Supposedly, a rift in space-time opens in the Bermuda Triangle every once in awhile, so all of the planes and ships traveling in this specific place at this time are lost inside the rift. That is why there is never any wreckage. Another theory is that one of the assumed locations of the lost island of Atlantis is in the Bermuda Triangle. Some believe that Atlantis was a civilization that had made amazing technology, and the technology may be active on the ocean floor. This equipment may interfere with the instrumentation of modern planes and ships; this has caused them to crash and sink. Finally, the last conspiracy theory is that methane gas hydrates bubble up from the sea sediments, causing ships to disappear. Landslides on the ocean floor release large amounts of gas, which would reduce the density of the water, making any ship sink like a rock. The gas could also ignite aircraft engines causing them to explode (Thought Co.). This conspiracy has impaired society because it makes people hesitant to travel in this area. Without these conspiracies people would think that all of these incidents were merely coincidences. Conspiracy theories capitalize on fear and make people irrational, even though the Bermuda Triangle is no more dangerous than any other part of the ocean. Irrationality forces people to doubt themselves when there is simply no need to.  

Ultimately, there is one positive thing about conspiracy theories. It causes people to open their minds, think independently, and analyze situations critically. Despite this upside, all of the aforementioned examples show how conspiracy theories have negatively impacted society. There would be less fear in the world if these conspiracies didn’t exist because people would think of them as coincidences, or even if they did see a flaw in an explanation, they wouldn’t spread it or exaggerate it through an absurd conspiracy theory. Conspiracies are reactions to anxiety that spread mass paranoia across the globe. They make us excessively skeptical of the government, Ignorant of pressing issues, and irrational to the point of extreme doubt. Without conspiracies, our society would not live in fear of the unknown, and instead, we would rely on dependable sources to draw conclusions.

Works Cited

Blitz, Matt. “The Real Story Behind the Myth of Area 51.” Popular Mechanics. Cameron Connors, 18 Apr. 2017. Web. 23 June 2017. <http://www.popularmechanics.com/military/research/a24152/area-51-history/>.

“Conspiracy Theories.” Time Magazine. Time, 2008. Web. 23 June 2017. http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1860871_1860876_1861006,00.html

“Conspiracy Theory.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 23 June 2017. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/conspiracy%20theory

NASA Administrator. “July 20, 1969: One Giant Leap For Mankind.” NASA. NASA, 20 July 2014. Web. 23 June 2017. https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/apollo/apollo11.html

United States. Department of Defense. US Coast Guard Headquarters and the Naval Historical Center. Bermuda Triangle Fact Sheet. 11 December 1998. Web. 23 June 2017. http://www.dod.mil/pubs/foi/Reading_Room/UFO/195.pdf

Wagner, Stephen. “The Top Bermuda Triangle Theories.” Thought Co. 30 January 2017. Web. 23 June 2017. https://www.thoughtco.com/theories-of-the-bermuda-triangle-2593654

Observatory

OBSERVATORY

Sydney sat back in her chair. It was another slow day in the Extremely Large Telescope, and nothing was really happening, as usual. Sydney already knew that she wasn’t going to find anything. No matter how many signals humanity sent out from earth, they never got a response. Nothing ever came in. This was the tragedy of working at an observatory.

In the 11 years since it was put into service in 2024, the ELT had gotten some major upgrades to its imaging capability. It could now show the surface of faraway planets; oceans, forests, and every other type of land was recognizable by the ELT. It was also upgraded so that if, say, a giant alien ship, like the ones that were sent to colonize Mars only four years ago, were to fly in front of the planet, the observatory would know. They would then contact the EU, who would have every other telescope instantly pointed at that spot to gain more information.

But Sydney knew that wasn’t going to happen. The Fermi paradox’s solutions were so scary, and meant so much, that most governments refused to consider them. Sydney knew better. The probability of humanity finding life was high, but the probability of it being within the time that Sydney was serving was low. In addition to that, the probability of it being at the ELT was also low, and even if it did end up at the ELT, the chance that Sydney herself would be the one to find it was also low.

As she sat thinking about this for the umpteenth time, she decided to look through the scope again. Sydney was a bit selfish. If humanity was going to find alien life, it was damn well going to be her that found it. She would try as hard as she could to search the cosmos from her little room in a giant telescope off the coast of Chile.

She stared into the dark abyss, and decided she would focus on a new planet today. “Leo, focus the ‘scope on Kapteyn B please.”

“Acknowledged,” replied Leo in his robotic voice. Sydney felt the facility clanking into position and heard a small motor as the telescope adjusted its height.

She looked through the glass again. There was Kapteyn B, its milky white ice surface shining out from the rest of the solar system. She sighed. Even though the planet was unable to support surface liquid water at the moment, Sydney knew that the planet had been around two and a half times longer than Earth had. With all that extra time, the planet had probably at one point been suitable for life. Maybe it was even suitable under the surface, with a liquid ocean. No one knew for sure.

Sydney stared at the planet a bit more and noticed a small, black speck gliding over the planet. Sydney’s eyes widened. “Leo, zoom in on that black thing.”

“Acknowledged,” Leo said, and the view in Sydney’s scope focused on the speck.

As Sydney got a better look, her mouth dropped open. This was it. It had to be. The object was long, and she thought she saw a little blue light on the end of it. She knew what she was watching took place 12 years ago, but she didn’t care. Sydney took a deep breath, and slammed on the alert button. She felt a rush as she heard the commlink with European Southern Observatory Headquarters come through.

“ELT, found something?”

Sydney smiled. “Point every telescope at Kapteyn B, ASAP. I believe I have.”

 

SANDSTORM

The sandstorm ripped through the abandoned and mangled wasteland that used to be known as Phoenix, Arizona. The heat was unbearable at a temperature of 122 degrees Fahrenheit. Jett Hanes, a lieutenant in the US Exploration and Reclamation Squad, didn’t notice. His bulky, white and blue Personal Environment suit kept him cool. The suit was completely airlocked, with air entering through a vent and passing through several filters before being cooled and stored, ready for Hanes to take his next breath. It also kept him safe from flying debris, and had two shields on each of his arms. As he trudged through the desert toward the abandoned city, dead withering trees stared down at him. He would have been dropped into the city, but the storm was too strong, and even the Dropjet, with its powerful engines, would have been swept away. So instead he was dropped on the outskirts of the city.

His mission was to reach the center of Phoenix. An earlier squad had gone out to investigate a strange signal emanating from somewhere in the ruins, but the sandstorm had left them quite literally in the dust. They were now hiding in an abandoned mall. Jett was to find the squad, put up an emergency shelter, and wait for extraction once the storm died down. Hopefully there was enough time.

Phoenix, having been evacuated thirty years earlier because of sandstorms, drought, and temperatures that humans could barely tolerate, was now a rusted brown mess. Mangled buildings and aircars littered the city, and the idea of going back was not feasible to the government. They had completely abandoned the city, building a new, cleaner, renewable city for the refugees. They planned to forget about it entirely, but this new signal was not something they could resist checking out. They knew it might be important, but they didn’t know exactly what it was. So ERS was sent in to find out.

As Hanes reached the city, his vision clouded with all the sand whipping around him. He turned on his floodlight, powered up thermal, and kept walking. As he passed an intersection, the amount of sand became stronger from a different direction.

Suddenly, a piece of a billboard came careening down the road. It smashed into Hanes, knocking him down, and shattered upon coming into contact with the armored suit. The sand pushed him another few yards. Hanes stopped himself, and activated his maneuvering jets. He slowly started pushing back, and eventually reached the other side. He kept walking. The earlier squad needed him. He extended his arm shields and trudged on.

As he reached the mall, he turned on thermal again. He could make out the squad’s thermal signatures. He prepared the porta-shelter and made the final stretch. The storm seemed to be dying down. Aside from the occasional strong gust of wind, the sand pushing Hanes’ suit was getting slightly softer. Hanes carefully but quickly stepped into the mall, shutting the door behind him. In the few moments that the door was open, about a truck full of sand managed to spill into the mall. Hanes put down his visor. The squad was about 500 meters away from him.

They saw him before he reached them. “My god, what is that?”

“Denman, you idiot, that’s a clanker. We’re saved!”

Hanes turned on his mic. “Don’t worry, the storm is dying down,” he told them, while setting up the porta-shelter. As he placed it on the ground, the sheets of metal unfolded, forming a dome about the size of a regular kitchen. “I need you to get in this shelter and wait with me for extraction.”

“Yeah, uh, about that…” Hanes guessed this was the one named Denman speaking again. “We have a slight problem.”

“Is this in any way related to the signal we picked up?”

“Yes. We figured out where it was coming from,” said a new voice. This one was female and a little aggravated. “But we can’t get to it.”

“Who are you, what is it, and where is it?”

“I’m Sara Edison. You know the Cold War? All those tensions with Russia in the late 1900s? Well, apparently, the government installed a missile silo in the parking lot. They also installed a monitor so that, in the case that there would be no one left, if a missile hit Phoenix, a sensor would detect it. The problem was, this missile was installed during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who is, as you know, infamous for denying that climate change was going to happen. He didn’t tell anyone else about the sensor, and because he didn’t believe in climate change, he didn’t stop to think about the fact that one day the temperature in Phoenix was going to get so high that the minimum requirement for the missile’s launch was going to be naturally met. This is the hottest that Phoenix has ever been in all of recorded history. Thankfully, the missile has a countdown timer for an hour to stop it from being launched, because I guess it doesn’t matter if everyone is dead yet.”

“How much time do we have left on the timer?” Hanes asked.

“Fifteen minutes, give or take a few.”

“Damn it! Can’t the missile defense batteries just shoot it down?”

“Those haven’t been activated in decades. They would have to power up the railguns.”

“And I assume that when the missile hits Russia, all the missiles from Russia would awaken and fire too?”

“Worse. Every US missile would launch at Russia. Essentially, the world would end. The Moon and M vgfars colonies would be okay, but without supplies from Earth, they would starve to death.”
Hanes thought for a second. “I assume one of you know how to deactivate this missile?”

“That would be me,” said a new voice, and a slightly smaller figure stepped out from the shop. “My name is Alec Harvey, I’m the tech guy on this squad.”

“Okay, I need you all to get behind me. I think I have enough shielding to get us through the parking lot, but I need you to work fast. Come on.”

They all grouped together at the mall’s parking lot entrance. Hanes was in front, with Denman behind him, then Alec, and finally Sara.

“Ready?” Hanes asked. Everyone nodded. “Let’s go, now!”

Hanes opened the door, and tossed the porta-shelter towards the sensor. The shelter set up automatically around it. He bolted out the door, followed by Denman. Hanes blocked the sand with the PR suit while everyone else bolted for the shelter. Alec went in first, followed by Sara. Denman was standing at the door. After Sara hunkered into the shelter, Denman looked in.

An abandoned car was suddenly lifted off the ground. It slammed into Denman who didn’t even manage to scream. He was quickly swept away by the storm. “Denman!” Sara yelled, but she knew it was too late. Hanes waded over to the shelter through the storm.

“Denman is gone. We have to make sure no one else dies today. There will be time to grieve later. Now is the time to be heroes. Stop the missile!”

Alec nodded, and closed the shelter door. Hanes watched as he cut into the sensor’s pole and found the wire. He closed his eyes, and after a few seconds, made the cut. The wire sizzled out, and Alec exhaled. Everyone cheered.

Hanes walked outside. The storm was settling. He unclipped the beacon from his belt and threw it on the ground. It set itself up, and Hanes watched as the light shined up through the clouds.

A few minutes later, the hulking Dropjet screamed out of the sky, and right before it reached the ground, the blue engines roared to life, kicking up a huge cloud of dust. Hanes, Alec, and Sara stepped on, ready to explain to commander Brannon. As the Jet lifted off, Hanes stared down at the city. Why did we do this to ourselves? he wondered.

 

Unexpected Visitor

It’s raining so hard that the new roof begins to leak, and the pouring rain forces people to ditch the umbrellas for something stronger. Jennifer continues to stare out of her window, sitting on a chair in front it; she has been gazing at the mud sliding down the edge of the garden that once looked beautiful just a week ago. Jennifer realizes that it has been raining for three days now, and she has yet to step out of her abode. All she has been doing is staring out the window, waiting for the sun to emerge from the darkness of the clouds beyond the glass. It’s been about five hours now, and she still hasn’t moved, not even to stretch her legs, or to fill her empty stomach.

Was this her form of entertainment, locking her eyes with the grass on her front lawn? Excluding herself from everyone she has ever known, she declines her family’s calls without hesitation. She alienates herself from her family, because she feels like a disappointment to them after dropping out of college. Jennifer’s heart continues to fill with sadness and anger as she fails to open up to her family. Jennifer hasn’t eaten in three days. You can tell she is fighting the hunger as she clenches her abdomen with her legs, which are now crossed in the chair that she has not removed herself from in hours.

A gray-haired man, with a bright yellow slick raincoat and matching boots and a hat, starts walking towards Jennifer’s house from afar. She becomes aware of his presence immediately, because she sees him step on the grass. Jennifer notices his gray beard hanging below his chin like a mop hangs from its wooden stick. Her heart beats faster, yet in a rhythm, to a song that she heard on the radio recently. Her eyes begin to dilate as she sees him get closer and closer to the window, but she remains still. Jennifer, frozen in the chair, is temporarily paralyzed by her existence there for so long, she’s unable to move any part of her body except her eyes. Looking into her brown eyes, the panic and the stress is visible as she directs her attention to this stranger. The bearded man reaches the window. All that stands in between them is the glass. Jennifer is only able to see the buttons on the raincoat, and not his face, because she is frozen and unable to move her head from the direction of the grass.  

The man walks back and forth in front of the window, with his head down, thinking about what do. Suddenly, the only light in Jennifer’s house shuts off, and the time on the radio near her cuts off. The power is out, yet Jennifer’s eyes still remain glued to the glass. The yellow man gets an inexplicable look on his face and directs it towards the glass that stands between him and Jennifer. The yellow man begins walking towards the front door. Jennifer remembers that she didn’t lock the door, and prays that he doesn’t try to let himself in.

Jennifer rises slowly as the doorknob begins to turn. She walks slowly to hide, because her body is weak from sitting still for so long. The yellow man gets inside the gray walls of Jennifer’s home and walks around the living room. The yellow man searches the house for her.

A silent moment passes by, and she finally comes out of her closet and exclaims weakly, with a lot of breath, “Who are you and why are you here?”

Her heart beats faster, simultaneously with the more breaths she takes. He continues to walk back and forth, leaving Jennifer trembling outside of the closet door. Her plan to confront the man backfires, for she stands weaponless and vulnerable. She is standing outside of the one place he can’t find her, giving up her spot of safety. The bearded man looks up at her, standing still, with his eyes locked onto her neck. Jennifer is frightened from this situation that she is left with.

There they stand, trapped inside the gray, gloomy walls of Jennifer’s home. Jennifer wonders why he still hasn’t said a word. All he does is walk back and forth within the gray walls. She takes this opportunity to run to the kitchen, in hopes of finding a more piercing weapon to scare him off, because she is contemplating if she is capable of fighting for her life at this point. She reaches the kitchen and quickly locates the knives. Running her hand down the butt of her knives, she grabs the largest and sharpest one and holds onto it for dear life as she hears his footsteps coming towards her.

He shouts with slyness, “You can hide, but I’ll find you. You can run, but I’ll catch up.”

He reaches the kitchen. As he stands in the doorway, he whispers just loud enough that Jennifer, who is standing at the very end of the kitchen, can hear, “You can try anything you want, but you’ll still die.”

The bearded man traps her in her own kitchen by blocking the doorway. She lunges at him with the knife, but he backs up and dodges the plunge intended to end his life. Jennifer gets up from the floor and runs as fast as she can towards her bedroom. Hiding under the bed, she plans to stab the bearded man’s ankle to buy her time for her escape.

The bearded man enters the room with a knife in the left hand and a gun in the right. He whispers, “You can hide, but I’ll find you sooner or later.”

Looking through the closet, he fails to find her. He steps before the bed, and Jennifer knows that it’s now or never; she charges her right arm at his ankle, thrusting her knife through his boots into his skin. He yells in pain and falls to the floor. Jennifer inches out from under the bed to find a weapon to finish him off with. When she comes back with a gun from the safe in the garage, he is gone. With adrenaline still pumping through her blood, she searches her mind for a solution.

Before she can look for the bearded man again, he comes out from behind the bedroom door and cuts into her shoulder. While in excruciating pain, she dodges his next thrust and takes cover inside the closet. She knows what to do now.

He limps to the closet and says, “Come out now.”

She knows it’s either him or her at this point and comes out behind the pile of clothes, shooting. BOOM… BOOM… BOOM… BOOM… BOOM. She keeps shooting, never stopping. Jennifer hears police sirens in the distance and doesn’t hesitate to stop shooting. She doesn’t feel the pain in her arm anymore due to the adrenaline and anger surging through her body. She has been shooting for about four minutes now, four minutes of never-ending gunshots. He is dead, and has been since the first shot to the chest, but she continues to shoot his head, torso, neck, and everywhere else. He made her vulnerable. The police come inside, and she stops shooting. The ambulance comes to get the dead body and takes her to the hospital to stitch up the wound left by a stranger.

When back home, days later from the hospital, she looks over at her chair, stationed before the glass window. She walks over to the chair and rests her eyes upon it for a moment, looking back on all the time she wasted there. She moves the chair to its initial location and walks toward the house phone. She picks it up gently, like she is afraid of the phone, and dials her mother.

When she gets an answer, she says into the phone, “I love you and I’m sorry.”

Her mother replies, “Why haven’t you answered any of our calls? We just want to speak to you.”

They speak for hours, continuing conversations left on hold.

They catch up on their lives and, weeks later, Jennifer moves back in with her parents.

 

Black Girl

 

My uncle told me yesterday that if I am ever afraid to do something, to just do it.

But then again he was drunk, so you can’t blame me for being confused.

I was always one to follow my arrow despite what others said.

But to be completely honest, I tend to let those things get to me, and it takes a pep talk sometimes to lead me on the right path.

As a young African-American woman, I have a lot of trouble with how the media portrays me.

Black girl, black hair, black, brown eyes, black, dark life.

I am expected to drop out of school at sixteen due to pregnancy, and raise a baby without a father.

I am expected to live off of minimum wage with a fast food job and welfare for financial support.

Expected to live in the projects for the rest of my life until I make it out of it, but really never make out of it.

As a black girl with black hair and dark eyes, I’m seen as a disappointment to society, because people automatically assume that I will go nowhere in life.

But then again, my mom always tells me life is like a box of chocolates, I’ll never know what I’m going to get.

Therefore I know that the world is in for a surprise.

I know that I will be great in the world because I always follow my own arrow, even though I need a pep talk here and there.

Despite my surroundings, I know that I will do well because of the work that I put in.

Black girl, black hair, black, brown eyes, black, dark life.

Black skin, therefore, black, bleak future.

I was always told that education is the most powerful tool, a tool used to remove, chop off, break off, tear, shred, slash, stab, yank off all the unuseful hate in the world.

Remove, chop off, break off, tear, shred, slash, stab, yank off all the prejudice, all the criticism, all things negatively enforced by my society that I am included in when things are bad and excluded from when things are well.

My mother always told me to make my bed every morning before I leave so I feel better about getting into it at night.

And while that quotation isn’t extremely helpful,

I learned to, really, live my life the best I can so when my life ends, I am satisfied.

But then again she screamed at me when she said it so I didn’t analyze it right then and there.

Even though I am a black girl, with black hair, and black, brown eyes, I will not have a black, dark life.

Despite the way you see my brown skin and brown eyes, I will not have a brown, bleak life.

 

The Curious Cottage

It stood with white brick, tattered with dirt and age. The door was a rustic red, gaping open in an ivy, spiraled archway. Over the years, it developed rotting wood, the pungent smell of dead rats, creaky floorboards, and the decay of things that had not been touched in decades. This only became clear when inside the house, but nobody dared to take a single step on the property. There were windows looking out at the top of the small cottage. These windows were dirty and cracked, yet dark. There were big holes where the windows had been broken, but all that could be seen from afar was infinite empty space, like a black hole had swallowed everything that made the house a standard place to live. The front door was always open, as if there was no force strong enough to make it move just a single inch. Through that red, paint-peeled doorway, a chair was in view. A single chair of the most repulsing nature. What used to be a large, wooden structure had turned into a rotting, discolored, shriveling pile of wood.  

The hill towered at the very perimeter of town. The mossy grass was such a vibrant green; it was as if it had been raining everyday for a year. But it never rained in this dry town. In the center of the village, amongst the small shops and homes, the air was cool and clear.  Around the hill, the air was thick with humidity. This had sparked rumors with the older folks in town, claiming that if one older than 60 breathed in that toxic air, it would stop their heart within minutes.  

The one elementary school in town was like something out of a storybook. It had red brick intertwined with chalk-filled grout and was always bustling with animated kids. The classrooms were filled with colorful plastic chairs, and the work of fellow students. During snack time, even the youngest kids would talk about that eerie cottage. They said that the house was haunted with ghosts and evil spirits. The older kids would go along with this, mainly as a joke to scare the little ones. Deep down, however, they too had their suspicions about the house.  

Some of the mothers and fathers of the town would go to the local coffee shop after dropping their kids off at school. This early in the morning, they could see fog from the morning dew smuggling the hill so only a miniscule portion of the house was seen. Around the circular, wooden tables, steaming coffee in hand, they would converse.  

“I don’t want my children going anywhere near that place,” a concerned mother would say.

“I always thought the disappearance of that young girl 10 years ago was linked to that house,” a father would chime in.  

Some of the other parents would try to change the subject, too uncomfortable talking about a cottage that could make their own loved children go missing.  

It was like they already knew that the new kid in town would let his curiosities get the best of him. It was inevitable. Having not lived there for long, this boy could not have heard the countless rumors and stories about the house. All that was given was a warning to not go near the cottage on the mossy hill. No explanation, just a sharp warning.

The moving truck drove smoothly into town on a sunny Saturday morning. Trailing the truck was a blue van, a family car.  But something was off about this family. From the moment the vehicles came to a halt at the friendly blue house, the parents were screaming nasty things at each other and to their son, Troy. With a broad structure, standing at a height of 5’9, he looked older than he was. Merely 13 years old, Troy had to learn to be tough. It was just expected of him when his family moved every two years.

When Troy was in the grossest, grimiest homes, he imagined that he was living in the biggest, most luxurious ones. When he was at a new school and had no friends to talk to, he imagined that he was back home, playing basketball with his friends he had made before he had to pack up his life to move every two years. After talking to the woman who came over with a welcome cake, Troy had something new to think about.

“Welcome!” she had said.

“Hey,” Troy had said while reluctantly opening the door.  

“Well, look at you! You look like you would get along with my boys. How old are you?”

“I’m 13.”

“Oh, you’re still so young! You can come out and explore the town… but don’t go into that cottage on the hill,” her tone dropped significantly, showing a more serious side of her.  

“What cottage? Why?” Troy had asked, his interest suddenly peaked.  

“It is for your own safety, just stay away — Alright, I have to get going now. Say hello to your parents for me!”  

And with that, the woman was gone, and Troy was left at the doorway with cake in hand and curiosity skyrocketing.  

Now Troy sat on the sturdy steps of his front porch and ate the remaining bits of the cake he had all but devoured. He looked up at the picturesque blue sky and watched the clouds move across his view. He felt the smooth, cold concrete underneath his fingers, identical to all the houses on his street. Cookie cutter houses they were, alike in size and shape. There was something calming about looking at the similar houses. Troy became happy with the idea that if all the houses were perfect and pretty, including his, maybe his family would mold to become just like the other families in those houses too.

He almost began to feel comfortable sitting on that hard, cold porch when his father came clambering down the stairs of the house and out the front door.

“What are doing? You don’t expect us to do all the unpacking while you sit here enjoying yourself do you?” he boomed.  

He leaned down, so close to Troy that he could smell the alcohol in his breath.  

“No, Sir,” Troy murmured, rolling his eyes.  

He immediately hoped that his dad wouldn’t notice. But he did.

“You don’t get to roll your eyes at me. Come on.”

He hastily grabbed Troy by the collar of his shirt and dragged him inside, his muscles bulging as if the weight of Troy was the equivalent of a feather. Troy curled his hand into a fist, debating the possibility of finally fighting back. But he didn’t. He never does.  

After staying his first weekend in town, Troy finally had to go to school. He was used to coming part way into the year, but he never quite got used to the smirks and stares that accompanied being the new kid. The long, sharp trill of an alarm clock started Troy’s morning.  Just like he had done before every other school, he got dressed, ate breakfast, brushed his teeth, and quickly grabbed his backpack on the way out. On his short walk to school, Troy’s eyes stayed fixated on the glimpse of the cottage that he could see from the rocky path.  He didn’t know exactly what was in that house, but he wanted to know.  

Troy climbed his way up the wide concrete steps of the school. The doors were propped open with bright, plastic chairs, and he could hear the noise of the other kids lingering. As he walked inside, everything seemed overwhelming. The sounds of eager kids, the aroma of sandwiches and lunch food, and the colorful array of clothing darting all over the hallways into the classrooms. It was like he was moving in fast motion, from the awkward conversation with the principal to being sat in a math classroom with a dozen other 13-year-olds. Things slowed down when he had been asked to introduce himself.  

He shyly stood up and mumbled, “Um… hi. I’m Troy. Um… I moved here last weekend.”  

“I. Um. Don’t care,” a rather plump boy mocked.  

The class exploded into giggles and snorts. Troy sank into his seat and looked down at his shoes. They looked unclean and on the cusp of falling apart.  He decided to focus on that for the rest of class instead of the immature boy or the number sequences that danced across the chalkboard in front of him. The bell rang, dismissing the students for lunch. Startled, Troy jumped out of his seat and gathered his things in a frenzy. He came out of the classroom, unsure where to go. Troy followed the herd of kids running outside for lunch on a warm day.  He sat on a plastic bench by himself, watching the commotion as the tables filled up with hungry students.  

“Look who it is! Shy boy!” the plump boy yelled, sitting on the bench right next to Troy.  

His friends huddled around them, watching as they stifled their laughter.  

“Come with us,” another boy said.  

Before Troy could respond, he was yanked off of the bench and dragged to the warped wooden fence that encased the lunch area.  

“Climb.”

Troy frowned, contemplating the situation. He knew that if he didn’t go with them, he would be bullied more than ever. He started climbing. He turned his head to see if any teachers were looking, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. The group of boys hopped down on the other side of the fence, dirt cushioning their falls. They took off running, leaving Troy to trail behind them. Troy was fast and caught up with them quickly. It was only when they came to a stop, jagged breathing, that he realized where they were. Chills crept up his spine as he took in the sight of the towering cottage. It felt as if the whole town fell silent as they all stood there, bewildered.  

“I bet you wouldn’t go into that house. Probably too scared!” Another boy from the pack taunted Troy.  

Troy took a step back, a look of terror washed over his face.

“Yeah, come on. What are you waiting for?” the boy that had called Troy out in math class said, pushing Troy closer to the bottom of the hill.  

Troy had not heard any of the rumors about the house, so more than anything, he was curious. He was not dumb though and saw the way that the other boys were looking at the house. Each of their legs trembling, faces calm, but eyes alert and scared.  

“Okay,” he agreed, gaining confidence.  

He was slightly excited to see what was in that cottage and if he could do that, and prove his bravery to the boys, maybe his life in this town would be bearable. Taking a deep breath, Troy began to trudge up the hill.  

“No way!” a voice from behind him exclaimed in surprise.  

Troy focused on his shoes again, which were mostly submerged in mud, as he made his way through the moss. Finally, he reached the top of the hill.  

Up close, the cottage looked much bigger, more intimidating. Troy stood frozen in his spot, trapped by the eerie silence. The air felt humid. Toxic. He breathed heavily, trying to gain the courage to take one step closer to the cottage. He did. As he eased his way to the front door, he swore he could hear sounds coming from inside. Maybe there really were sounds, or maybe it was all in his head. The red door was ajar as always, so Troy slipped through.  

“What do we do?” one of the boys said, freaked out.  

He put his arms behind his head and crouched over.

“I don’t know! I didn’t think he would actually go in,” another one said.  

The worry-stricken kids clustered together and craned their necks to see the cottage.  Their hearts raced as they tried to see him through the cracked windows. Troy had walked into the cottage in a way the boys had never seen. He was confident. Head held high, walking into the unknown, he needed to prove something to himself, to the boys, to his family. He had walked into the curious cottage, and the boys were left outside.

 

Whitechapel

The air was chilly, and the sky was cloudy while whispers and footsteps filled the streets of the Whitechapel District. A dark, heavy cloud had hung over the residents since the early morning. The bars were already filled with men and women alike, drowning their fears in bourbon. They all paid no mind to a lone figure, cloaked in black, shambling down Hanbury Street.

A crowd had gathered around a dwelling, nothing more than a single-fronted complex, and a commotion could be heard from behind the building. The figure pushed his way through the onlookers, earning himself some dirty looks. He was eventually greeted by a young bobby and a few barriers, but was seen before he could slink past both.

“Sir, you can’t go in there,” the young bobby stated.

He seemed quite familiar with that phrase. However, the dark figure continued to press on and calmly walked into the dwelling.

“Sir!”

The frantic voices from behind faded as the figure made his way around the furniture. There were the sounds of distant chatter, groaning wood floors, and the shuffling of the figure’s coat. Ahead of him was a passage that radiated cool air and pale, gray light. The figure did not pass through, but merely stood there until someone called out to him.

“What are you doing here, Blackford?” a coarse and vulgar tone fired at him.

“My job,” Blackford deflected.

He stuffed his hands in his pockets and hopped off the stoop. His beady eyes scanned the scene before him: police dogs, a distraught Abberline, a corpse. Blackford’s eyes narrowed.

“How was she found?” he asked.

“Look down,” his companion replied.

Blackford did so and was greeted by the sight of dried blood.

“Hmm…”

“What’s that supposed to mean? ‘Hmm’.”

“Before you go to spare, how was your morning, Cunningham?”

“My morning? I’d oughta’ conk you, but you look shabby enough,” Cunningham sighed. “If you must know, my morning’s been nothing but chaos since the body was found.”

“They found it just before six, didn’t they?”

“Yeah… She’s been cut open too. Makes me think that we’ve got a killer,” Cunningham glanced from side to side.

“How bad was it?” Blackford pressed, his voice hushed.

“Ugh, just thinking about it makes me sick. It’s disgusting, it is.”

“Can I have a look?”

“Are you daft? I can’t just let you waltz around a crime scene, Blackford. Especially when you reek of a tavern floor.”

“That’s Inspector Blackford to you, chap.” Blackford reached into his coat pocket and pulled out an open envelope.

An orange wax seal marked with a falcon was prominent.

“And, I’m appalled that you would even imply that I look anything less than spectacular.”

Cunningham looked Blackford up and down. Black trench coat, black cahill, black gloves, and a ghostly white complexion. He had pale blonde hair and stubble, brown, sunken eyes, and a demeanor so impish, he could test a priest’s patience.

“So, he put you up to this? I should’ve expected this. He’s always sticking his blue-blooded nose where it doesn’t belong.”

“That’s why I’m here. Now, step aside, Cunningham, I’ve got a job to do.” Blackford lightly pushed Cunningham back, much to Cunningham’s chagrin. Blackford whisked his way past inspectors and bobbies alike, becoming uncomfortably close to the mangled body of what was once a woman. He kneeled down and saw how her tongue protruded, he saw the bruises across her skin, and the bloody wounds that had killed her. She’d been an older woman, short and stout, dressed well enough.

“Her name was Annie Chapman, born Annie Eliza Smith. She was a prostitute who lived in that very building,” Cunningham’s voice explained from behind him. “Found by her neighbor. Can’t imagine what he must be feeling.”

“Well, I know that I’m feeling ill-informed.” Blackford stood up and sauntered back over to his companion. “This should help,” he said as he snatched the papers out of Cunningham’s grasp.

“Hey! Give it here!” Cunningham objected.

“Now, now, Cunningham, don’t cause a scene in front of a lady,” Blackford teased as he glanced down at the papers.

His expression turned serious as he skimmed through the pages. To have such anatomical knowledge… perhaps someone’s gone and decided to play doctor?

“This will do. That Abberline should be of help. So, don’t let this queer your pitch.”

Blackford stuffed the papers back into Cunningham’s hands. He pulled down his hat, straightened his gloves, and was about to leave, before turning around and saying, “The ‘Leather Apron’ will definitely strike again. This wasn’t his first, and it won’t be his last.”

***

The door to the townhouse screeched open and was slammed shut almost instantly. The interior was dark and cramped, lit only by a few oil lamps. The painted wood carvings had faded, and the entire entranceway smelled of mildew. But, it was quiet, and that was all that mattered.

Heavy black boots shuffled and clunked along the stairs. Leather gloves creaked along the railing. Blackford stopped once he reached the top, taking a quick peek over his shoulder before continuing to his abode.

He pulled out his keys and slowly unlocked the door, but paused for a second before opening it. He grabbed the handle and opened the door with a flourish.

“Darling, I’m home!” Blackford called.

The comment just hung in the air as Blackford was greeted by silence. He laughed quietly to himself before hanging up his hat and coat and locking the door behind him. The gin bottle thunked as Blackford placed it on the table. He loosened his tie and made his way over to the kitchen to grab a glass. He passed by his windows along the way and stopped. At the end of the block, just before the turn, he saw what looked like a carriage. Not uncommon, but this one was different.

It was too ornate, too well maintained. Gold painted details, full white horses, a finely dressed coachman and footman. The passing pedestrians’ attention was caught by it for a moment, before they quickly turned a blind eye to it. Blackford decided best to ignore it for now, no one seemed to have exited it yet.

The kitchen was drained of energy. The cabinets were crooked, the tile floor was cracked, the windows were unwashed, and everything was caked in a thin layer of dust. The vermillion wallpaper still remained intact, however. Blackford thought he’d have to look into that.

He felt watched. It was that carriage again, always stalking him. Blackford wiped a bit of the window with a rag and looked out at the carriage again. Nothing.

Blackford let out a quiet sigh of relief. He stopped.

Or, perhaps he had not seen anybody exit, if they already had. A woman’s voice came from behind Blackford.

“Who do you think you’re kidding? You’re practically married to your job.”

He froze in his tracks. That sharp tongue and those silent footsteps could only belong to one person. Blackford spun on his heel.

“Hello, Mathilda,” Blackford greeted.

Mathilda stood on the other side of the doorway, still inside the parlor.

“Good day, Henry,” Mathilda replied dryly. “Here,” She held out a letter, the envelope sealed with that all too familiar brand. “It’s from my lord, Morristan.”

“I know who it’s from, I can see it perfectly clear.” Blackford gingerly took the letter from Mathilda’s grasp.

“I was just being thorough. The way you drink, you wouldn’t even be able to tell me apart from a clydesdale.”

“It seems you’re too late, then. I can hardly make the distinction already.”

Despite what he’d said, he had to admit that Mathilda was an above average looking woman. A willowy figure wrapped in a jade bustle gown, her black hair tied into a neat, tight bun. Her cognac and shawl were laid on the back of an armchair behind her. She had dark, almond shaped eyes, thin lips, and a heart shaped face.  

“What does he want this time? I’ve already told him that I’d take the case,” Blackford groaned.

“Consider it a gift from the Viscount,” Mathilda smirked.

“That doesn’t sound too friendly.”

“It’s not supposed to.”

Blackford simply sighed before beginning his search for his letter opener. He searched under stacks of crinkled and curling papers, behind novels and empty bottles, even inside his rusted stove and barren fireplace. All to no avail.

“Mathilda, do you-?” Blackford questioned as he turned towards her.

Before he could finish his sentence, Mathilda, with a flick of her wrist, presented him with a gaudy knife. It was silver with falcons carved into the blade and a lotus into the guard. To top it all off, a large red jewel had been embedded into the pommel.

“Thank you.”

With a swift slash of the blade, Blackford sliced open the envelope. He twirled the knife in his hands, holding the blade between two of his fingers. Mathilda grabbed the hilt and, with a flick of her wrist, it disappeared.

“You could make a living out of being a pickpocket,” Blackford teased.

“I have my standards, Henry,” Mathilda answered, her expression unchanging.

Blackford scoffed. “Yeah, by being some nob’s lackey.”

“You’re one to talk. Just look where you are now.”

Instead of responding, Blackford immediately turned his attention to the letter, carefully unfolding it. Scrolling black calligraphy graced the crisp page, and a floral scent wafted from it. He scrunched his nose at the unpleasant smell.

“Let’s see what his lordship has to say today.”

He held the letter taught and up to the soft light streaming in through the window.

 

Dear Inspector Blackford,

It has come to my attention that Whitechapel has begun to reek of blood. I urgently press you to locate and exterminate this local pest problem. Discard all that you think, here is what you must know: This “Leather Apron” has a signature. Search the inquest. Find the patterns. Bring me the killer. You have five days to complete this task. I thank you for your cooperation.

Yours Truly,

The House of Morristan

 

“Well, that sounds a bit threatening,” Blackford commented.

“It’s supposed to,” Mathilda replied plainly.

She turned and grabbed her belongings from the armchair. The lacy shawl was wrapped tightly around her shoulders, and her plumed cognac was tipped ever so slightly.

“My work here is done. I’d best be on my way. Good day to you Henry,” Mathilda said quietly.

Her heels clacked against the worn wood floor, echoing throughout the entire apartment.

“Are those new?” Blackford called to her.

Mathilda didn’t even look back before opening the door and sealing it shut behind her.

Looks like I’ll be paying a visit to the morgue in a few days.

***

Over a fortnight had passed since the murder of Annie Chapman, but there had been no trace of the killer. Blackford had looked over the inquest and morgue reports, most of which seemed consistent with any unsolved murder. Most of it. The strangest and most disturbing part of it was that Chapman’s uterus had been removed. Removed with almost surgical precision.

Blackford rounded the corner of the alleyway, shortly followed by Cunningham.

“That Chandler, that numpty thinks he can waste my time?” Blackford mumbled.

“Calm down, will you? You got what you came for,” Cunningham groaned.

Their shoes shuffled against the cobble. Blackford was a few feet ahead of his companion, walking at a brisk and agitated pace.

“He just didn’t want anyone to touch the body until the examination.”

“Touch it? He wouldn’t even let me see it!” Blackford said angrily. “People already think that I wag off during work! I don’t need him to help spread the rumor.”

They stepped out onto the sidewalk of the main road and struggled against the current of people.

“Well, now you know as much as we do. Happy?” Cunningham asked.

“As a clam!” Blackford shouted.

They stopped in front of shop, and Blackford lugged open the large, wooden door. He didn’t even bother holding it for Cunningham. The inside was warm, welcoming, and mostly empty. The interior was mostly wood with a dirty tile floor. Oil lamps gave the room a golden glow, and the air was tinged with the sharp aroma of alcohol. The bartender switched his gaze to the new arrivals.

“Ah, you lads again,” he greeted.

Blackford couldn’t tell whether or not his smile was tired or forced.

“Your normal seats are free.”

“I can see that,” Blackford sighed.

He and Cunningham took their usual seats at the bar, a place close enough to every exit, but still hidden enough once the pub got crowded.

“What’ll it be?” the bartender asked.

“The usual,” Blackford said dryly.

“Really? That can’t be good for you. You should eat something first,” Cunningham warned.

He went ahead and ordered for both of them. A Fish-Friday meal.

“I personally prefer a nice Sunday joint,” Blackford grumbled.

“That’s your own fault for not ordering.”

The other customers filtered out, and the bartender had business to do in the back, leaving the bar deserted. The inspectors sat and ate in silence for a few moments before turning to each other.

“So, what they’re telling us is that she would’ve died anyways?” Blackford whispered.

“Yeah. Probably would’ve died of consumption by now,” Cunningham assured.

“Still, that killer is one bloody maggot. She died from asphyxiation rather than those ghastly wounds,” Blackford hushed his voice even more.

He looked over his shoulders, and Cunningham checked for any employees. Nothing.

“Ghastly wounds indeed. What kind of maniac could tear someone apart like that?” Cunningham continued.

“A maniac killing in cold blood,” Blackford murmured. “Can I trust you with my thoughts?”

Cunningham looked a bit surprised for a second before nodding his head. Blackford wanted to remark on his questionable reaction, but decided against it. For now.

“I think it’s most definitely a doctor, or at least someone within the medical field. Someone with a sick obsession with the female anatomy,” Blackford explained.

Cunningham nodded.

“Whitechapel is dodgy at best. I wouldn’t be surprised if we found someone truly sick hiding out there.”

Blackford saw movement out of the corner of his eye. It was the bartender making his way back over to them. Blackford turned to Cunningham and placed his finger on his own lips. Cunningham got the message and remained silent.

“I think that just about does it for today! What do you think, old friend?” Blackford asked gallantly.

“Just about,” Cunningham answered.

In a flash ,they stood up, paid their bill, and disappeared into the dark alleyways of London.

***

Scotland Yard was a hectic mess the next day. A letter had been forwarded to them, a letter claiming to be from Whitechapel’s newest killer. Blackford, with a bit of the viscount’s influence, had been able to weasel his way into headquarters to get a look at it.

His eyes flicked over every red letter, every smudge and fold. What he deemed most relevant he read as such:

“Dear Boss,” he said aloud. He mumbled through what he thought was nothing more than psychopathic nonsense. “I keep on hearing the police have caught me but they won’t fix me just yet. I laugh when they look so clever and talk about being on the right track.”

He almost chuckled at the next line. “That joke about Leather Apron gave me real fits. Blah blah blah…” he continued.

“How can they catch me now. I love my work and want to start again. You will soon hear of me with my funny little games.” Blackford scowled. “Keep this letter back till I do a bit more work, then give it out straight. My knife’s so nice and sharp. I want to get to work right away if I get a chance. Good Luck.”

His gazed lowered to the signature at the bottom. “Yours truly, Jack the Ripper…”

There was yet more.

“Don’t mind me giving the trade name.”

An extra message was written as well. Blackford turned the page sideways to view it. Once he did, his heart almost stopped.

“P.S. Wasn’t good enough to post this before I got all the red ink off my hands, curse it, no luck yet. They say I’m a doctor now. Ha ha.”

 

Child Soldiers

There are barriers that just altogether shun certain people from getting into school. Sexism (mainly women), disabilities, poverty, and “lowly families,” “with not much family importance.” Education is vital, but recruiting children can completely mess up a child’s education. Also, a country that does not have many schools and a place on the middle of the battlefield does not help.

A massive barrier and issue during the Sudanese war for education was the unique and brutal recruitment of child soldiers. Many children who were still in school, during this civil war, were separated from their tribes and families. Some young children were forced to be child soldiers to aid the war efforts in many ways like cooking, fighting, prostitution, and shields for the adult soldiers. The future of Sudan is unstable due to this cruel and brutal recruitment.

This is a massive issue that is unique to Africa, and specifically Sudan, in the civil war against South Sudan. Almost nowhere else in the world currently has the recruitment of child soldiers. During the Sudanese civil war, there were approximately 15,000-16,000 children that were recruited, forced or not forced in the experiment of using children to aid the war effort. Children were treated brutally and many died. During the war, children never left the tribe, in fear of being attacked or forcefully recruited into the forces. The fear many families had were about what might happen to their children while they were at school. A majority of children were kidnapped and forced to be soldiers when they were coming home from school. Families live in fear, which is an invisible but powerful boundary that makes people keep their children at home.

In the case of a child soldier story in Sudan, there was tragedy for a young kid named John Yaak. In 1987, John’s home was raided by soldiers. They kidnapped John and forced him to fight in the civil war at just the age of nine. Given a gun and orders, he trekked all around Sudan, fighting in a war full of bloodshed. When he was in his fourth year of combat, uninjured, he was shot in the shoulder with a bullet, relieving him from service as he was rushed to the hospital. John is still very traumatized by his past and horrified by the idea of child soldiers. He currently lives in Australia, working as an Uber driver. He works this job so he can send money back to Sudan to help abolish the recruitment of children once and for all. Due to these horrible experiences, almost all of these kids have had some sort of form of PTSD. John’s experience in the army affected his life completely.

Issues from being a soldier in the army, when you are not of age, can lead to many psychological and physical impacts that can affect education in many ways. After a child has gone through a war, they may have gained many injuries due to weapon conflicts. Also, they suffer from illnesses or diseases. War can result in loss of hearing and sight. These physical impacts make it hard to get educated. Studies have shown that children who have been rescued compared to those who were in army recruitment had many psychological impacts, which include social withdrawal, suicidal behavior, loss of trust, and excessive guilt. All of these effects from war trauma are mostly related to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that can affect one’s personality and mindset. Another part of these symptoms is that the kids have trouble finding confidence in catching up with all their peers in education. This is an issue for the next generation because children will get in the mindset that they are never going to catch up with their peers, making them give up too easily. Most of the kids that experience this mindset end up dropping out of school. These effects leave a major impact on people.

Effects from being a soldier previously is a massive issue. The impacts are so huge, it can completely alter someone for the rest of their life, due to such a young and susceptible age. These young children are the next generation’s leaders but, with such trauma at a young age, it stunts their education and social skills. The entire generation is affected because of this. The generation should grow up being curious to motivate themselves and push the boundaries of knowledge and innovation. Instead, they live and grow up in fear. This leads to a country full of people who do not trust each other and do not work together. With each person on his or her own, it leads to a massive issue. If an entire country cannot work together, they cannot overcome any massive issues.

Child soldiers are currently a major issue that occurs in Sudan, where recruitment is common for war. Recruitment is unique to countries like Sudan. The massive recruitment of children during the Sudanese war had not only impacted the children, but the entire future of Sudan. Being a soldier as a child affects your mental, physical, and social skills. It also affects your likeliness of receiving an education due to the fear of getting drafted and getting attacked while you are at school. This issue is very problematic. These effects (like PTSD) are impacting the country’s next generation and their leaders. Many children in Sudan are still experiencing this type of brain trauma from recruitment. The future generations of Sudan are at risk, both mentally and physically, due to child soldiers.

 

Works Cited

“A Generation Made to Fight: Saving South Sudan’s Child Soldiers.” UNICEF USA. N.p., 28 Oct. 2016. Web. 30 June 2017.

Josh Hanrahan For Daily Mail Australia. “Australia’s Most Inspirational Uber Driver: Child Soldier Who Fled Poverty in Sudan for Australia Uses the Money He Earns Ride Sharing to Stop Kids in His Homeland from Being Killed in War.” Daily Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 28 June 2017. Web. 30 June 2017.

“Psychological Impacts.” Child Soldiers. N.p., 03 Dec. 2012. Web. 30 June 2017.

“10 Barriers to Education around the World.” Global Citizen. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 June 2017.

 

Misogyny and Bullying in North and South America

People inflict pain because it makes them feel good. It lets them inflict all the pain they have ever been inflicted. This has been happening for centuries now.  There are many types of inflicted pain, like slavery, racism, mockery, bullying, violence, etc. but we are just going to focus on two of them: misogyny and bullying. Many of us have probably seen these two before, and most of us haven’t done anything to stop them, or walked away from the situation and tried to even forget it. This doesn’t stop the cycle. This happens with not only children and teenagers, but with adults as well, and in other cases, we may not have been the bystanders but the victim or even the perpetrator.

Although, both of these social phenomena frequently occur and intersect all over the world, misogyny is more prevalent in South America, while bullying is more predominant in North America. This can be attributed to the machismo culture of South American society, whilst in North America bullying reflects the individualism inherent in rampant capitalism.

Misogyny is a problem that fits under the umbrella of bullying. For those who don’t know what misogyny is, here is the full meaning: dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women. Misogyny is a problem that has been happening for centuries and is still happening to date. Although,  it’s not as bad as it used to be in the US, thanks to the help of the 1970’s second-wave feminist movement.

However, it isn’t much better in South and Central America because according to the UN and many other sources, a woman is assaulted every 15 seconds in Brazil’s biggest city, Sao Paulo. Further, in Mexico, it is estimated more than 120,000 women are raped a year — that is one every four minutes (Watson).  Similarly, sexist things happen not only on the streets but also in universities to women with PhDs and esteemed degrees get 25 to 60% less wages than in the US and Europe, and in most of the poorer Latin and Central American countries, women aren’t even allowed to be sent to school, Some 53% of Bolivian women aged 15-49 have reported physical or sexual violence in their lives, according to the Pan American Health Organization ( Watson). Misogyny is ingrained in the structure and culture of these societies, where it affects every strata of the female population. Misogyny has been a part of South and Central American cultures for centuries now. Let’s take an example from modern women in Ecuador. Lots of them are forced to stay with their abusive husbands because they provide most of the income, and the women are afraid of ending up on the streets. Lots of women experience sexism in school both in South and North America, and in this form of sexism, women aren’t allowed or recommended to participate in activities that mostly men play in because of the reason that it’s not considered ladylike. This has caused many women to not pursue careers in lady-like sports and sometimes some coaches won’t even let women do certain types of sports, which is absurd because everyone deserves a chance to pursue and play in any sport they want. Although women aren’t seen as strong as men, men aren’t necessarily better athletes, and this is considered a type of bullying. But bullying doesn’t necessarily only happen to women. It also happens to men and women alike, and a lot of victims of bullying in the United States ask themselves whether it’s better in other schools.

We’ve all seen, heard, or been apart of some sort of bullying before, but what we don’t know is that over 3.2 million students are victims of bullying each year, and approximately 160,000 teens skip school every day because of bullying. Only 1 in 4 teachers see nothing wrong with bullying and will only intervene 4% of the time. Many people have asked themselves if it’s better in other schools. Unless you’re not in a private school, it isn’t much better in other public schools, thanks to various studies that show that homosexual and bisexual teens along with students with disabilities are more likely to be accepted by students in private schools. But don’t get me wrong, not all private schools are amazing, In some private and boarding schools, you can be bullied because of your wealth or because they consider you different from them, and this can give the victim various problems growing up.

What happens with bullies is that they usually have been the victim of violence or childhood traumas caused by family, etc. and they use bullying as a way of coping with the pain that they have been inflicted before. But what the bullies don’t realize is that by doing that, they’re not getting rid of the pain but temporarily easing and passing it onto their victims, and that either gives the person the same problems or causes serious problems when they grow older and can also cause depression and even sometimes suicide. As far back as 2010, of every student enrolled in a U.S. school from kindergarten to twelfth grade, one in seven of them have been bullied by a classmate. In a 2010 study, 61% of the participants reported that school bullying was driving kids to shoot other kids. The study also found that for every 20 kids enrolled in school, one kid has seen a classmate carrying a gun in school. It also found that 23% of high school freshmen in the US take a gun to school with them.

Although bullying and misogyny aren’t the same thing, and the misogyny in south America might not be as prominent as bullying in North America, bullying and misogyny are both problems that I have seen first-hand both in South and North America. I, together with millions of others, not only think it’s a disgrace, but an embarrassment for humankind and those who have done it knowingly being fully aware of their actions should be ashamed of actions they have committed. We might not all be the same, but we should all be respected and treated in the same way, and this is why bullying and misogyny in both North and South America has to be stopped. We can all make a difference just by asking a teacher or calling the police for help.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Works Cited

“11 Facts About Bullying.” DoSomething.org | Volunteer for Social Change. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 June 2017.

“Bullying In The USA.” NoBullying – Bullying & CyberBullying Resources. N.p., 22 Dec. 2015. Web. 30 June 2017.

Watson, Katy. “Struggling with Sexism in Latin America.” BBC News. BBC, 18 Aug. 2015. Web. 30 June 2017.

 

The Bell Tower (Chapter One)

The air smelled musty, and not a single gust of wind could be felt. The only sound was a lone crow’s call; the broken sound, the only sense of company in the tower. The taste of dust felt heavy on my tongue. The bell was rusted with years of age and rain with no usage. Once rung, the bell resounded with years of age and tire.

“Cassandra!”    

“Cassandra! Where are you? Mother wants us to be at Madame’s for tea!”

I sighed. There wasn’t a single time I could escape up to the tower in my imagination. There was always something to do, something to attend, some tea party my mother needed me to go to. I opened my eyes to see my sister dash into my room.

“Cassandra! There you are. Don’t you know what time it is? It’s much too late to still be in bed!”

 This was routine by now. Every Saturday morning at 11:34, my sister dashes in to reprimand me for wasting time. Elle was always the one to adhere to the rules. I fathom she didn’t even know how much fun it was to bend the rules every so often.

“I was already awake, Elle, though I doubt anyone a mile ‘round is still sleeping after the racket you made coming up here.”

Elle rolled her eyes.

Then, her voice softer, she she said, “Get up already, Cass. We really need to get going. You know how Madame gets when we arrive late to tea.”

Madame Bartmellow was one of Mother’s friends, and she always invited us to tea on Saturdays. How I wished I could do something else on Saturdays, like my older brother, Samuel. When he wasn’t at the family manor in the countryside, he got to stay home with Mother and Father. But even Sammy insisted I go. Madame lived a block away, but Mother made us ride in the carriage anyhow.

“It looks refined!” She always exclaims. “I know you’d prefer to walk, but I wouldn’t like you to catch cold.”

It may be cold in London, but Mother simply did not understand how to appreciate the adventure in life. The only thing closely resembling adventure that she approved of was reading adventure novels. I do love those mystery novels. I only wished that something would happen to me like that! This need for adventure was why I was always trying to escape to the old belltower. It seemed so real in my mind, and there was always so much detail when I thought about it, that it seems like a memory. I realized Elle was looking at me expectantly. I sighed. It was going to be a long day.

About half an hour later, I was in the dining room, ready to head out to the carriage. Elle was on my right, complaining about how long I took to get ready, and Mother was bustling out of the parlor with a worried expression on her face.

Mother was always worrying about something or another. I didn’t take it to mean much, especially when it came from Henry, the butler Father hired a month prior. In the four weeks he had worked in our household, he already told Mother about five events, that were supposedly happening, but never did occur.

“Henry told me that there seems to be some commotion going on outside. I don’t exactly know what is happening, but do try to stay out of trouble while you’re out.”

Mother may have been anxious, but little did I know that the “little commotion” was actually going to forever change the course of my life.

 

Social Skills and Social Media

Social media is one of the largest growing phenomenons across the world, and it is still spreading. This marvel condenses conversations and relationships to the form of an app. The problem with these apps is that social skills, such as conversation skills, body language, and many others, are lost when using social media as a main form of communication. Social media deteriorates in person relationships based on how much people are communicating over apps and not in person.

Face-to-face conversations build relationships and social skills as opposed to communicating mostly over text and messages. Body language, conversation skills (verbally and nonverbally), facial expressions, empathy and sympathy, appearance, and gestures are all social skills that I know I have learned through conversations and many personal relationships I have had over time. I remember, when I was only five, my brother and I went to a supermarket just for fun because our mom gave us ten dollars. My brother was afraid to ask the cashier where our favorite candy was, so he made me ask. That was one of the first times that I’ve had a conversation using the social skills I had learned by talking to friends and family. After that experience, I realized that it wasn’t hard to ask a question to someone you didn’t know, and even make small talk with someone you didn’t know. For example, you can’t learn verbal and nonverbal conversation skills by communicating mostly over text.

Most face-to-face conversations actually consist more of body language and expressions than words. “Human communication consists of 93% body language and paralinguistic cues, while only 7% consist of words.” By learning social skills, and using them in everyday conversations, you can build and start new relationships that you would have never had. By building new relationships, you can also overcome the awkwardness of speaking to people that you don’t know. Yes, it is easier to talk with someone over text or using messages, but it is not the natural thing to do. Technology is a superficial, man-made object that is not like speaking face-to-face at all. People may argue that texting/facetime/messaging is social, but is it? You are hiding behind a screen even with facetime. All of these examples of social media is just mostly you hiding behind a screen and creating an artificial appearance for yourself. It’s just not natural.

This also helps you share your opinions more easily. If you feel comfortable having a conversation with somebody, than you are more likely to share your opinions on some topics. Practicing your social skills also makes you more comfortable starting conversations with parents, peers, adults, executives, and friends. Most executives of businesses are looking for face-to-face conversations instead of over social media. In a survey by Forbes, that spoke to 760 business executives, 84% preferred face-to-face communication. Out of those, 85% said their reason were that it builds stronger, more meaningful business relationships. Respondents of the survey also said face-to-face meetings are best for persuasion (91%), leadership (87%), and engagement (86%).” Face-to-face conversations are always better than communicating through social media because social skills are built and relationships are more easily made.

Cyberbullying is a large problem that arose off of social media and affects people more when social media is a big part of their lives. Cyberbullying erupted from social media and is a form of mostly anonymous bullying that targets people based on appearance, opinions, and decisions. Cyberbullying came to be because people felt more comfortable expressing themselves, both in good and bad ways, behind a screen rather than in person or face-to-face. We have found that this is a very large problem in our country. Research done shows 52% of teens report being cyberbullied. More people bully online than in real life. Teens agree with this statement. Research done shows 81% of teens agree that bullying is easier to get away with online.

Another problem is that people being cyberbullied do not tell their parents. Studies done have shown that only one in ten kids tell their parents if they are being cyber bullied. People being cyberbullied should have somebody to talk to, and if they can’t talk to their parents, they probably won’t want to talk to their close friends or trusted adults. Also, awareness of cyberbullying is a problem. Only 68% of teens agree that cyberbullying is a serious problem, and 95% of teens on social media have witnessed cyberbullying and done nothing. This shows, that online, there aren’t really any allies. In real life, there are allies and people who help, but people online don’t help. Many teens in this day and age have social media as a big part of their daily life, making it much more problematic for them when they are being cyberbullied. Bullying in general is always going to be more problematic if there is nobody to talk to and there is no ally. Most people being cyberbullied don’t feel like they can talk to anybody, and the overall majority do not have an allies. I feel that if everyone did not use social media as such a big part of their lives, then less people would be cyberbullying. Confidence is something that most cyberbullies attack. What cyber bullies want is to terrorize you, and to beat the cyber bullies, you just can’t think about them and not be terrorized.

Social media is a large part of our society today, and people have become too attached to their online profiles. What is important is the realization that social media should be used to compliment face-to-face relationships, but not to be used as a main source of a communication. Our online profiles are not us in real life. If used as a main form of communication, social media will break down face-to-face relationships and social skills as well.

 

Bibliography

Jobs in Pharma, Sales, Devices, Clinical & Healthcare Comms.” Star Medical. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 June 2017.

Forbes. Forbes Magazine, n.d. Web. 30 June 2017.

“Cyber Bullying Statistics.” Bullying Statistics. N.p., 07 July 2015. Web. 30 June 2017.

“Cyber Bullying Statistics.” NoBullying – Bullying & CyberBullying Resources. N.p., 12 June 2017. Web. 30 June 2017.

“11 Facts About Cyber Bullying.” DoSomething.org | Volunteer for Social Change. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 June 2017.

 

The Factory

The factory was the most beautiful building in town. It stood proudly at the corner of 17th and Orlando Street. It was a treasure to the people of the town. To a passersby, it was obvious that it used to be a church. It had beautiful stained glass windows in the most vibrant colors, making it stand out in the otherwise dull cityscape. If you stood inside, you could see rainbow light coming through the windows. The big red doors were intimidating to all who looked; they acted as a barrier rather than an entrance.

Although the neighborhood was worn down, the factory created interest, breathing curiosity into everyone who looked upon it.

The front of the factory was built with strong, brown bricks, now painted over several times from years of being passed down from owner to owner. This time, it was painted crisp white. It hadn’t been retouched in years, and the paint was starting to chip. The previous colors shone through.

No one had been in the factory for years; the floors needed dusting, and the brush had grown out enough to look almost as though it was protecting the factory from intruders. There were dolls sitting in the windows, slowly decaying, but their little white shoes still shone bright.

Everyone knew it was a doll factory, it had the words “D LL FAC O Y” with certain letters missing due to age. It was written in bold, yellow letters embossed on a black awning on the north facing side of the building. This awning had been a newer addition to the factory. Many older folks had complained. The factory was a historical building, and the awning added a level of tackiness to the complex. But others ignored the awning. They didn’t let it distract them from the mere beauty of the building.

Perhaps, the building reminded the elderly of a more simpler time: a time when people would actually talk to one another, a time when people wouldn’t feel bare without their cellphones. Maybe that’s why they stood so strongly against renovations to the factory. It was the oldest building in town. It was almost a time machine, grasping people’s attention and briefly taking them back to that simple time, then quickly releasing them back into their plain lives.

But none of it really mattered, that was many years ago. The factory hadn’t made any dolls in a while.

Just around the corner, past the factory, there was a field. The field was filled with beautiful flowers. Most days, those flowers would be left on the doorstep of the factory. No one knew who did it, or why they did, but this added to the mystery of the factory. There were always rumors circling around town about the mysterious flowers. There would never be dead flowers on the doorstep, always vividly colored fresh ones.

In a way, the factory thanked the flowers. It thanked the flowers for always being there. No one else ever was.

That’s what I had in common with the factory, no one was ever there for me when I was little.

When I was growing up, nothing was given to me. My parents hadn’t died; they just didn’t know what to do with me. I wasn’t a troublesome kid, but I was someone easily forgotten. I knew where they lived, just down the street past the old candy store in a little blue row-house. And when I ran away at age 15, there were no search parties, and no one came looking for me. Deep down inside, I knew I only ran away to see how much they cared about me. Turns out they didn’t care at all. By then, I was used to it. Sometimes, I would walk up to their front porch on my midnight walks. But I would never try to go inside. Too much time had passed, and I knew they didn’t want me. But I didn’t hate them for it. I tried to see the good and beauty in life rather than the bad and the ugly. In this case, it was hard to see what good had come out of it. But I like to think that I was better off on my own.

This year, I would’ve been a junior in high school. That is, if I had stayed in school. I had a small group of friends that I had met freshman year. One of my friends, Jun, was 18 and had very rich parents. They had bought a house for her last year. I had asked her why and she simply replied with, “they wanted me out of their hair.” She wasn’t spoiled, but her parents gave her things rather than attention. Most nights I’d stay with Jun. I stayed with her mainly because she didn’t care either. We weren’t that close. But, she was kind.

I didn’t like being alone in the house, although, often times I was. Being alone let my thoughts take over; it let my thoughts run wild, and it let me think of the darker times I had faced. I didn’t like it one bit.

I loved to stroll around town. It wasn’t a pretty place, but it was familiar and consistent. I liked that about our town, nothing ever changed. Most days, when I was walking back to Jun’s house from town, I would pass by the factory. Only this time, I stopped. I stared. Something about it was different. Now, the brush wasn’t trying to keep me out; it was almost inviting me in. It had arranged itself along the pathway leading up to the factory. I had never seen it like this before.

I stepped closer to the doors, and they didn’t intimidate me. Rather than pushing me away, the doors were left cracked open. I could see light trying to escape from inside the factory. No one had been inside for years, at least not that I knew of, and now the doors were suddenly unlocked.

It was midnight. I loved to take walks at midnight, when no one was around, when the air was fresh, and the sky was pitch black. I looked around just in case someone was watching.

No one was, so I opened the doors.

I almost fell on my face from using too much force. The doors were a lot lighter than they appeared.

Inside, it looked different than what I had expected. The outside was naturally beautiful, but the inside… The inside of the factory was extravagantly decorated, with candles lit in all corners of the room. The chandeliers hung from the ceiling and a table set for two sat between a conveyor belt and an assembly table. I thought this was the weirdest part. I wondered why the table was set up like this. I was alone. There was no need for it. The wind blew through the now opened windows, sending a chill through my whole body. It all felt off. The moonlight gracefully drifted through the room. Suddenly, uneasiness crept over me. The first hallway looked almost like a tunnel, only you couldn’t see light at the end of it.

It looked like someone, or maybe something, had been living here. I felt like someone was trying to make me feel at home and this feeling was off putting.

I walked down the long, dark hallway, waiting for someone to jump out at me, something to creep up when I least expected it.

“Hello? Is anybody in here?” I asked, not really wanting to hear a response.

No answer.

I heard my voice echo through the hallway for a lot longer than it should have. It was too quiet. The horror-movie-like setting wasn’t what scared me the most. It was the fact that this place felt alive; this place felt happy to have me there. But, it wouldn’t be happy to see me leave. I wanted to run, but something was keeping me there. I should’ve never stepped foot in the factory, yet here I was.

Now, the air felt heavy, and it smelled stale. I looked around to see why and realised that all the windows were now shut. I tried to open the door but it wouldn’t budge.

“Why won’t you open?” I screamed, my fists banging on the door.

But, of course, no response.

And suddenly, I stopped banging on the door, I stood for a moment thinking. Why did I want to leave? What did I really want?

Maybe that’s what it wanted me to think. I had accepted my fate. I knew I wasn’t going to get out.

I walked around the factory for a few minutes, examining every shattered piece of glass, every lost screw.

I was strangely at peace.

I stopped walking. Then, quickly, picked up my pace and started again.

I had been walking around for hours now. Hours turned to days, days turned into weeks and as time went on, my heart got heavier and my steps became weaker. I had lost my grasp of time.

The last thing I saw was a doll, and it looked strangely familiar.

Years passed and no one came looking for me. My joints stiffened. My little white shoes stayed bright. My now-porcelain skin felt cold. And, just like that, everyone forgot about me. Just as my parents had.

The factory was the most beautiful building in town. It still stands at the corner of 17th and Orlando Street, with its magnificent collection of dolls.

 

Jazz in Education

Jazz has always been a big part of my life. I believe that jazz is important because it teaches creativity in a way that’s different from anything else. Jazz is a musical genre you can improvise on. Classical music, which is the genre schools teach, is only played one way: by playing the specific notes written on the page. I believe that this is why some students quit their instruments. They do not like the way classical music is played. Studies say the brain can’t learn as well when it is not happy or interested.  I am not saying classical music shouldn’t be taught. Classical music is very important because of its fundamentals, but just learning only classical music will not be sufficient. It won’t teach people to improvise. Improvising is where people think of what to play while playing. This is a skill I find important. This skill can also be applied in everyday activities, such as expressing ideas. People think of what to say next while talking. Learning jazz can help this skill. Therefore, schools should teach jazz in addition to classical music.

It is important for kids to learn to improvise. In some schools, teachers teach kids to compose music by writing note by note. This is good for creativity, but it still doesn’t teach kids to come up with ideas on the fly. Also, writing the music out is more time consuming than improvisation. When people write note by note, they often forget their ideas while writing the notes. Also, composing jazz is different from composing classical music. First, composing jazz takes less time than composing classical music. This is because jazz forces you to concentrate more on the chords. Chords take less time to write out. Chords are like the skeleton in a human’s body. It doesn’t directly influence the appearance of the person, but it lays out the shape of the person. With jazz, the chords influence your choice of notes and the shape of the piece, but the notes aren’t specified. So, when you compose jazz pieces, it makes you think of multiple possibilities of what the piece will sound like.  Different types of memorization is also important. While classical music forces you to memorize notes, jazz forces you to memorize chords. So, with jazz, you have to memorize the structure while improvising. This should be good practice for students.

Learning jazz benefits humans unlike any other type of music. Learning jazz teaches teamwork skills. People in jazz bands constantly give each other looks, or “cues” so that everyone knows when they start and end solos, as well as playing with everyone. Being able to use cues requires the whole band to be on the same page. There is not as much teamwork skills involved with classical music, since all the notes are fixed. All you have to do is to play along with everyone. This is why jazz develops students’ brains differently. Also, jazz expands mental abilities. According to William R. Klemm,  a player has to engage the brain in multiple ways that classical musicians do not. According to Psychology Today, when improvising, “players have to have a huge musical vocabulary and realize in milliseconds what new notes will fit” and that this is one of the most “mentally demanding things.” The author also says that this helps brain development in many ways. An overwhelming amount of studies say challenging the brain develops new neural networks in the brain. The author also says that learning to play jazz teaches “invaluable learning capacities for hand-eye coordination, the ability to memorize, discipline, patience, critical and creative thinking, high-speed intellectual engagement with the ideas of others, and self-actualization and confidence.” People playing and listening to jazz experience enormous amounts of mental stimulation, making the experience fun for them. Studies also suggest that learning jazz helps memory, intelligence, creativity, and that it relieves stress. After all, jazz started out as an emotional relief system for slaves. It is also the best type of music to listen to while studying or writing. According to liveforlivemusic, the brain releases chemicals to react accordingly. According to Kendall Deflin, the brain follows the influence of jazz and goes with the rhythmically improvisational patterns which pop and jerk at times, so the activity in the music increases hyperactive neural stimulation. This is saying that the unusual rhythms affects the brain in positive ways.

Additionally, jazz should also be taught in a history context. Jazz is a big part of African American history. It started as emotional relief for slaves. The styles of jazz change as the culture changes and new people come along. Also, the jazz gets influenced by many different cultures and genres to get to what it is today. It is also important to know how people reacted differently to jazz throughout time. Jazz is one of the few art forms that are uniquely American. Jazz plays a very big part in history. Jazz has always been a way of expressing emotion. Happier musicians would play more up beat fast music, while slaves would play the blues. As times change, the style and the music would change too. This is important for the students to learn about because it is related to the history of the people. The interdisciplinary approach has been proven to work. If kids learn to play jazz, and learn about the history of jazz, they would learn history while being able to relate to the music they are playing.

Schools should teach a wide variety of genres. I believe why people stop practicing their instruments is due to their lack of interest in the genre, not because they don’t understand music. If schools teach many genres, and give a chance to every student to try out different types of genres, students would have better chances to keep going with their instrument. Also, because experience in one genre can help students play other genres, learning multiple genres is beneficial for students, just like it is good for teachers to teach different types of writing. Therefore, jazz, in addition to classical music, should be taught in schools.

 

Bibliography:

Klemm, William. “What Jazz Music Can Do for the Brain.” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, 27 Apr. 2014. Web. 30 June 2017.

Deflin, Kendall. “Why Jazz Is The Most Stimulating Genre of Music, According To Science.”L4LM. N.p., 23 Dec. 2016. Web. 30 June 2017.

 

Chasing Stars

The night sky plasters a layer of darkness above us like a ceiling. We lie stretched out on a blanket, our phones inside the house and turned off. The air is still, as the fireflies appear sporadically and then dip back shyly into the darkness. I’m not thinking about my potential mosquito bites or how tired I’ll be tomorrow. Instead, I listen to the low hum of my sister’s voice as she describes the stars we’re lying under.

“Does it comfort you?” She hesitates with a tone of anticipation. “Does it comfort you to know that there is a whole unknown world out there?” It’s a pretty random question, even for her. But everything feels so uncomplicated that it seems like the right conversation to have.

“I don’t know,” I respond, still staring straight up at the sky. “I guess it’s both comforting and terrifying.”  

“Terrifying?” She exclaims, shocked. “How can it be terrifying?”

“Well, it makes you realize that you don’t really matter. Like, none of this — not you, not me, not the people we know or the things we do. I mean, what are we compared to the stars that will still be here millions of years from now?”

She’s silent for a moment, slowly processing what I’d said. We’re only two years apart, but sometimes it feels like four. Difference in age creates one hole in our relationship, but our personality differences open many more. Although I was born only one minute after my twin brother, I am the first-born in spirit. I’m the classic type-A perfectionist. Don’t worry, I’m working on it.

Despite our holey swiss cheese relationship, we’re as close as the cars on the I-95. I always pack her bag when we go on trips because if she packs hers, she’ll forget underwear. Oh, and we share a room, so that definitely adds to the dynamic. I go from picking up the clothes she left strewn over the floor, to singing every lyric of Summer Nights with her at 11:00 pm, in our parallel twin beds.

Lily is like a sparkler. She’s the kind of light that you hesitate before igniting. Not because you don’t want to, but rather, because it’s so forceful, so full. She is so full. Not physically, she’s actually long and lanky. But her presence is all encompassing. And her light makes you want to trace your name into the darkness with it. She turns her face towards me, her freckly nose crinkling thoughtfully.  

“I guess that makes a little sense,” she says, though I know she’s still skeptical.

“To me it’s exciting. It’s exciting to know that there is so much left to discover. So many corners of the earth to explore.”

“So couldn’t it be scary to think you might never see those corners?” I pose.

“Well,” she starts confidently, as if she had already thought of that, “that’s why you have to go seeking. You have to seek out the corners, not expect them to fall in your lap.”

“Lily, where is this coming from?” I ask, genuinely confused.

“In health today, we talked about cancer,” she says.

“Oh,” I say. Our grandfather had been diagnosed with bladder cancer four years ago. It was tragic, but there was a level of detachment between us and the issue, so it   wasn’t  something we talked about plainly.

“Let’s get out of here” I say, hoping to change the subject. It was only nearing 10:00 pm, so Brookville Supermarket was still open.

“We can get ice cream at Brookeville.”

“I hope they have bubblegum,” she says.

As we fold up the blanket and step into our flip flops, we take one more look at the stars. We walk inside quietly, and Lily sets the blanket back down on the couch. I grab my wallet from the counter, and we walk out the front door, closing it softly.

As we walk up the street, the sound of our flip flops create a casual rhythm. Lily sprints ahead for a moment and then slows down; she thinks she can run faster in the dark. I think she’s crazy, good crazy. When we reach the market, the renowned “7- Up” and “Brookeville Super” signs are illuminated on the side of the building.

The bell on the door jingles as we open it. We step into the coolness that occupies most grocery stores, and it wraps around us like an old friend. The florescent lighting takes a few seconds to adjust to, but once I do, I am overwhelmed with familiarity. I can almost feel the weight of my polka-dotted fifth grade backpack and the cool glass of the ice cream counter on my nose as I point to coffee, my favorite flavor. My eyes find their way to the dark curls of Ryan Gibson, standing at the cash register. His green eyes flicker to the corner of the store where we stand, and when he sees us, a smile spreads across his face.

“Hey, Harper,” he says eagerly. Ryan and I went to elementary school together. Although we parted ways for high school, we used to be good friends. We haven’t talked in awhile, and it’s surprising to see him here.  

“Ryan! When did you start working here?” I ask, feeling a little like I too should have a job.

“Two weeks ago. My mom wanted me to have a job for the summer, so I thought I’d start now.” It was late May, and at school, you could tell everyone was checked out. Once the warm weather arrived in Chevy Chase, school felt wrong.

“I’m impressed,” I answer, examining his face, still shocked at how much older he looked.

“We came for ice cream,” says Lily, impatiently.

“Of course, Lily, what can I get you?” says Ryan, making his way over to the ice cream counter.

“Bubblegum in a small cone please,” she says.

“And for you?” He asks, looking towards me.

“Coffee in a small cup,” I answer, my eyes trained on the ice cream scooper. We pay for our ice cream, and I tell Ryan I’ll see him around. We sit at the table outside and eat our ice cream in comfortable silence. Lily has around an inch left of her cone so I eat it, then regret it when I realize coffee and bubblegum are not a good match. We walk home to the beat of our flip flops and the reassuring feeling that tomorrow is Saturday, and we can sleep in.

 

I wake up to the sound of pots and pans and the low drone of the espresso machine. I check my phone; it’s 8:42. When I come downstairs, everyone looks at me. Lily, my mom, and my twin brother, Nick, are all seated at the table. My dad is frothing the milk for my mom’s coffee, and there’s a stiffness in the room.

“Does anyone want to tell me what’s going on?” I ask, confused. I wanted to tell them that I was thinking about getting a job for the summer, maybe at Brookeville market. I could spend time with Ryan and serve ice cream to cute little kids. But it felt like the wrong time with this awkward vibe.

“We have some news,” my mom starts, “I want you to remember that this could be much worse and that you are very lucky kids.”

“What happened?” says Lily, concerned. “Did you lose your job? Are you guys getting divorced?”

“No, no, Lily, stop it.” My mom says.

“Then what? You’re freaking me out,” says Lily, abandoning her cereal, her eyes wide.

“We are moving to Santa Barbara, to be with my dad,” my mom says, slowly.

I focus on the ceiling fan, whipping around in endless circles. I try to follow one of the petals, but lose it after a few seconds. I feel like somehow I should have predicted this, or maybe it just seems that way when you get shocking news. I look out the small window above our kitchen sink. The glass makes the outside scenery look like a painting. My grandfather paints.

“For the summer?” I break in, my mind spinning in a million different directions. “Or for the school year too?”

“You guys will go to Santa Barbara High School starting September,” she says. “We leave June 16th.” I think about what a serious decision this is to make. To move our family of five from Chevy Chase, Maryland to Santa Barbara, California. This must mean that my grandfather’s situation has worsened.

I find a new petal to focus on and watch as it spins.

“How is he?” I ask, tentatively.

“The treatments are moving slower than we expected,” my dad says, handing my mom her coffee in her favorite Cafe De Flore mug. “We want to help your grandmother and spend as much time with them as we can.”

“Can I still play golf out there?” asks Nick, the school record-setting state champion. He crosses his arms, tanned and muscular from playing and caddying.

“Of course,” my mom says. “We want to make the switch as smooth as possible for you guys; we know it’s tough to switch high schools and move across the country.”

“Imagine moving from California to the Philippines as a sophomore,” my dad says. He moved around a lot growing up.

“It won’t be for too long either,” my mom says, “just until things get better.” My mom and dad are total opposites. My mom, raised on Park and 93rd on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, went to Spence. My dad, raised in Ohio, Sacramento, and the Philippines, went to UC Riverside, and then lived in Tonga with the Peace Corps.

“And the beach and school are just a short walk from the house,” my dad continues, “west coast, best coast.” Lily and I exchange glances. The beach did sound nice.

“Harper and I can pretend we’re Cali girls,” Lily says, her big blue eyes light up with the magical idea.

“Well, thanks for listening and cooperating,” my mom says, standing up from her chair and folding her robe around her floral pajamas. My sister and I climb the stairs to our shared room. I sit on my unmade bed and peer over at Lily. Grabbing her glasses from her nightside table, my sister sits down in the same position, and we face each other.

“Well, at least you’ll get to see a new corner,” I say, only half joking. The reality of starting over completely in a new school was starting to sink in.

“You’re right,” she says delighted, “Harper, we can go to the beach whenever we want — ”

“Lily,” I interrupt, “you know how hard this is going to be, right? Finding our people, our crowd at a new high school. I mean, I’m going to be a junior this fall. I’m zooming straight into the infamous tunnel that is junior year all by myself. You’ll be doing the same as a sophomore. Like, yes, we’re seeing a new corner, but we didn’t seek this one out. It fell into our laps.”

Lily keeps her eyes trained on the pink stringlets of our shag carpet as she starts to speak.

“Harper,” she starts, “you can’t be picky with the cards you’ve been dealt, or rather the corners. Some fall into your lap and some you seek and find. This one happened to fall into our lap. We get to live in California. Think of every cancer patient out there who can’t live to the full extent that they’d wish to. What would they tell you? Embrace the change and live it up in Santa Barbara, no matter how awkward the first day of school is. Or worry about the rocky start to your junior year?”

I look over at the vintage Vogue covers and New Yorker prints hanging on the wall above our desk and tell myself that I am not the only star in the sky. People everywhere, under the same stars, face incredibly tough hardship — I am up to a mere change of scenery. Especially if it involves brilliant blue Pacific waves.

“I guess it will be pretty cool to start over,” I say. “To meet people who know nothing about me.”

“That’s more like it,” Lily says, getting out of bed and unplugging her phone from the charger.

Later that night, I walk into the sunroom to find Lily lying down on the couch, clad in sweatpants and a quarter zip, a remote clutched in her hand as she scrolls through movie options on Netflix.

I set my stuff down on the table, and, without turning around, Lily asks “Blood in the Water or Stranger by the Lake?”

Stranger by the Lake,” I respond, intrigued.

Blood in the Water it is,” she says, flashing me a sneaky smile before turning back to the face the screen.

I’m lying in my bed almost asleep, in that half-awake state where only the slightest sound can draw you right back into wakefulness. My eyelashes flutter against my sleep mask. The door to our room opens with an unforgiving screech, and Lily steps into the darkness to get into her bed. I’m awake now, but I don’t feel like talking, so I pretend I was never broken out of my almost-sleeping state.

And just as I am about to drift off completely, Lily whispers, “Harper, I’m scared.”

“Me too,” I whisper.

Sunday came and went and so did the last week of school. Telling my friends that I was moving across the country felt wrong, like I was playing a part or reading a script. This didn’t feel real. It wasn’t so much that I would miss them terribly — I don’t rely on my friends as much as most people do. It was more about familiarity and comfort. I’m comfortable, but that is going to change when the plane takes off June 16th.

It’s Friday, June 9th, and I’ve just finished my sophomore year. I’m in the passenger seat of my mom’s silver Volkswagen bug, my hand stretched out the window, fingers curling to catch the 30 mph Connecticut Avenue breeze. It’s weird how we wish for summer and then once we get there, we’re stuck. Stuck in the feeling that we should be doing all the things we put off until now. The screen of my phone lights up with a notification that reads “This iPhone hasn’t been backed up in 97 weeks.” I make a mental note to back my photos up on my laptop later. My mom drops me off at the Silver Diner, where my friends and I order french toast and milkshakes from the all day brunch menu. Jade, Stella, and I sit in our usual booth by the window. Jade to my left and Stella across from me. Stella has shoulder length blonde hair, green eyes, and a slight, dancer’s frame. She is wild and fearlessly independent. Jade is more like me, cautious and mindful. Yet she’s also fierce and scrappy. Her eyes are light brown with specks of golden light that often emerge.

The milkshakes arrive, the extras in tall frosty silver cups.

“Cheers to junior year,” says Stella, raising her glass.

“And cheers to a west coast Harper,” says Jade.

“Guys, please don’t forget about me” I say, looking each of them in the eye.

“Girl, that’s impossible,” Stella says.

“Yeah, we’ll Facetime you a ton and keep you caught up on school gossip. You’ll meet surfer boys and come back all tan, looking like a Brandy Melville model,” Jade gushes.

“She’s right,” says Stella, “you’re gonna be so exotic when you return, I think we should be worried about you forgetting us.”

“Oh stop it,” I chuckle, glad that I came out tonight and quickly realizing that this may be one of the last times we’re all together before I leave.
“So I leave in a week,” I say, seriously.

“Let’s make it the best one yet,” Jade says, twirling her spoon.

And it did end up being one of the best. We spent our days at the pool, letting the sun seep into our skin and our tan lines stand out further. We would go for long drives at night with no destination in mind and with all the windows down. We would stay up ‘til 3:00 in the morning talking, and then sleep in ‘til 1:00 pm. We would talk about our futures: the near, the far, and every place in between.

 

The next thing I know, I’m walking down the narrow aisle of the plane, looking for 24C. I sit down in the middle seat, then trade with Lily for the aisle. I take my book, earbuds and phone out of my bag, then set it under the seat in front of me. I am about to fasten my seatbelt when something — someone catches my eye. I stare at the head of dark curls I am almost sure belongs to none other than… Ryan Gibson?

“Ryan,” I call out, hoping to get his attention. What was he doing on this flight?

“Ma’am, I’m gonna need you to be quiet,” the flight attendant says. Her red hair looks familiar. Is that… ? My ninth grade biology teacher? Since when is she a flight attendant?

“Ryan,” I say again, louder this time.

“I’m listening to a podcast, do you mind keeping it down?” says a blonde girl across the aisle that looks my age. Wait..

“Stella?” I ask, “what are you doing on this flight? Why are there so many people I know on this flight?”

“You don’t remember?” she asks. “We’re coming with you to Santa Barbara. We’re all coming with you.”

There is a beeping in my ear that won’t stop. Everything feels so hazy, so off. I turn around and see three of my classmates in the row behind me. I face the front of the plane and Ryan turns around; I think he sees me. The beeping noise won’t stop, and when I focus on it, I realize it’s my alarm. I roll over in bed and open my eyes. I sit up to grab my phone and press stop on the alarm. It’s 6:00 am, June 16th and our plane takes off, for real, in three hours.

Our carry-on bags inch across the belt and under the metal detector. We stack our plastic bins and put our shoes back on. My dad is sporting his usual worried travel face as we follow him to the gate. When the weight of the plane is lifted and the wheels take off, I am overwhelmed with a heartbreaking nostalgia. It feels as though it has been chasing me ever since I woke up this morning, and when we took off, it finally caught me. When the ground we walked on minutes ago becomes a speck in the distance, I try to focus on The Stranger by Albert Camus, instead. But every couple of pages, my mind drifts back to what I had just left behind.  

The sprawling hills and immaculate landscapes create a scenic and smooth drive to my grandparents’ house in Montecito. We pull into the gravel driveway and when I see the weeping willow in the front yard, I instantly remember this place. After greeting my grandmother in the kitchen, I wander into my grandfather’s bedroom. I hang by the doorway, not wanting to disturb him as I watch the steady rising and falling of his chest.

Later, Lily and I decide to investigate the shed in the yard. We find two beach bikes and take them out for a spin. I had forgotten what it feels like to bike down a long windy road in Montecito, with the yellow light of the late evening sun shining down on us, leaving dappled patterns in the road.

I hear a crunching noise and keep biking, not thinking much of it. Lily slows to a stop at a crosswalk and pulls out her phone to see what time it is. I reach into my pocket to do the same, only there is nothing for my fingers to clasp onto. I get off my bike and walk back up the same way we came down as the harshness of the situation casts a shadow on my preceding happy mood. I find my phone face down on the ground and pick it up. The screen is shattered into tiny pieces of glass, and when I push the home button, there is no reaction. We walk our bikes home in shock. I think of that iCloud storage notification, and all the photos I had just lost.

That day, we had run away from our comfort zones and into the unknown. The seemingly magical, sparkly unknown, that involved beaches and surfer boys and yellow evening sunlight. We ran straight into new lives. New lives with cracked phones, lost memories, awkwardness, and unfamiliarity. The start to my junior year was rocky, but I found my crowd, and I found my way. It wasn’t easy, but I did. As for Lily, she got to experience a new corner; we all did. Lily and I unfold one of our grandparent’s big fluffy blankets, and set it onto the grass in their backyard. We each lay down, our feet hanging off the blanket, tickled by the grass. I take a deep breath and gaze up at the stars.

“I changed my mind about the unknown world out there,” says Lily, declaratively. “I think it’s good that we don’t know which corners will fall into our laps.”

“Why’d you change your mind?” I ask, softly.

“Because I realized, if we had been seeking a different corner, maybe we wouldn’t have been given this one. Maybe we are supposed to wait and see whatever random ones fall into our laps.”

“You’re right,” I say, shocked at how clear and simple her message was.

My eyes fixate on the stars, scattered throughout the dark sky. Some shine brighter than others, but each and every one is important.

 

Teaching About Islam in Schools

Muslims, throughout the world and especially in the United States, are being oppressed and discriminated against by many people. This prejudice and xenophobia has always existed, but it has been exacerbated by extremism. This problem grew in 2001, when an extremist Muslim group attacked the Twin Towers in New York City. Because of this event, and others that were caused by extremist groups, Muslims are being attacked by fearful and ignorant people. In schools, Muslim children are excluded and bullied by their classmates, and many times, teachers offer no support. Police officers randomly stop and question Muslims on the streets, and in airports, TSA officers interrogate Muslims and search through their luggage and clothes. In the media, whether it’s films, social media, or magazines, Muslims are portrayed as violent and threatening. Our president, Donald Trump, recently issued an executive order to ban people from seven, mostly Muslim, countries the allowance into the United States. This executive order, formally known as “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry,” is more commonly known as the “Muslim Ban.”  Muslims are being treated this way because these people are frightened and ignorant. However, this fear and ignorance can be mitigated by education. Schools throughout the United States should teach students about Islam as a subject in the context of world history and religions, because it can create more empathy and understanding.

Many parents are against this statement. They are worried that Islam will be taught in schools as a religious practice and methodology, and that it may have an indoctrinating effect on their children. More than 70% of the United States identify as Christians, so they may not want the schools to teach their children to practice a different religion. Michelle Edmisten, a mother from Tennessee, complained that her 7th grade daughter was being penalised for not completing assignments about the five pillars of Islam. The daughter didn’t complete the assignments, because according to Edmisten, “she felt some of the assignments went against her beliefs as a Christian” and that her daughter’s “personal religious beliefs were violated.” Yet the assignments only asked for her to list Islam’s five pillars, which were in no way forcing her into becoming Muslim, or going against Christian beliefs. In fact, something both Christianity and Islam have in common is the message of love, peace, and forgiveness. Michelle Edmisten then continued to ask for a history textbook to be removed from her daughter’s social studies curriculum, saying that “it promotes Islamic propaganda.”  However, there is a distinction between propaganda and education. Propaganda promotes a specific bias or viewpoint. Education, on the other hand, is for the gain of knowledge. Michelle Edmisten might be worried that her daughter can be affected by this “Islamic propaganda,” which can, in turn, indoctrinate her into Islam. Edmisten is not the only one. Parents throughout the country are pulling their children out of schools because they are misinterpreting Islam being taught as methodology. This provokes the fear of their children practicing Islam. This fear is provoked by prejudice, which makes these irrationally fearful parents not want their children even learning about Islam in any context. A March 2015 Huffpost poll showed that nearly 55% of Americans viewed Muslims negatively.

However, the schools and teachers are by no means trying to indoctrinate the children into Islam. Worksheets, assignments, and textbooks about Islam are not forcing students to practice the religion, nor are they promoting it. The schools are merely educating the students about the history of humanity. The students are taught about how Islam began, what it means to the world, and its celebrations and customs. Islam began around the time of the Silk Road, and, therefore, influenced many other cultures and civilisations. This religion is also the world’s second most popular, with around 1.8 billion followers. If schools were to not teach about Islam, they would be erasing certain parts of history and humanity. “Parents are banning together to erase history and leave the next generations of children ignorant and unprepared for the real world,” stated Nakia Moore, a student from the University of Alabama. If children don’t learn about Islam, they might spend the rest of their lives believing anything about this religion, whether it’s true or not. For example, the media and Islam’s false public image might be believable to someone uneducated or ignorant about the religion. This uneducated or ignorant person might then grow to view Islam negatively, and this is how prejudice ensues. Schools are teaching students about other religions like Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Yet, some are failing to teach Islam.

Many parents don’t want their children learning about Islam because of their irrational and ignorant prejudice towards the religion. This leads to many schools pulling Islam out of their curriculum, in an effort to appeal to these parents. “There’s no indoctrination,” said Patricia Raynor, a South Carolina spokeswoman, about Islam being taught in schools. “It’s a course of study, just like an algebra class.” This is true, because learning about Islam and other religions is just as important as learning about Shakespeare or World War II. Knowing about the religions of the world is fundamental because if this knowledge is absent, it is nearly impossible to fully understand art, history, and politics. In 1963, Justice Thomas Clark from Texas wrote that “It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its advancement of civilisation.” Religion is so deeply rooted in the history of humanity, that not learning or teaching about the different types would be erasing a major part of our story as a whole. Educating children about Islam will also reduce the attacks on Muslims. The more people can learn about Islam, the more they will be able to understand Muslims and their religion, therefore diminishing fear and prejudice. The more we know about the world, the less afraid we will be of it. For example, a Pew study found that if a person was familiar with Muslims or knew one, there was a stronger likelihood that they would have a more positive attitude towards Islam, compared to someone who had never met or learned about Muslims.

It is important for children to learn about Islam because it has made such a big impact on our world throughout the centuries, influencing hundreds of cultures and civilizations. Religion has contributed to almost all aspects of human life: politics, literature, art, economics, and science. Refusing to learn about the world’s different religions would be like refusing to learn the history of humanity. In addition, the president of the United States has made Islamophobia wildly popular in the country, emphasizing that Muslims are violent and that they are terrorists. Many people support the president and believe what he says is true. This has lead to many more attacks on Muslims throughout the nation. But the main reason as to why this is happening is because there are many ignorant people in the country. Susan O’Brien, a New Jersey resident, said, “I believe that ignorance breeds fear and fear breeds hatred; the more we understand about other cultures and religions, the better we are equipped to deal with the issues we face in today’s world.” If more students are taught about Islam, they will not only be gaining crucial knowledge about humanity’s history, but they will also show more empathy towards Muslims. This will be able to greatly reduce attacks on Muslims and Islamophobia in general. The students can grow to be more open-minded, tolerant, and compassionate. A generation of smarter and kinder people can be formed, and they will not only learn to tolerate differences, but embrace them as well.

 

Luongo, Michael T. “Traveling While Muslim Complicates Air Travel.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 07 Nov. 2016. Web. 06 July 2017.

“EXECUTIVE ORDER: PROTECTING THE NATION FROM FOREIGN TERRORIST ENTRY INTO THE UNITED STATES.” The White House. The United States Government, 23 Feb. 2017. Web. 06 July 2017.

Panel, Guardian. “‘A Rollercoaster Ride’: How Trump’s Muslim Travel Ban Has Affected Lives.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 24 May 2017. Web. 06 July 2017.

Wormald, Benjamin. “Religious Landscape Study.” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project. N.p., 11 May 2015. Web. 06 July 2017.

Bult, Laura. “Tenn. Mom Fights to Remove School Book That Teaches about Islam.” NY Daily News. N.p., 06 Oct. 2016. Web. 06 July 2017.

Mazza, Ed. “Mom Throws A Fit When Her Daughter Learns About Islam In School.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 06 Oct. 2016. Web. 30 June 2017.

Kaleem, Jaweed. “More Than Half Of Americans Have Unfavorable View Of Islam, Poll Finds.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 10 Apr. 2015. Web. 06 July 2017.

Lipka, Michael. “Muslims and Islam: Key Findings in the U.S. and around the World.” Pew Research Center. N.p., 26 May 2017. Web. 06 July 2017.

Moore, Nakia. “Islam Should Be Taught in Schools.” The Crimson White. N.p., 06 Oct. 2017. Web. 06 July 2017.

Shugerman, Emily. “Some Parents Are Pissed That Their Kids Are Learning about Islam in School.” Revelist.com. N.p., 2 Feb. 2017. Web. 06 July 2017.

Yoffie, Eric H. “Let’s Teach About Islam in Our Schools.” Time. Time, 23 Dec. 2014. Web. 06 July 2017.

Liu, Joseph. “Views of Islam and Violence.” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project. N.p., 08 Sept. 2009. Web. 06 July 2017.

Bandler, Aaron. “New Jersey School District Teaches Islam But Censors Christianity.” Daily Wire. N.p., 21 Feb. 2017. Web. 06 July 2017

 

The Magical World (Chapter Two from Mystic)

Everyone knows those long, tiring days. You’ve experienced one. You can just admit it. After busting a shoplifter, sneaking into a prison, hearing a noise louder than a Green Day show, and practically being death threatened by a huge guild of Scavengers that shouldn’t exist anymore; you’d be tired too, just admit it.

Surely, you have your own special place where you go on those tiring days; some would call that special place home. Mystic has his own world. Of course, he doesn’t own that world, but he calls it a home.

***

Mystic walked around the city for a little bit. To any normal person who watched him for long enough, it would seem like he was just wandering around endlessly, with no place in mind. But don’t be fooled like any normal person; he knew exactly where he was going. Mystic walked down a shady side street with a small pub on the corner. When he reached the entrance, he paused and stared at a lock on the main door that appeared to the human eye to be completely broken. Mystic pulled out a set of very abnormal looking keys, looking at all of them to make sure he chose the right one. Once he found the right one and put it in the lock, he began to slowly fade out of existence; into another one.

The Magical World. That broken-down keyhole is one of the many portals to allow beings to switch between the two planes of the Human World and the Magical World. The rest are scattered across the city, and Mystic owned a copy of every key. Humans never see it as more than a broken lock, and humans never try to replace or remove the lock because they never see a reason why they have to. Mystic’s body began to appear in the Magical World; slowly, with a flash of light, he fully appeared and looked around. The layout of the Human World and Magical World was eerily similar. The pub that Mystic had used as a portal was still a pub, and, in fact, his favorite magical pub.

As for the inside of this “magical” place, it’s incredibly loud. I’m sure you can imagine a normal human pub or bustling restaurant; now, imagine that but almost ten times as loud and with weird demonic noises, and occasionally a large fight. The pub has been like that since the first day it opened and flooded with Demons. That’s right, Demons, all sorts of them as well. While “Demon” is a very general term, since there are hundreds of different kinds and most magical creatures would take “Demon” as an offense, Mystic generally called them all Demons as well, as he himself had grown fond of the term. Most humans would still call them “Demons” or “Monsters” because humans had invented those terms, and it was a way for them to feel like they knew something they truly know nothing about.

Anyway, the pub was normally abnormally loud; but today, however, those qualities of the pub were stronger than ever. Half the Demons that you could see were in a fight; the rest were screaming bloody murder, possibly just trying to talk over all the chaos or simply trying to add to the chaos, who knows? Despite all the insanity, Mystic felt calmer here than he did in the Human World. Perhaps because he had become familiar with this world or perhaps because he was so connected with magic. Mystic looked around and managed to see two much calmer figures in the back of the pub, one slurping down an inhumanly large chug of beer, and the other, who didn’t have a drink in front of him. He recognized the two instantly.

“Pazak! Tabi!” Mystic called out. For some reason, when he called those two names, some of the ruckus calmed down. Pazak, the one with the inhumanly large glass, headed over to Mystic. He had stocky arms and legs, and was partially covered in dirty yellow fur.

“Mystic? Buddy, it’s been years,” Pazak exclaimed.

“Demon years, maybe, but for me, it’s only been a few weeks,” Mystic replied.

“Right, I forgot how weird the Human system works,” Pazak said with a sense of annoyance.

Mystic and Pazak saw another figure walking towards them; he was shorter in comparison to Mystic. His name was Tabi.

“Tabi! You’ve changed quite a bit since the last time I saw you,” Mystic told him as he approached.

Tabi opened his mouth as if he were about to speak, but Pazak interrupted him.

“Yeah, ever since he traveled to the Human World, he got soft,” Pazak told him.

“Hey, I’ve lived most of my entire life in the Human World, and look at me,” Mystic said

with a bragging tone.

“Right, a poor old man who ain’t in a relationship!” Pazak jokingly yelled; he laughed at his own joke as if it was the funniest thing he had ever heard.

 “With the life I have, that’ll be difficult; and tonight, well let’s just say things like that won’t be easy,” Mystic replied.

“Ah, bad night, I’m guessing?” Pazak asked.

“Worst in a long time, bud,” Mystic said with a frustrated tone.

“Lemme guess, still hunting lawbreakers as a night job?” Tabi asked.

Mystic had forgotten how different Pazak and Tabi’s voices were; Pazak sounded more like Louie Armstrong, and by comparison, Tabi’s voice was high and squeaky.

“Every day of the week, Tabi, and whenever I can,” Mystic replied.

“Don’t you ever sleep? Humans do sleep don’t they?” Pazak asked jokingly.

“Consider me nocturnal,” Mystic told him.

“That’s no life for a normal man, and you know it; what are you doing by stopping crime, anyway? It doesn’t pay you,” Pazak responded.

“Well, you can keep trying, but, if you ask me, you’re not going to save the worlds or end world hunger; you’re just fighting the little battles,” Tabi said.

“I could always try,” Mystic told him.

“No, I mean, you may be a talented magic user, but you aren’t some warrior in a red costume with super strength and flight who can save an entire galaxy,” Tabi exclaimed.

“Then, I can always fight the little battles; there’s nothing bigger I have to fight,” Mystic fought back.

“One day, you might need to fight something bigger,” Tabi told him.

Pazak smirked when the two stopped talking; the three all suddenly went silent. Mystic suddenly remembered the state of his snake ring; he looked at it, with all its visible cracks and indents. Pazak looked down to see why Mystic was staring at his fingers and noticed the cracked snake ring.

“You might wanna get that repaired,” Pazak said. “As a matter of fact, I might know just the person who can fix it.”

“Tell me who,” Mystic asked quietly.

“It’s not exactly easy to get in touch with him; he stays quiet these days and wanders around. I’m a mutual friend of his, however, I’m sure I’d be able to contact him again,” Pazak told him. Pazak’s words stunned Mystic; the fact that he said it wasn’t easy to get in touch with this repair man brought back memories of when the Scavenger told him it wasn’t easy to get in contact with his guild.

“I need you to find him as soon as possible; this snake ring…” Mystic began, but was interrupted by Pazak

“…is one of your most valuable magical items; I know who gave it to you after all,” Pazak reminded him.

“Give me this man’s name,” Mystic ordered him.

“His name is Teth. Much like you and Beyonce, he only goes by one name,” Pazak said.

Tabi blinked twice and gave Pazak a questioning look, as he had no idea what a Beyoncé was.

“You know Beyonce?” Mystic asked.

“Music transcends dimensions, too; Mystic, you should know this.” Pazak told him.
Mystic laughed with Pazak as he said this; the two shared a small pause, then, Mystic thought of his ring once again.

“I need to get this ring repaired,” Mystic said.

“Yeah, I know how much it means to you; we’ll go now,” Pazak said.

“I think I’ll stay here; I’ve never been into dodgy magic, anyhow,” Tabi told them.

“Alright, kid, don’t drink too much, and stay safe,” Pazak said jokingly.

“Will do,” Tabi replied.

The next thing Mystic knew, he was on the Demonic streets with Pazak. The two saw a plethora of different kinds of Demons; as in the Demon world, there are more types of Demons than there are animals in the human world. However, unlike humans with other animals, all Demons live in the same cities and environments. The intelligence of Demons vary; most kinds of Demons are about as intelligent than average humans, while others are about as intelligent as monkeys.

“Let’s hope he’s still in this location,” Pazak remarked. “Like I said, this guy moves around a lot.”

Pazak pointed at a strange building; describing it wouldn’t be humanly possible, so simply imagine. However, the building did let off a strange vibe, as if you were passing a creepy looking Fortune Telling shop that was hidden in a back alleyway at night; that’s right, that’s how creepy we’re talking here.

The two entered the building quietly; there was an instant change in sound from the crowded and bustling demon streets to the completely empty candlelit shop. The sound was so minimal, Mystic could hear his heart beating and a slight ringing in his ears. Mystic wandered aimlessly around the room; it looked a lot bigger on the inside then it did the outside. The ceilings were high, and there was a small desk with magical tools stacked high behind it, as well as a large wooden staircase on the left.

“Teth!” Pazak exclaimed.

Pazak’s deep voice seemed to quickly echo across the room. Suddenly, slow footsteps were heard, as a silent old human man walked carefully down the large wooden staircase; this man was Teth. He had somewhat of a hunchback; yet, he walked without a cane or a walker, and his hair was a solid blonde, despite the fact he seemed to desperately cling to the banister of the staircase.

“A human?” Mystic asked himself under his breath.

“That’s sure right. A human with good hearing,” Teth said.

Teth had a thick Brooklyn accent, which you could hear despite his rather low monotone voice.

“It’s been far too long,” Pazak exclaimed.

“Agreed. What do you need? As you know, I have a full job in this world now; I am a very busy man,” Teth told him.

“We have a broken magic item for you to fix,” Mystic told Teth before he let Pazak say anything stupid to him.

“What kind of object?” Teth inquired.

“A possessed snake ring; the spirit of a Scorpiurus embodies it; it’s cracked in multiple places,” Mystic said.

“A cracked spirit ring; that’s incredibly dangerous; if the spirit leaks out, it could create a very…” Teth said, but paused, thinking clearly about what he was about to say.

“…unwelcome entity,” Teth said in a sharp tone.

“Time is of the essence then; it looks like you’re going to have to drop your other work,” Mystic told him.

“Kid, I don’t like your tone,” Teth said jokingly.

Teth moved over to the desk and pulled out a small monocle.

“The ring is cracked in five different places; look closely,” Teth said, giving the monocle to Mystic. Mystic took the monocle and examined it closely. The ring was cracked, but the cracks seemed to emanate a powerful blue light.

“That light, that must be the spirit?” Mystic asked.

“Indeed,” Teth said simply, taking back the monocle. “I need to get to work immediately,”
Teth pulled out a magical tool, and with it, he smoothed down the surface of the cracks. One by one, Mystic watched as each crack disappeared in front of his eyes. Mystic was amazed; never had he seen a tool that could simply fix broken objects with little effort required at all.

“Unfortunately, this tool isn’t going to seal the cracks forever; it’s simply so the spirit doesn’t manage to escape while I work; you’re going to have to give me a day on this snake ring, and I need to focus on this, so I request that you both leave,” Teth told them.

“Are you kidding me, Doc? We just got here!” Pazak exclaimed.

“He’s dealing with dangerous magic here, Pazak; I’d expect that you would know that,” Mystic told him.

“Listen, Teth, we’re gonna catch up sooner or later, okay?” Pazak told Teth.

“Of course; right now, I need to focus on my work,” Teth told him.

Mystic and Pazak both left the shop and walked down the Demonic streets once again, spotting and walking past a group of unusual biker Demons with antlers, causing some mild chaos.

“Teth, he’s not what I was expecting; he’s kind of…” Mystic began but was interrupted by Pazak’s loud voice.

“Old?” Pazak asked.

“I was going to say more human-like than what I was expecting,” Mystic said.

Pazak laughed a long, drawn out laugh.

“You’re getting less blunt over time, Mystic. About a decade ago, you totally would have said ‘he’s old’ and not mention the fact that he’s human, no matter what was going through your mind,” Pazak said.

“How’d you meet him?” Mystic asked.

“I met him way before I met you, but he spent all his time in the Demon world once he discovered it, learned magic from a few dodgy Demon types; unluckily for him, since he stayed in the Demon world, he aged at the rate Demons do, making him grow older faster, if that makes sense,” Pazak told him.

“I think I follow,” Mystic said.

Screaming was suddenly heard behind them; Pazak and Mystic turned around to see a relatively young Demon being thrashed across the street; he hit the ground with a large thump. Mystic looked to see who threw the kid and saw the same unruly antler Demons from before, with their pointy ears, vibrant orange skin and fashionable motorcycles. Pazak didn’t need to watch to know exactly what Mystic was about to do.

“Don’t even think about it; this ain’t our problem,” Pazak said sternly.

Pazak saw a small smirk run across Mystic’s face; he knew what was going to happen next, but he didn’t have enough time to react. Mystic punched Pazak in the stomach, running to the poor Demon kid, who was slowly getting back on his feet.

“Come on, get up, kid! Aren’t you going to fight for yourself?” asked one of the Demons. The Demon cracked his knuckles and made a fist with his seven fingers, getting ready to strike the kid once again.

“Whatever magical items you have on you kid, I want to see them, now,” another Demon said.

“Hey, that’s enough!” Mystic shouted, stepping in front of the kid.

“Get lost, old man, this is none of your business!” The Demon shouted back.

“It bloody sure is now,” Mystic replied.

Suddenly, Pazak ran towards them, and punched the Demons, knocking back the one talking to Mystic.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” the Demon said with a smirk.

“What were you thinking? You don’t have your ring on you,” said Pazak, shouting at Mystic.

“I can handle this the old fashioned way,” Mystic said with a much calmer, cooler voice.

The Demon kid looked up in shock at his protectors; yet, he said nothing. He simply watched.
Mystic and Pazak tried their best to punch the antler Demons back, but to not much avail. The antler Demons fought back using magic; the one Mystic was talking to had speed magic, allowing him to not only be a lot faster then Mystic and Pazak, but making it harder for Mystic and Pazak to see him. Another Demon used energy magic, making him able to shoot energy out of his hands. Another with flight magic, which, as you can imagine for Mystic and Pazak, was just really irritating as he flew about and occasionally dropped down for an aerial punch attack. The two quickly learned that they were completely outclassed and that the antler Demons were much stronger. Mystic was struck across by the speed Demon when trying to protect the kid.

“Hey, you,” the speed Demon exclaimed. “You’re the famous crime buster, Mystic!”

“I’m famous?” Mystic asked.

“Oh, buddy, for us, you’re legendary! You captured some of my contacts easily, and I wanna make you pay!” the speed demon howled. The speed demon ran behind Mystic, and in the second where Mystic wondered where the speed demon went, he was struck in the back of the head by him.

“Guess the legendary Mystic lost his touch! Or maybe you just aren’t as tough as everyone says you are,” The speed Demon continued. Mystic was knocked off his feet by the speed Demon and fell on the cold pavement.

“I’ve heard of your little snake ring; a couple Scavenger guilds are after it,” the speed Demon began. “It’s worth thousands now, and since you don’t seem to want to sell it, I guess that means I can sell it to the Scavengers for myself!” The speed Demon exclaimed. The speed Demon quickly checked all of Mystic’s fingers and ungloved his gloved hand.

“Unlucky break, buddy, I don’t have my ring right now,” Mystic said, smirking at him.
The speed Demon tried to punch him again, but Mystic dodged easily. The speed Demon went into a fit of rage.

“Where is it? Tell me now!” The speed Demon said, grabbing Mystic by the collar of his shirt. The speed Demons’ infuriatingly bright orange skin burned Mystic’s eyes; it was bright, exotic, and overwhelming. His eyes were an even brighter shade of orange, but the annoying orange color of his eyes gave Mystic somewhat of an idea. Mystic spat in the speed Demon’s eye. The Demon didn’t even flinch, however, and rambled on.

“If you won’t tell me, you’re useless to me!” The speed Demon yelled, ignoring the spit, which, by now, had covered most of his face. Meanwhile, Pazak wasn’t faring so well against the Demons; the one using energy magic created a massive fist out of energy, punching Pazak with it and knocking two of Pazak’s teeth out. At this point, a few Demons pulled out small weapons from their pockets; it looked like a knife but with no handle and a very large point. The antler Demons managed to knock Pazak and Mystic on the ground.

“You’re not so good at the old-fashioned way!” Pazak exclaimed.

The antler Demons managed to surround Mystic, Pazak, and the Demon kid.

“You have a plan, magic boy?” Pazak asked.

“Hey, you’re a Demon, Pazak; you’re the one who should know magic, not me!” Mystic retorted back at him.

“Remind me to learn; that speed magic is pretty cool,” Pazak added.

“I know, right?” The speed Demon said, slowing down and standing proudly in front of Mystic, Pazak, and the Demon kid. He looked like a predator who just killed his first prey; proud, yet cold and calculating, ready to hunt again.

“So, human, I think in your world they ask: any last words?” The speed Demon asked. Mystic carefully took the pack of gum from the deli out of his pocket.

“What is that?” the speed Demon asked.

“Gum. It’s edible,” Mystic said, taking out the first stick of gum.

“Is it some sort of weapon?” Whispered one of the Demons in the background.
Pazak and the Demon kid looked on questionably as Mystic began chewing his first piece of gum. However, what Mystic failed to notice was a blue light shining through the pack of gum. Without further notice, the gum came alive, attacking the Demons; the gum grew exponentially in size, and a huge wave of gum shot at the antler Demons.

“I knew it was a weapon!” The same Demon shouted before being drowned out by the incredible amount of gum that shot at them.

When the gum attack died down, Mystic and Pazak could see clearly again; the antler Demons were scattered across the floor; most were covered completely in gum, the speed Demon being one of them. A few had managed to escape and were running away.

“Can we take them?” Pazak asked.

“Let them go; they learned their lesson, and if they haven’t, we’ll get them next time,” Mystic told Pazak.
“Damn. Whatever that weird pink weapon is, it’s useful,”

Mystic laughed loudly but quickly stopped.

“It doesn’t normally do that,” Mystic assured him.

Mystic looked down on the ground; gum had gotten everywhere, and the demons were completely still.

“This is going to make for some weird chalk outlines,” Mystic said jokingly.

“Stop your smart mouth for a second, okay?” Pazak told him. “And look!”

The two saw large vehicles quickly driving down the streets; these cars seemed to hover on magic, as they had no wheels, but they were large and bulky.

“Those are the Magical Authorities, and, to them, we just knocked out a dozen antler Demons for no apparent reason,” Pazak told him.

“Can’t we just tell them they were criminals who were beating up that kid?” Mystic asked.

“Do you really think they’re gonna believe that, Mystic? The crime system is a lot tighter in the magic world; there’s barely a trial, and all criminals are put to death,” Pazak told him.

“Tabi is lucky he didn’t come along; he wouldn’t be able to handle getting beating up then getting chased by the law,” Mystic said. Mystic looked back at the demon kid.

“You’ll be safe,” Mystic said to him. “But you need to run, now,”

“Thank you,” the Demon kid said in a meek sounding voice, as he ran off into the night.
Pazak began running in a different direction; Mystic quickly followed. Mystic looked back slightly to see four Authority Officer Demons stepping out of the vehicles and putting the antler Demons in their vehicles while the Officers handcuffed them. One of the Authority Officers clearly saw Mystic and Pazak running away, as he began chasing after the two. Mystic faced forward and began running faster.

“We need to get lost,” Mystic suggested to Pazak.

“There’s a subway down there!” Pazak said, running towards it. Mystic followed quickly, but he just managed to see the vehicle stop, the doors to it slide open. Mystic and Pazak ran through a crowd of Demons, while they saw a subway with the doors that had just closed.

“Dammit,” Pazak said.

Pazak and Mystic tried their best to blend in with the crowd, but it didn’t help that Mystic was human, as there were no other humans in the station. The Magical Authority Officer, accompanied by another one, who also must have noticed Pazak and Mystic running away, suddenly entered the subway station, hands clutched to the weapons they were carrying in their belt buckle. The Officers wandered around, glancing at everyone; they even glanced at Pazak twice, obviously not recognizing him, and luckily they weren’t able to see Mystic, who had crouched down. Around that time, another subway arrived; Mystic and Pazak quickly got on board, hidden in between a group of other demons. Mystic got another quick glimpse of the Authority Officers; they seemed to be looking at two demons covered in yellow fur, who were the same type of demon as Pazak. The subway took off with a magical whir.

“Listen, Pazak, I have to get out of this world,” Mystic said.

“Don’t worry, I know a portal by the Empire Magic Building; we’re going to get you out of this world,” Pazak told him.

“Perfect; right now, all I wanna do is go home and sleep all day,” Mystic mumbled to himself.

“Say, is your pretty face okay, Mystic?” Pazak asked jokingly.

“I’m sure it’ll be fine once I get my beauty rest,” Mystic joked back. “How are your teeth?”

“They’ve been better; I’m sure I’ll find some dodgy magic guy who specializes in repairing teeth,” Pazak told him

“I think they’re called orthodontists, Pazak,” Mystic said sarcastically.

“Right, right, I knew that; that’s what I meant, of course,” Pazak said to pretend he was joking. The two suddenly became silent; they listened to the sound of the magical subway car whirring across the track.

“Are you going to be okay alone? You’re an outlaw now, Pazak,” Mystic asked.

“Don’t worry; I can survive on my own, besides I have Tabi to protect me,” Pazak joked.

“True, very true,” Mystic said in a joking tone.

“Besides, if I ever need to get out of here, I can come to your world and crash at your place,” Pazak said.

“Of course,” Mystic said, figuring Pazak was joking.

The two got off the subway and got to the building with the portal. Mystic once again took his magical keys and put them in the broken looking lock in the door; he said his goodbyes to Pazak as he disappeared.

“See you around; tell Tabi I said hi, oh, and remind me to pick up my ring in a few days,” Mystic said as he slowly disappeared back into the human world. Then, there he was, standing in front of the pub where he was before. Mystic looked around at the human world, comparing it to how it was back in the magic world. Everything was so much quieter now; he walked around again. The sun was rising, and you could see the horizon line clearly, despite the array of buildings in Sweden. He figured the only reason he should ever return to the magical world again was to get his ring back. Sure, the magic world was his own special place, but right now, that special place he wanted to be was home. Now that the sun was up, he would get unwanted attention, as he gave off a magical aura which grabs people’s attention in broad daylight. Mystic looked down at the pack of gum which was once again stored in his pocket, he thought back to the deli and the Scavenger, then how one of the sticks of gum came to life, and how the spirit of his snake ring must be possessing the gum. The gum could be useful in battle; though, one thing is for sure, he isn’t going to eat it. Mystic did wonder what possessed serpentine flavored gum would taste like, however. Another thing that crossed his mind was that the spirit could easily come alive, and, judging by Teth’s reactions to it, could probably destroy a couple dimensions or so. However, Mystic didn’t care; he may try to follow the law, but no law says to defend the earth valiantly as it’s being wiped off of any existence. It’s like Tabi said; he can’t fight the big battles, so why should he try? If Sweden was going to go under because of a huge spirit demon, so what? It wasn’t Mystic’s job. There were Authority Officers for that. Besides, will anyone really care if the world suddenly ends?

 

Janitor

The man walked up to the school building early in the morning. The students wouldn’t be there for another hour, but he had to be there before anyone else. He groggily fumbled with his keyring, his fingers not awake enough to choose the right one. He eventually found the right one and unlocked the heavy double doors to the elementary school where he worked. The time went by quickly in the early morning, and teachers began arriving, along with children and their parents. The children were often afraid of him, with his heavy work boots and tall stature, but he didn’t mind. He had watched many of them grow up and thought very fondly of them.

Later in the day, as he was mopping the floors of the hallway, he saw a little girl running excitedly in his direction. She held something in her hand very tightly. In her excitement, she didn’t see the newly cleaned floors which were still shiny with water.

“Hey!” he screamed forcefully. “Stop running!”

The little girl stopped running. The janitor ran over to her.

“You can’t run like that,” he said. “You could get hurt.” He hadn’t meant to be aggressive, but apparently he had been; the girl started to cry. The man was uncomfortable and didn’t quite know what to do. He awkwardly crouched down to her level.

“I-I… I’m sorry. What’s in your hand?” he asked. The girl opened her fist to reveal a pearly white tooth. It was no bigger than a grain of rice. The janitor smiled and stood up.

“Come,” he said with a beckoning motion. The little girl wiped her eyes and walked with him to the school nurse.

***

It was a painfully cold day outside, but the warmth of the heater made the school feel safe and comfortable. The children were all content and cozy in the sweaters their parents had dressed them in. It had been snowing heavily all week, and the children hadn’t been allowed to go outside to play at recess. Teachers tried to keep them busy with stories and projects and baking cookies, but kids were getting antsy.

Wintertime was extra laborious for the janitor. He had all of his usual responsibilities, but he also had to shovel snow and keep the boilers working. Many others on the janitorial staff were out sick, and this left him with even more work to do. The kids were getting restless and making more messes than usual. Everything had to be disinfected extra carefully, so they wouldn’t get sick. All of this sometimes made the janitor grumpy. He didn’t mind too much, though. The job was thankless, and the children always put a smile on his face.

The next week, the snow had calmed down enough for the students to go outside for recess. This, of course, brought much excitement to the school, and everybody was anxious to play in the snow. The janitor watched contently as the children built snowmen and threw snowballs. He saw all the little ones walking around in their clunky boots and thick coats. The man smiled; they were practically double their size. When playtime had ended, all the children came marching inside with red cheeks and frozen fingers. The teachers helped the younger ones take off their boots, and snowpants, and mittens. They were all soaked through. The kids went with their teachers to their next class with a spring in their steps.

The janitor stood in the doorway of the kindergarten classroom. He saw the pile of wet coats and scarves and socks, and reminisced about his own childhood. He carefully hung all of their soggy layers on the heater to dry.

***

The janitor locked up the heavy doors behind him as he finished a long day’s work. The schoolyard was quiet, and the sky was dark. He zipped up his jacket to block out the chill as he walked to the bus stop. The bus was delayed, so he had to wait for about ten minutes. When it finally arrived, he waited patiently as an old woman slowly stepped onto the vehicle. There were no seats available, but people would probably get off. He lived very far from the school and got off at the last stop. He found a pole near an old lady and a mother feeding her baby a yogurt. The janitor leaned against the pole and began to drift off. He was suddenly jolted awake by a large bump in the road. The unexpected movement disoriented him, and he lost his balance. He stepped backwards, in an effort to regain stability, but the bus bounced yet again. His foot slipped and he fell on the floor of the bus. He tried to get up, but was surprised by a sticky pink substance thrown in his face. The baby sitting next to him had spilled his yogurt all over himself and the janitor and had started bawling. The child’s mother was scrambling to calm down her baby and clean him up. The bus pulled up to the next stop, and the mother quickly realized that she had to get off. The janitor was left on the floor, covered in strawberry yogurt, seemingly forgotten about.

***

Unfortunately, the janitor’s neighborhood was teeming with people, all staring at the large man emanating an artificial-strawberry smell. He heard some children on the playground snicker as he walked by. He zipped up his sweatshirt and pulled the hood over his head. When he reached his building, the janitor pulled out his keys and unlocked the front door. Most people used the buzzer at the front door, but this was only functional if somebody else was in your apartment. He walked up the three flights of stairs to his floor; his heavy boots made thunking noises all the way up.

The man let himself into his home and carefully unlaced his shoes — so as to not track dirt inside. He gingerly removed his soiled clothing and put it in the washing machine. He changed into some clean clothes and washed his face and hands clean of yogurt. For his dinner, the janitor took out a frozen meal. He peeled back the plastic and put it in the microwave to defrost. While his meal was cooking, he scanned the day’s newspaper. The plastic container of food was hot to the touch, and the comforting warmth seeped into the janitor’s fingers. He sat down on the couch with the hot food, a glass of soda, a cigarette, and ate as he watched the TV — as was his daily ritual.

About an hour later, the janitor received a phone call. It was from the principal of the elementary school.

“Hello?” the janitor said, tentatively.

“There has been a break-in at the school. Twenty computers were stolen, as well as cash from the office,” said the principal.

The janitor was a bit taken aback by the principal’s brashness. “Oh. Uh –”

“Please come to my office tomorrow for questioning,” the principal interrupted.

“Questioning?” asked the janitor.

“Yes,” said the principal. “You were the last one at the building. I have to admit that it doesn’t look good for you.”

The janitor was stunned. “Uh, okay, so you think it was me?” he asked.

“Unfortunately the evidence is stacked against you. You have no education past high school, which you didn’t even complete; you took the GED. You have the keys to the building, a salary just above minimum wage, and you work at a well-funded school in a wealthy area. Not to mention that you were the last person in the building today.” The principal continued speaking, but the janitor was too lost in thought to listen. After years of having a steady job, a job he somewhat enjoyed, he was going to be fired. Fired for something he did not do.

“I will see you tomorrow,” said the principal with finality. The janitor was left standing there, the old landline in his hand and the buzz of the ended call in his ear. He was frozen for a moment, as he let all that had happened sink in.

A wave of anger washed over the janitor. He thought of all of the years he had worked, tirelessly, thanklessly, at the school. He thought of everything he had done for those kids and how he never got anything in return; he was ignored, pronounced unimportant, and left on his own. Rage began to pour over him like a hurricane. It was as if a fire had started in his chest, and he felt the burning heat reaching all over his body, igniting something within him that he himself had not known about. It felt like his breath was not moving up and down, but rather moving in circles, creating a whirlpool inside his lungs. Adrenaline pumped through his veins. A tornado of earth, wind, water, and fire raged within him. For years the man had done mundane and tedious work — never complaining, never asking for a change. In tough times, he had often imagined, as many do, great outbursts that he wished he had the courage to conduct. He had always seen himself as the janitor, and nothing else, but no longer would he stay dormant.

The newly accused man’s face lit up as he crafted his plan of action. He laced his boots up tight – preparing for battle. He stormed out of his apartment with only a pack of cigarettes, a lighter, his keys, and bus fare. It wasn’t much, but it was enough. With bitterness in his heart, the man marched down the streets to the bus stop. He didn’t care as he pushed people out of the way to get a seat. He marched to the school with his shoulders back and his chest proudly puffed out. His strong, heavy feet walked with purpose. Every part of his being knew what to do. His fingers nimbly unlocked the heavy doors, and he felt powerful as he opened them with ease. He no longer felt pain; only blinding infuriation. The man seemed to glow with fire as he walked down the hallway to the principal’s office. He did not fear anything. He knew exactly where to turn to avoid the security cameras, he knew which key to use, and he knew what he was going to do.

The empowered man closed the door of the principal’s office behind him. He took one last moment to think of his past. He could feel an explosion of fireworks going off within him. He felt a volcano erupting. With confident hands he took out the pack of cigarettes and the lighter. He took one out of the box and set off the lighter. He stared into the illuminated lighter for a moment before he put the end of the cigarette into the fire. With exasperation, the man dropped the lit cigarette on the floor of the office and watched as the principal’s carpet (and eventually the rest of the room) caught fire.

The man walked out of the building with satisfaction. He stood outside the building, and watched as it was consumed by flames. Within an hour someone had called the police, but he was not scared of the sirens. He took the bus home in a revenge-filled daze and was aware of nothing and no one. He walked mindlessly back to his apartment with the image of the glorious fire in his eyes. He unlocked the door to his house and unlaced his heavy work boots. He sat down, turned on the TV, and lit a cigarette; he was content.

 

The Cure

It began. I was in and out as they brought me to the operation room. I could see people running around me. The two that were pushing the bed had hazmat suits on, which only meant that there was a patient they weren’t so sure of. I felt something running from my ears — it was blood running like a never ending river. As the blood flowed from my ears, my eyes started to burn, and my vision started blurring. I knew that there was something wrong, something I couldn’t stop. Then the screaming began. It sounded like I had fallen and broken every bone in my body known to man. And I was pleading and begging them to just end my life now. I was so consumed with pain, I went numb, and so did the rest of me, but the blood kept pouring out. As my mind started to fade, I remembered the ocean, the ocean where all my troubles were supposed to go away. The ocean where I would find THE CURE.

But let’s backtrack for a moment. When I was growing up, I lived in a small town near Vermont, where everyone knew everyone and knew who you hung out with, who you were close to, your whole family lineage, and so on. I was the perfect student, the perfect sister, and daughter, until they died. It was very tragic. I was about twelve when this incident, or should I call it, this massacre happened. My mother and older sister were picking me up from swimming class when the shots began.

At that moment, one, two, three, four people fell to the ground. We ran to the nearest building and hid behind the counter. Than it started: my sister started shaking and her mouth started to foam. Her eyes were the first to bleed, and then her ears. My mother was just sitting there unable to move; her eyes started to roll to the back of her head, and she started to shake. At that time, I was only twelve, and I could barely take care of myself. So I just sat there and watched my sister gasp for air. I watched my mom claw her eyes out, trying to see me. I watched helplessly, unable to understand what was happening. When the ambulance arrived and took us to the hospital, the doctors were unable to figure out what happened. So they gave them a sedative to make them go to “sleep.”

From that day on, I vowed to learn what happened to my mother and sister. But now, the same things were happening to me but in a slightly different way. And now, you can surely see why I was so infatuated with finding out what happened. Since now you know the past, let’s continue on with the future.

“Maybe we can put her into a drug induced coma, so we can have more time to figure out what’s happening to her.”

“That will only give us 72 hours.”

“Well, that’s better than nothing.”

So 72 hours… that’s all the time they had to cure me.

***

I wake up. The IV drip is going into my veins. My blood is no longer black but more of a more metallic color. It’s a cool, early morning, too early to tell what time. But I’m awake after three days of “sleep.” No blood, no feeling, just numbness. Just lying in the hospital bed, ready to eat some actual food. I’m so thirsty. There’s a cup of water sitting right besides the bed, but as I try to reach it, I realize that my arms are strapped down to the bed. Staring at the metal buckles, I wonder what happened when I was asleep for those three days.

 

America

     

Land of the free

Not for you

Or for me

Not for the homeless man, who

Can’t get a job because to get a job, you

Need an address

But I guess that’s not something we

should address

Not for the impoverished youth, both

Black and white

We could help them but instead

We fight

Over what’s

Right

Over what’s

Wrong

This whole, equality thing

Yeah, it’s taking too long

By the time there’s equality

Whether it’s for your

Gender

Race

Class

Sexuality

We’ll all be long gone

Land of the free

Not for the black men who are

killed without hesitation

Not for the millions of people part of

Incarceration

But sure let’s

Light some fireworks

Drink the finest wine while the

Underpaid

Immigrant maid

Works the whole entire time

 

The Snake

As I walk to the street corner where I work, I feel free. No one is giving me funny looks. No one knows what I’m keeping in my bag. Then I get to the street corner and set down my hat. Already, people are looking at me. I reach down into my bag and pull out my snake, Jimmy. I drape him around my neck and start the day.

Now people are really staring, as looks of disgust are shot in my direction. I have grown accustomed to the look of shock when people notice Jimmy on my shoulder. Their eyes open wide. Some tap their friends and point towards me, and some take out their phone to take a photo. Some people walk by as briskly as possible, and some walk slowly and gape. No matter the reaction, people never stay. The sight of Jimmy is nothing but a minor distraction or a small break from the ordinary. Although it is odd and surprising, it is no marvel for this city.

Simply holding Jimmy barely makes me any money. If I want to eat dinner tonight, I need to make more of a spectacle. I take out the gummy bears and place one in my hand so that only Jimmy can see it. I place my hand about two feet above him and he reaches up. I slide my hand to the side and then to the side again. I do this until I create a steady sway to make it seem as if he is dancing. Now people are really taking notice of me. I see coins and some bills being dropped into my hat. I continue to sway him from side to side. My mind almost shuts down doing the same task all day. Then, I notice a man walking towards me.

He comes to me and says, “Do you want to join my circus?”

“Does it pay well?”

“Better than this.”

“What will I do for the circus?’

“Train snakes and maybe other animals.”

“Will I get a bonus per other animal?”

“Listen, you’re performing on the street, just take the job.”

“Alright. I’ll join your circus.”

It turns out that I can train other animals, not just snakes. Now, Jimmy is one of our top-selling points for the circus, and I train any animals that are new to the circus. I am training our bears. I need to chain them to a wall, so the only way they can walk is by standing up. Once they learn to stand up, we tie ropes to their necks and tug them so they do what we want. I have never had animals that are scared of me, but these bears are. When I come near them in their cages, they run to the opposite side.

I walk out of the circus tent, and there is a mob of PETA protesters. The protesters seem to mainly be kids from the neighboring college, but there are also a few older people. They hold signs, but all the signs say roughly the same thing. The signs say that all our animals are treated inhumanely. They say that we torture animals. I try to ignore them, but I can’t get the thought out of my head. Am I cruel? Is what I’m doing wrong? Yes.

In the morning, I go to the ringleader’s office. I am about to go in, but then I think about what life would be like if I quit. Where will I be? Stuck going to the same street corner and doing the same thing every day. Maybe I can find a job somewhere else, but here, I have stability. The possibility of needing to go back to street performing sounds too bad for me. I turn back and go to teach the bears more tricks.

 

The Teddy Bear

A headless teddy bear lay in the grass. Its body reached for its head only a few feet away. It stretched its neck in vain. The teddy bear was hopeless, hapless, and distraught. A few feet away, a man took out a pencil and began to sketch the trees, bushes, and grass that surrounded the teddy bear. The man breathed in the park smells: pine, wet grass, and crushed cigarettes. He didn’t notice the teddy bear’s head by his boot.

The teddy bear frantically called out to the man, “Please, sir, if you could just pass me my head! Right by your foot!”

But the man didn’t hear him. He kept sketching the park, finished his drawing, and left.

A businesswoman passed by next. She walked along the grass on the pavement, talking to someone angrily on the phone. She yelled about her finances and her stupid, no-good secretary. She huffed and rolled her eyes, then said, “Fine, I’ll tell you the number, but this is the last time, I swear…”

The woman dug around inside her purse until she found a piece of paper with some numbers on it. As she took it out, her red, leather wallet fell out onto the grass.

“Miss, your wallet has fallen from your bag!” the teddy bear called.

The woman ignored the the bear and kept reading the numbers, with her hand on her hip and her eyes rolling constantly.

Then she said, “Yes, of course,” sighed, “Yes, you’re welcome,” rolled her eyes, and left.

The teddy bear began to cry, only to realize that its head was still two feet away and was now covered in salty tears. More tears pooled around the the head, and it began to float away.

“My head!” cried the teddy bear.

“Where is your head?” A little girl cocked her head to the side. She sat criss-crossed in the grass beside the bear. She wore sandals with little pink flowers and dancing Hello Kitties.

“There! There!” The teddy bear pointed halfway down the little river of tears that had formed.

Its head bobbed up and down. The girl chased after the teddy’s head, splashing in the tears as she ran. Finally she caught the head and gleefully brought it back to the teddy bear.

“Oh, thank you! I have been trying to get my head back all day!”

Relieved, the teddy bear pushed its head back into place, stood up, and started off.

“Wait! Wait!” called the little girl. “I thought maybe we could play? I have a doll house and another teddy bear. They can play too!”

“Sorry, little miss, but I have a job to get back to. Why don’t you sit in the grass and play alone?” The teddy bear continued to walk off. “Oh — and thanks for my head!” it called over its shoulder.

The little girl sat down in the damp, tear-stained grass. She didn’t like to play alone; she always played alone. She smelled the pine, wet grass, and crushed cigarettes, pushed aside a red wallet on the pavement beside her, stared at her sandals, and watched the little flowers sway and the pink Hello Kitties dance.

 

Space Baby

Eliza’s eyes grew wide at the world. The space around her was light and airy. She floated up and around the little room in the aircraft. Her face was soft, cheeks glowing and red. Her lips were thin and moist, but no breath escaped them.

For a moment, everything was silent in the little, white room with no windows. The baby floated higher. Everyone stood about the little child in a dome below her, waiting. Eliza’s mother sat up, staring almost angrily at her baby. Her eyes wanted to command the child to breathe.

And then a cry rang out. Bubbling from Eliza’s mouth, a shrill, joyous cry echoed throughout the tiny room and into the ears of her family, the astronauts, the doctors. Everyone had been waiting for this moment, and it had come. In only a moment, the scary, silent room became abuzz with laughter, crying, shouts, and whoops. Eliza’s mother silently sobbed in a corner, watching in wonder as her beautiful, baby girl bounced around the room, crying gleefully.

Then it was time to take Eliza out of the room she was born in, to show her a world much bigger than the one she already knew. A universe.

Carried in the arms of her mother, Eliza was led to an enormous window at the front of the aircraft.

“Look, Eliza,” her mother said. “This is my world. And now, it is yours.”

Eliza cried again. But through her glassy tears, Eliza could see the world. She saw the dark sky with smudged stripes of purple and pink. She saw the sun’s bright rays and the moon’s pale, mysterious reflections. She saw the planets which she would one day explore. And the infinite stars were reflected in her wide, elliptical eyes.

Eliza slept in her cradle. A large paperweight held her blanket down, and she snuggled into it. Eliza’s mother watched her newborn with sunken, hollowed out eyes.

“You should get rest. Your girl isn’t going anywhere.” The doctor gave an encouraging smile.

“She won’t go anywhere, but I’m already gone. We’re years away from Earth. You know I won’t make it.”

“We don’t know that. I’m not making any predictions yet. Hold on for your baby, for the future of space science. You’re making history!” the doctor insisted.

Eliza’s mother smiled sadly and lay down on the floor next to her baby’s cradle. Her skeleton curved around the walls of the little cage. She cried. Her tears all gathered in the deep circles under her eyes. Bubbles of the salty liquid floated off of her face and made it look like the walls were crying, too. Her face was a waterfall that didn’t flow. She was a broken woman.

And they had made history. Even if both Eliza and her mother died, the first baby had been born in space.

 

Angels

What’s happening? Where am I?

These are the first things that come to my mind. I’m unaware of the darkness that surrounds me. So I begin to walk. I don’t know where I’m going, I just know that I have somewhere to be. So I walk and walk and walk. There is no landscape to look at, nobody to talk to. Sometimes I’ll see a long, white shape in the distance, and I’ll run towards it, hoping for answers. It always disappears. I rack my brain, but I can’t remember anything. I have no concept of time, so whenever I’m tired, I rest. Sometimes I feel restless, and even though I am walking, I can’t shake this feeling of unease.

At one point, I feel thirsty. I wish I had something to drink. As soon as the thought comes to my head, a glass full of grayish liquid appears in my hand. Although it doesn’t taste like anything, it quenches my thirst. After a while, I realize that I can wish for anything, so when I am tired, I wish for a bed. Until today, I didn’t realize that I could wish for a friend. I wish I had a friend, I think. Soon a milky, white ball comes into view. This is my friend. I don’t know how I know that this is a safe person, but something in my mind says it is, and when you have nothing, you tend to listen to that little voice.

Once again, I ask, “Where am I?

I cannot hear my voice. The white ball never answers my question, but it’s still there. It grows bigger and stronger, and soon, I can see a face. It gets bigger, until it’s around the size of a baby doll. Then it disappears. Then after a couple minutes, a new friend appears. This continues. After a while, I get used to all these new friends.

I wake up to a strange light. I find myself in a long, dark room. Eventually, a humanlike figure drifts towards me. It’s much bigger than my other friends. I can slightly see a cold, white face with two black slits for eyes. The figure looks like it is wearing a white robe.

“Where am I?” I ask.

I am surprised to hear my voice, slightly slurred, but still there. I am even more surprised to hear the figure reply lightly and calmly, “Welcome.”

“Who are you?” I say.

“My name is Mortem.”

“If you can answer my questions, why couldn’t my other friends?”

“They are not fully developed and are nothing but the, yet, unborn children of time.”

“What am I here for?”

“You are still not fully developed, yet time has left you.”

Mortem shows me to a hole. In the hole is a bed. It looks so comfy, so inviting. There is a plaque with a strange carving on it. It looks like a name.

“Would you like to take a rest?” Mortem asks.

There is something so wonderful about that bed, yet I don’t feel ready.

“Not now,” I say.

Soon, another figure arrives. It moves slower and, somehow, seems older than me. Mortem shows it around and shows it another bed. This time it agrees. The stranger acts like it can’t see me. The figure crosses its arms on its chest and closes its eyes. A lid lifts up and covers the hole.

I see Mortem showing more ghost-like figures around. Most of them agree to the bed, but every once in awhile, somebody says no. When that happens, they disappear from my view.  I watch everyone get into bed peacefully, and soon, I feel peaceful with my own fate. Now I’m gazing longingly at my own bed, and eventually, I decide to sleep. I say goodbye to Mortem and get into bed. Before I get in, I look at the plaque one last time, and I see a faded name, Cecily Brooks. Those two words sound so familiar, yet I can’t remember why. I close my eyes, cross my arms like all the others, and let the darkness surround me. For one moment, memories flash in my brain.

***

I remember when my parents got me my first phone. I treasured that phone, and I hugged and kissed them for days. My parents and I had an amazing relationship until that fight.

I remember that fight. I remember the shouting, and I remember smashing my precious phone on the wall. I remember ignoring my parents for the rest of the night. I remember sneaking out of the house when everyone was asleep and climbing into my family car. I had gotten my driver’s license the week before.
I remember driving on the road. It was my light. Yet, that other car that came didn’t stop. I remember that split second of fear, and that moment of helplessness. I remember wishing that I could apologize to my parents. Perhaps that’s why I felt so hesitant to get into bed before. I was missing something: my parents’ love.

Then I remembered something else that I will never forget. I remember seeing my body in the hospital, my mother leaning over me, crying, and my father trying to pretend his eyes weren’t filling up with tears. I remember blowing them a kiss and drifting up into the sky.

 

Uncharted Territory

Her screams seemed muted as they sometimes do in movies. I couldn’t make out her words because she was so distraught. Tears ran down her cheeks, and her face was red and hot. As I inched towards her to help her calm down, she swatted my hand away like a bug, a nothing to her. And in that moment, I saw words that would stick with me for as long as I lived, sketched into my brain forever, always there to remind me of the pain of losing a friend.

“I hate you.”

***

When I was growing up, I lived in a small town in Alabama. And, as you sometimes hear about towns in the south, there were racists. Sexists. Homophobes. You name it. We had all the hate in our little town. It seemed as though there were only three people in the town with some sense about right and wrong: Sally Anne Thompson, James Parker and me, Jessica Smith.

I met Sally Anne and James on the first day of freshman year. See, it being a small town and all and them having lived in the same town, I should have met them in elementary. But my parents, being the close-minded people they were, pulled me out of school in the second grade when I corrected my pa from saying “Indian” to “Native American.” They gave the excuse, for pulling me out, that the school system was trying to “change” the good ol’ southern ways, and they didn’t want me submitting to that disgrace of America. But by high school, they figured they had brainwashed me enough that no matter what school said or did, I wouldn’t believe. The ironic thing was that school wasn’t progressive at all; it was just better than they were.

My dad “prepared” me for the first day. He told me that I might get a bit of a hard time because I was home-schooled, but they knew I could do it.

My mom told me explicitly that, “Whatever happens to you doesn’t matter. Those poor children have been poisoned with the words of their teachers telling them that everyone is equal. We raised you right, so you know that this is not true, right, sweetie?”

“Yes, Ma,” I had whispered.

These words hurt me to say. Such simple words. Words you could say to having to do the dishes, “Yes, Ma” or words you say to finishing your homework, “Yes, Ma” or even words to not hit your brother, “Yes, Ma.” But it was these simple words that time and time again reestablished my agreement to injustice, to inequality, to hate. Just a simple “Yes, Ma” always sufficed.

I remember the night before the first day of school. I felt like a balloon filled not with air, but anxiety. I questioned if anyone would like me, if anyone would make an effort to be my friend. I was the home-schooled girl, and everyone knew the rumors about me: that I was full of myself and didn’t want to be around other kids so I convinced my parents to pull me out; that I was unaware of “normal” things to do and say because I had never really associated with other kids. And the worst part was, I was afraid that the latter was true. I mainly talked to my parents who seemed to live in the Stone Age because of how unaware they were of the happenings in the world. I didn’t really know anyone my age, so I didn’t know the trends. I was afraid that I would be shunned for my beliefs on equality. I let fear drive me that night. I cried myself to sleep.

I remember standing outside the steps of the big brick building, as hundreds of kids swarmed around me, trying to catch up to their friends. I remember feeling the smooth, metal railing next to the stairs as I took slow steps up to the next chapter in my life. I remember being pushed to the ground by a kid in a football varsity jacket and not even turning around to apologize. Then, I remember the first words spoken to me on this uncharted territory.

“Get up.”

“Excuse me?”

“I said get up.”

“Well, I’m trying to. Wanna give me a hand?”

“No. Thank you, though.”

“Yeah, no problem,” I responded, sarcasm dripped in my voice.

I pushed myself to my knees and stared right in the face of the head cheerleader. Well, it seemed as if it couldn’t get more stereotypical than this.

She seemed as if she was about to say something, so I wanted to beat her to it. I didn’t want to let her get the joy of making any more fun of me.

“Can you move, please?” I said, imitating her face pleasantness. “I need to get up. Isn’t that what you told me?”

She moved to the side resentfully, her hands on her hips with flushed red cheeks against her pale white skin.

“Thank you.”

I walked confidently up the rest of the steps, but as soon as I entered the building, where I was sure she couldn’t see me, I ran to the bathroom and used some tissues to wash off the streams of tears unintentionally flowing down my face. Tears like these reminded me of the day that I had discovered the shocking truths that people believed about me.

It was a Sunday in the middle of June. Church had just ended, and I was going to the grocery store to pick up some vegetables for dinner. I was walking down the aisle, headed towards the broccoli, when I noticed two girls staring at me and whispering to each other. I turned back around towards my destination but I could feel their glare on my back. I knew that they also went to church that morning, just like nearly everyone in this town, and I knew they were around my age. I still remembered everyone in my class, so I figured that they must have been a year younger than me, entering eighth grade in the fall. I grabbed my broccoli, well aware that they were still watching me, pretending to shop for carrots. As I walked back up the aisle, they stopped me.

“Is there something I can help you with?” I asked politely.

“Yes, hi, I’m Susan, and this is my sister, Lila.”

I stared at them, quizzically, wondering if that should mean anything. Susan was wearing a red blouse and a short, white skirt. Her blue eyes popped out against her pale skin. She wore high heels that didn’t seem very manageable in a supermarket. She had long, golden hair, the last feature she needed to enter a beauty contest. Her sister was quite the opposite. She wore brand-new sneakers and skinny jeans. Her shirt was black. She also had blonde hair but had dyed streaks of it blue, just like the color of her eyes. She slouched a little, but Susan held herself up straight as she spoke to me.

“You know, Susan and Lila Peterson? I was in your grade before you left.”

Oh, I guess I didn’t remember everyone. But, sometimes it’s better to pretend that you do.

“Yes, right! My apologies, of course I remember you.” I lied. A white lie though.

“Yeah, and it’s Jessica. Jessica Smith, right?”

“Yep. That’s me.” I smiled, happy that people still remembered me although slightly confused why they were talking to me.

“Right, and you’re coming back to school this fall?” Susan asked.

It didn’t seem as though Lila talked much.

“Mmmhmm.”

“So, we just wanted to say hi.”

“Oh.” I was pleasantly surprised. “Well, that’s very nice of you.”

“Well, I am part of the welcoming committee.”

“Although you guys don’t actually do much,” Lila said.

What a “nice” thing of her to say, even though she was right.

“True, but we’ll take whatever chances we’ve got.” Susan smiled happily, trying to cover up her sister’s abrupt honesty. “So, we were wondering, do you have any time to talk, just for five minutes?”

I checked my watch. I had to be home in a half hour, but if we shopped and talked, well, it might just work out.

“Sure, just walk with me, okay? I have to be home soon.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Susan and Lila look at each other as if they were in question of why I needed to be home so early. That should have been my first sign that everything was about to go wrong.

“So, why are you coming back to school now?” Lila asked, like the snotty, little brat she was.

“Ummm. Well…” I didn’t really know how to answer without throwing my parents under the bus. So another white lie. “My mom wants to get back to working so she does something more productive.”

“But, doesn’t she teach you?” Susan inquired.

This was not how I planned our conversation going.

“Yeah, but when I’m working independently or something, she has nothing to do because it doesn’t take very long to grade two students’ work.”

“Who’s the other student?”

“My brother.”

“Right… Is he coming back to school now too?”

“Yeah, in the sixth grade.”

“So right in time for you to start high school and him middle school.”

“Yep, that’s how my parents planned it.”

Then everything took a turn for the worse.

“So why did you leave school in the first place?”

Again, I didn’t want to say the real reason, because my parents were more racist than anyone in the town, and I also didn’t want to insult where the sisters had been educated all their lives. So I was kind of stuck.

“Uhhhh…”

“We heard it was because you didn’t like public school, but your parents couldn’t afford private school,” Lila said, like reciting from memory.

“That’s not very nice, Lila,” Susan scolded although she seemed very interested to know if it was true.

“Umm, no. That’s not true. That’s absurd in fact. I barely knew what the difference between private and public school was when I was in second grade.”

“Oh.”

But Susan wasn’t done yet. It seemed as though my lie had paid off and, for the moment, I was safe.

“How many kids your age have you talked to?”

I remember thinking to myself that her question was such an odd thing to ask and wondered if it really mattered. To her, it did, but I could care less.

“A couple,” I said dismissively.

I checked my watch and pretended that it was urgent that I leave right then.

“Oh, well, sorry. I have to go but I’ll see you around.”

I went home right after that and cried. I didn’t know why but it seemed as if school was not going to be what I imagined. After that, I noticed every eye that followed me around town, every word that was spoken about me. It seemed as though Susan and Lila spread the rumors around some more telling people that I was “as socially unaware as a seven year old” and that “I wasn’t prepared to transition into high school.” I tried to ignore it as much as I could, but I was immediately reminded of them as I was pushed onto the stairs.

A jolt of reality struck me as a hand was placed on my shoulder. I turned around to see the guidance counselor, whom I met over the summer.

“Are you alright?”

“Yeah,” I responded.

I also didn’t want to be known as the girl who ran to the teacher before class started. The tattletale.

“Just a little something in my eye.”

By that time, I had wiped most of my tears away, and it wasn’t unbelievable that maybe a little dust or sand got in my eye.

“Okay, then.” She walked away before remembering to give me a little, “Good luck!”

“Thanks!” I called back, secretly wishing that I wouldn’t need it.

 

Annie and I

I stared out at the desolate gloomy hills. They were mostly a greenish, brown color, like what you would see in pea soup. To make matters worse, my mom had told me that it would probably be raining everyday here in good old Hartford, Connecticut.

“But you can always stay indoors and do arts and crafts!” my mother said brightly.

I nodded and hugged her. This sleepaway camp, Fairview Lake, was where I’d be staying for four whole weeks.

“All girls,” it boasted, “we raise strong girls! Get ready to learn how to take a stand in society!”

I felt this was unfair; I already was a strong member of society. I went to marches — the Women’s March, the Climate March, you name it. I glared at my reflection while getting out of the car; I never set much store by it. Why would you waste time looking at yourself when you could be saving baby seals? But now, as I prepared to meet a cabin full of strange girls, girls I didn’t know, I shook off those thoughts.

“So what if they don’t like you?” I asked myself. “You will only be here for four weeks, Emma, get a move on.”

Stealing one last hug from my mom, I ran up the walkway to the main house. I had a date with destiny.

***

“Hello, Hello!” a thin, bird-like voice greeted me from the dark interior of the main house.

It had ivy growing all over, and some of the window frames were broken, giving the appearance of gaping holes. I froze.

“Come in, come in! You must be our new camper.”

I stepped inside, looking curiously at the woman. She had thin, gray hair and looked like she was in her fifties. Nevertheless, her arms were muscular, and I was pretty sure she could bench-press me.

Um… yes., I stuttered. “I’m Emma.”           

“Well, it is nice to meet you, dear,” she said. “I’m Annabelle.”

As if in a trance, she leaned toward me. I wanted to move, but I couldn’t. I wanted to scream, but I couldn’t. It felt as if my mouth was nailed shut. I was terrified. She picked up a lock of my blonde hair.

“Such pretty hair,” she said softly, as if talking to herself. “When I was a young girl, I had hair like this…”

***

Five minutes later, I was hurrying along the main path, seriously spooked. Annabelle had apologized for scaring me and said, with a laugh, that old people like herself tended to stare at things… Which made me wonder… How old was Annabelle exactly? I had guessed fifty, but I was pretty sure I was wrong. At least I knew which cabin I was staying in; cabin two. My bunkmates were Lucky and Chase. But something stayed stuck in my head, and no matter just how hard I tried, I couldn’t erase what Annabelle had said from my mind.

“Oh, Emma,” Annabelle had called.

I had turned around, feeling a lump of dread settle in my throat.

¨Yes?” I asked.

¨It´s about your bunkmates, Lucky and Chase. They are good girls, but they have vivid imaginations. They like to make up scary stories,¨ she said firmly. ¨Whatever you do, don’t listen to them. Okay?”

¨Okay¨ I said, then turned and ran.

I was sure now that something wasn’t right, and I was going to listen to whatever Lucky and Chase had to tell me. I pushed open the door of my cabin, looking around. The bunk beds were made out of wood, and the cabin was dark, although it was mid-day.

¨Hello?¨ I called nervously.

A girl jumped off the bunk bed and walked toward me. She was taller than me, with extremely pale skin and heavy black eye makeup. She was wearing all black, and her hair was gelled into little, dark points.

¨Are you the new girl?¨ she asked in a deep, gravelly voice.

¨Yes,¨ I said. ¨I… My name is Emma.¨

¨Hmm,” she snorted. ¨Chase thought you were going to say your name was Annie.¨

She stuck out her hand. I shook it.

¨I’m Lucky,” she said, turning her neck so I could see a tattoo of a green four-leaved clover.

I nodded mutely.

¨Chase will be back from  her class in a few minutes,¨ she said, circling me.

I fought the urge to tell her to get away from me. She stopped circling and stared at me.

¨I think that Chase will want to know — even more than I do — why the new girl looks just like Annie.”

“I honestly don’t know who Annie even is,” I said, annoyed. “Why is she such a big deal to you?”

Lucky flinched as if I’d slapped her. I walked over to the nearest bed and put my duffel down on it. I stared at her. She blankly stared back.

”Fine,” she humphed.”I’ll tell you who Annie is; but you cannot tell anybody else.”

“Why?” I asked curiously.

Another blank stare.

“Because Annabelle doesn’t like it,” she whispered.

Without warning, she turned and headed for the door.

“Hey!” I said, jumping up. “You said you would tell me!” I cried, frustrated.

She smirked.

“I said i would tell you; I didn’t say when. If you want to ever learn anything, kid, you should set the terms. See you at dinner.”

She calmly sashayed away, ignoring my furious glare. After a minute, I followed her.  

Lucky was out of my line of vision by the time I got to a sign that said Mess Hall. Sighing, I followed the arrow that pointed to the mess all. Wait… What was that? A path, smaller than the large path to the dining area branched off, leading deeper into the woods. I deliberated between the two, rocking back and forth on my heels.

“It will only take five minutes, Emma,” I scolded. “You will be back just in time for dinner.”

I plunged into the woods, feeling thorns rake my arms.

***

Looking down the path, I saw what I thought was a house. I walked towards it, and then, discovered that it was a shed. It had gray clapboards, which seemed all that was holding it together. Somebody had painted KEEP OUT, in black, on it. There was a large, gaping hole in it, and there was something brown inside. A rock? A head? Snap! I jumped. It was just a twig… Right? Another snap, and I was running.

***

The mess hall was warm and bright, and I had finally met Chase. She had been angry with Lucky for letting me go off on my own. What if I had met a bear? While she was chastising Lucky, I took this opportunity to ogle my cabin mate. She sported cocoa-colored skin, a nose piercing, and what I was pretty sure was a wig. The auburn-colored curls were tilting alarmingly on her head. I picked at my salad, worrying. What if that had been a head? I glanced over at Annabelle. She was chatting animatedly with the other cabin, the Harriet Tubman Cabin. Each of the cabins had a name of a female leader; we were the Rosa Parks Cabin.

Emma!” Chase sounded irritated, and I guessed this wasn’t the first time she had said my name.

I blinked at her. “Yes?”

“Where were you?” she hissed. “We all know you weren’t in the latrines; I saw you running through the the forest. What were you doing in there?? We aren’t supposed to go there; if Annabelle had found you, you could be in SO much trouble!” She stared at me, breathing heavily.

Lucky was reading a book, and her eyes flickered from page to page, but I was sure she was listening in.

I smiled at her slowly, then pointed at Annabelle.

“Oh, it’s time to go!” I said.

Annabelle was calling all the cabins to order.

As we slowly ambled through the dark woods, I turned around to grin at Lucky and Chase. They were wearing identical expressions of frustration; I still hadn’t told them where I had been and what I had been doing.

“I’ll make you a deal,” I said.

“I will not make any deals with you,” Lucky answered immediately.

Chase looked disappointed.

“You haven’t heard what I’m offering.” I smiled, confident that they would want to know.

“Okay,” Chase said. “What are your conditions?”

“You tell me the Crazy Annie story when we get back to the cabin. You will have to tell me the story first, or I won’t tell you mine,” I said happily.

Chase glared. I stared at Lucky for a long moment. She stared back.

“Okay,” Lucky said finally. “But I get to tell the story,” she added.

***

Five minutes later, we were sitting in a semi-circle, on the roughly hewn floor. It was more than a little eerie.

“Fifty years ago, at this camp,’’ Lucky began, “there was a lovely young girl called Annie. She had multiple personality disorder, so those who were jealous of her called her ‘Crazy Annie.’”

I shivered, and Chase wrapped an arm around my shoulders.

“She had been coming to Fairview Lake her whole life and so had her steady boyfriend. They decided to have their wedding at the camp, although she was only eighteen, and he was only twenty. The theme of the wedding was daisies, because they were Annie’s favorite flower.”

Lucky paused as lightning flashed, and tree branches shook. It sounded as if somebody were outside. Tap. Tap. tap. Lucky resumed her story.

“On Annie’s wedding night, there was a storm like this one. She could not find her groom-to-be, or her best friend, the maid of honor. She decided to go looking for them in the cabins. And she found them.”

Lucky raised her eyebrows, and after a moment, it sank in.

“Angry that they had been cheating on her, Annie ran away, leaving a suicide note, that she had signed ‘Love, Annie’. One year later, the former best friend and the former husband had the same wedding. Late into the party, the guests realized that they couldn’t find the bride or bridegroom, so they went looking for them up by the cabins. They looked at the trees, and there were bloody daisies hanging off the trees. In the meadow, the bride and bridegroom were lying stone dead with freaking DAISY CROWNS around their heads. Their throats were slit and painted in their own blood, was a huge heart. And, under that heart…” she stopped and swallowed, “were letters painted in blood which said ‘Love, Annie’.”

I gasped. I had been expecting Annie to have been victimized. I had even been feeling some kinship towards her. It couldn’t have been easy to have been constantly be called crazy, and then to be cheated on (not that I would know). There was a knock, and we all gasped. I jumped up, ran to the door and pulled it open… Then I screamed like I never had before… Because lying on the doormat was one perfect daisy. A  figure stood on the doormat with the daisy. Annabelle.

“What do you want?” I yelled.

She turned and ran. I chased her through the winding path behind the shed. Hiding with the help of a tree, I watched her sprint into the meadow and begin frantically digging for something. Whatever it was, she didn’t seem to be able to find it. I picked up the daisy and headed back to the cabin. I’d look tomorrow.

“What is it?” Chase asked.

She saw the daisy, and her eyes grew rounder.

“Emma… Where did you get that?

I held the daisy at arm’s length, trying not to hyperventilate.

“It’s nothing,” I gasped. “Just, just some stupid kids playing a stupid prank.”

With that, I threw the daisy into the rain darkened woods as hard as I could. I didn’t sleep that night.

***

The next morning, I ran to the pay phone and inserted two quarters. I only had enough for one call. Oh well, it would have to do. With the memory of the fresh, white, perfect daisy in mind, I dialed.

“Hello?” that familiar voice asked, in confusion.

“Mom,” I gasped. “Mom, you have to come pick me up. I hate it here.”

“What’s wrong?” she asked, clear concern in her voice.

I had her where I wanted her.

“My bunkmates are… strange,” I said, thinking of Lucky and Chase.

“All girls are strange, Emma, love. In fact, you could be described as a little strange yourself, what with the greenpeace thing,” she laughed.

My mom isn’t what you would call outdoorsy.

“They told me a really scary story. Please, Please let me come home,” I begged, losing hope.

“Isn’t that what camp is all about?” she said interestedly. “It looks like everything is fine, Ems. I don’t know why you called me.”

“SOMEBODY LEFT A DAISY IN MY CABIN!” I yelled, starting to lose it.  

“Wow, Emma, it sounds like you have a secret admirer. No need to yell… is everything okay?” she asked. No, everything was not okay.

“You have ten seconds left on this call,” said the recorded cell phone voice. “To call back, please insert two more quarters.”

“Hello?” I said. “Mom? Mom?”

But she was gone.

Without thinking, I ran to the meadow, where Lucky had told me that the two lovers had been killed. I began to dig, digging where Annabelle had been and throwing up lumps of dirt. I didn’t quite understand what I was looking for, only that I would need it. Now that I knew that Annie was Annabelle… was I just going to wave whatever I found in her face and hope that she would confess? I had known who she was from the moment she had laid the daisy on the doormat; I had seen her slender figure holding an umbrella. We had locked eyes for a minute, but then she had disappeared into the rain.

Something brushed my fingers, and I pulled at it. It was a heavy silver ring with something that looked like rust. Blood.

“Maybe this was Annie’s fiance’s ring?” I murmured to myself.

“It is,” a voice said behind me.

I jumped, still clutching the ring. Annabelle — no, Annie — was looking down at me. I screamed; I felt like I’ve been screaming a lot since I came here.

“I’m not going to hurt you, you don’t need to worry,” she said softly. “Your friends, Lucky and Chase have already called the police, and I’m sure they will here shortly. Resourceful girls, aren’t they, Emma?” I nodded, feeling like a fish out of water.

She reached down and plucked the ring from my fingers, examining it.

“You know, Emma, not a day goes by when I don’t regret what I did. I killed the two people I loved most, and now my story will be recovered.”

She paused and looked down at me. “Which is why I want you to write it… the story of Crazy Annie.”

I nodded again, then looked up. Two figures were racing across the meadow, towards us: Lucky and Chase. Police cars were pulling up behind them. Annabelle stood up and dropped something heavy and silver into my palm.

“Goodbye, Emma,” she said.

I stood up too.

“Goodbye, Annie,” I said, waving as she walked towards the officers.

That was the last time I ever saw Annie alive. She died several days after, in prison. Fairview Lake is now run by Marcy, a cheerful, happy, older camper. I would like to say that I am a better person. I have two good friends, Lucky and Chase, and I can finally understand Annie better. I’m back in New York now, thinking of Annie. I have her ring — the heavy, silver thing she gave me — on my dressing table.

 

Love, Emma

 

The Backpack Mishap

The ringing of a bell. Screaming. The end of the school year at Townsend Harris High School. Saying goodbye.

“Alex, wait you forgot your backpack. Here you go.”

“Thanks, Joe. I need to go home. My mom is going to kill me for being late,” replied Alex.

Joe was Alex’s best friend. Alex ran home. His long legs covered ground quickly. He realized that his backpack was heavier than normal. He ran through a mental checklist of what he had in his backpack: pens and his history book. It felt heavier than that. He finally got home and went to have a snack with his mom and brother in the kitchen of their tiny apartment. Alex’s brother, Bob, told him about his day at Hunter College.

He went upstairs and opened his backpack. He saw his papers, mostly B’s with one A. When Alex picked up his heaviest book, World History, he found a sheet of paper, addressed to himself, with directions to go to a building on West 32nd street. Alex debated whether to go to that building or not. He finally decided to go. He had read a lot of mystery books when he was younger, and he wanted to try to solve this one.

At midnight, he opened his bedroom window and climbed onto the fire escape. He walked down the fire escape. He ran until he got to a tall, faded, red-brick building. There was no traffic in this area which, he thought, was strange.

“Is this the place?” Alex wondered out loud.

Alex knocked on the door. Suddenly, a trap door opened underneath him! Alex screamed, but no one heard him. He fell on a long, twisty slide. The slide let him off in a room far below the street.

“Hello? Anyone here?”

The room was dark, with no visible way out. Then, a bear roared, and the lights came on. A huge seven-foot brown bear lumbered toward him. Alex looked around for anything to defend himself. All he saw was a broom. He decided to use the broom. He swung the broom from side to side as the bear approached. He jabbed at the bear who turned tail and ran. Alex examined the room. He saw a hallway near where he stood. Alex ran into the hallway. He looked into all the rooms hoping to see someone. Then he heard a voice that sounded like Joe’s.

It said, “Stop looking around in there. We are over here.”

Alex followed the voice to a room at the end of the hallway. Joe and a large man were sitting on a sleek black leather couch studded with silver buttons.

“I see you got my little present and passed our test with the bear. I work for MHDO — Mayhem and Destruction Order. This is my boss, Mr. Writer,” Joe said. “We have a job proposal. You will get good pay, and the jobs are not hard. Just sign here.”

Joe handed Alex a huge packet.

“Should I read through this 1,000 page packet?” asked Alex.

“Let me give you a brief summary. If you sign here, you give us permission to do whatever we want to you. Your salary is between pages 857-859. If you have any questions call us at 877-241-KILL. That’s 877-241-KILL. Oh, and by the way, that packet is 1,001 pages long. You didn’t count the deductions page. Yeah, just sign here,” Joe replied.

“Okay,” Alex said, feeling trapped.

“You start today. Your first mission is to blow up a building on Broadway. Here are your explosives. Just toss this sphere through a broken window. To blow this up ,you press this red button.”

Along with the sphere, Joe handed Alex something that looked a bit like a joystick for a video game.

“Will anyone get hurt?”

“No, the building is abandoned.”

“Why are you doing this?”

“That is not your business. If you want to stay safe, do what we say.”

Alex did not want to get hurt, so he agreed. He picked up the bag and walked over to a stairway. Alex emerged on West 32nd street. It was around one, and the streets were deserted.  He walked  to the building on Broadway. Alex took the explosives out and threw the bomb through a broken window. A police officer saw Alex and ordered him to get on the ground. When Alex didn’t do that, they got in a fist fight. Alex got battered and bruised but managed to knock out the officer. Alex ran down Broadway. When he got about a mile away, he detonated the bomb. The sound of sirens filled the air. He went back to West 32nd street. He reported that he had completed his mission and was told to go back to his home.

Alex snuck into his bedroom and stared wistfully at the wall, wondering what to do next. After completing his mission for MHDO, his body was all black and blue. His clothes were shredded and torn. He wondered if he should work for them again. Alex felt he would never fully recover from his experience with them.

Suddenly Alex heard a distant voice saying, “Wake up, wake up.”

Alex woke up and groaned, “Where am I?”

“Don’t worry, honey, you just had a fever. I heard you talking in your sleep, so I came into check on you,” his mom replied.

“So it was all a dream?”

“Yes, you can go back to sleep.”

 

Harmonica

Harmonica. Harmonica, Harmonica.

That was all Calum asked for consecutively for four years. He just wanted one. All his friends had one. Lucy had a pink one with jewels along the top, Hannah had a purple one with polka dots, and Mika had a green one with little dinosaurs across the top.

Calum literally begged for one for Christmas, his birthday, and any holiday where he was given presents. Now he was sitting at the party table for his tenth birthday. Calum was surrounded by his family. Then, his Aunt Sarah handed him a neatly wrapped box in colorful paper.

Calum examined the size and weight of the box. Oh my god! he thought, his deep blue eyes widening in anticipation. This feels like a harmonica!

With that thought in his head, he tore apart the multi-colored, zigzag wrapping paper. Excited to finally receive his long awaited treasure, he looked at what laid beneath the paper, and his head fell in disappointment mixed with shock.

Really! Seriously! is this actually happening right now?! he screamed in his mind. What aunt would think her now ten-year-old nephew wanted a mini first aid kit as a birthday present?! Yeah, sure, his father was a doctor, but why would a ten-year-old want a mini first aid kit?

“Auntie, thank you so much. I’m totally gonna use this.

After the party ended, Calum got up to put his presents away. First, he separated them into the categories: actual presents and first aid kits. After he made his piles, he took all the actual presents to his room, and he angrily shoved the first aid kit into his backpack.

The next day at school, the children were finally allowed to go out to the playground. It had rained for the last two days. Finally, they were blessed with the warm yellow glow of sunshine. Lucy went to the swings with her friends, Emily and Hannah. Mika and Calum went over to a spot under the shaded trees and talked for a little. Mika had brought his comic books again so they also read those together. While the two boys were deep into the newest issue of danger zone, they heard Hannah let out a cry of pain. Pulled out of the comic book world, they ran over to their friend to see what had happened. They saw Lucy hovering over a crying Hannah, asking if she was okay. Hannah was holding her hand over her knee. Calum could see that there was some blood on Hannah’s hand.

Since Calum’s dad was a doctor, he went over to Hannah and asked her to move her hand. Hannah did as she was told, and Calum examined the cut. He could tell it was just one of those cuts that wasn’t deep but just bled a lot.

“One second, Hannah, I’ll be right back.”

After he said that to the crying, red-headed girl, he ran over to his backpack and dug through it, looking for the first aid kit. He found it and grabbed the little white box. With the box in his hand, he ran back over to Hannah, noting that more children had gathered around the scene. Calum kneeled beside Hannah and cleaned the cut.

“Hannah, this might sting a little, but just bear with me, okay?” After Calum had cleaned the cut, remembering the steps his father showed him, he grabbed the Neosporin and put a little on the cut. Then, he unwrapped a waterproof band-aid and laid it gently over her cut.

“There. All done,” Calum said.

Mika was the first to say something after that.

Mika said, “Calum, that was so awesome. How did you know what to do, and how did you have the supplies for it with you?”  

Calum replied, “I just keep a first aid kit with me. No big deal!”

Everyone looked towards him in awe, like he was some First Aid King. Calum decided he could get used to that look. The last thing Calum thought before he and Mika retreated back over to their spot under the tree was, Maybe this gift wasn’t that bad after all. Although, he still wanted his harmonica.

 

Colorado

         

The creak of broken brakes and

the soft whoosh of bicycle wheels

lift up lazy dogs’ heads

as we slip through the night.

 

Blinking red lights announce the arrival

of the thunderstorm of a train pounding past,

the rhythmic thudding echoing with

our pulsing hearts,

pumped full of exhilaration,

a drug that makes us pedal faster,

round and round empty lots,

our hands lifted recklessly in the air,

our eyes reflected, full of light.

 

As the train pulls away,

the empty night, stars masked by the scintillating city,

receives our worries and confessions,

covered up by the train’s screaming whistles.

 

Iceland

        

We woke up early that day,

a cold morning with icy winds that burnt our faces.

We gripped our hot chocolates with stiff fingers,

every sip of warm rich liquid somehow warmer than a summer day,

because despite the cold wasteland surrounding us,

we felt warm inside, and happy.

 

We woke up early that day,

at the hour when even streetlights and road signs were drowsy.

I slept in the back seat of a borrowed car while my parents drank coffee,

and struggled to stop their eyes from sinking

as they stayed awake through the deep white blue snow that led down the road

to where the earliest touches of sun, orange and glowing,

lit up through the clouds and shone upon the glaciers that surrounded us,

and filled up the sky more than the sky itself.

 

We woke up early that day,

to set steady feet on a swaying deck

that would carry us across vast blue waves with foamy white crests

to a distant island with only duck prints, and icy hills

that could be skated down with any old shoes.

So we ran and slid across the slick surface

before falling down the rest of the way,

our laughter guarding us from the jagged ice at the bottom.

 

The Stealer

Once there was a butterfly who was named Carl. He lived in the West District of New Yorkie in the United States of Animalerica. Where Carl was from, everybody was an animal. Carl was grumpy and had an open dislike of the world because he could not get the precious Purple Spring Flower Plant. This plant was the most important thing in Carl’s life. It was the only thing that could give him even the slightest bit of happiness. Carl had wanted this flower all his life from the day he first saw it in the Museum of Botany. He was visiting the museum with his mother on a special trip for his fifth birthday. The ironic thing was that the day Carl glimpsed it, the massive Gorilla, Matt, broke in and stole it. Carl realized that the plant would’ve been easily accessible if it weren’t for Matt.

Matt was huge and was made up of pure muscle. He could crush a 50 pound weight with his toe. Like Carl, Matt adored the Purple Spring Flower Plant, and he thought he could protect it and cherish it in all its glory forever. That was, until Carl.

Now, you may be asking why this plant was so precious to some. There was a myth that if you kept the Plant in the perfect amount of heat and sunlight, it would produce an elixir that could give someone immortal life. Carl wanted the plant, not because of the immortal life, although that would be pretty nice if you ask me, but purely because he thought that the Plant was absolutely stunning. Matt the Gorilla only wanted it so he could become immortal and take over the world. Matt had the flower for a long time, waiting for the elixir. But for some reason the Plant did not want to make its elixir for Matt. Carl realized that since the Plant didn’t like Matt, he might have a chance at getting it and taking it for himself.

So he devised a plan to reclaim the Plant and finally receive true happiness. Carl needed to think about three things: Matt the Gorilla, getting in, and the alarms. To deal with Matt, Carl thought that he could sneak in to Matt’s cave in the underground Mines of Zoo. The Mines were created by the moles that used to dig for diamonds there. Carl also needed to deal with the alarms. Carl knew that Matt was an absolute madman and had stolen many various objects and hurt many people in the past. And if he caught Carl, he would rip him to pieces. Carl chose the tunnel entrance to the cave, which was behind the cemetery a couple blocks from the Museum of Botany. The moles had used and made this entrance to get into the mines easily. He would use these mines in his map for his heist. Carl would sneak in through there and then find the room where Matt was hiding the Purple Spring Flower Plant. Even though this would be difficult and frightening, Carl would do anything for the Plant.

The day had finally come. Carl needed to make his move at night so it would be harder for Matt to see him. He had drawn a map and a plan of what he was going to do and how he was going to do it. It was starting to get late in the day, and Carl was still prepping and planning. He put on his robber clothes, a black jacket and black pants, and started sneaking down his street. He snuck past the Museum of Botany and slowly got closer to the Mines. When he got there, he realized that Matt might not be asleep, which could make the job harder, but Carl still went on.

Carl was inside the tunnels when he heard an electrical sound. He turned the corner and saw a full-on laser wall with what looked like over 50 lasers that seemed practically impossible to get past. He hurled a rock from the ground into the lasers, and they cut the rock straight in half. Carl used his flying maneuvering skills he learned at a camp one summer when he was little to get past the lasers. He did kicks and dives and rolls to get past the wall. He almost did it perfectly, but he missed a jump and a little bit of his left wing was cut off. He was in major pain, but he couldn’t even shout because he didn’t want Matt to hear him. He saw he was dripping blood and could feel it trickling down his body and onto the floor but couldn’t do anything about it. So he kept on going.

In the next area, he found a room made up of stepping stones on the floor that had symbols on them. He knew that they needed to be stepped on with a pattern so he thought about what it could be. Then it hit him. What would Matt use as a password to defend the Flower? He’s a dumb gorilla for goodness sakes. He would just use “Flower”! He realized the signs were Roman numerals, so he did the number equivalents of the word “flower” in the alphabet. VI, XII, XV, XXIII, V, XVIII was the pattern, and to Carl’s surprise, it worked! He did it, he had gotten past the steps of doom! Or so he thought….    Carl was elated that he had figured out the passcode but he didn’t notice one thing: the part of his wing that had been lasered off had been dripping blood the whole time and had been activating the silent alarm Matt had set up. Carl didn’t know it at the time, but Matt was being alerted of Carl’s presence at that very moment.

Carl kept moving and finally arrived in a room with many doors. Each door had its own little pattern, and each doorknob was carefully carved with wood. One of the doors had the flower and Matt in it and that one would be the most dangerous. Carl looked in each and every room twice, and none of them had anything in them.

Carl was about to leave when he heard something moving behind him. He felt the hair on his neck stick way up. He slowly turned around and saw the one thing he didn’t want to see. Matt! Carl turned an odd shade of green and felt the need to run. So he did exactly that. He turned and ran.

Even though he knew Matt would probably catch up to him, Carl knew that he was smarter than Matt and could divert him with a distraction of some sort. Carl ran to a crossroads and ripped out some of his wing feather  to distract Matt and make him think he went the other way. Matt, the dumb ape that he was, somehow fell for it. Carl immediately turned around and went searching for the Plant. He could hear Matt’s screams of rage and disarray but kept running.  

Finally, he glimpsed one room and saw the flower out of the corner of his eye. He opened the door and felt amazing as he ran towards it without thinking about anything else. He looked at the flower, and tears started welling up in his eyes. He gently picked up the plant and started running out the door. He heard Matt coming so he ran back into the room and closed the door. He could hear Matt’s heavy breathing. Matt started walking away, so Carl opened the door and ran.

Carl finally found his way to the tunnels and started climbing up one of them which was especially rocky. The footholds were very small and the handholds were even smaller. He heard Matt go into the tunnel room and heard him checking each tunnel. He was getting to Carl’s tunnel when a mouse made a noise that sounded like a footstep, and Matt went over and checked what it was. At that moment, Carl decided to climb as fast as he could. He got to the top and started running as fast as he could and got to his house. He called the police and sat on his couch with an awestruck look. The police answered, and he told them everything and so they came, picked up the Flower, and thanked him profusely. They went off and arrested Matt for thievery of many items including the Plant. Carl knew he would get a good night’s sleep knowing he had done a good deed for society.

It was a day after the taking of the Flower. Carl was inside his home in the living room watching the news about how he, Carl the Butterfly, stole the Purple Spring Flower Plant from Matt the Gorilla. He was still shaking and feeling the excitement over and over in his head. Carl was thinking about how he had sent Matt to jail and how great it felt to give the Flower back to the Museum of Botany, even when he knew he slightly wanted it for himself. He had never been so happy in his life. Carl just sat there smiling while looking out the window at the sunset. He had no idea I’ve been watching him this whole time….

 

Darkheart’s Curse

Guide To The World of The Prides

  1. Ceremonies A very common ceremony is a Dragoning ceremony, in which a fledgling becomes a dragon. It gives this new dragon a new name (if they wish) and they receive bursts. Another ceremony is a Fledgling ceremony, in which a hatchling gets a teacher and officially becomes a fledgling.
  2. Chores and Status: Fledglings are in training to become dragons, so they get a good share of all the dirty work, like cleaning out bedding and washing underneath the elder’s wings. They also are in charge of the runaway hatchlings. Dragons are in charge of teaching the fledglings. They also must hunt and fetch water soaked in leaves, lichen, moss, or rotting wood. Elders are, well, elders. They are very old dragons that deserve respect. They spend all day napping in the sun or telling stories from their adventures as a young dragon.
  3. Leaders get their names based on their Pride. Ex: Coraltail of LeafPride- CoralLeaf, LeafPride’s leader.

 

Prologue

Rain quivered with excitement as she crouched atop the Leaf Rock, watching as CoralLeaf, their leader, sauntered with her head held high towards her sister (Rosy), Weaver, Blazing, and herself. Blazing was letting out little peeps of anticipation, awarding a venomous hiss from Weaver.

Don’t mess us up!” Rosy whispered angrily. “We’ve got to look good in front of our Pride leader!”

“Shush!” Rain whispered as she looked out over the entire of LeafPride, feeling twice as jittery as before.

“Shush yourself!”

“EVERYONE SHUT UP! SHE’S COMING!” Weaver whisper-screamed.

All of the fledglings on the rock tried to look as innocent as they could possibly muster, hastily smiling at their leader.

CoralLeaf smiled knowingly at them, and they all relaxed. Maybe CoralLeaf wasn’t the scary, ruthless leader everyone portrayed the pride leaders as.

“It is time to announce the Dragoning ceremony for these fledglings. They have learned the ways of the pride and deserve to be accepted as full dragons.” CoralLeaf announced in her deep, booming voice that made you want to turn and listen.

In a Dragoning ceremony, fledglings received their new name and bursts. Bursts were circles surrounded by little circles, spreading out like bursts. They can be red (firebursts), brown (earthbursts), pink (rosybursts), black (nightbursts), etc.

I hope that I get rose-goldbursts, Rain thought excitedly as the others received their bursts and new name.

“Now, Rain, step forward…”

Rain nearly threw up. This was the scariest, and best, moment of her life.

“Do you wish to alter your name?”

Rain thought hard about this. It took her about ten seconds, but then she responded, her voice wavering, “Yes, CoralLeaf.”

Rain’s claws scratched at the rock in anticipation.

“Rainfeather, welcome to the Pride.” CoralLeaf touched her muzzle to Rainfeather’s, and rose-goldbursts appeared all over her light blue body.

Rainfeather caught her mother, Quiet Rain’s, eye, and it glistened with tears as she screamed with all her might, “RAINFEATHER! RAINFEATHER!”

Rainfeather felt as if she might cry a bit, too. She was a dragon now. She could eat, sleep, hunt, and guard as she wished, take a mate (although she surely wasn’t ready for that), and be respected by all of the hatchlings and fledglings. Of course, Rainfeather was going to use this power to the full extent of helping her Pride. LeafPride would be proud of her one day.

 

Chapter 1

“DARKSCALES!” CoralLeaf called from the Leaf Rock. “Where is he?” she asked Rainfeather, who was seated at the base of the rock.

“I have no idea,” she answered truthfully. “But I think he’s up to no good. Why haven’t you thrown him out of LeafPride yet?”

“Because he’s a useful asset,” she snapped. “He has been into the depths of the forest. We need him, Rainfeather! He can help us claim the land there. Great SunPride, for once, think with your brain and not your heart!”

This was a harsh blow to Rainfeather, who was a trusted and experienced dragon to CoralLeaf.

“I’m sorry, CoralLeaf. I’ll try harder.”

“No, no, it is I who should be sorry. It’s just so harsh these days. I feel like I don’t even know who my Pride are anymore… the traitors, the loyal ones… oh, Rainfeather!” CoralLeaf ran down the rock and cried into Rainfeather’s shoulder. T

he leader’s normally bright blue and red scales turned into depressing shades of purple and gray. The cold tears running down Rainfeather’s scales were a shock, so she jerked suddenly. This just made CoralLeaf cry harder, so Rainfeather tried to comfort her. As you will soon see, this is not her strong suit.

“I know, CoralLeaf, I know… everything you’re saying is true…” More tears. “But we’ll get over it… CoralLeaf, snap out of it!” She tried a harsher tone. “Do you think StrongStorm of StormPride and WindSnow of SnowPride are acting like this? Shape up! Become a leader, CoralLeaf!”

CoralLeaf gave one last sniff, then sighed.

“Thank you. Now, I will take your advice and talk to Darkscales. If your allegations are true, if he is raising an army using forbidden magic, then I will remove him from the Pride. If not, he’s still on cleaning duty. He misbehaves enough as it is.”

She suddenly saw Darkscales walking across a strip of grass, caught his eye, and beckoned him to her den with a flick of her tail. Rainfeather, however, decided to go on an evening flight. Just herself and the jagged peaks cutting into the horizon. She needed time to think.

On the flight, Rainfeather gave herself time to think about what had happened within the first moon of being a full dragon. She had been given a fledgling to train. Her name was Willow, and she had been a very good pupil until she had gotten the sickness, Cloverfever, which had made her very tired and unable to train. When she was cured by the Sorcerer Rock, she was inspired to start training for being a Sorceress.

Rainfeather’s father, River, had just been promoted to second-in-line, while Splash, River’s brother, had just been demoted to a regular dragon from second-in-line, so a lot of fights were breaking out between her kin.

In addition to both of these problems was Darkheart.

Many of the female dragons in the Pride fell for him. He was sleek, with a fit, wiry black body with night bursts. Suuuuuuuuuper handsome.

Also suuuuuuuuuuuper evil!

There is a special kind of magic called dark magic. It was forbidden by Leaf, Storm, and Snow, the ancient founders of the Prides. Rainfeather once caught Darkheart using it, and Rainfeather suspected that he was using it to raise an army (You would be sure, too, if you slept next to him in the dragon den! He talks in his sleep!)

Rainfeather sighed and tears welled in her eyes. Nothing was right with the world. Suddenly, she heard a noise and jumped.

“Rainfeather?”

“Blazingwings!”

The fiery dragon appeared beside her, and she swooped down to a nearby rocky cliff so that they could talk.

“What do you want, Blazingwings?” Rainfeather asked cautiously.

Blazingwings looked nervous, his claws scraping on the rock.

“Rainfeather…” Blazingwings took a deep breath, then let it out. “This is going to sound awkward, because we’ve been friends for years, but…” he cleared his throat.

Rainfeather began to sweat. I’ve liked Blazingwings for a long time now… is he going to ask what I think he’s going to ask?

“Rainfeather, will you be my — ” Blazingwings was interrupted by a violent screaming.

“HELP!!! DARKSCALES IS ATTACKING! DARKSCALES IS ATTA — ” The shrill scream was cut off by a sickening crack as the screamer’s neck was snapped horrifyingly. By a dragon.

“Blazingwings! We have to help them!”

Rainfeather and Blazingwings took off toward the clearing in which they lived.

“Rainfeather, if we get through this, will you be my mate?”

“What’s more important now are our Pridemates! Remove all that lovey-dovey stuff from your head and replace it with rage! Our friends are being slaughtered!” Rainfeather cried as she dove into battle.

Rainfeather came face-to-face with Nightmoon, a respected dragon that was a moon older than her. He leaped on Rainfeather and started to attack. She twisted around, and although it exposed her belly, she managed to get in a few good scrapes at his soft underside, watching as purple dragon blood welled up at his wounds.

“Why are you attacking me?” Rainfeather demanded as she slipped away from his grasp.

“I am Darkheart’s dragon now, not puny little CoralLeaf’s!” Nightmoon snarled, swiping at Rainfeather with his newly sharpened claws.

“Who is Darkheart?” Rainfeather dodged his swipe, then rolled over and tripped him.

“You might know him as Darkscales? But of course, that’s his dragon name, a name to be scorned. I am Nightheart now!”

He attempted to swipe at her face, but she caught his claw midair in her teeth and yanked it to the ground, pulling him down with it. Then, quick as a snake, Rainfeather placed a paw on his neck to cut off his air supply.

“Tell me where your loyalty lies,” she snarled. “Featherstripe raised you. We fed you, trained you, kept you safe just so you could grow up to abandon your Pride and become wicked?”

“I- I’m sorry,” he faltered. “Take… paw… off… neck… so… I… can… explain…”

Rainfeather released her paw off his neck but sat on him so he couldn’t make an escape. In the heat of the battle, she didn’t notice that Blazingwings was fighting off Splash, and that CoralLeaf was finishing up with a deadly bite to Storm’s neck, who had nearly killed her.

“Darkheart promised us fame and power, so we went into his den to talk. But then he hypnotized us, so we were his army, and we had to do whatever he said. Now I know the antidote!” he exclaimed. “The antidote is to be reminded of your family. I feel as if a cloud has lifted from my brain.”

Rainfeather leaped off of him.

“Come on, then! Let’s fight!”

They began a session of back-to-back, fending off Darkheart’s soldiers.

“Take that — and that — Lilystream?”

“I FIGHT FOR DARKHEART NOW!”

The usually kind pale-pink dragon cried. Now, you could see the enraged fire burning in her eyes.

Rainfeather broke the back to back formation and leaped on Lilystream, screaming, “REMEMBER YOUR MOTHER, FEATHERSTRIPE! REMEMBER YOUR BROTHER, NIGHTMOON!”

Uncertainty flickered for a moment in Lilystream’s eyes. “Don’t you mean Nightheart?”

“NO! Your brother made the right decision and joined us. He’s Nightmoon.” Rainfeather growled angrily.

They writhed on the ground for a little while, Lilystream tried to resist the antidote, which made her have the urge to shake the spell off. Suddenly, she gave in to the spell.

“Fine. FINE! I’m on your side now.” She looked a bit embarrassed to have given up, as if she had proven that she wasn’t strong enough a million times over to defeat her greatest foe, but Rainfeather leaped off of her and surveyed the area.

There were bodies of dragons littered across the hollow, some injured, some even dead. Darkheart stood in the midst of them all, smiling triumphantly.

“Be careful, LeafPride.” He snorted, then let out a bout of cackles that made you want to run for the hills. “I’ve raised my army. Now, if you’re with me, follow.” He strutted out of the hollow, followed by Weaver (Which broke Rainfeather’s heart), Reedtail, Tall, Bounce, Fin, Winter, Streak, and many of Rainfeather’s family.

Russetflame, Rainfeather’s favorite sister, was leaving, and so was Rainfeather’s oldest brother, Sunscales, and Splash, her uncle. And what hurt most of all…

Her mother was leaving.

Quiet Rain had gone to join them.

Rainfeather ran up to her and looked into her eyes.

“Are you really leaving?” She murmured so quietly, so softly, that she nearly mouthed it.

Quiet Rain nodded and did the tiniest nuzzle to Rainfeather’s neck.

“I will always love you. It’s not my fault that you haven’t seen the sense in leaving, but you are still my daughter and my favorite,” she added softly, so Russetflame couldn’t hear. “Goodbye.”

“No, Mother! Please! You have to stay!” Rainfeather had never felt so helpless and… alone. Mother was the only dragon I could turn to with a problem, and now she’s joining my greatest enemy! She thought helplessly.

“I’ve got to go.”

“MOTHERRRRRRRRR!!! Hurry up! Stop wasting your time on that lowdown piece of plankton. Is she harassing you? I have no idea who she is.”

Rainfeather gasped in shock when she saw who that voice belonged to. It was Russetflame, her favorite sister!

“I am not a piece of plankton! I am your sister!” Rainfeather was surprised at the rage that burned inside of her. “Your pirate sidekick! Your best friend! And now you’re betraying all of us! What you’re doing is absolutely despicable!” Rainfeather gave her a quick slice with her claws on the back of her ear, then stalked away.

Rainfeather peered behind her and saw Russetflame fuming from the public humiliation, but she flew after Darkheart.

Soon, all of Darkheart’s army had left, and LeafPride was left with a puny pack of sniveling Dragons.

Darkheart had wreaked havoc on LeafPride.

 

Chapter 2

“Okay, is everyone ready? Head count, head count! Two, four, six, eight, ten. Great, we’re all here!”

River was counting heads for the journey that the dragons would take to defeat Darkheart. Rainfeather, River, Rosytail, Nightmoon, Featherstripe, Dawn, Dusk, Lusa, Luna, and Blazingwings were coming on the journey to defeat Darkheart.

Over the past moon, Blazingwings and Rainfeather had, yes, become mates. Rainfeather was excited to go on their first mission together.

“Are you guys ready? Everyone packed?” River was the leader for the mission, so he was taking his role very seriously.

“Stop being such a bossypants!” Rosytail exclaimed impatiently. “Yes! We’re ready! We are not helpless hatchlings!”

Rainfeather butted her side.

“You will respect our father! He’s earned the right to be bossy. He’s our second-in-line!”

Rosytail muttered something under her breath, but she set off after the others without another word.

Along the way, they picked up some healing plants in case someone got hurt. That was a good move. Dusk got thirteen scrapes! He also hit his head on a rock and was knocked unconscious — a rough start to a heroic journey.

When he came to, everyone crowded around him.

“I’m fine, I’m fine!” he insisted. He stood up. “Lusa! Luna! Stop pestering me!”

“We are your sorceresses, and we will not stop. If you are seriously hurt, then it’s important that we help.” Luna attempted to explain, but Dusk kept on fighting her.

Finally, Luna gave in. “Let’s keep on going,” she muttered wearily.

They were going on this journey to find Darkheart’s whereabouts. Find him, and then defeat him. LeafPride was suffering greatly due to the lost Pride members, so the elders had held a council and decided that if Darkheart was dead, the curse would be lifted, and everyone who was hypnotized would come home.

Suddenly, Rainfeather felt a jolt of pain in her belly and cried out.

“Lusa! Luna! What is wrong with my mate?” Blazingwings demanded.

“It’s just a bellyache,” Rainfeather moaned. “No need to check me.”

The sorceresses in training rushed over to feel her belly to see if anything was wrong.

“Yep, just a regular old bellyache,” Luna conceded. “Here, eat a bit of this.” She handed Rainfeather a bundle of bitter-smelling herbs. “They’ll help!”

After she managed to keep that bitter stuff down, she leaped to her paws. “Let’s go!”

They trekked on for the entire day, and they did not stop until the sun disappeared from the horizon.

“We’d better go to sleep now,” said River. “There’s no point in continuing on in the darkness.”

***

Suddenly, Rainfeather awoke to what felt like a poke from a hatchling’s claw. It poked, and poked, and poked again.

“Mmmpphhhhhhhhhh!” Rainfeather moaned exasperatedly and rolled over.

Right onto a hatchling.

It was the most bloodcurdling screech Rainfeather ever heard. She jumped up.

“Are you okay?”

In the early morning light, she could make out an orange and purple hatchling crossing her stubby arms and glaring at her.

“MOMMY! That was not nice!” the little dragon yelped.

Mommy?” Rainfeather asked. “I am not your mother!”

“Yes, you are! I hatched last night, while you were asleep! And my sister is here, too!”

A little green, purple, and blue dragon appeared beside her sister. Rainfeather was awestruck. Children? Surely she wasn’t ready!

“What are our names, Mama?”

Rainfeather was very surprised that no one else had woken up from all of the racket.

“Uh…” She thought fast.

The second dragon had watery colors, so she could be named Misty. The other was harder. Maybe she could be named Aurora. It was her grandmother’s name.

“You are Aurora,” she said, pointing to Aurora, “And you are Misty.”

“And you are Rainfeather,” said Misty.

Wait. Rainfeather had never told Misty that.

“How do you know?”

“You dreamt so last night.”

“You can hear my dreams?”

The little dragon thought for a moment, then replied, “Yes. I think so.”

 

 

The Wilkołak

I never left the town much. It’s safe there, warm, especially in the winter. But we were in trouble now. The well had frozen up, and the rest of the animals were hibernating. The Król appointed me to hunt in the forest, so I had to accept.

I tightened my bowstring as I entered the forest. When I was a child, I would hear stories and fairy tales about this place. One that particularly came to mind was the Wilkołak, a creature that dwelled in the forest because the foliage would block out the sun. It was said to be half-man, half-wolf, and when you were bitten, you would instantly start to become one. My good friend from when I was in school, Marcel, told me that. Today when I left, he said, “Vladek! Be careful of the Wilkołak!”

I knew he was joking, but as I walked in, it felt real. As far as the eye could see, there were trees. I walked a few meters and heard a rustling noise. I jumped and scraped my hand on the sharp and coarse bark. I looked and saw a small rabbit bounding along. The leaves from the trees must have been so thickly woven together that the snow barely got through.

The further I walked, the darker it got. The separations from the trees became more varied, making the light harder to get through. I dug around in my pocket and pulled out a box of matches. I lit one and carried through.

As it got darker, the wildlife and animals seemed to get more sparse, with more fallen leaves than before. I sniffed the air and picked up the scent of blood. Looking around with my match in my hand, I saw it. It was a boar, dead, with its stomach torn out by a beast far stronger than anything else I’ve ever seen. I tried to get some meat and carried on.

One thing about this part of the forest was that sticks and fallen leaves piled up, making traversing it extremely difficult. I was crawling over a fallen log when I heard a large growling. I immediately dropped my match and drew an arrow. Frantically looking around, I waited for another sound. Rustling came from the pile of fallen leaves.

I slowly walked forward, until I stepped on a broken branch. I heard another growl and the sounds of an animal running. I quickly pulled back the drawstring and let go the arrow. Fwing! It quickly left my hand and went forward into the darkness. I lit another match and went forward to see what I had hit. With a snail’s pace, I stepped over. I smelt blood and heard the slow heavy breathing of the animal. Looking over, I was horrified at what I saw. It was the Wilkołak.

It looked up, with its bright yellow eyes and stained claws. Its breath smelled of blood, not because of the wound, but because of its prey. Marcel told me more about the Wilkołak, namely its metal-like fur that was stronger than iron, but as soft as a dog’s. It was impenetrable, but only by a single material. Srebro. Argentum. Silver.

When my father was still alive, and I was nine, he gave me a small knife after he came back from his journey around Europe. He said to me: “Vladek. Remember this. Keep this with you at all times. It might save your life one day.” It was an Italian switchblade, made by a great cutler from Istanbul. I knew it cost him much, so I always carried it with me. But the one part that always stuck out to me was the material: Ottoman Silver.

Slowly, not to provoke it, I slid the dagger out from my pocket. My palms were sweaty while trying to flip open the blade. Knees weak, it finally flipped open. With all my might, I stabbed that foul beast! And it howled, oh it howled! The depths of the Piekło opened up and swallowed it. It was gone.

I picked up my blade and walked back. Light seemed to fly through the leaves, and wildlife sprang to life. It was like a demon was expelled from this place. My arms were heavy, but I manage to get  some game. I was tired. It was late. But I had to get back home. This forest was a maze, but I had killed its monster.

I finally reached the exit. My face was gaunt and sleepy. Marcel greeted me at the gate.

“Bóg! What happened to you?”

I managed to softly say, “Wilkołak,” but he didn’t hear me. No one would believe me. No one else questioned. They were all just happy I brought meat back. The Król crowned me a hero. I was not a hero. I just did what I had to do to survive.

***

I was on my porch, watching the town bustle around. I was also reading a book about history and the Roman Empire. After that hunt, I tried to make my leisure activities more intellectual. Even though it had only been a day or so from then, my hair seemed to gray. My face was paler, more gaunt. My jacket looked more worn. My boots looked ages old. The town crowned me as a hero now, but they did not know of what actually happened. Even though we were still in deep winter, they held a feast in my honor. Bah! What a waste. I saw the hunters on their way. Bows, knives, torches, everything the town had to offer on their backs. Of course they’ll come back fine, for as far as I knew, there wasn’t another Wilkołak out there, but who knows? Maybe someone else will know what I’ve seen.

***

It’s been quite a while since I killed the Wilkołak, maybe three or four months, but it still haunts me. There hasn’t been another sighting yet. Every hunt I am invited to,  I always decline. I cannot go back there. I will never go back there. I will never leave the town again.

 

The Worst Roommate

 

**CONTENT ADVISORY: The following story contains sensitive content regarding suicide that some readers may find disturbing and/or may not be suitable for younger readers.**

I had the worst roommate on the planet. You may think I’m exaggerating, but someone has to be the worst, and I genuinely believe it was this guy. The university I’m at has an absurd policy regarding changing your roommate, and if yours isn’t actively plotting to murder you, you’re out of luck.

Anyways, on the first day at school, I walked into the dorm and I found him sitting in the fetal position on one of the kitchen stools. He had an unfortunate combination of greasy long hair and a messy beard that did not compliment anything about him. He was wearing a long sleeve, flannel shirt with some ominous stains and nothing else besides some boxers. I paused for a moment but decided that I was nobody to judge and nodded to him. He gave no signs of having noticed my presence, his eyes fixed on the entirely unremarkable wall opposite of him. I went and unpacked my stuff in the room he hadn’t taken and returned to the common area to find him sitting in the exact same position, looking like he hadn’t moved a muscle. I cleared my throat. No response. I cautiously offered a simple verbal greeting. Nothing. At this point, decently creeped out, I slowly made my way over to him and tapped him on the shoulder. His head violently spun around, and he focused his beady eyes on mine. I had no idea how to react, and apparently neither did he, because we sat there staring at each other for a moment. Finally, he broke the silence with a line that I’m now sure he has tried dozens of times.

“Let me tell you about the Jews and their lies,” he said sharply.

What followed was a very uncomfortable and very one-sided conversation about lizard people, the moonmen, the world government, Hillary Clinton and of course, the Jews. I was finally able to make my escape by claiming a need to use the restroom.

“Make sure not to drink the water from the sink!” he shouted after me.

Although it had originally upset me, I was suddenly very glad that my pet lizard was safe at home, being taken care of my Jewish, liberal family, far, far away from this madman. I spent a few moments mentally preparing myself for the year I would have to spend with this man. I stepped back outside into the common room, calming myself with the knowledge that this was probably the worst it would get. Boy, was I wrong. When I had exited the bathroom, my roommate was once again intently staring at the exact same point on the wall as before.

“What are you looking at anyway?” I asked, curiosity having finally got the better of me

“Ghosts,” he muttered.

I decided to end the conversation right there and walked into my room and pulled out my laptop, hoping to find some distraction from what had just transpired. I mainly played video games on a console back home, but I had finally caved into the pressure from my friends and bought a gaming laptop and a few games I hadn’t gotten around to yet. I fished around for the paper with the wi-fi information and password I had been given, and once I connected I started downloading a few games that my friends had recommended. I opened up my web browser and mindlessly browsed the internet while I waited for the games to finish downloading. An hour or so later I alt-tab-ed over to see how the download progress was going and was shocked to see that it had barely downloaded anything. The download speed was abysmal, significantly lower than what was promised by the university. I was annoyed at myself for actually believing the promise of high speed internet when something occurred to me.

I walked out into the common area and was briefly surprised to see the stool that my roommate had been occupying was now empty, but I figured he must be in his room. I walked up to the closed door and knocked on it.

“Who is it?” shouted his muffled voice.

“It’s just me,” I responded.

Labored footsteps could be heard approaching the door, followed by the sound of many locks being undone. When the door was finally open, he had a toothy grin.

“Well, you should have just said so!” he stated excitedly as he welcomed me in. “But for future reference, could you knock three times? That way I know it’s not the police,” he requested as he closed the door behind him and locked it’s many locks.

My feeling of discomfort only strengthened as I entered the room. In only a short few hours, he had managed to make the dorm room that had been meticulously cleaned only days ago look like it had not seen any love in a very long time. The window was covered by a black painted piece of plywood and the lights were off, so the only source of light was coming from a nice-looking computer monitor sitting on the floor in the corner of the room. It was attached to an impressive looking PC with a fan that sounded like a jet engine, and a blanket and some pillows were sitting around the setup with the keyboard and mouse, all strategically placed on the floor in what was most likely the only possible comfortable position. There were a few cardboard boxes lying around, all unlabeled. The only decoration was a bright and happy poster for some K-pop act, which only managed to make the room altogether even sadder.

“You wouldn’t happen to be doing anything bandwidth-intensive, would you?” I inquired, after having taken it all in.

“Oh, yeah yeah yeah! I have a special program that encrypts everything I do online so that it can’t be monitored by an ISP or the government and right now I’m downloading some stuff so it kinda eats through the bandwidth, sorry about that. I set it up for you if you’d like though!” he said, emphatically motioning over to the monitor, where an unfamiliar user interface sat, doing … something. As I looked closer I realized that he was torrenting some file with a name that appeared to be Japanese written in the English alphabet. An idea hit me.

“Hey, I gotta go out to do something, but I just realized that I don’t even know your name,” I said cautiously.

“Oh, you can call me Wiley,” he responded.

“Thanks. I’m Logan,” I said as I started towards the door. I reached for the handle when I realized that I had no idea how to undo the hastily installed extra locks.

“Sorry, I’ll get that for you,” Wiley said.

When I was in the common area, I took out my phone and Googled the name of the Japanese file he was downloading. It was anime porn.

***

“What!?” I spat.

“Can you prove that you have been threatened or are in danger?” repeated the annoyed-looking lady in the campus dormitory offices.

“Well, no, I just got here. He just creeps me out, okay?” I responded.

“If you can’t prove anything, we can’t do anything, got that?” she said, rolling her eyes.

“He said that the Jews are controlling everything! I’m Jewish!” I said, bewildered.

“Well, that’s just his opinion, okay? Now, if you’re done complaining, I have work to do,” she said, turning her body away from me and making it very clear that the conversation was over.

Feeling defeated and offended, I returned to the dorm room to find Wiley in the common area setting up a TV that had probably been impressive a few years ago. It was connected to a very long cable that snaked over to and under his door.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s you! I was thinking that maybe we could play some video games!” he said excitedly, motioning over to the couch where a wireless controller was sitting there waiting for me. I was going to just head back to my room without saying a word, but when I thought about how much time he had put into setting up the TV, I decided to indulge him for a bit and sat down on the couch. He started up Portal 2, one of the games I had attempted to download earlier and had always wanted to play. He selected the co-op mode and we started playing the game. It was fun. A lot of fun, actually. At first neither of us said much, but as the puzzles ramped up in difficulty, we were forced to communicate and actually ended up with some decent banter and jokes and ate some pizza. Although many of the jokes were somewhat offensive (most notably when he referred to the game’s villain as “what happens when you have more chromosomes than IQ points”), he mostly seemed to be in good fun. Thankfully, he never brought up any of his conspiracy theories, although he did examine the pizza for an unnecessarily long time before allowing either of us to bite into it. When I finally got to bed, my face had taken on a smile.

***

“So there’s this girl in one of my classes, and I think I might be interested in her,” I said during a lull in the gameplay. It had been several months now, and us playing games and talking about unrelated things had become a fairly regular occurrence.

“What’s her name?” Wiley asked in the same monotone voice he always spoke in.

“I haven’t talked to her yet, but I believe her name is Rochelle,” I responded.

“What’s she like?” he asked.

“Well, as I said, we haven’t talked yet, but she has this adorable smile and laugh, and she seems super nice and likes a lot of the same music as me,” I said, barely concealing my excitement.

“I see,” Wiley responded in the same cadence as before.

***

“Listen, he’s just creepy, okay?” my girlfriend Rochelle said.

“Look, he’s not that bad once you get to know him, and besides he doesn’t have the long-term planning skills to murder someone anyways,” I said.

“That man is a school shooting waiting to happen, and you know it,” she retorted.

“That sounds like something that he would say,” I teased.

“Shut up!” Rochelle said, with an embarrassed smile on her face. She continued, “Going back to the topic at hand, do you want to come over tonight or not?”

“Yeah sure, but I already told you that I’m going back at 10. Wiley and I have plans to finally finish up Castle Crashers,” I responded.

That night I had found myself cuddling with Rochelle when I suddenly became aware of the time. It was 10:45.

“Oh fuck,” I muttered, mostly to myself. “I gotta shoot Wiley a message to let him know that I’m busy.” I hammered out a basic text message saying that I was with Rochelle and that I was busy. I then put my phone back down and slowly drifted off to sleep.

I woke up and reached for my phone to check the time. It was dead. I had forgotten to plug it back in after I sent the message to Wiley. Shit. I checked the physical clock on the wall and saw that I was late for my engineering classes. Shit. With no time to charge my phone, I quickly threw on last night’s clothes and ran to my class.

Wiley wasn’t in class that day. Not that him skipping class was an unusual occurrence – in fact he he did it more often than not, but I was eager to see him in person to apologize. When class ended, I dashed back to our dorm room to find him. I found a small, handwritten note on the common room table.

“I’m sorry that I wasn’t good enough for you. It was nice to know what it felt like to have a friend. Goodbye Logan.” the note read.

Terrified, I looked around for him. His door was closed. I reached for the handle. It was unlocked. As long as I had known him, Wiley had never had his door unlocked, whether he was there or not. With a massive sense of dread, I slowly turned the knob, pushed, and stepped into the dark room.

A great roommate leaves you with a friend for life. A good roommate leaves you with a friend for college. An average roommate leaves you with nothing. A bad roommate leaves you with a pain in your ass. The worst roommate leaves you feeling guilty for the rest of your life.

After his suicide, I was invited to Wiley’s funeral by his parents where I learned a lot about him. Wiley wasn’t his real name. His family was Jewish. He had a very similar upbringing to me. He suffered some kind of head trauma when he was seven, seemed to have developed schizophrenia and began to suffer from intense paranoia and anxiety. After that point, he rarely ever left his house and didn’t have any friends. I was the only person outside of family at the funeral.

Personality seems so constant, so baked in, but is it really? I wonder if the only true difference between the two of us was that he hit his head as a kid and I didn’t. Was the only deciding factor between a decently happy college kid and a paranoid suicide victim random chance? I’ve come to the realization and accepted that any moment anyone could die, but I’ve always looked at it from the point of view of the person dying, not the others. What does it feel like to watch your child reject everything about himself and isolate himself from everyone?

Wiley was certainly crazy, had an abrasive personality and was sometimes an asshole, but I cared about him. He was probably the worst roommate on the goddamn planet, but he was my friend.

 

Ghost Rider

     
Dawn

The sun rises over the glinting sea

A ghost sailman paddles over the translucent water

His boat empty, devoid of life

Dreams power his boat

Helping his vessel sail on, day after day

Water snakes hiss on the shore

They cannot see the ghost rider

But I can

I can

Twilight falls on the great sea

Now his boat is powered by thoughts

The thoughts of those alone

The thoughts only thought when the sun dips below the horizon

The water shimmers

Colors shine beneath the surface

Like the ancient ruins of old

The ghost rider still sits in his boat

There was once a colony like him

But now they are gone

And only he decided to remain

Fish swim beneath his boat

They cannot see the ghost rider

But I can

I can

Dusk falls upon the sea

I must leave

I cannot stay

But the ghost rider still sits in his boat

I will see him the next sunrise

But now I must flee

But until then

He will stay

The ghost rider in his ghost boat

 

Countdown to Freedom

The turquoise water shimmered. Small waves flowed onto the black sand of the beach before heading back into the sea. The island positively glowed with sunlight reflecting off the water while palm trees provided shade. It was picturesque, except for the old, wooden mansion that stood tall in the middle of the island. The house was old and creaky with age, interrupting the natural beauty of the island. It hadn’t been used as a residence for ten years, ever since the volcanic explosion of 1962. Fortunately, the only effect was black sand. Still, humans had never stayed on the island again, though that was about to change.

A small helicopter landed on the beach, and six girls climbed out. One held a dog, the others ladened with backpacks. The hired pilot saluted, and the helicopter lifted off, stranding the girls on the island.

“Bye!” they chorused, watching their ride leave.

Once it was out of sight, they conferred on where to explore first.

“I think we should explore the house!” Iris exclaimed.

“Or the beach!” Rosa called out.

“The beach sounds nice,” Jule agreed. “Much more so than that dirty, old house.”

“I think the house could be interesting,” Abby countered.

“What do you think, Vanessa?” Danica asked.

“Anything’s fine,” Vanessa said.

“Okay, let’s take a vote?” Danica suggested. “All those who vote ‘house’, raise your hand.”

Iris and Abby rose their hands, along with Danica.

“What?” She shrugged. “I’m curious. Now, everyone who votes ‘beach’, raise their hand.”

Rosa and Jule raised their hands, Vanessa just shrugged. She didn’t want to go to either, and she knew another suggestion would only be met with dismission.

“Well, I suppose it’s the house then,” Danica said.

The girls headed to the mansion, with Iris running ahead and Vanessa trailing behind.

***

CREEEEAK! The ancient door squealed. It slowly pushed open, revealing the dirty, dark, and dank interior of the dilapidated mansion. A spider scuttled out of the corner, hissing at the light. The house itself seemed to lean towards its visitors, hungry for fresh meat.

RUFF!” Buster barked, springing at the spider.

It scrambled back to its web, and the unfortunate dog came out with a sticky nose and his tail between his legs. Buster whimpered, rushing to hide behind his owners. Six girls peered into the mansion, their faces hesitant.

“Cool!” shrieked Iris, scrambling inside.

“Iris!” Danica chided.

“What?”

“We should all go in, together,” Danica said pointedly.

Iris stopped exploring the first floor and slunk to the back of the group, mumbling under her breath. It reminded Buster of the time Iris had recklessly led them into a cave system, despite Vanessa’s warnings, and they ended up spending five hours lost in the tunnels. It had brought them closer, though. Buster hoped this would be a bonding experience; then, at least something good would come out of spending a week isolated on this island. Looking around, the dog noticed an ancient garden peeking around the back of the house. Vanessa tilted her head and saw it too, gasping a little with excitement.

“Danica? Can we go to the back of the house first? I think I saw a garden and…” she trailed off, quietly murmuring to herself.

“Or we could go to the second floor!” Iris yelled over the poor girl as she shrunk back.

Buster wagged his tail in agreement. The house smelled musty, like no one had been there for a long time, but it also had a peculiar scent of metal. Iron, Buster thought. He padded into the house and leapt over to the stairwell, testing it with his paw. It seemed sturdy enough, so he barked for the rest of the girls to come over. Iris dashed over first, with Danica following her, and then Abby, Jule, Rosa, and lastly, Vanessa, trailing behind the group.

The second floor consisted of creaky, wooden walls in a single hallway and doors on all sides. Vanessa shrunk back, squeaking with fear. Danica examined the doors, while Jule complained about the quality of the house.

“But it’s so… dirty!” Jule whined. “Couldn’t Abby have dared us to stay somewhere modern at least?”

“I thought it would be a fun challenge — ‘fun’ for some of us more than others,” Abby looked at Iris, who was currently trying to find buried treasure under the floorboards.

“What?” Iris looked up from prying off floorboards and put on her most innocent face.

“Nothing,” Abby smirked.

Iris just shrugged and returned to exploring. Rosa bounced to the front of the group, smiling.

“I think a vacation to an old, spooky, maybe-haunted mansion will be fun!” Rosa said, almost too quickly to catch.

Buster licked her hand in agreement. But he could tell there was something off about this place…

***

A mutilated body laid on the blood-stained ground, its limbs at impossible angles. The head rolled over, and Iris’s face stared at them without seeing. Buster yelped and leapt back from the door. Vanessa let go of the doorknob, screamed, and ran, covering her eyes from the bloody sight. Danica just froze, her eyes the size of dinner plates as she gazed upon her lifeless friend. Jule gasped and started sobbing, while Abby stared into the distance, her face static. No one went further than the doorway, where the body lay.

“IRIS!” Rosa screamed, falling to her knees in front of the body.

Her yell echoed throughout the hollow house, where only five girls remained.

***

Buster howled forlornly. The remaining girls had robotically walked into separate rooms and “gone to sleep”, though he could hear soft sobbing from Jule’s room and murmuring from Vanessa’s, while the sound of pacing emanated from Danica’s chamber. Abby and Rosa’s rooms were quiet, but Buster knew no one was asleep that night. He laid on the cold, wooden floor, next to Iris’s body. He wondered where he would sleep, now that Iris was gone. Would he still be welcome in her house? Maybe he could live with another girl, Buster thought. But he didn’t want to be with anyone but Iris. He refused to leave her like this. He would find out who’d done it.

***

The next morning, Danica was up first. She shuffled into the worn-down kitchen and stiffly grabbed a granola bar from her duffel, chewing without seeming to taste it. Soon, Vanessa joined her, the dark bags under her eyes suggesting a sleepless night. The two girls ignored each other, lost in their own thoughts, until Rosa bounced into the kitchen. Seemingly undeterred by last night’s tragedy, Rosa told jokes and stories to her unresponsive friends, trying her best to cheer them up. Her smile never wore down in front of them, but when she turned away for a moment, Buster could see her deflate like a popped balloon before she mustered her strength, plastered a grin back on her face, and continued her efforts. Meanwhile, Abby wandered out of her room and began contemplatively walking through the house. She had no desire to listen to Rosa’s one-sided chat, nor to join Jule, still weeping in her room, so she explored the old house. Abby mumbled to herself as she walked through the rooms, searching.

***

“Group meeting,” Danica called weakly.

The grandfather clock struck noon as Abby, Rosa, Vanessa, and Jule entered the room. Buster trotted in after them, wanting to hear.

“What is it…?” Vanessa asked timidly.

Danica simply raised an eyebrow, and everyone nodded in understandment. The rotten stench of Iris’s corpse could be sensed even at the other end of the house, constantly reminding them all of her fate.

“Iris…” Danica murmured. “How did this happen…?”

She looked from face to face. Rosa’s constant smile drooped, tears still ran down Jule’s cheeks, Vanessa’s eyes grew huge, and Abby just looked thoughtful.

“There’s no one here but us,” Abby pointed out.

Everyone turned to listen.

“We’re the only ones here, and only a person could have done that to Iris…” she suggested.

“Are you saying it’s one of us?” Jule bit her lip. “You’re saying one of us is a… a murderer?”

“I don’t like to think it, but it’s the only thing possible.”

Sweat beaded on Jule’s forehead, and the girl promptly fainted. Vanessa rushed to her aid, checking for bruises and lifting her unconscious friend onto a chair. Buster whimpered and sniffed Jule to make sure she was okay. Relieved that there were no obvious injuries, he scampered back to the group, Vanessa following. Danica giggled nervously and banged her fist on a counter.

“Back on topic,” she said, clearly tense.

Forcing her gaze away from the sight of Jule slumped on a chair, Danica coughed.

“Abby, why would you believe it was one of us?” she asked.

“Yeah! We’re best friends!” Rosa chirped.

“I have to agree,” Vanessa remarked. “Why would any of us do something so callous?”

“I don’t know,” Abby declared. “But I’m aiming to find out.”

Words of agreement filled the room, mixed with approving barks from Buster. He agreed with Abby; Buster knew that one of the “friends” killed Iris. What he couldn’t fathom was who, or why part of such a tight-knit group would turn on the rest.

“So it could be any of us…” Danica said in a slightly menacing tone.
Abby nodded grimly.

“I know we’re all anxious,” Vanessa said, trying to stay calm. “Maybe we should sleep on it?” she asked, motioning to the dark sky out the window.

“Fine,” Danica replied emotionlessly.

“Okay,” agreed Vanessa, and Abby simply nodded. The girls headed towards their rooms, Danica’s firm steps echoing on the wooden floor. It was the last thing Buster heard before his head drooped, and he inevitably fell asleep.

***

It wasn’t until the next morning that someone noticed Jule. Her limp form remained sprawled over the chair; she had never gotten up. Abby’s eyes widened as she prodded her friend, trying to get her to wake up. But despite her best efforts, Jule wasn’t moving. Abby turned her over and discovered a peculiar rip in her friend’s shirt, covered with a brown stain that sharply contrasted Jule’s light blue top.

“Girls!” she called out. Several teens stumbled into the room, curious but tired.

“Abby?” Danica asked.

“Morning,” Abby replied. “Hope I didn’t wake you.”

“I wasn’t sleeping anyway,” Danica sighed. “This is just terrible.”

“Yeah,” Vanessa agreed sadly.

Rosa wordlessly sat down, her mouth wavering as if struggling to produce a smile.

“I called you all here because something else happened,” Abby said sternly. “Who knifed Jule?”

A collective “WHAT?” shook the room as everyone gasped. A look of horror filled their faces as they looked over and saw their friend turned over, with a small cut marring her back. Somehow the perpetrator had gotten close to Jule and stabbed a vital area, quickly paralysing her without anyone noticing. Dried blood clotted the wound and a small amount on the chair previously hidden by Jule’s body. Abby repeated her question.

“Who wasn’t in their rooms last night?” she asked.

“I didn’t hear anyone,” Vanessa pointed out, puzzled. “Did any of you? I know most of us didn’t sleep last night…”

“I didn’t,” Danica confirmed.

“Me neither!” Abby pondered.

Buster barked in agreement. He carefully stepped over to Jule’s body, sniffing the wound. He knew it hadn’t been there last time he checked. Buster thought about this. It was between when Jule fainted and now. That didn’t help him much; it had been hours since the incident. Buster’s tail drooped, effectively reminding him he was a dog. He had a tail, sensitive hearing and smell, and was close to the ground. Maybe it was time to use that to his advantage. The canine sniffed Jule’s shirt, shuddering at the smell of death that blanketed her. Past the metallic and cold smell of decay, Buster thought he smelled… dirt? Yes, he got a distinctive smell of soil. Buster had a lead. However, none of the girls had even a hint of earthy scent on them. They simply looked at Buster in confusion as he leapt from girl to girl, sniffing and barking. Finally, Buster gave up, lying down in defeat. Abby rubbed his head, looking at him sympathetically.

“Alright then,” Danica said, desperately trying to regain control. “So it’s either Abby, Vanessa, or Rosa?”

“Hey!” Abby yelled. “You could have done it, same as anyone!”

Danica gulped.

“But I didn’t do it!” she retaliated.

“Mhmm,” Abby said discerningly. “Sounds like someone is trying to take the focus off herself.”

“What? I am not!” Danica yelled.

Abby raised her eyebrow.

“You know, you’re right!” Rosa gasped. “Danica is trying to pin it on us!”

Three angry heads swiveled towards Danica.

“Girls, I think we have a culprit,” Vanessa said slowly.

“Hang on!” Danica shrieked desperately. “Wasn’t Abby awfully quick to point the finger at me? Maybe she did it!”

“All I hear are excuses,” Abby said menacingly.

Vanessa rose, glaring at Danica, and Rosa followed suit.

“Well,” Abby said darkly. “The only thing to do… is murder the murderer.”

The other two nodded, firm expressions on their faces. Buster whimpered.

***

After Danica took a rather unfortunate “tumble” off the second-floor balcony and snapped her neck on the rocks below, Abby seemed darkly satisfied.

“Glad that’s taken care of,” she said, dusting her hands.

Vanessa nodded in complete agreement, while Rosa was mourning.

“I know she was a murderer, but we had so many good memories,” Rosa sniffed.

Abby patted Rosa on the back.

“I know, but we have to let go,” she sympathized. “Maybe we should camp somewhere else on the island instead. This place holds too many bad memories.”

“But we’re safe now,” Vanessa pointed out. “Why don’t we do what we came here to do — explore the place?”

“I dunno,” Rosa hesitated. “This place stinks, metaphorically and literally.”

“Hey, it could be fun!”

“Aw, why not?” Abby agreed.

“Can we finally go to the garden?” Vanessa murmured.

However, this time, she got results. Abby and Rosa agreed, and Vanessa smiled proudly, leading them to the garden. The walk was treacherous, even for someone with four paws. Buster found himself almost lying down while trying to evade thorny, skeletal shrubs, and the girls were hopping past overgrown vines and trying not to touch anything that looked poisonous. Buster jumped away from a particularly large insect and found himself in a patch of what used to be roses. The flowers had long since turned to dust, but unfortunately for Buster, the thorns were still there. He yelped and leapt into Vanessa’s arms. She carefully plucked the thorns from Buster’s backside, petting him to make him feel better.

Meanwhile, the other girls were growing bored with dead plants and stinging bugs.

“Can  we go back now?” asked Abby.

“Yeah,” agreed Rosa. “This place is boring.”

“Fine…” Vanessa agreed reluctantly.

Abby gladly led the group back to the mansion, where they decided to retire for the night. It had been a long day, after all. Only Buster decided to stay awake. He suspected something wasn’t right, and he intended to find out what.

***

It was three hours after the girls headed into their rooms, and the house was quiet. Buster was listening to the wind as it whistled through the cracked walls, silently standing sentry. It was an extremely monotonous job, but he was determined not to miss a thing. His resolve served him well as he heard a creak. A figure slipped from behind a door into the hall, hiding in the shadows. Buster internally gasped. He tracked the creature, silently following it until it pulled open another door.

Buster flowed into the room behind it, and found himself in a bedroom. The loud snores emanating from the bed identified the occupant as Abby and covered up any sound the intruder made. Buster hid under the bed, watching the figure’s feet move about the room. It was difficult to keep track of; it seemed to blend into the background most of the time. Eventually, it approached the bed. Buster’s heart hammered, and his mouth went dry. He heard a muffled thump, and the underside of the bed shifted as though someone were moving about on top. Buster didn’t dare to move, but he had the opportunity to carefully observe the feet of the figure. They were surprisingly small and dainty, and seemed familiar, but he couldn’t place them.

Just as he was devising a way to sneak out, the feet moved away. The intruder slipped through the door, and Buster chased on instinct. His paws thudded on the floor, all subtlety forgotten with the excitement of a chase, and the figure turned at the sound. Moonlight revealed a girl’s face, the cruel intentions toward whomever had been following her clear in her expression. Until her face softened, and she picked up the horrified Buster.

“Oh, it’s just you,” Vanessa whispered.

Buster, overcome with shock, fainted in her arms.

***

The next morning, Buster slept late. He was usually awoken by Abby’s footsteps echoing through the house, but not today. He continued to snooze on Vanessa’s bed until screams caused him to leap out vehemently. He ran to the source, not noticing that he’d slept in so late until he discovered the reason why.

Abby laid unmoving under her covers, a pillow over her face. Rosa was staring at her friend, eyes wide with shock and fear. She placed a shaking hand on Abby’s heart. It wasn’t beating. Buster’s howl echoed.

***

The sounds of grief alerted Vanessa, who was calmly eating a breakfast bar in the kitchen. She knew Rosa had discovered her latest victim, and relished in the knowledge that her task was almost complete. Grabbing a knife from a drawer, she headed to Abby’s bedroom. Soon, no one would ever walk over her again.

***

Rosa wailed, her grief over Abby mixing with the shock that Danica wasn’t the killer after all. She couldn’t believe she had taken part in the murder of her innocent friend, and the guilt was destroying her. Buster nosed up to Rosa, trying to comfort her. However, he cowered in fear when he saw a silhouette in the doorway. He tried to move, but his paws seemed stuck to the floor. When Rosa felt the stab in her heart, she just assumed it was her inner pain. She was wrong. Rosa collapsed to the floor, her tears still warm on her lifeless cheeks. Buster leapt away in shock, getting a bit of Rosa’s blood on his fur. Vanessa chuckled.

“All done!” she chirped.

Though her voice was still quieter than the whisper of a freshly turned page, no other voices were there to talk over her. For once, she could be heard. Vanessa smiled. Buster whimpered, alerting her to his presence in the corner. She slowly walked over to the dog, and his heart beat harder with her every step.

“Hi, Buster!” she cooed as she pet his coat.

Buster blinked, surprised. Vanessa took advantage of his shock to pick him up and walk out of the room. They traveled to the front of the house, Buster squirming in Vanessa’s arms. She washed the blood out of her hair and his fur, and careful as to not get any more blood on her, dumped the bodies into the ocean. Buster’s eyes grew huge as he watched the girls he loved sink below the water, lost to the world forever.

***

Buster and Vanessa spent the rest of the week on the island, doing trivial things like exploring the rest of the island and making sand sculptures. Vanessa built a rather realistic knife out of black sand and “accidentally” crushed the mound Buster was trying (unsuccessfully) to mold into a girl’s face with his paws. He growled, but there was nothing he could do.

When the helicopter came and picked them up, the pilot was confused as to why he only had to fly back two passengers instead of seven. Vanessa, fake tears in the corners of her eyes, simply told him she didn’t want to talk about it. Shrugging, the pilot strapped them in and took off. During the seven-hour flight, Buster was secured to Vanessa’s chest by the seat belt. He silently resented this at first, but it was hard to hate Vanessa when she was scratching that special spot behind his ear. He soon lulled off, only waking up when they landed hours later.

They strolled through town, Vanessa holding Buster to her chest and smiling. Vanessa’s small stature and big eyes were the picture of innocence. If anyone passed by, they would only see a teenage girl walking with her dog. Buster was the only one who saw the malice in her grin, the murder in her eyes. When a police van rolled by, Buster leapt through the open window and barked to get the driver’s attention. The policeman followed him out of the vehicle and to Vanessa. Buster barked and jumped around the girl. The policeman picked up the defenseless dog and handed him to Vanessa.

“Is this your dog?” he asked in a gruff voice.

“Yes, sir,” Vanessa replied. “Thank you for returning him.”

“No problem, miss,” the officer grunted.

He got back into his police car and drove away.

“Silly Buster,” Vanessa giggled.

Buster grimaced. Vanessa only smiled, and they walked on until they got to her house. Her parents were animal lovers and happily introduced Buster to the family’s other three dogs. He got along with them but found them to be too bland. The other dogs acted happy all the time and wouldn’t listen to anything bad about their humans. Buster shuddered to think that he might act like that one day and vowed to never give up. But try as he might, he could not alert anyone to what happened at that mansion. Without a human voice, he couldn’t deliver justice.

***

However, Vanessa’s crime did not go unnoticed. Soon, the other girls’ families began asking why their daughters hadn’t come home. Vanessa quickly fabricated a story about how the girls had gone on a boating expedition, using a raft that Iris crafted. However, the raft broke apart far away from the island, drowning everyone on it. Vanessa said that she and Buster survived because the dog refused to go near the water, and she stayed on land with him because she wanted to make sure he didn’t hurt himself in their absence. Vanessa was a good actress, and her clear love of animals only added to the story’s credibility. She fake-cried when telling the tale, making it seem like she was upset about her friends’ deaths. Her performance was in every way calculated and perfect, and though the island was investigated, she’d left no trace of what she had done. Therefore, she managed to get away with murder. After all, the only other being who knew couldn’t tattle.

***

After years of trying to tell someone what Vanessa did, Buster rested into his fate. He began to act as submissive as the other dogs, manipulated by an easy life and Vanessa’s unconditional kindness towards her pets. It became easier to forget the horrific things she had done so many years ago. The short memory of a dog kicked in after a while, and Buster simply saw Vanessa as his owner. He forgot about the other girls entirely, and the whole ordeal erased from his memory.

Vanessa became a successful public speaker, speaking up for organizations that held good causes but had low members and funding. She became known as a charity worker and an overall good person. Vanessa gained a fortune from raising charities, from small to famous, and in time moved into the old mansion on the island. She had it renovated into a modern home and lived there with Buster and her other pets for the rest of their days.

 

Untitled

Waking up is a shock, a flash to reality I do not desire, a pain put simply. I keep my eyes closed, just like I always do. Blackness is preferable to the greyness of life. And just as it always does, the fan with its choppy hum brings the whisper to my ear. What had once been affection is now a stab from the knife of everyday life.

“What did you dream of?” it would whisper.

A wince would always follow, and through closed eyes, my dreams would reply. And a lie would sputter out of my mouth.

“Stars…” I would whisper back.

Lies always helped. Denial felt preferable. I couldn’t admit it, for was it really true? Was it a dream? And whether or not it was real or not, I would relive the night again. The night my life took this turn into despair.

***

It was a night like every other night, curled up with some book or another, sitting on the sofa, facing the bright lights of Los Angeles. The telephone rang, and I picked it up slightly annoyed, for I was at a good part.

“Good evening, who’s calling?” I casually spoke into the phone.

A sob followed, strange in truth, but I remained on the line. Then the voice picked up, and I reeled in confusion.

“Hello… This is Logan Abernathy… I am your wife’s cousin…”

The breaks into silence were weird, and so were the sobs, but Margaret’s family, through their hatred of me, had always been a strange one. The fact that one of the Abernathy’s had even decided to call me was a shock, and no matter how much it made me want to chuckle a bit, I held it in, for I had won the stalemate we had held for years.

“Yes, Logan, why is it that you have called me?” I responded in a calm tone.

“Two days ago there was an accident. The roads here in Montana are icy now… It was instantaneous…”

It was a punch in the gut. Worse, it was inconceivable how it felt. Disgust, hatred, depression, fear, shock. Every feeling but happiness all at once. Pictures flashed through my mind:  when we first met at the pier, our wedding day, our honeymoon under the sun in Mexico. Brief flashes of my life, and my life which was forever changed.

I pulled off my spectacles and held back my tears…

“When will the service be? Where will it be, Logan?” I responded in a calm tone, as sobs and winces broke through my demeanor.

“It was yesterday…” he said in an almost sorry, consoling tone.

I did not say anything back. I just sat there, tears falling down my face in silence. I put the handset down gently onto the telephone. Sitting there, with the same feelings tearing at my insides, I felt everything, but happiness, all at once. How would life go on without Margaret… Rage took over. All sounds and all colors drained from the world. Lights dimmed, and all seemed grey, dark, unforgiving, like a motion picture without the emotion. I grabbed the phone, taking it from its cord, and threw it against the large windows. The windows shattered through the silence, and I flashed back to real life.

***

The whisper of the fan ends, and my dream is always the same, but Margaret is not here to listen to it. She is not here to console, to listen, or to be there for me, for her absence is the root of my problems. Her death had killed me, and yet I remain with nothing left. A big house, a good job, food, water, a feather bed, for I own it and have no one to share it with. I feel like I’m drowning and can’t die, like my suffering will not end, and I can’t bring myself to the surface.

All the while, I stare at my ceiling, and I cannot even remember the color that it is. There is no reason to care. All these things I own but do not want, and I must keep them in my possession. I sit up and begin my routine, another day at work. It goes like this:

I shower, brush my teeth, dress in the required attire, grab my camera, my suitcase, and the papers I have graded. Jenny has already made breakfast. She will be back in a few hours, but she will be gone as soon as I arrive home. How ironic that the only person I share my house with is never in it with me. But I eat and exit the door to another day at the university. All these tasks are chores, just as I feel my life itself is. My dreams from when I was a young boy have come true, but I was more happier as a moody teen than I am as the successful adult. My neighbor stops me, and I chat, agree, nod, laugh, and smile. Ms. Smith is always kind to me, why should I have a broken face then?

“Are you okay today? You are looking a bit glum, sweetie,” she says, her sweet, old lady voice, full of concern and worry for her neighbor of all people.

“Yes, I am quite alright, Ms. Smith. Just had a bit of insomnia is all, but I am sure it will all subside in time,” I respond cheerfully to her.

Sighing under my breath, I sit down in my car.

She walks up to the window, taps on it, and says, “Well then, have a great day!!”

Waving goodbye, I wave back with a smile and let it go. I am alone again, left to my thoughts.

I will miss you most, Ms. Smith…

I open the glove box to my car, grimace, and pull out the revolver, with no rounds in the cylinder. I practice how I will do it later by putting the barrel against the roof of my mouth and pulling the trigger. As expected, a click follows and I am still there, but soon it would be different. I will miss you Ms. Smith… But soon all this suffering I have will end, all with a click and a bang.

All the way to the university, I practice with the barrel of the revolver against the roof of my mouth. Again and again, I pull the trigger to hear the click and no bang, and I still remain in the car, driving into Los Angeles, with the sun’s light slightly piercing over the hills to his right. Every so often, someone notices the gun in my mouth and the pulling of the trigger. Their puzzled looks turn to horror, but back to confusion when the gun doesn’t fire. And, every time, I would flash a grin to them. For today is the happiest day I’ve had in a year. Today I will finally be rid of all the suffering and would return to Margaret, wherever she may be in death. Today will be carefree, and everything I see will be the last time I saw it. Even if my grey world is still grey, I feel it brighten to know when and how I will die. I will have no fear in my last few moments, only anticipation. Pulling into the university, I feel a bit of sorrow as the students pass me, some smiling, some waving to me. I realize that perhaps even my smallest ounce of joy was poured into those students, or at least the ones who cared to pay attention.

I sigh to myself, take one last look at the key to my escape, and close the glove box it sits in. I grab the suitcase, the camera, and take a look at the photo that sits on my dashboard. Margaret sits in the grass, simply smiling. I smile back at the photo.

Not even glimpses of before can ever be in color… Soon I will be with you.

I open the door, straighten my tie, and begin my walk to the Arts Wing of the university. Students, teachers, and visitors sit on the green, smiling in the sun, chatting away, and laughing with each other. I throw some waves at people I know, shocking them, for did I ever once appear happy to them? Can they see the flaws in my facade this day? Can they see that, this day, I appear happier than most? I walk at the same pace, perhaps even gloating about this strange enthusiasm I feel. Get through the day, and it will all end.

Just then, a scrawny, shy boy appears next to me. Oh no… It’s hi–

“Professor… Professor! Please wait up for me!!!” he shouts, chasing after me.

It is John Titor. He is, perhaps, the worst student in my class. All his talent, all his potential, and he does not express it. He failed on purpose, and I never had the energy to try and reach out to him. But the fact that he walked up to me is weird, and exciting, breaking the monotony of everyday life for me.

“You surprise me, Mr. Titor, coming up to me on a day like this, when you could be skipping class…” I tell him in an irritated voice.

I am almost sure he wants to break my peace in his own special way, and I do not want to bother with this wasted talent, especially when my time is soon to pass.

“Professor, please, it’s not some joke or anything…” he pants from his run. “I know it’s late… but I have the project to turn in to you.”

He hands me a photograph, along with the paper that is meant to go along with it. I reluctantly grab the papers from his hand and take a glance. It’s probably the same as the others, a failure in photography.

“Come to class on time, Mr. Titor. You are lucky I am taking this from you,” I reply with a sigh.

“Thank you so much, sir… I’m sure you’ll like it!!!” he yells, running off to some other place.

And so I continue on to my room, and my mind wanders as I walk in. The hot air is a smack in the face as I pull off my jacket, loosen the tie, and sit at my desk. I sit there, flipping through photos, repeating the critique over and over in my head.

The school spends thousands of dollars on these cameras, and they waste them on family photos and pictures of trees… I will be rid of these students soon.

Flipping through them, and throwing them aside, I reached one for one that catches my eye. There was no happy family, or no trees, or beaches, or pet dogs. It was simple, yet heart-

wrenching in its own way. An indigent man sat on the ground crying and huddled in ragged clothes. Close to him, two well-dressed, wealthy-looking people stood up, eating ice cream, and paying this poor man absolutely no mind.

This person… Whoever they are… They deserve a perfect grade… This… This captures life… Its morals… Its truths.

John Titor walks in, and soon everyone files into the room, looking at the shock, despair, and awe on my face. We sit there for minutes, and everyone looks in an awkward demeanor around the room, except me, still staring at this photo.

Minutes later some random person calls out in question.

“Professor?”

They are clearly uncomfortable saying anything.

I stand up from my chair, pick up the photo and hold it up. It is too small to see, but it is a master piece in the darkness of my life.

“What did I name this project? Anyone, tell me please,” I said, in an inquisitive, driving tone.

“Glimpse into life,” someone called out.

“Yes. Yes. Glimpse into life. I tried to challenge you, my dear students, to do just that, to show me a glimpse into real life. To show the emotion, the challenges, the real aspects of life in a single photo. To tell one million stories, in one moment, that you can capture in time with this device.” I held up the camera. “But all of you… all of you failed. You took family photos, tree photos, beach photos, anything that you thought looked pretty. You captured that moment in time with this precious device. A photographer is useless if he cannot capture in time what makes life life. Your family does not display life, trees do not display life, the damn beach is definitely not life.” I describe, my voice rising.

I take a pause, letting that sink in, and continue.

“A photo should tell one million stories. I should learn some moral from your snapshots and looking at this damn beach snapshot 20 times over from different people tells me nothing. All of you failed… All of you. But you, Mr. Titor, you pass the grade. You pass. A-plus for you, dear friend. You are an artist. Take your snapshot, show it to the world, and let everyone learn what you did. And all of you, besides Mr. Titor, enjoy your F, and have a great rest of the day. ”

I grab a stack of photos, throw them in my garbage can, and throw my lighter in with it. It catches fire. I walk up into the row of desks, and I hand John his photo very quickly and awkwardly.

“Congratulations…” I mutter, before storming out of the room.

Walking down the hallways is a blur. Anger, disappointment, happiness, and awe… they all fill me at once, take charge, and lead me directionless around the campus. Where am I going? What purpose do I have now?

The dean runs up to me and pulls me roughly on my shoulder.

“What the hell were you doing back there, Professor?”

I relent and punch him in the nose, my feelings in control.

“Telling those shits the truth is what I’d call it.”

He pinches his nose to stop the blood, and curls over in pain, the red liquid pouring down his face.

“GET THE HELL OFF THIS CAMPUS, YOU’RE FIRED!!!” he yells, as I stomp off to my car.

Sirens ring off in the distance, as a small tower of smoke rises from the Arts Wing. Crowds of people pour out in front of the building, panicking, crying, in complete shock at the madness that just occurred. In front of the crowd, I see John, standing completely still, just staring at me, his eyes wide with awe. I rip the door to my car and slump down into the seat. With a frown on my face, I began to sob, the pain on my soul too much. I slam the door closed and rip open the glove box. As I sob away, I pull up the gun and the heavy steel feeling almost natural in my hand. I try a few more practice shots on myself. I’m almost there… I’m almost there, Margaret. I slam on the car horn as I tear out of the parking lot. I catch one last look at John, as his shocked stare pierces deep into my soul.

***

“Professor, get down from that ledge!!!” John desperately shouts at me.

Somehow the boy had found me, standing on a concrete ledge next to a small bar, on the edge of the Los Angeles River. My gun is loaded, and the least I want to do is get drunk before I off myself, but somehow, he had followed me all the way here.

“Get the hell out of here John!!! Just leave me in peace!!!” I shout back in slurred speech.

“Professor! Get down from there… You’re crazy… Just talk to me and let me help you!!!” he argues back.

I down another large sip of amber whiskey from the bottle and wipe it away with my sleeve before shouting, “Look who’s talking, how dare you call me crazy… you… you–”

“Professor, am I the one holding a half-drunk bottle and a gun, standing 100 feet above the LA River?” he says in a calmer tone.

I can sense his game. He wants desperately for me get off the ledge, but I won’t let some stupid kid ruin this. I was finally going to have peace.

“Don’t mind me, John. Just go. I’m not your professor anymore. Just go home, please… leave me in peace,” I sob, dropping the bottle and slumping down to a sit on the ledge.

I hold the barrel of the gun against my temple. The cold, steel eggs on my release from the mortal plane. But… I can’t. I just can’t no matter how much it tears at me.

He sits down at my side. Just sitting there. He sits in pure silence as I cry. I lose all understanding of time. All that exists is the two of us and that ledge.

After what seemed like hours of my awkward crying, he opens his mouth. In a very calm voice, he asks, “Professor, what’s wrong… what happened… why are you like this?”

I sniffle a bit, and almost laugh, for an ignorant child had talked me out of my month-long plans. I open my mouth stating, “This… this is where I met her… well, not here, over there in the parking lot.”
I point into the lot, and the day, 15 years ago today, rings through my mind as if it were yesterday. I am still fresh in love with Margaret.

“Who, professor?” he said.

After I explain, he contemplates my words.

“This is where I met Margaret, the love of my life.”

“What happened to her? She was your wife?”

“Yes, yes, we were married for 10 years, and she died last year in an… accident.” I manage to say before tears stream down my face again.

John sits, contemplating, and while his look is of concern, and sadness, I can almost see a hint of understanding in his eyes. That look where you understand everything that is said, but can’t bring yourself to say that you feel the same way. For it is too hard to admit that you feel exactly the same.

“I feel like… I feel as if I am drowning, trapped underneath the waves. And everytime I try to escape, I just sink deeper. And no matter how much I want to escape, I can’t. No matter how much I want to drown and end this torment, it won’t happen. I’m trapped. Trapped by 10 years of marriage. I loved her so much, John, I really did. She was my life. She was the beauty in this world. Without her here, I have nothing, I am nothing… No big house matters, no money, no material matters, lest we can share it with those we love… And me, I have nobody to love… So… So will you please leave me to my fate, John? Will you allow me to finally be rid this feeling, this hatred, this–”

“Give me the gun, professor…” he mumbles, his head still pointed towards the ground.

“Leave. Now… Or I’ll take you wi–”

“GIVE ME THE DAMN GUN!!!” He shoots up from the ledge, his fists balled, and his eyes popping with rage.

I could see the tears in his eyes too. He felt the exact same way. I did not know what it was. But everyday he came to school, put on his face, and struggled to interact. No matter how deep his depression, here he was, shouting in my face, talking me down from giving in to my wish for death. While any day he could have done what I was doing now. He endured. He stayed strong.

“John…”

He jumps forward in a rage, ripping the pistol from my hand, the loaded rounds sliding out of the cylinder. My only chance for escape, spills on the ground, and into John’s hand as he draws it back. It’s a fluid motion — the snatch and the throw, arching back at a sharp angle, his arm sailing forward, and the gun flying out into the dark of night, to the concrete expanse of the LA river. I lose sight of it as it flies into the black, and the only hint that the gun had hit its target is a far off plop into water.

He lets out a sigh, and slumps back down onto the ledge, his face buried into his palm. I slump down next to him, staring dead forward, in a daze, not dreaming, not thinking, not knowing. Where would he go next, how would he carry on? What would he do now? I turn my neck back, and look out into the black, the edge facing out to the river, plummeting immediately down into black. I look down and scoop up my half-bottle of whiskey. I take a long swing, the golden liquid burning the inside of my mouth. But I feel completely numb, still completely empty. I tap John on the shoulder with the bottle

“Drink.” I mutter.

He grabs it, takes a long drink from it too, and gives a refreshing gasp when he stops gulping down the amber whiskey.

“This your first time drinking?” I mutter. “You could be a professional drunk from the way I see it.”

We laugh exhausted laughs out into the night as the dim lights create a relieving, yet almost unsatisfied mood. I only feel worse.

“Let me get you something, professor, we’re right here.” He points to the bar.

The taint of alcohol iss on his breath and slurs his speech.

“Another bottle of whiskey and a pack of camels for the road,” I mutter out, in a sort-of drunk and carefree chuckle.

He gets up from the ledge, and begins to stumble over to the bar. When he is halfway there, I call out to him, in the same drunk chuckle as before. “John!” He looks back at me. “Thank you for everything. ”

“It’s no problem, Professor!” he calls back before stumbling off to the bar.

When he enters the bar, and the door swings closed, I stand up and step up onto the edge. First, I look off into the black expanse, at the street lights across, and then down, to the darkness below. I sigh and close my eyes. The pictures flash before me. I see Margaret, when I first met her, in this parking lot, our first dinner together, the first time I pronounced my love to her, our wedding day, and our honeymoon. Relaxing under the Mexican sun. The last time I saw her, walking her out of the door. Stopping at the car door.

“I love you, David,” she whispers to me.

“I love you, too,” I whisper back to her.

We kiss each other, but only for a second. If I could have stayed there, stayed there forever, I would have. I would die and live again a million times to go back to that split second. That one moment of eternity. I would kill, I would murder for her. For Margaret. She gets in the car, and as she drives off, I see her for the last time. We lock eyes. She smiles. I smile back, and she is gone. Gone forever. I would never leave you, Margaret. I will be there soon.

My arms are out. I feel the wind in my hair, on my body, blowing me away from the darkness where I will go. I open my eyes to the night.

“I love you…” I whisper to the wind as it buzzes in my ear.

“I love you too,” the wind whispers back.

I look down one last time, take in the last sight I will ever have in life. The lights across the river. The cars driving by. The Hollywood hills standing imposingly over this city.

“PROFESSOR!!!” The shout shatters all of silence there had once been.

I look back. John is there, standing at the doorway. His left hand is clenched around the neck of the whiskey bottle, and his right is holding a pack of cigarettes. His face is in pure shock, pure awe, pure pain, and anger, and everything in-between.

I turn my neck around, facing the black again, and fall forward.

 

Trees

   

Trees

Be it Children Running in the sun

Or an Old Couple picnicking in the Shade

They Watch

Be it Campers Joking in the dead of night

Or hikers smiling at the rising sun

They watch

Singing and Dancing in a sunny forest

Sleeping under the stars after a great day

They watch

Trees

They applaud as they watch the beauty of life carry on.

 

Umami Tears

     

I talked in hushed tones with my brother

while we were walking

to get his hair cut

about times we had cried

not salty tears

but umami tears –

substantial and

rich.

These savory tears fell

for fictional families

reunited in two-minute ads tear jerking

to sell electronics.

Our umami tears fell to songs

about dying in tin cans in space

and the fake grass in Jersey.

Rich, fatty tears fell for a male model we did not know

who cried at his pictures because

he looked real for

the first time.

Or rice-puffed eyes were caused by news

on red CNN banners

flashing breaking

In white block letters. The voices of alligator sympathy

boomed from the smile-lined mouths of adults.

 

We cursed the umami tears because

you could smile with teeth while

salty crocodile tears flowed

from irises.

Sweet fruit-loop tears

looked so nice

on a silver movie screen.

But umami –

Those

were the tears

that stayed in your eyes

long after you thought you’d cried them out.

 

The Pactus Story

Once upon a time, there lived Pactus. He was a cross between a passport and a cactus. He looked like a cactus, except he had a face and arms and blue rectangular wings with passport stamps on them and spikes all over his body. Everyone thought he looked ugly, so he stayed inside his house all the time. People called him the Pactus Insider. He was very sad because he had no friends. He wanted to not be ugly so he could have some friends, but every time he went to the fashion store, the cashier would not sell him anything because he was ugly.

One day, he decided to go to the airport. Since he was partly a passport, they let him onto the plane. When he got on the plane, everyone laughed at him, and one person threw up. The people demanded that he get off the plane and go far away from everybody. They thought he was so ugly that there was no point in him going anywhere because everybody hated him.

On the plane, Pactus found a potion that changed his name to Josiah. Josiah was a smart, sleek name. Josiah felt that his name change should also spur a change on his outlook on life. He realized that when he smiled and stood a little taller, his body would somehow find a way to trick his brain into feeling better about himself. Josiah, the passport/cactus, was on his way to becoming a dark memer. He bought a 144hz monitor and COD Modern Warfare 300. He played all day, and no one could see his face. He just looked like a normal teenager in-game. He became the best and went to MLG 2100. He won first, and the trophy looked like a passport-cactus. He worked to become even better by drinking Red Bull and playing all night. But the Red Bull gave him wings, so he flew away from Earth and went to Pluto.

The Plutonians were very nice, and they became his friends because they were all ugly, too, and didn’t care about looks. However, then NASA sent a mission to colonize Pluto. All Josiah’s Plutonian friends were very scared and moved to Jupiter, but they accidentally left Josiah behind. Josiah got very sad and started calling himself Pactus again.

When the NASA people arrived on Pluto, they realized that Josiah was actually Pactus, and they got so angry that they killed him. But the Plutonians found out, and they went to Pluto and held a funeral for him. Then, they went to Earth and found a passport and a cactus and put them in a blender and turned it on. The passport and cactus mixed together and became Pactus Jr. But the Plutonians created a potion that changed his name to Kanye, so he never knew that he was actually Pactus Jr. He always went around thinking that he was Kanye, and other people thought it too. Thinking he was Kanye, he rapped so much that nobody would ever think about him actually being Pactus Jr. But there was also the real Kanye. Real Kanye and fake Kanye got suspicious of each other. The Plutonians got worried that Kanye or the other Kanye or anybody else would realize that Kanye was actually Pactus Jr. One day, the two Kanyes met. They got into a fight. All the Kanye fans came to watch.

“Yo, I’m Kanye!”said Pactus Jr.

“No, I’m Kanye, yo!” said the real Kanye. “Yo!”

“Yo, I’m the real Kanye, yo-yo!” said Pactus Jr. However, he did not know that he was Pactus Jr. so he thought he was the real Kanye. They started fighting. Pactus Jr. beat up Kanye. When they were both about to realize that one of the Kanyes was actually Pactus Jr., the Plutonians threw in a potion that made them think that the other Kanye was Pactus Jr. and the fake Kanye was really Kanye.

Now, the real Pactus Jr. thought that Kanye was Pactus Jr. and he was Kanye, so he said, “Yo, you’re not Kanye, you’re Pactus Jr., yo! Yo-yo, you will pay for this, yo!”

Then, he called the police, and they arrested Kanye and gave an award to Pactus Jr. When Pactus Jr. got home, the Plutonians were so happy that they forgot to call him Kanye, and they accidentally told him that he was Pactus Jr., so then he realized who he was and that the other Pactus Jr. was really Kanye. He felt guilty of lying, so he went and broke Kanye out of jail. They became friends, and Pactus Jr. took Kanye to live with him and the Plutonians, and they lived happily ever after.

 

😉 (Not the end)

 

One day, Kanye realized that if Pactus Jr. was called Pactus Jr. and not just Pactus, then there was another Pactus. So they tried to find Pactus. They traveled all over the world until they finally got back to their house.

“Hello,” said a Plutonian. “Where have you been?”

“We were looking for Pactus,” said Pactus Jr.

“He is dead,” said the Plutonian. “But there is a potion that will make him a ghost.”

So Pactus Jr. and Kanye and all the Plutonians went to the place where Pactus was buried. They poured the ghost potion into the ground, and it went over Pactus and he became a ghost.

“Hellooo!!!” said ghost Pactus.

But then, the ghost potion was absorbed into the soil, and it went to all the buried dead people in the graveyard, and they all became ghosts and attacked them. But the only one they could actually attack was Pactus, because he was also a ghost, but he was unable to get injured or die because he was a ghost, so their attack failed, and they all left. Then Pactus, Pactus Jr., Kanye, and all the Plutonians went back to their house. But the ghosts were angry, and they made the apocalypse happen. All the humans were very scared. But then, Pactus came in to save them, and he killed all the ghosts because he was partly a cactus. The humans were so happy that they made him their king, along with Pactus Jr. and Kanye. They lived in a castle in New York, and the Plutonians were their servants. They lived happily ever after.

 

Autumn

The sunlight hit him like a wave, crashing over his skin, irritating his face. He shielded his eyes from the wave, squinting, and pulled his hood over his head. When he disappeared within the security of that hood, shading his eyes and looking at the ground, the world faded away, smearing into a big blur. He took a step forward, then another. Shifting the weight of his pack on his shoulders, he set off down the sidewalk, staring directly at the flat concrete.

As the boy took flat, silent steps, people whispered, almost inaudibly. They stopped and stared at him, giving him suspicious looks. But, inside the hood, he didn’t hear anything, and he just kept walking. Inch by inch, step by step, mile by mile, he walked. One foot in front of the other, like a tightrope walker. His face was shielded by the hood, and all he saw was his feet, moving over and over.

Finally, he looked up, and the smeared world began to come into focus. A bright red object, thin as paper and quiet as the teardrop of a mouse, fluttered to the floor.

He picked it up, the flaming red leaf, and turned it over. It was beautiful, and it gave him the shivers. Beautiful things weren’t his style. But as he looked back down, looked forward to keep walking, he saw the sidewalk was covered with the things. Orange embers fell from the trees, coating the ground, and the flames licked up the side of his black sweatshirt and jeans, coating them in flames.

He sighed, sank to the ground, and closed his eyes. He would stay here a while, letting the trees cover him in fire, and once he was aflame, he would go back.

And his eyes closed, and he leaned against a tree, and he was asleep.

Almost effortlessly, Chloe floated through the hall on dainty, light feet. As she swooshed past, her hair a gleaming black river, every head in the hallway stopped and stared. Her beauty she resented, with her pale skin, soft pink cheeks, and dark eyes.

She had wished for shorter hair, for when it was cropped up by her neck, it hid her face from prying eyes, and she had wished for less freckles, for when they were effortlessly splattered across her face like they were, they shone and gleamed. She also wished for darker eyelashes to hide her dazzling brown eyes. She didn’t want to be noticed like she was. Chloe didn’t want to be known for being beautiful; she wanted to be known for her intelligence, her strength, her kindness.

As she dashed lightly across the hallway, she caught the eye of a boy, mid-class. He stopped writing and stared, mouth agape. She crossed her eyes at him and kept going.

She threw open the doors and sang to the world, charming skeptical faces with a dazzling smile and wave. As she flitted along the sidewalk, almost sprinting but not quite, she looked around and saw the tree grove, fiery and perfect. She went towards the grove, where she hugged her favorite tree and watched as a flaming leaf fell off of it. She picked up the leaf and stuck it into her shirt pocket, close to her heart.

Chloe walked along the tree path, marveling at the trees. What had once been green was aflame with bright oranges and yellows, and it looked like the branches themselves were on fire.

Her long hair swished down her back with every step she took, and the leaves on the ground were nearly crunching, but not yet. As she took ginger steps among the sidewalk, coated with beauty, she sighed. These leaves were beautiful, she knew, and she’d love to take one home, but she couldn’t bear to press it under pounds and pounds of dictionaries, letting the beauty become a flat picture whose memory was gone; nor could she bear seeing it on the fireplace and letting it shrivel up until it was nothing but dust.

The fiery leaves were in the most dangerous place, and she’d better do something quick: conserve it forever in a realm beyond reach, or toss it over her shoulder and forget? Both options seemed awful to her, and she found herself thinking about how the leaves got stuck with such an unfortunate fate. It isn’t their fault, she thought, marveling at the leaves. Why does the fire deserve to be quenched?

She re-pocketed her flaming treasure. It doesn’t matter now, Chloe thought, standing up from a sitting position she didn’t know she’d taken. It doesn’t matter. Now, the leaf is there, and it’s tangible, and I can enjoy it; and I will cross that rickety, creaky, dangerous bridge when I get to the cliffside.

She stumbled; a pile of leaves, deliberately placed, was in front of her foot, tripping her and sending her sprawling. Chloe regained a standing position, brushing herself off flusteredly and coming back to poke the pile of leaves. The heap was heavy and, when the leaves shifted, she caught a glimpse of dark gray.

So it was a rock, then. But it was an awfully big rock to be lying in the middle of a sidewalk like that, even one that was covered by leaves.

Chloe began to prod, then tug at it. As the leaves shifted, it revealed not only a rock, but a shoe… she smiled satisfactorily. Someone must have lost their shoe. But as she began to walk away, she remembered the heaviness of it; it couldn’t have been just a shoe. And indeed, when she went back and peered at that shoe, she saw the smooth white curve of a sock.

And the sock joined into a leg and, as she stepped back, she saw an entire sleeping person, concealed by the tongues of fire that fell from the branches.

As she took her hand and brushed leaves off of the contour of the head, off of the face and the arms, she gasped.

And she grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him.

Caleb woke with someone shaking his shoulders violently.

It was not the most pleasant of ways to wake up.

As his vision came into focus and pinpointed itself on a stunning face that portrayed a perfect frown, his mouth twisted into a grin, then a frown, then a grin again.

Before he could speak, though, she stomped her foot and shook her perfect head angrily.

“You know you’re not supposed to be here.” She glared at him until he squirmed.

Caleb relaxed, took a few deep breaths, then said icily, “You’re not, either.”

Her face contorted visibly with surprise, then parried his response, “People are looking for you!”

It was a lie, and they both knew it. He knew by the way she sounded defensive and turned away from him. But he sighed and slid down the trunk of the tree until he touched base with the ground. He tossed his head like a horse, flipping the hair out of his eyes, and sighed huffily like a teenager would.

“I appreciate your concern, Princess.”

As soon as the words escaped his mouth, dripping with sarcasm, he sealed his lips. Even he knew that was the wrong thing to say. Chloe’s face flushed with anger, and she simply took him by the arm and dragged him. For a princess, she sure is strong, he thought and was about to voice his concern for his throbbing bicep before he remembered he should probably shut up.

But he couldn’t help himself from wondering why he’d never noticed her strength before. Sure, they’d spent lots of time together, and both had dark hair, almost black. But other than that, they were nothing alike. Their eyes were both a dark brown; but as hers shone light, his reminded people of a swirling black hole: cold, and unforgiving.

And he tried to remind himself as he was being pulled along by the “princess.” That was his nature. He didn’t want to be warm and bubbly. He was himself: cold and dark and distant. Also, he didn’t care about things, which is an extremely hard thing to keep your mind on when you are being dragged by your best friend to meet your demise. He tried to think about being cold and distant. He thought about cold, distant things, like stale cornbread or frozen pancakes.

And then, his posture became cold and distant. Instead of being dragged, he tried to make it look like he was being gently guided, and it took a long time to find a position that portrayed a confident image. She tossed her head huffily, and he noticed how her hair rolled down her back as she adjusted her grip to squeeze tighter.

Chloe burst through the door of the school, lugged him in like a heavy package, and shut it, sealing them inside. She simply dragged him through the empty hallsCaleb thanked his lucky stars that class was in sessionand into an empty classroom.

He exploded.

A blur of loud yelling, insults, and anger occupied the next few minutes. He noticed how her cheeks burned when she was angry or insulted, and he made a pact to notice things like that in the future.

And then, as the flames of the argument died down, each of them became lost in their own world. He looked outside and remembered only a few hours earlier when he had arrived at the tree grove and how, secretly, he had loved the fire that engulfed the trees, had loved the fall colors and how they swirled around him. How could someone cold love fire? How could someone dark love color?

He resolved to answer this question, and he knew there had to be a way. There had to be a way to be both cold and hot, to be both dark and light.

A glance at his best friend confirmed this theory; as she clenched and unclenched her fists, her blood seemed to run both cold and hot at the same time. He wondered how this was possible. He knew it was possible, as he had experienced it; he just didn’t know how.

He liked how the trees had engulfed him in flames. But he wanted to be an ice cube, too. It was hard to be in-between.

She stared into his face and sighed. She could feel herself heating up to the boiling point. She loved him as a friend, of course she did. How can best friends not like each other?

And then, she thought the better of it. Many best friends don’t like each other, she thought. But I do.

It was hard sometimes, though. He was like a dragon. The reptile was cold-blooded; sometimes icy and distant, sometimes warm and affectionate. He seemed to adapt to whatever was around him, like how a dragon lying in the sun was warm and easy to please, while one shivering in the snow was cold and irritable.

Yes, she thought, a dragon. He’d like that. She opened her mouth to tell him so, and her best friend shot her a look that could slice through a dragon’s hide in seconds.

She turned away and stood up, looking at her leaf one last time. It had already begun to darken, taking on a brown hue, but it was still undeniably an ember in her hands.

She pocketed it and set off for the tree grove again, trying to bury herself in fire.

She knew the risks. How could she not? She had just rescued her own best friend from the fiery flames of school-less life. But, she remembered as she ran back towards the grove, that moment before she had found him, when she thought she had been alone, had been one of the happiest moments of her life.

When she arrived, the leaves were still falling hard, and a soft, orange carpet had already begun to form beneath her feet. It was comfy, and she curled up on it, and tears began to fall from her face.

Instantaneously, she was asleep.

He ran. Oh, how he ran. And, as he ran, he thought.

His mind, like a compass, pointed him toward the tree grove, so that’s where he would go. But why? There wasn’t a reason in the world why he would be chasing after the very girl who dragged him by the arm twenty minutes ago. He stopped, only to rub his bicep. It still throbbed, but dramatically less.

Caleb had no idea why he ran. But he did. And he found himself not caring; I run because I run. I go because I go. It’s quite simple really.

And he ran towards the furnace of burning wood. He knew she would be there.

And at that moment, he perfected his theory: It’s impossible to be both cold and hot at the same time. But, he thought, you can be one and then the other.

Yes, he was an ice cube. The flames melted him, and he became a puddle, which soon thereafter became a frozen puddle. The cycle of cold, hot, cold again made him smile. That was right. It felt right.

He arrived at the grove, and he saw her hair, a black river that fanned out beneath her. She was curled up, like a wolf sleeping in a den.

He wanted to shake her awake. Chloe! Chloe, come in, Chloe!

But for once, he ignored what he wanted. He did what was right. He did it because of his heart, because of the sudden surge of love he felt for the sleeping Chloe, helpless and confused.

And he curled his fingers underneath her, and lifted her up, and carried the sleeping girl all the way home.

 

The Unicorn and The Cloud

One day, in the Kingdom of Unicorns, a special unicorn was born. He was named Magenta because of his bright pink color. His coat was such a popping neon color, it was almost hard to look at. His parents loved him, but as he grew older, he started to notice how his parents treated him a bit differently than his sister. Magenta would look up at the clouds in the sky and wish he could be like them. They were cheerful, and they reflected the sunlight. And they were the same color as all the other unicorns. Magenta was scolded for looking up at the clouds because unicorns and clouds are enemies.

“I wish I could be like them,” he would sigh, and his parents would yell at him.

“Why would you say that? Clouds are our enemies! They block the sunlight! They are dangerous, and we could die without sunlight!”

This made him feel very sad.

On the same day Magenta was born, a little cloud formed in the sky. He was a dark gray color, and the sunlight wouldn’t bounce off of him. This made him sad and, sometimes, he would cry, which is something clouds aren’t allowed to do unless they are given that job by the king and queen.

“You will make all the creatures on the ground hate us even more if you keep up that behavior!” his parents scolded him.

His only wish was to be a happy cloud like all the other kid clouds. He was bullied a lot, and he was given the nickname “Gloomy” and, after a while, that became his name. Even his parents called him that.

Gloomy had always looked at the beautiful, white unicorns with awe. Their horns glinted in the sunlight. Gloomy always wondered what they looked like up close. He had only been flying over their kingdom once. But that’s all it took. He was caught and scolded about the dangers of unicorns.

Clouds and unicorns were enemies. There was a long history of why they have fought.

Unicorns need sunlight. Their horns are made to absorb it, and the sun in their horns is what gives them their healing power. Without their power, unicorns would be very weak, and they could die because unicorns are naturally frail. Their healing power keeps them strong. Of course, clouds block the sun. So unicorns are afraid of the clouds. Now, this could have been easily solved a long time ago if the clouds would just stay away from the unicorns. But unicorns began shooting burning sun lasers when they had maximum health and, when the unicorns would become afraid, they would kill the clouds they saw. The clouds got mad and started to block off sunlight so the unicorns couldn’t shoot any more lasers. The unicorns were getting very sick, so they had to make a treaty with the clouds. The treaty made it so unicorns had the right to shoot a cloud in their kingdom, unless it was a patrol cloud with a patrol cloud uniform. Thus, clouds would stay off of unicorn territory.

So soon, the unicorns’ memories of clouds faded. They only considered the patrol clouds and not all the other clouds that were out of their territory. Gloomy soon realized they would not shoot at him because he was a gloom cloud. They would not recognise him and run away. That is the reason Gloomy went into the Kingdom of Unicorns.

One day, Gloomy was flying over the Kingdom of Unicorns. He knew he wasn’t allowed to do this, but it’s not like the scolding bothered him anymore. He saw beautiful trees and ponds dotted with colorful butterflies. The land was spotted with silver unicorns grazing in grassy fields. While he was looking down, he observed a scene he could relate to. There was a bright-pink unicorn that stood out like he did. The other pale-white unicorns were calling out names like “pinky” and “light bulb.”

“Hey, Pinky!” the unicorns would shout.

“Can you change to other colors?” they would laugh.

“We need a disco ball for the party tonight. We’re hiring! The job pays one dollar. About the amount you’re worth.”

“Stop it!” the bullied unicorn would shout, but it was to no avail. Gloomy knew this feeling, so he decided that if he couldn’t help himself, he would help this unicorn. He knew how he would do it right away. He did what he was told never to do. It was something he had worked every day to hide. He started raining on all the mean unicorns. He rained harder and harder. Suddenly, a bolt of lightning sprang from him and hit the ground, scaring all the unicorns into running away, even the pink one.

Gloomy followed this pink unicorn that had been bullied all the way to a pond. He was deep in the Kingdom of Unicorns now. He sank down until he was face-to-face with the unicorn, and he knew he was breaking the most important rule of clouds, but he spoke to it.

“Hello, there, what’s your name? I’m Gloomy,” he said carefully.

“Ah!” the pink unicorn cried. He calmed down after realizing this was the cloud that had scared away the bullies. “I’m Magenta. Thanks for helping me back there. Why did you do that? I thought it’s forbidden for gloom clouds to rain,” said Magenta.

“I’ve been in that situation before,” Gloomy said. “I know how that feels. It’s terrible.”

“Thanks for helping me. You’re very nice. I’m sorry you have to go through this too. Why are you bullied?” Magenta asked kindly.

“I’m a gloom cloud. They bully me for being dark and rainy. It’s kind of a similar situation to yours,” Gloomy replied. “By the way, I like your name. Magenta is my favorite color. Your coat is so pretty.”

“Thanks,” said Magenta, smiling a little. “No one’s ever said that before.”

Just then, a patrol cloud crossed the sky.

“Gotta go,” said Gloomy, and he started to fly away as fast as could.

“Bye!” shouted Magenta.

Gloomy raced as fast as he could away from the Kingdom of Unicorns. When he reached the border, he turned around quickly and flew at top speed toward Cloud Land. He smacked into the patrol cloud that had spotted him while at top speed. It stunned him, but the patrol was stunned too. So Gloomy used this to his advantage and made it to Cloud Land while the patrol cloud was still stunned. He hid behind a building, breathing heavily. The patrol was still stunned, but Gloomy knew he wouldn’t be for long. He needed to act fast.

Gloomy was about to make his way to his house and tell his parents he had been out playing with his friends. He quickly realized that would never work because the patrol would be at his doorstep within the next few minutes. Then, the best idea struck. Gloomy knew what he had to do. It wasn’t like anyone would miss him. So Gloomy decided to run away to the Kingdom of Unicorns.

Gloomy quickly went to his house and went inside. The patrol cloud was up now and had just started to make his way to Gloomy’s house. Gloomy was faster than the patrol, though. He snuck past his parents to the back door. He shut it, locked it behind him, and started to fly away just as he heard his parents walk to the door to answer the patrol’s knock.

When Gloomy reached the Kingdom of Unicorns, he snuck to the pond where he had last seen Magenta.

“Magenta?” he called out across the pond. He knew Magenta may have left, but it had only been thirty minutes since he had helped him.

“Magenta!” he called again. This time, the bright pink unicorn emerged from behind a large rock.

“Oh, hi, Gloomy. I thought you were one of those bullies again,” Magenta said, happy to see his new friend.

“I have a favor to ask of you,” said Gloomy.

“What’s up?” asked Magenta, ready to help his friend in any way possible.

“So, you know how clouds can’t come into the Kingdom of Unicorns, right?” asked Gloomy, afraid of how his friend would react.

“Yeah, why do you ask?”

“Well,” Gloomy said, fear in his voice. “I was caught when I came to help you. I could be punished really badly in Cloud Land for it, so…”

“So what?” Magenta urged him on.

“I’ve run away to the Kingdom of Unicorns, and I was thinking you might be able to help me get by.”

“Oh… I can, um… I can try,” Magenta said. He didn’t doubt his ability to keep Gloomy safe. Gloomy was his first and currently only friend, after all. He was scared of what would happen if he were to get caught. Both of them could be sent to prison for life, or even executed. Magenta didn’t want to put his friend’s life in danger, but he still wanted to please his only friend.

“Ok… I know a place where you can stay for tonight. I’ll come back to you first thing in the morning with breakfast, and you can drink from the pond,” Magenta said, devising a plan of what he could do to help Gloomy even as he spoke.

“That’s great,” Gloomy said, happy his friend could help him. “You can show me where I’ll be sleeping now. And I’m a little afraid of drinking from the pond. Isn’t the water too dirty?”

“You’re sleeping in the cave I was just in. It’s very well hidden. I’m the only one who knows of it,” Magenta replied. “And the water has been purified by unicorns. Our healing power can turn saltwater to freshwater and purify dirty water so you can drink it.”

Magenta led Gloomy to the cave and showed him inside. It was a large cavern, and Magenta had put down a pile of hay for a bed. Then, he left Gloomy there by himself.

Gloomy looked around the cave. It was cool inside. Water dripped from stalactites. He glanced over at the bed, worried that it would be hard to sleep on. He had slept on his cloud bed his entire life. He lied down on it and quickly realized that this hay was almost as soft as a cloud! He knew he would be very comfortable here, laying on his bed, listening to the drops of water echoing off the walls. Gloomy quickly fell asleep, exhausted.

That night, Gloomy dreamed about his new friend. He was so happy that he met Magenta, and he was sure they would get along well. Gloomy thought it would be fun living as an outlaw in the Kingdom of Unicorns. Magenta would be his sidekick. Gloomy slept peacefully that night.

 

Treasure Map

Cow found a treasure map in the middle of the beach. He was on Waikiki Beach, and he saw something poking out of the ground. Cow went over to see what it was and, to his surprise, it was a treasure map. It had been weathered, and the crinkles made it hard to read.

Now, this treasure map was Captain Blackbeard’s treasure map. It went way back to the 1600’s, when the pirates ruled the oceans. Blackbeard had a little friend who was a leprechaun who granted wishes if you found him. The treasure map was hidden by Blackbeard on Waikiki Beach right where Cow was staying.

The map was very confusing and took a long time to decode, but Diamond Head was the spot where the treasure was. Diamond Head is an old volcano that had erupted. Cow was going there with his dad, mom, and older brother the next day for a hike, and he hoped to find the treasure there.

It was the next day, and they were getting ready for the day. Cow didn’t tell anyone about the map he had found because he wanted the treasure for himself. Cow arrived at the park and started the hike. The map said the treasure would be at the top.

Cow said to his family, “Meet you at the top!” so he could branch off from his family.

***

When Cow got to the top, he went to where the treasure was supposed to be. Cow found out that the map was for little kids, and it had no importance. Instead, it was something saying, “Congratulations, you have found me.” What a lame treasure map.

But Cow felt like there was more to that map, not just a lame kiddy thing. Cow hoped the treasure would be a skin cure because he was born with a special disease where his skin was black and white. That was how his parents named him. He wanted to find the treasure so he could cure his skin disease because kids mooed when they saw him.

So Cow searched around the top of the mountain and saw a little cave. Cow saw an outline of a figure who was kinda small, kinda chubby, sitting in the cave. Cow went over to ask him about the treasure.

Cow said, “You know anything about the treasure?”

The man said, “Yes,” with his low, quiet voice. Then, he said, “You want that treasure?”

Cow said, “Yes.”

Then, the man said, “All right. If you want to find the treasure, then you need to answer these riddles.”

Lucky for Cow, he was great at riddles, so he was prepared. The first riddle was: You throw away the outside, you eat the inside, and then throw away the inside. What am I?

Cow was like, “Easy peasey! Corn on the cob.”

Cow was correct, and the next two riddles were trickier. The next riddle was: What goes up and down, but doesn’t move? Cow had to think for a moment, but he got it correct. The answer was the road.

Cow had to get this last one right if he wanted to get the treasure. The last riddle was very confusing. It was: Three doctors said that Robert was their brother. But Robert said he had no brothers. Who is lying?

Cow was very confused, but Cow was a smart dude, and he knew he could figure it out.

He said, “There’s no way!” But then he figured it out. Neither was lying. The doctors were Robert’s sisters. Cow had gotten all the riddles correct, and the man gave Cow the treasure map. The treasure map said the treasure was located at the Sheraton on Waikiki Beach. But there were two more tasks Cow had to overcome to get the treasure.

***

The next task was sword fighting a dead pirate. The pirate was located underwater in a cave that Cow had to swim to. It was located right off the shore of the beach. When Cow’s family got back from Diamond Head, they went to the beach. Cow said he was going snorkeling, but he was actually going to fight this pirate. Now, Cow was very scared because he wasn’t that strong or good at sword fighting. The only experience he had was playing with plastic swords with his brother, but, besides that, he had no experience.

Cow saw the cave and swam to it. Inside the cave, it was very cold, and the water dropping from the ceiling was also very cold. Cow heard this dead voice speaking.

“Are you prepared?” it said, and then a dead skeleton pirate with ripped up clothes, glowing red eyes, and a shiny sword with a gold handle dropped from the ceiling.

A sword magically appeared in Cow’s hand, and the fight was on. Now, Cow wasn’t strong, but he did have brains to the advantage. He figured he couldn’t kill him with the sword because he was already dead, but he could make the stalactites fall on him. So Cow lured the pirate right where Cow wanted him, threw his sword at the stalactites, made them fall, and they smashed the pirate.  

Cow had completed this task. A magical piece of paper floated up from the skeleton’s body, telling Cow that the next task was located in room 654 in the Sheraton on Waikiki Beach.

Cow was super lucky because that’s where he was staying! He rushed to the 6th floor and sprinted to his room! He used his key and rushed into the room to find nothing. Then, he heard a low, quiet, Irish voice that kinda sounded like a leprechaun. He turned around and saw a small figure standing next to the coffee pot.

The leprechaun said, “If you want the treasure, then you need to beat me in a labyrinth race.”

Cow agreed to the challenge, and the room magically turned into a labyrinth. The labyrinth was filled with twists and turns and monsters around the corner. Cow was at a severe disadvantage because he didn’t know the race, but the leprechaun knew it inside and out. Cow sprinted around every corner, looking everywhere to try to find the exit. The leprechaun, on the other hand, was just mindlessly walking throughout the course confident that he was going to win.

Then, the leprechaun saw Cow sprint ahead of him, going toward the exit. The leprechaun was worried and thought he might lose. The leprechaun caught up, and he stopped right before the exit. The ground shook, and the piece of land rose up. The boss battle was on.

The land was a field filled with cows, and the boss was a giant, red-haired, shaggy, longhorned bull as mad as a hornet.

The first person to dodge the attacks and get the finish wins, Cow thought. I could use my skin to camouflage with the cows and then run to the exit. The leprechaun just tried to dodge the attacks, but that didn’t work out so well. Cow was so camouflaged that the bull didn’t know where he was, so then Cow ran to the exit and won the labyrinth. The room transformed back into a regular hotel room, and the leprechaun said that the treasure was three wishes.

The first wish was that Cow could turn his skin any color so he could always camouflage. Cow had decided that he didn’t want to be a normal boy after all. He wanted to be different. After all, being different is what helped Cow win these three wishes. The next wish was that Cow could transform into anything he wanted, like a plane or even a shark. The last wish was that Cow and his family could stay two more weeks at the Sheraton.

Cow had a great time in Hawaii and showed his parents his powers. His parents almost fainted and couldn’t believe their eyes. He loved taking his family on tours by turning into a helicopter. Cow would only use his powers for good, and his family lived happily ever after without anyone bullying him again.

 

Rouge

“Try the blue button. Maybe that opens up the entrance to the ship, Hoshiko,” Coco suggested.

“No, I don’t think so. This might have just been a waste of time. With luck, they may come and find us themselves,” I replied, sighing.

We’d been on the run for three days now, and our faces were undoubtedly plastered across the Collectors’ bulletins. If the Rouge didn’t come rescue us, the Collectors would find us before them, and we would be taken back and executed. Probably. Actually… I didn’t want to think about it right now. Right now, we just had to figure out how to crack the code and be done with this random machine we found. We thought it might open up a hatch or something to the Rouge ship, but we weren’t not sure.

“So… you know, I don’t really know much about you,” Coco said, tilting her head in earnest.

Her swishy, blond hair slipped off her shoulder and covered one of her green eyes.

“We should get to know each other.”

Coco and I had just met a couple months ago, so we were not exactly on close terms.

“Okay…” I said slowly. “What about your family?”

“Well… I’m an only child… My aunts, uncles, and grandparents all lived under our roof with my cousins and my parents, though, so it was still a pretty full house. One of my cousins is still at the facility, but she’s supposed to get out in a week or so.” Coco’s smile disappeared at the thought of her cousin.

“It’s okay, I know how it feels,” I told her. “My family essentially disowned me when the ordinance was passed. My twin brother and my dad wouldn’t talk to me, and my mom just avoided me for days.”

“Wow.”

We fell silent at this, thinking back to our families. Would they even miss us?

“So what about your favorite food, Hoshiko? I love milk chocolate and caramel covered googleberries,” Coco laughed.

She threw her milky, brown arms in the air and fell backwards.

“I love pasta. That’s the one thing I miss about the facility. The pasta there is to die for,” I replied, clutching my heart.

“What’s your favorite pasta sauce?” Coco asked, giggling.

“ALFREDO FOR LIFE, YO!” I cried out.

We rolled around on the ground, laughing so hard our stomachs hurt. And then we realized part of the reason they hurt so bad was because we hadn’t eaten in a day. Crud. I was about ready to eat my shaggy, ebony hair or even my bony arms.

“I guess, for now, we should just try to find some food, since we didn’t think to bring any with us.” Coco stood up with a groan. “Ow! I think I hurt my foot.”

I officially hated this forest. I hate it. I hate it. I hate it. I hate it. I hate it. I hate it. I hate it. Hate hate hate hate hate. It was impossible to navigate, and now it did that to Coco.

“Well doesn’t that make things all the better,” I muttered.

Then I saw Coco’s face.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean it like that.”

Cue the uncomfortable and awkward silence.

“So uh, I’m going to go find something edible to eat. You can rest here, but make sure to watch over the machine. We can’t risk losing it, in case it leads us to the Rouge.”

“I get it, Hoshiko,” Coco said, annoyed. “See if there are any googleberries around here.” Her face brightened at the thought of googleberries.

Too bad there’s no chocolate around here, I thought.

“There won’t be. Googleberries are made in the labs, so there’s no way I’m going to find any here,” I called over my shoulder, already walking away.

I could hear Coco grumbling, and I felt the corners of my lips rise just a bit. Coco brought happiness to anyone, she just lit up the room like that. Or woods, as in our case.

I tore off a strip from my blouse to bundle any food I found. I found a small berry on the ground, but I doubt it was clean enough for anyone to eat. Plus, it had a brown spot on the side that looked suspiciously like feces.

Just keep walking, I reminded myself. I didn’t know if we’d make it long enough for the Collectors to forget about us, but I just didn’t have the heart to tell Coco. She’s so sweet and innocent. I wanted to get her out of that dump into a place where she couldn’t be spoiled. It’s hard not to though, especially when I might break down myself. It’s almost like… I don’t know, like I felt a responsibility in me to protect her. What was this feeling? It’s so sudden, so new!

Suddenly, I heard a voice. Not Coco’s, and I was pretty sure I wasn’t talking to myself right now.

“Ugh! The one thing I liked better about the facility is that it was actually clean,” a girl said haughtily.

The facility?! No way. Are these people… them? The Rouge?

“Ah shut up. That’s one thing, Amy. It’s not a big deal, so suck it up, buttercup,” another voice chuckled.

The voices faded away, and it was like that set me off. I instantly sprinted back to Coco.

“Coco! Coco! I heard them! The Rouge! They’re here!” I shouted, cackling gleefully.

No response. Perhaps Coco was sleeping. I ran towards the clearing where I left her, spinning joyfully.

But Coco wasn’t there. No! She can’t be gone! Then I noticed.

The machine was gone too.

***

Did Coco leave me? I thought… I thought we were friends. Why would she leave me? And the machine, why would she take it? What did I ever do to her? Was there something she was hiding from me? And I thought she hurt her foot. Wouldn’t she have made some noise? Did she lie to me?

I couldn’t bear the thought that Coco, the one person I thought needed to be protected by me, would betray me and leave me stranded here.

I sank to my knees in the grass and gave a cry of despair. All my life, I’d been abandoned by everyone I thought I could be close to. Before the girls were collected and brought to the central facility, I had a good life. My parents were respected engineers, and I was popular among my friends. I just had my twentieth birthday before the new governor passed an ordinance to collect the girls in the state under twenty-one. My twin brother celebrated with me, and we had the best time together; we went to the theater and watched his girlfriend perform in an original play. This happiness we shared? All of it gone after the ordinance.

My friends ditched me. The boys looked at me with scorn, and the older girls ignored me whenever I tried to talk to them. I had a week to say my goodbyes, but I didn’t have anyone anymore to say goodbye to. It was like the ordinance had cut me off from society.

And then my family. My mother was sympathetic, but she would never dare to cross my father or the state. She always stuck by my father’s side, even when he called the Collectors to come early so that I was not seen until I was perfect. It was like she knew what repercussions her show of empathy for me could hold. My father made sure I was hidden until I had to go to the facility and wouldn’t speak to me directly. Even my brother. Danny made it clear that even though I was six minutes older than him, that he held the higher authority. He said I didn’t mean anything to him, that I was just a body. I couldn’t believe him, that he would just ignore all the memories we shared for the last two decades.

For the first time in a long time, I felt so alone. Then I met Coco at the facility. She shared my values and wanted to get out of there too. I thought I was finally on my way back to social recovery. But now, I guess that dream was over. I guess I would always be alone.

I had to find Coco. If she abandoned me, I’ll knock some sense into her. If not, she could be in serious danger.

Something hit my arm. A sharp object. I turned my head slowly and saw a tranquilizer dart sticking out of my arm with a white puffball.

The Collectors.

And the sedative took over.

***

I groggily moved a hand to my arm, where the tranq dart hit me. There was a small bandage covering it, but it was still a bit sore.

A hand slapped my face.

“Wake up.”

“What…” I mumbled, slowly sitting up on the bed.

I pulled a bit of my hair from my mouth, knocking my slim body onto the hard frame of the limp bed. I opened my eyes and took in my surroundings. A pair of young men, in maybe their mid-twenties, stood in front of me, arms crossed. There was only one exit in the bland, small room, and there were no windows.

“Follow me,” a man said gruffly.

He had a sandy-blond buzz cut, and wore a snug, grey t-shirt that hugged his bulging muscles. His rough, calloused hands pulled me up and shoved me out the door. His partner didn’t exactly look like a soldier, as his arms were so much thinner than the first man.

“Wait… what are we doing?!” I cried.

“We’re preparing you for execution,” his partner said cheerfully.

“Shut up, Dillon,” the first person snapped.

They kept pushing me down the dark, smelly corridor.

“Ex- execution?” I whispered, my legs turning to jelly.

Dillon caught me as I stumbled, his short, tousled brown curls bouncing.

“Yup!” Dillon said. He turned to me and whispered, “Sorry, Travis is really grumpy.”

“Shut up!” he roared, slamming Dillon into a wall. “I am not grumpy, but I am your boss! So you’ll do as I say! Got it?!”

Dillon instantly quieted down.

“Yes sir,” he said meekly, shrinking down against the wall.

Travis continued walking, and Dillon quickly followed him. I started crying as they shoved me along. We entered a large room with electric rods poised towards a hard chair with metal restraints, which I assumed was the torture room. Travis pushed me into the chair and activated the restraints while Dillon got the control panel ready.

“NO! PLEASE!” I screamed, sobbing.

I tried to get out of the restraints, but they were too tight. I shrieked as Dillon started up the electricity.

“NO! PLEASE NO! MY FAMILY! COCO!” These words barely came out of my mouth through all the screaming and crying.

Travis adjusted the rods to point closer at me, and I kicked him in the crotch as I thrashed around. He punched my face and told Dillon, “Do it!”

Dillon pressed a button, and a pulse of electricity came running down the rods and shocked me. Screaming, I writhed in the chair.

“PLEASE! STOP!” I shrieked, letting out another bloodcurdling cry.

Travis shoved Dillon out of the way, who stumbled and fell to the ground. He then punched another button which increased the electric charge.

The electricity seared my skin and lit my insides up. It felt like my entire body was on fire, a burning and stinging pain. Sweat seeped down my arms and legs as I continued to scream and thrash, watching the electricity run all over my body. Travis cackled and stopped the electricity to say something.

“Where are the Rouge?” he screeched, staring at me with wild eyes.

“I don’t- I don’t know!” I cried. “I’m not one of them! I don’t know where they are!”

Dillon silently got up from the ground and punched Travis, knocking him out. He then turned the machine off completely and ran towards me. My sorry self was still jolting and sobbing as he undid the restraints and helped me off the chair.

I crumpled to the ground and whispered, “Thank you.”

And then the world turned black.

***

I had a nightmare, just the same scene playing over and over. Travis, knocking Dillon to the ground as electricity flashed before my eyes. I woke with a start, sweating all over and breathing heavily. Dillon came over and helped me get up.

“I got you back to the forest where we found you,” he said, without much emotion.

“Thank you,” I said shakily. “I- why did you do that? Help me, I mean?”

“Because Travis is an idiot, and he wasn’t supposed to increase it that much. It could’ve killed you, and I can’t just… I hate torture and death of any kind, but I’m forced to work there,” he sighed, handing me a piece of bread. “Sorry, that’s all I have.”

“No, it’s more than enough,” I responded, grateful for some food.

“You have to get going. If you stay here, they’ll find you again, and you’ll be shot on the spot. And I have to get back too,” he said, worry creasing his brow.

“But… what about Travis?” I asked.

“They think that you got out because he wasn’t watching you, and that you knocked him out. I erased the security footage, and the admin found out Travis was a little tipsy anyway. That way, his story will be seen as a delusion,” Dillon said, giving me a reassuring smile.

“Thanks again,” I said.

Was there something I could do for him? It wouldn’t be long until things added up for the other Collectors, and Dillon could be executed himself.

“Thank me by going now. Get as far away from here as possible,” he said, reading my mind.

I nodded.

“I will forever be in your debt, and don’t let Travis get you down.”

“I swear, I won’t ever let him again,” he responded, shaking my hand.

I waved as I limped out of the clearing. It was so hard to move now. Every breath took a huge amount of effort, and I could feel the electricity still in my body, stinging away. My throat was burning, hoarse from all the screaming. It was like the electricity fried my insides. I was not able to move now without a biting, searing pain shooting up and down my arms and legs, into my neck and my feet, and balling up in my stomach.

Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. That voice again.

“Come on, Del! We’re going to be late for supper,” a girl whined.

I think her name was Amy?

“Well, sorry that I’m not as tiny as you are! I can’t just bounce around in the woods, you know!” Del said good-naturedly, pushing Amy.

Amy skip-stumbled and landed a yard away from me. Her bright smile faded into a panicked face, and her wavy, silver hair fell in front of her face. She scrambled back on her chubby body, and said frightfully, “Um, Del? There’s someone here…”

“GET BACK, AMY! IS IT A COLLECTOR?!” Del hollered from behind a thicket of bushes.

“No, I’ve been looking for you guys. The Rouge, right?” I said.

Del joined Amy, and they exchanged a glance, but I couldn’t read their faces.

“Did you come from the facility?” Del asked, her brunette bob swinging as her large muscles flexed nervously, with one hand on her dagger.

I nodded. “I escaped with a blonde girl. Her name’s Coco?”

“Coco? She did say she was expecting someone,” Amy amended, looking to Del for an answer.

She stood up carefully, brushing off her hands, and then hid behind Del’s large body.

“We’ll see,” Del said apprehensively. “Come with us. Hoshiko, right? Coco told us a lot about you, but we need to corroborate your stories.”

“Then by all means, corroborate away,” I said, smiling.

***

“Hoshiko! HOSHIKO! Over here!” Coco cried.

I looked up and saw her leaning over the balcony on the ship. She quickly scampered down the stairs, and then barrelled into me with a bone-crushing hug. Despite her gymnast frame, she could still do a lot of damage with her hugs. Youch.

“Agh… ow, that hurts, Coco!” I groaned.

“Oh. Uh… nice to see you too?” Coco said, hesitating. “I’m sorry I didn’t try to get back to you after they got me here. They didn’t want me to, as a safety precaution, in case you were Collected or something. So yeah.”

“It’s okay, Coco. I get it now,” I responded, winking at her.

“Okay good. I was beginning to worry about you. They told me how you were tortured. Are you okay? Nothing broken? Oh, and the Rouge gave me a two-bunk room, in case you came. And since you did, you can have a bunk. Top or bottom?” she said quickly, wringing her hands.

“I’m fine, really, and I’ll take whichever one is empty,” I said, grabbing her hand and jogging up the stairs to our room.

***

Three years we’ve been here. More girls and women have escaped from the facility and came here to the Rouge ship, but no men have been spotted in any of these parts. It hurts a little to see that even my twin brother won’t see our side and join us. Coco and I created a school for the younger girls, where they can learn about our lifestyle and how to survive on their own. The Rouge is our family now, a family of strong escapees. All we need is us.

 

The Three Dogs

Chapter One: The Old Woman

I walked past a door and smelled dogs. I could hear them barking. There were three of them, and they wanted to be walked. My job was dog walking, so I rang the doorbell, and an old lady opened the door who looked about eighty years old. She had gray hair and green eyes. The dogs were different breeds and sizes. One was a miniature poodle. The next was a pitbull, and the third and last dog was a Great Dane. I asked the woman if she wanted me to walk her dogs, and she said yes.

At first, the only reason I offered was to make money, but then I saw how hard it must be for her to walk the dogs, so I wanted to help. She had a cane and looked tired, but the dogs were very energetic. Some of them were bigger than her, so it could even be dangerous if she walked them. This is because if they ran, she would practically fly behind the dog. I made $60 that day from the old woman. Soon, me and the old lady became friends.

Then after nine short years, she died of old age and left me with her three dogs. It was the saddest moment of my life, and the dogs even felt bad. There was a small funeral because the lady did not know many people. There was only me and the three dogs because her family as all dead by now. There was a small, brown coffin where she slept, and there was a priest that spoke. I thought it was sad how no one was there except me and the priest. She trusted me with every possession she had, and that is why she wanted me to have the dogs. We used to do many things in her home, like drink tea and play with the dogs at least twice a week. She was one of my best friends, in fact, maybe my only best friend. On a different note, I would at least remember her by her three dogs.    

 

Chapter Two: The Dogs

I took them all home and was thinking about what to do with them. They could not all fit into my small apartment in New Jersey. The tables had many things on them and were cluttered together. Things were stuffed in drawers until they were ready to burst open. The dogs would jump, run, knock things over, and track hair all over the place. The place was a wreck. It was just too busy!

Then it hit me: keep one of the dogs and give the other two away. I felt the closest with the pitbull, because whenever I went over to the old lady’s home, the pitbull would follow me wherever I went, and it was the perfect size. I gave the other dogs to friends of mine. This was a very hard thing for me to do because that is how I remembered the old lady, and it was hard on the dogs. All of the dogs got along as well as anybody did. They did not fight or cause any trouble with each other. The next day I woke up and saw my dog on the couch sleeping. I woke him up, got dressed, and went outside with the dog. The dog seemed sad without his friends and so did his friends. I did not want them to be so sad, but I did not have enough space for all of them. I needed to get a new home where they could all live.

I started to look for houses that were on sale. I looked all over New Jersey and did not find any I liked. It needed to be enough space so they could run around and jump and most of all be happy. But where was I going to get enough money to buy such a big home? Now I needed a new job.

I walked on street after street after street looking for a well paying job, and then I found one. I would be a waiter at a restaurant. It was an Italian restaurant. If I was employee of the month, I would get $10,000. Otherwise, I would get $700 a week without work on the weekends. I worked as hard as I could for 2 months, which was $5,600. And I was employee of the month, which got me $15,600. I just needed to move somewhere cheaper and work there for a year or so. It was finally starting to work out for me.

 

Chapter Three: A New Life

I finally had enough money for a nice big home. Now I was going to go to a different country and live there so I could have a new life. I decided on Mexico, because I thought it would be a cool, different experience. I made sure that the people would let me put each of the dogs in their own cages in the cargo space.

When I got to Mexico, I got off the plane, and in the airport I realized something: I could not speak Spanish! This would be a problem in the near future. How was I going to get a job to keep my home in my hands and not somebody else’s? I finally got to my new home and unpacked my stuff. It seemed amazing how I forgot that people in Mexico spoke Spanish.

Now I decided I was going to move back to America. The next morning, I repacked my stuff, took the dogs for a walk, and then went straight to the airport. I tried to get on the plane, but a man named Peter stopped me. I wondered why he had done this to me, and then I suddenly remembered! My passport expired! I couldn’t believe that it had happened overnight! I had no idea what to do and if I would need to speak Spanish to get this problem solved. I went to the Mexican post office, and there I was happy to know that they could also speak English.

There, I renewed my passport and was on my way back to New Jersey. Once I got back, I bought a nice home and finally had a good life set up. Now, I needed to get my job back. But once I got to the restaurant, there was a problem. They replaced me! My heart started to beat really fast, and I started to sweat a lot. I had no idea what to do. I went into the restaurant and begged for my job back. After I was done begging, they kicked me out, and I had find a new job.

I looked everywhere: online and in the streets, but there seemed to be no job openings. I had to do something way different than what I had done in the past to get a new job. There were no jobs anywhere, so I only had one choice. I joined the NYPD training camp so I could become a police officer. As a child, I always dreamt of being a police officer. I thought it would be fun, and I would be a hero to everyone. It was the hardest training I had ever thought of. Well, except for the Navy SEALS and the military. The only fun part was going to the shooting range and learning how to shoot a police-issued gun. But most of the training was pushups and learning what to do in certain situations.

 

Chapter Four: The Police Break

You are not everyone’s hero. I realized this because there have been some racial issues in the news, and it has a lot to do with cops. I even knew this when I lived in New Jersey. If you do something wrong, then it is a big issue, and sometimes it even gets in the news. At least I would be doing good for the city, and I would be helping people. It was a bit of a commute going from New Jersey to the Big Apple every day, and I had to hire a dog walker because I was almost never there. The next day was my first day on the real force. I would start as a meter maid, but I was going to work my way up to a big-league cop stopping criminals. Now, I started to go around making sure there were no tickets to give out, and once it was 12:00, I had given 78 tickets out to people. This job seemed boring, but I needed to do it, and my boss said if I did well without complaining for the first six months, then I could take a week of break, and if I did it for the whole year I would get a raise. So I hung in there and eventually got a week of break. I was going to Alberta for a camping trip with my family and put the dogs in a kennel. This was because I didn’t want to go to Mexico anymore. Once I got the dogs situated, I was ready to leave for camping. I was going to meet them there.

Once I got there, I saw my family for the first time in years. It was great seeing my family again, and all of the wildlife was really cool. We saw all different forms of it, like bears, muskrats, and deers. It was the best time I had had in years. My family was not rich, so we could not afford to do this kind of thing. I was an only child, so I did get them all to myself, but sometimes I got lonely. My family was happy to see me as well! It felt good that they missed me too. Now we had to a get a campsite, and I would tell them about what I had done over all these years. We found the perfect one. You could see the mountains and a shimmering lake. Everything was so green, which was the opposite of where I lived. It was nice to be out of the city for once, and I could not wait for the next day. The next day we went out for a hike, and when we got to the top it was amazing. You could see everything from that mountaintop.

 

Chapter Five: The Saddest Day of My Life

When we were coming down that beautiful mountaintop, we saw a deer. It looked like Bambi with its little white freckles. Then, the scariest moment of my life happened. A bear jumped out of the woods and on the deer. It tore its flesh and we were so stiff we could not move. And then it happened. The bear saw us as a threat to him and his food, and the big brown bear went after us. We ran as fast as we could, but it was no use. The bear ran faster, and then it pounced on my mom and ripped her head off. My dad and I turned off of the trail and straight into the woods. The bear did not come, but I was sobbing more than ever. After that, we went back to the campsite, and then to make my day even worse I got a call that the dogs had been stolen from the kennel.

I was a cop, so at least I could take this case and try to solve it, but I needed a day off after what happened. This would be one of the harder cases, and I was lucky that my boss gave me a raise six months early because I was doing a really good job. I said goodbye to my dad and went home as fast as I could. My heart felt empty. I had nothing left but myself and my dad. It felt like torture. The next day I would try to forget all of this and get on the case so I could have something nice in my mind again.

 

Chapter Six: The First Case

In the morning I got up, went downstairs, and had cookies and coffee for breakfast. They were good, and at least my heart was fixed a little bit. Then I got right on the case. I went to the police station, and they gave me all the stuff they knew about him: 24 years old, last seen walking dogs, always wanted a dog but could not afford one.

I needed to find him so I could bring him in and get my three dogs back. They put me on this case because since they were my dogs, I would want to solve the case more than everybody else. It was a good feeling being able to solve my own case instead of having to tell cops to do it for me. It was better because it would give me the feeling of revenge, and that was something I needed now. There was not much important left in my life, and I could even work later because going home to an empty house made me feel sad. I used to come home to a bunch of happy dogs running and pouncing on me, just the same way that stupid bear pounced on my mom. I would never be the same after that, and it was a burden to carry on my back. I just wished the old lady was here to help me and cheer me up, just like the way she used to do. I did miss her, but this thing with my mom made me forget about her. After reviewing the case folder, I when out and started looking. I went over to the scene of the crime and asked all they knew about him. All they knew was that he did not have a car, and he instead ran away. This was not a very helpful hint, but I was not mad. I instead asked another question so I could try to pull more answers out of them. I asked which way he went, and they said left. They also said they saw him go inside a building and not come out. They believed that was where he lived. I went over to the old, broken-down house, and then I heard barking! I knocked on the door with my hand on my gun. I was ready to point it right at that man. But no one opened, so I had no choice but to kick it down, and that is what I did.

Then I ran upstairs to where I heard the barking. I saw my dogs and went straight to them so I could untie them. But that was not the only part of the mission. I have to catch the man too, I thought to myself. The dogs would only make it harder to do this. I looked all around the building, but he was not anywhere to be found. Then I went back to the dogs, and when I went to untie them, I was caught in a net and trapped. I then called the police to come and untie me. Well, I was waiting just a few minutes. After I called the cops to help me, I heard the door open. I knew that this was not the police, because it was far away from the station. Then I heard loud thumps on the old wooden stairs. A man came in the room. He looked me in the eye and said no words, but after that he left the room. Quickly after, he came back in the room, this time with a gun. He shot. I moved my head just out of the way, the shot cut the wire, and I fell free. Then, I quickly ran towards him as he was reloading. I tackled him and took his gun. Then, I threw it out of the way and started to punch him until he was knocked out. Then, I untied the dogs and waited for the police to come. Then, we loaded them up and made our way to the station.

 

Chapter Seven: The Raise

When we got to the station, we put him in a holding cell before we took him to a prison. Then I went home happily with the dogs and finally felt happy again.  The next day, I went to work and I was ready to do work, but the boss said I should take a day off because of all the sad things that had happened around me, and because I also found the man I needed to find. Then, I went home happily and slept. The next day, when I went to work, my boss gave me a raise. Now I was not just a cop. I was something more. I asked him what I would be doing that day, and he just said to patrol the streets. That is what I did. I thought of the busiest streets and went there to do my job, because that was where most accidents occurred. When I got over there, I bought a lawn chair, brought it close to the main street, and sat down. This was the best job ever! Once my shift was over, I brought the lawn chair home and stacked it over all the other ones.

Then, I started to talk with my dad about the funeral plans for my mother. The dogs were out on their third walk of the day like usual. We decided to hold it in Italy, because she had always wanted to go there, but never did. We decided not to bring the dogs because we thought they would make a mess at the funeral.

 

Chapter Eight: Italy

Once we got there, it was the most incredible place I had ever gone to. You could see mountains everywhere, and the little village was built on the side of one. No wonder she had always wanted to come here. It was just amazing. We had a priest, just like the little old lady had. The difference was that she had friends and a family, and the old lady did not have that. We had a nice hotel and a great view from there. You could see the whole village from that spot. The next day, we went out looking in shops, but tomorrow the funeral was going to take place, and then I would have to go and work again. But for now, I will enjoy the time I have left here in Italy. Tomorrow is about my mother and only her. The next morning, I got ready to go to the funeral. I put on my only suit and combed my hair. When we got there, I read a sign that said: Funeral starting 11:30 AM for Susan Pande.

 

THE END.

 

The Longing

 

The Polaroid camera sat on display pleading to be used,

It itched to capture the colors of the rising sun.

It longed for a chance to snap the wind

rustling the leaves of a scarlet oak tree,

or shoot droplets on a leaf after a rainy day.

The camera was hungry for a chance.

To grasp the gleaming sun through the red and orange autumn leaves

would be the opportunity that the camera is waiting for.

 

What You Don’t Know (Excerpt)

“Ouch!” Elizabeth exclaimed as she felt something cold and hard hit her directly on her ankle bone.

There was sand in between her toes and salty water up to her shins. She reached down to her ankle to try removing the irritating feeling something was causing. The water was cloudy, so she didn’t really know what she was looking for. She blindly found her way to a glass bottle with a shriveled cork screw top. There was a sad looking red bow around the bottle neck, and inside the bottle was a slightly crumpled small piece of paper. She quickly turned around and headed in the direction of the parking lot. She gathered her beach towel and bag and rushed to her car. Not knowing what was in the bottle made Elizabeth more curious, but at the same time, more cautious. She was nervous to find out what this eerie bottle was holding. She was all about the mystery. She loved watching Law and Order on TV, and her favorite childhood book was the Nancy Drew series. She loved trying to solve mysteries, and she liked the thrill and shock the mystery gave her.  

She situated herself in her car. She had the air conditioning on along with the radio blasting the newest pop culture music. She took out the bottle and slowly untied the bow. She struggled to take the corkscrew out of the bottle and ended up using her car keys to pry it out of the grip of the bottle. She reached into the bottle and brought out the tiny piece of paper. It was no bigger than the size of her palm. She had to unfold the paper about eight times for it to reveal its mystery. Elizabeth was shocked to see what was written on the paper.

She read to herself, “The five steps to answer all of your questions”.

Elizabeth did not understand what that meant. Especially since, besides that mystifying title, the page was blank. She flipped the page over, hoping there was more information. Though, there was nothing on the back except a poorly drawn smiley face. After examining the sheet of paper for five minutes, Elizabeth slipped it back into the bottle, stuck the bottle in her beach bag, and started to drive home. She made the music louder and rolled down the windows. She tried everything to forget about the bottle and move on with her day.

Two days passed since Elizabeth had found the bottle. She mostly forgot about it. Though, when she got back home from the beach on that brisk Friday evening, she found the bottle lying on her bed. It looked fresh and new. The bow no longer looked sad, and the corkscrew was not shriveled. The paper inside the bottle was folded with crisp creases. Elizabeth examined it in awe. She took the paper out of the bottle and unfolded it.

Again she read aloud, “The five steps to answer all of your questions.”

Except, this time, underneath the title, it was not blank. In small cursive print, there was the first step that said Step One: Get closer to the water. Elizabeth was confused at this step. She was already very close. She came to the beach every day. How much closer could she get? She looked at the print, and it somehow looked familiar. She was so puzzled about what the message meant, but she was more baffled about how it appeared on the paper. The last time she checked the paper in her car two days ago, there was no message. She flipped the paper over and saw how the poorly drawn smiley face was now colored. She was bewildered at this new paper. But it wasn’t a new paper. No one knew about the bottle, and it had stayed in her bedroom closet since Tuesday. She frantically stuffed the paper back into the bottle and threw the bottle onto a pile of clothes in her closet.

She sat on her bed, staring at her bedroom wall and trying to think about anything but the obscure bottle that laid in between her gym clothes and purple dress. She cringed and slowly arose from her bed. She walked over to her desk and turned on her sticker covered computer. From Avatar: The Last Airbender to Disney princesses, Elizabeth collected stickers with all of the characters. She showcased her favorite ones on the top of her computer. She brushed her fingers against the pop-up stickers, surrounding the glowing apple as she opened the laptop. When she brought up a new tab, she prepped her fingers to type something she knew was absolutely crazy. She typed into the Google search box, “bottle paper appearing messages”.

Elizabeth spent at least an hour trying to figure out what was going on with the eerie bottle she found in the ocean and decided to bring to her house. She was prepared to take notes on anything she would be able to find. She couldn’t think of anything else. She had literally asked all of her questions, and she couldn’t find any answers. There was nothing on the entire internet that was able to help her solve her problem.

She decided to take notes anyway. She reached into her desk drawer for a loose leaf paper. She found one crumpled up in the corner of the drawer. She flattened out the paper and picked up her new fountain pen that she was so fond of. She grasped the pen where the shiny golden pattern was as she touched the sharp tip to the paper. She titled the document, “Mystery Bottle”. She continued to write all of the information she had. She mentioned where she found the bottle, how she found the bottle, what she saw on the paper, and how the paper changed. Along with every event, she wrote an entry beside it, showing how she was feeling at the time of that event. She was determined to solve this incredible mystery. She was really enjoying feeling shocked and slightly scared when the new message appeared on the paper. Forgetting about this was not something Elizabeth planned to do.

She folded the paper and put it back in the corner of her desk drawer. She was satisfied with the effort she had put into the notesheet, but she couldn’t shake off the memory of the new bottle and changed piece of paper. By the time she finished doing the rest of her homework on her laptop, she decided to go eat dinner. Her parents had already started eating when she came downstairs. She glanced over her mother’s shoulder to see what they were eating. Chicken and rice with no seasonings and no spices. She crinkled her nose and walked away. She made herself a sandwich and had some yogurt for dessert. She then ran back to her room. She eventually dozed off, and she woke up to the sound of her fifth alarm indicating that she was running late for school. She rushed to get ready, and she finally reached her car after what seemed like five minutes of participating in an obstacle course. She finished her granola bar and then proceeded to drive to school.

Elizabeth was lonely at school, and she was lonely at home. Her only friend moved away from Florida last year, and Elizabeth had not been able to make any new friends since. At home, Elizabeth felt lonely without her sister, who was in college. She was so ready to finish high school and join her sister at the University of Florida. Elizabeth was a wonderful student, and she was able to receive good grades. Though, when she was told to work with other students, she struggled. She was very awkward and was not able to communicate her thoughts and ideas properly. During lunch, she did homework in her homeroom class. She was not a part of any after-school clubs, and she did not participate in class. After school, she would go home and eat a snack while finishing her homework. Her favorite place was the beach. It was one of the few places that allowed her to be at peace with herself. On the beach, she was able to collect her thoughts and relax. She tried to go to the beach everyday after school. She had become acquaintances with all of the people who worked around the beach. All of the lifeguards knew her, and people who worked at the food truck knew her, but they were polite, nothing more.

 

Here Together

The sky was downcast the day my mother left. She packed up her things and drove away, leaving Julian, Dad, and I alone together. The day was gloomy enough without the thought that I would probably never see her again. I tried to continue the weekend without breaking down and crying. I missed her so much. I could smell her perfume throughout the house, and the taste of her home cooked meals lingered in my mouth. Dad was in and out of the house, working and sulking. He would meet with his lawyer everyday to talk about the divorce and what they would say in the courtroom. Dad never talked about Mom or his lawyer. He just said that Mr. Taylor was a work friend. But Julian and I knew what was happening. Our parents were separating, and we knew there was hole in everyone’s heart the size of a Skittle. It was small but painful, and it was incredibly difficult to heal.

***

After brushing our teeth, Julian and I go to bed. He worries about Dad, but I assure him that everything would be okay. I position myself to look at my brother’s baby face before I fall asleep. As I close my eyes, I see a single, shiny teardrop slide down my twin brother’s pale face. He sniffles as I get up to give him a hug. I sit with him until he falls asleep.

When he does, I crawl back to my bed and curl up in a tight ball. I shut my eyes and try to fall asleep. All I can think about is the image of my mother’s angry face driving away from our home. I had seen her angry at my dad before, but nothing like this.  

I wake up to the smell of quesadillas and eggs cooking on a hot skillet. Though, it doesn’t smell like normal eggs and quesadillas. It smells like Mom’s grandmother’s secret recipe for huevos rancheros. I jump out of bed and peek my head outside the door. I inhale the beautiful aroma as my brother wakes up. He stretches his arms out in a circular motion.

We hear someone coming upstairs, and like a natural instinct, we rush to our beds and pretend to be asleep. Dad walks in and “wakes us up”. He pulls us downstairs for breakfast, which is cereal and bananas. I nudge Julian, who also expected huevos rancheros. We eat our breakfast in silence and pretend nothing is wrong.

Just as we are finishing the meal, there is a loud knock on the door, and we hear Mom’s voice.

 

Sincerely, the Aliens

It was late. Megan was walking home from after-school activities when she saw a white light coming down from the sky. She thought, That must be a shooting star. I wish for one million dollars, shooting star. Then, she started floating in the air.

She screamed, “HELP, BOB!”

But no one was around. Then, after 30 seconds, which seemed like forever, she reached the inside of a weird ship. Then something or someone put a sack over her and gave her a shot of something that put her right to sleep.

***

I woke up. I called out to Megan, “Megan, wake up. It’s time to go to school.”

But no one answered me. I looked on the top bunk, where Megan slept, and saw that she wasn’t there. That’s weird. Maybe she’s downstairs, and for once, I don’t have to wake her up. I got dressed and put on my clothes and started going downstairs to the kitchen for breakfast, but Megan wasn’t in the kitchen either.

I screamed, “Mom, did you see Megan this morning yet?”

“No, why are you asking. Did you see her yet?” Mom answered.

“No,” I said, “That’s why I was asking. Maybe she had something at school so she left early.”

I finished eating breakfast and put on my shoes.

“Bye, Mom,” I screamed.

“Bye,” she said, and I walked out the door to school.

I arrived at school and asked the secretary if Megan was at school yet.

She answered, “No, I don’t know where she is. You’re her brother. Shouldn’t you know?”

I said, “Yeah, I probably should know, but I haven’t seen her since yesterday at school.”

“Okay,” said the secretary. “I’ll keep an eye out for her.”

“Thanks for your help,” I said and headed out to class.

When it was lunch, I met up with my best friend, Jeff, and sat down and started eating.

Jeff asked, “Where is Megan? She wasn’t in my class today. Was she sick?”

Jeff was a surfer. He had big muscles and had blonde hair. His dream was to become a professional surfer.

“I don’t know, Jeff. She wasn’t in her bed this morning, and the secretary said she didn’t come to school yet,” I answered.

Jeff said, “Do you think she was kidnapped?”

“Of course not! Why would anyone want to kidnap her?”

“Okay, I’ll tell you if I find anything out about where Megan is.”

RRRIIIINNGGGG. And we started the next half of the day.

After the final bell, Jeff and I started walking home together, and I saw a note on the sidewalk.

“Look, Jeff, a note. I wonder what it says.”

I picked up the note and read the note out loud.

 

Dear Bob,

We are the ones who kidnapped Megan. She is with us, and you will never see her again. We are always watching. She is now our specimen for testing. Don’t try saving her. It will just be a waste of time, and you will also become a specimen. We took Megan to study the human race. We are still on your planet. Don’t try telling the police, or anyone like that, or they will all just die. Have fun with your last few days on Earth.   

Sincerely,

The Aliens.

 

“ALIENS?! THEY’RE GOING TO DESTROY US!!!” Jeff screamed.

“Yes, aliens, Jeff. But remember, we can’t tell anyone,” I said. “Plus, this note is probably just written by someone who overheard us talking at lunch, so let’s not worry about it. Bye, Jeff, see ya tommorow at school.”

And we walked our ways to home.

***

Meanwhile…

I woke up. My vision was dizzy, and I had a really bad headache. Where am I? I thought. I saw that I was in a white room with no windows or people. Maybe I can sneak out of here. I tried to move my hands, but they were chained to the bed I was on. Crap! What am I going to do?  I lay there for another five minutes until I heard some voices.

“What are we going to do with the human female?”

I heard another voice say, “Shut up! We are just going to do tests on her, and when we are done, we will throw her into the black hole.”

Oh no, I must escape! Who are those people, and how will they get to a black hole? I thought. Then something came into the room. When I saw them, I almost passed out. It was an alien! It had three eyes, its body was green, and it was all slimy, and it had tentacles as legs.

***

At Home…

I finally got home.

I asked my mom, “Is Megan at home? She wasn’t at school today.”

“No, I didn’t see her. Should I call the police and start a search party for Megan? I’m getting very worried.”

Oh no! What should I say? The aliens said the police couldn’t get involved. I guess I’ll have to lie my way out of this. I feel so bad for lying.

I said, “Actually, Mom, she was at school today, but she went to a sleepover at her friend’s house.”

“Whose house did she go to?” Mom said. “She wasn’t allowed to go. I need to call them and tell them Megan has to come home right now!”

“Uh… umm, I don’t know. She didn’t tell me,” I answered. “I need to go upstairs to do my homework. See you at dinner.”

Phew, I almost was going to be a specimen too. I must find out where they are and free Megan!

After finishing my homework and having dinner, I went to bed and tried to fall asleep, but I couldn’t! The fact that Megan was abducted by aliens didn’t make me want to fall asleep.

I need to think of an idea of how to find her and free her.

After almost an hour of thinking about ideas, I thought of the best idea ever! But I needed help from my friend, Jerry.

The next day passed by quickly, and I didn’t get anymore notes from the aliens. After school, I went to Jerry’s, my other best friend’s house. Jerry was great at hacking and always got good grades. One time he failed a test, so he hacked the school’s system and changed his score. Jerry had brown hair, and he always wore his round glasses wherever he went. He also always wore a buttoned up shirt everyday, even if it was 90 degrees. Jerry and I went up to his bedroom, and he turned on his computer and started hacking.

After an hour of hacking, Jerry screamed, “I GOT IT!”

“Where is her phone, Jerry?”

“It’s at, it’s at… the dump?! They must have built a garbage fort.”

“No, Jerry, I doubt it. But tomorrow you, Jeff, and I can go there.”

***

The following morning…

Woo hoo! Today is the day we save Megan!

“Wake up, Bob. You have to go to school. Tell me if you see Megan at school today. All of Megan’s friends said that she wasn’t sleeping at their houses.” Mom said.

“Okay, Mom.”

I started walking to school, and I met up with Jeff like I always did. But this time, he was flexing his muscles in front of a bunch of girls. So I decided to back away until he was done. When he was done, I walked over to him.

“Hey, Jeff.”

“Hey. Did you find your sister yet?” Jeff asked.

“Yeah, we did! Jerry tracked down her phone. She’s with the aliens in the dumpster. Jerry and I are going there today after school. Do you wanna come?”

“Of course I do!” answered Jeff. “I’ll meet you at lunch with Jerry to figure out a plan, and then after school, we’ll meet up right outside. Does that sound good?”

“Yep, that works. Let’s do it.”

RRRIIIINNGGGG went the lunch bell and lunch started. Jeff, Jerry and I all met up at our usual table.

“So what’s the plan?” I asked.

“I say we all go home and wear our best spy things, bring a few snacks and drinks. Then at 12:00 A.M., we meet up at school, and we go to the dump,” said Jeff.

“Thats a great idea!” Jerry and I both called out.

“So let’s do it” I said.

And we all go back to class. After school, we all went home and got prepared. I decided I would wear black jeans and my black shirt. I would bring my water bottle and some snacks with a flashlight. I ate dinner and went to my bedroom.

“G’night, Bob,” said Mom.

“G’night, Mom.”

I closed my eyes and pretended to go to sleep. After around ten minutes, I reopened my eyes and made sure no one was looking. I got out of bed, but I still had to kill some time. It was only 10:34. I started reading books. After around an hour of reading, it was 11:43, so I started to make my way downstairs. Luckily, no one was awake, so it was easy to sneak out. I put on my shoes and started walking to school. I got to school at 12:00 sharp. It was a clear night with no clouds. The moon was full, so it was easy to see where I was going.

***

“Who are you?” I asked. “Why did you kidnap me you stupid alien.”

“DON’T CALL ME STUPID, LITTLE HUMAN GIRL!” said the alien. “Soon we will take over your pathetic world.”

“You still didn’t answer my question. Why did you kidnap me?”

“We kidnapped you so we can do tests and learn about the human race. When we came to earth, we saw you, and we knew you would be perfect because you were young,” answered the alien. “Now it’s time for your first test. Don’t worry, it won’t hurt.”

“It better not.”

The alien put a blindfold over my eyes. Then, all of a sudden, pain bursted throughout my body. I felt like someone shocked me and punched me a million times. I tried screaming, but I couldn’t. It was like my mouth was taped shut.

“WHAT WAS THAT?!” I screamed. “YOU SAID IT WOULDN’T HURT! YOU LIED.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, little girl. I forgot to tell you that it wouldn’t hurt has bad as what’s coming next,” the alien said. “Mwahahahaha.”

I really, really hope Bob saves me. I really don’t want to do what’s next. And I went back to sleep.

***

Meanwhile, at school…

When I got to school, I saw Jeff waiting for me. I asked him, “Did Jerry come yet?”

“No, I didn’t see him. Maybe his parents caught him. Let’s wait another 10 minutes for him,” said Jeff.

“Good thinking.”

After around five minutes, Jerry came.

“I’m sorry I’m late, my parents almost caught me, so I waited another five minutes and then went out.” said Jerry.

“It’s fine, Jerry.” I assured him, and we started walking to the dump.

It was a long walk. It was all the way across town.

It took about 45 minutes to get there. When we got there, we walked inside and started looking around for something unusual.

“Does anyone see anything?” I asked after around a half an hour of searching.

“No.” Jeff and Jerry said.

“Neither do I,” I said. “Let’s go look on the other side of the dump.”

“Great idea.” Jeff said.

I started running, and then I tripped on a garbage bag, and I saw under it was light.

“Guys!” I whispered. “Look! Theres light under that garbage bag. Let’s go check it out!” We all tiptoed to the garbage bag, when we got there, I said, “I’m going to lift it up. After I lift it up, I’ll look inside for any aliens. If it’s clear to go in, I’ll put up two fingers.”

“Good thinking, Bob.” said Jeff.

I took a peek under the garbage bag. I knew it! There was a big white room with lights. I saw a few doors leading to other places. There were desks with testing tubes and weird alien things on them. I gave Jeff and Jerry the all clear sign. We all went down the ladder and came into the room.

“Woah,” Jeff said. “Look at all the cool stuff they have!”

Then, all of a sudden, we heard movements.

“Everyone hide!” I whispered, and everyone hid.

Jeff and Jerry hid under a table while I hid inside a closet. After around ten minutes, we came out of our hiding spots.

“Phew, that was a close one. Did you see what the alien looked like?”

“I did!” said Jerry. “It was green and slimy. I saw three eyes, but there might be more. He had squid legs. I’m not sure how many.”

“Good job, Jerry. Let’s go into the next room.”

“WAIT!” said Jeff. “Look what I found! It looks like a gun. We can use it to kill aliens.”

“Nice find, Jeff!” Jerry said. “Keep it. It’ll probably come in handy.”

“Yes,” I said.

The gun looked like a gun, but it was dark blue and had some weird green liquid inside, and it didn’t have any bullets. We walked into the next room, which was all white again, but it had a bunch of cages with animals like deer, dogs, and cats. There was another doorway, which had weird letters on top that looked like, “ܐܒܫܣܝܬܫܣܝܐ ܧܡܤܐܤܞܫܧܖܐ ܝܒܣܧܣܝܒ”.

“What does that mean?” asked Jeff.

“I don’t know. It’s probably alien language.”

“Let’s just go inside it, guys. We know this room doesn’t have Megan in it,” said Jerry.

So we walked inside the room, and inside, we saw five aliens!

“Quick, Jeff! Shoot them!!”

Jeff shot them all, and they turned into ashes.

“That must be a vaporizer gun! That’s so cool, Jeff!” Jerry said.

“I know!” said Jeff. “I want to keep it forever.”

“C’mon, guys, we have to find her fast. We can’t miss school, otherwise our parents will freak. It’s already 4:00 A.M.”

We started into the next room. It was a big room with big tubes coming down from the ceiling. In one of the big tubes, Megan was sleeping.

“Look!” I said. “There she is!”

The problem was that there were around five aliens walking around the room. Some aliens were sitting at table, looking at something that looked like a virtual computer. Some other aliens were holding shots that you would get at the hospital. They looked very busy.

“Okay, guys. I have a plan. We need to find another two of those guns. When we find more, we surprise them all and shoot them down.”

“Sounds like a good plan.” said Jerry, and we started looking around for more guns.

After 20 minutes of looking, we still didn’t find anything. It was already 4:56 in the morning. We needed to leave soon. So I leaned on a wall for a second, and all of a sudden, a big panel inside the wall opened up with guns, grenades, and a bunch of other alien weapons. Jackpot!

“Guys!” I said. “Come look at what I found!”

Jerry and Jeff came over, and they saw it.

“Woah,” said Jeff. “We can take some grenades to blow up this place after we save Megan.”

“Smart idea, Jeff. Jerry take a gun.”

Jerry and I took a gun. We all had the same ones. I took a few grenades for after. We went back to the room next the aliens.  

“Okay, guys, when I give a thumbs up, we are going to run into the room and destroy the aliens. Sounds good, guys?”

“Okay,” they both said.

I peeked in the room. They were still doing the same things as before, and Megan was still asleep. I was ready to give them a thumbs up. I showed three fingers, then two, then one, and then a thumbs up. We all ran into the room. Jeff took out two aliens right away. Jerry and I also killed one. There were six left. Then one of the aliens took out a gun and tried to shoot us, but we shot him faster. But there were still five left. I shot two more, and Jeff and Jerry each shot one. The last alien quickly ran to a big, red button and pressed it right before we killed it. Then the lights turned red. Alarms went off. The door closed shut, and metal surrounded the door, making it impossible to break. Then a voice said, “Self destruction in 20 minutes.

“Oh no, guys!” I screamed over the alarms. “Let’s free Megan and try to escape!”

Luckily, Megan woke up with all the commotion. She said, “Bob, is that you? Are you here to save me?”

“Yes, Megan. C’mon, we have to get out of here before this place explodes! Do you know how to get out of that tube?”

“Yes, I saw the alien do it when we did tests. I think he clicked that button,” said Megan.

“Jerry, go click that button over there. It should free Megan.”

“Okay, Bob,” said Jerry.

Jerry went over and clicked the button. A door in the tube opened up, and Megan was free.

“Thank you so much!!” said Megan.

“C’mon. We don’t have anytime to be happy. This place is going to blow up in like 15 min-”

Self destruct in 14 minutes,” said the automated voice.

“Hey, I wonder if our gun can destroy the door?”

“Try it,” said Jeff.

I tried blowing up the door, but it didn’t work. It didn’t even leave a scratch.

“Well, that was a fail,” I said.

“We need to find an off switch or something to blow open the door,” said Jerry.

We started looking for an off switch, but we gave up because there was only ten minutes left.

“Guys, I’ll use the grenade I took, and hopefully it’s not too powerful.”

“DON’T,” said Jeff. “You might blow us all up, and we’ll all die.”

“It doesn’t matter. No matter what, we’ll all die anyway. We have to try it,” I told him.

“Yeah, I agree with Bob. We have to try it. It’s our only hope,” Jerry said.

“Okay, fine,” said Jerry.

Self destruct in nine minutes,” said the machine.

“I’m throwing the grenades in three… two… one…”

BOOM went the grenade.

***

Meanwhile… Martin was next to the dump.

It’s been a long day, I thought. All I want to do is go home and crash on my bed. I’ve been having such a bad day. When I was walking next to the dump, I heard a grumble, and the ground started shaking. I thought, Oh no! Earthquake! This day is getting worse by the minute. Then in the sky, I saw something hovering off the ground. ALIENS!! They must be hiding in the dump. I HAVE TO take a picture. I took a picture of the aliens and called the 911.

“911. What’s your emergency?”

“I’m next to the dump, walking home, and the ground just started rumbling. Then I saw a flying saucer hovering in the sky.”

“Are you sure this is true?” asked the operator.

“Yes! Of course. I’m watching it happen right now.”

“Okay. I’ll send over some police to go investigate.”

“Thanks,” I told them, but they already hung up.

I waited around for the police to come. Luckily, the alien ship wasn’t moving. It was just hovering in the air. The police came two minutes after I called them. The alien ship was still there. The policeman came up to me.

He asked me, “Hello, I’m Anthony. I’m go- Holy shit is that what I think it is? Just a secl. I’m calling backup.”

Five minutes later, 15 police cars and helicopters where surrounding and going inside the dump.

***

Inside the alien hideout…

“LOOK” I said. “There’s a hole that we can crawl through.”

Five minutes till self destruction.” said the machine.

We crawled into the next room. I took out my last grenade.

“This is my last one, guys. I don’t have another one for the next room. What are we going to do?!”

“Let’s just escape this room. Then we can worry about the other one,” said Megan.   

“Okay, sheesh,” said Jerry.

“Guys, I’m blowing up the next one in three… two… one…”

BOOM. And the next door exploded.

Three minutes till self destruction.”

“OW!” screamed Jeff. “I can’t walk. I got hit in the leg by some of the debris, and I twisted it. I might have broke it.”

“Don’t worry, Jeff. Put your arms on me and Jerry. We’ll help you walk.”

Jeff put one arm on each of our shoulders. Then I noticed that I didn’t have another grenade.

“GUYS! I don’t have another grenade! What are we going to do!”

“Let’s try to find a hammer or another grenade,” said Jerry.

Two minutes till self destruction,” said the robot voice.
We spent one minute looking for things to break the door with.

One minute till self destruction.”

“Guys, “Jeff started crying and said, “If this is our last time together, I just wanted to say, I eat my boogers.”

Then Jerry said, “I also do,” and he started crying.

Thirty seconds till self destruction.

“Bye, guys,” I said. “It was nice knowing you all. At least we got to see Megan one last time.”

Then Megan spoke up.

“I also wanted to say that my whole life, I always loved you. You’re the best brother ever.”

***

Look!” I screamed. “The police.

We ran to the police. We only had 15 seconds to get out. We all sprinted out of the aliens’ secret hideout with five seconds left. We continued to run until we heard the place exploding. When we walked out of the dump, we saw news reporters, police, and worst of all, our mother. I walk over to my mother with Bob, and she told Bob, “Great job! You saved Megan. But you’re grounded until you’re 18.”

“By the way,” I told Bob, “everything I said before is not true.”

“Oh, Megan,” said Bob, rolling his eyes.

When we get home, I crashed into bed, and I saw a note.

 

We’ll be back one day.

The Aliens

 

TO BE CONTINUED…

 

Subsequent of the Smoke

I remember that day. I remember the darkness of the smoke, lifting off from the ground, taking my child from me. He had been taken, at only three years old, to some planet called Earth, forced into a normal life. A life in which he wasn’t my son.

Orlon. My husband had given him the name before he left us. It was a grand day; the curtains sparkling, the sweet aroma of flowers filling the air. It was customary, for a boy in Arionian culture, to name the child weeks after they were born. Traditionally, the child was supposed to be granted the name from a high priest, but my husband had wanted to make a statement, and he named him, to my horror. The day was filled with blessings, wishing him the very best, giving him gifts to bring prosperity to the planet. I thought nothing of it when a man, his face barely visible in the ink-black robe, came to my son and sprinkled ash on his forehead. Ash was a sign of rebirth, a new beginning. I thought nothing of it, until later that evening, when I went to check on Orlon, only to see him missing, and pieces of ash were spread in the symbol of the rebellion on his bed frame.

I remember the terror, the scream that erupted from my mouth when I saw the ash. They had taken him, taken my boy, the only thing that I had ever truly loved, they had snatched him away from me. Running to the courtyard, tears stroking down my face, I finally caught a sight of them, for only a moment, the greasy black cloaks of the men. Yelling, screaming, begging them to simply give him back, that I would do anything they asked, only to say goodbye to my son. That I would give up the whole world just to see his face again. That’s when I saw the smoke. Filling up my lungs, dancing along my fingertips, making me want to crumble to the ground. That’s when, through the haze of the pitch black smoke I saw the ship, flying into the clear, starry night, in the direction of the small planet called Earth.

Unlike my son, the smoke never left me. It consumed all of my thoughts, seeming to control me. I was lying on my bed, crying, tears pouring from my eyes as the sun rose. A new beginning, a new start. But this time, I was going to Earth.

***

My husband was dead soon after the incident. I was forced to play the weeping widow, forced to speak like he meant the world to me. Required to cry at the funeral, made to disguise my inner happiness. The man who had seduced me that night, forcing me into his little game, was dead, and I had killed him.

I could still feel the weight of the gun in my glove clad hand, the bullet coming loose from my steel like a grip. Ripped through him, almost like the smoke defeated me. I saw his eyes, widen in that last moment, before I kissed him, rough and haphazardly, before I felt his body grow limp, his blood trickling down my lips. I smiled, joyously, for the first time after my son was taken from me. I felt the blood trickle down my teeth, my lips stained a crimson red. The smell of decay along my senses, the weight of him, the weight of my son being gone, the smoke gone for only a moment.

Curled up against him, the smell of blood around me, I was at peace. His heart, the thumping of his soul, was finally put out. I smiled at him, his glassy eyes staring up at me unmoving before I let out a scream.

The guards came running to me, holding me back as I cried, not for my husband, but for my son. It seemed almost too easy. The smoke had been lifted. I was allowed rest. But I could only see the blood. The feeling of a feeble life being crushed by my own hand, the feeling of cutting someone’s thread to the world overwhelmed me. I needed more, I had to get more.

Blood. The sickeningly sweet liquid, crimson to the touch. The blue veins, pulsing, heart beating, creating life. I was addicted. Addicted to the taste, addicted to the smell, even to the feeling. Being able to unravel the threads of a being’s life, allowing them a release nothing else but death could give them. But a gun, it was too easy, wasn’t it? Too quick, too fast, too permanent. The heart was too fragile for such things. The rest of the body, however, was less febile. The skin, although easily cut, didn’t allow the bearer easy access to the long awaited pleasure of death.

The smoke, I had believed that the smoke had finally left me. At first, it released me for hours, I could see through it, I was fine. Fine. That’s all I was. I was living. I was breathing, therefore, I was fine. I could sleep, the smoke no longer encompassing me, and all my thoughts. I could sleep without a piercing scream waking me. Later, I had learned that the scream that woke me from my nightmares was my own.

The staff thought I was insane. They drugged me, hoping to sedate me. They thought their primitive drugs would work, that they would be safe. But nobody was truly ever safe, not even those of the rebellion headed towards Earth.

Pill after pill, day after day, I was incarcerated in my mind. My body was limp; it was useless, unresponsive. I was cast aside, left for nothing but a shell of a power hungry leader. But the smoke was only thicker, it was all around me, choking me. I felt like I couldn’t breathe, but no one wanted to save me anyways.  

That’s when they left me. The pills, the staff, they all left me for dead. I was alone, left to fend for myself against the smoke. It was seeping into my pores, clogging my airways, soaking into any opening it could. I knew it was going to conquer me. I saw the haze of gray moving closer and closer to my eyes, teasing me. It knew that it was going to kill me. It was smiling at me, the wisps whispering in my ear, asking me to try to fight them. But I didn’t want to fight anymore, I wanted release. Death had found me, smiling in the midst of the night, as the full moon lighting up my glazed eyes. The smoke had finally left me. I was safe from its grasp forever.

 

Baseball Nights

We fly down the sidewalk, the wheels turning furiously on our scooters. The bags hanging from our handles swing as we turn sharp corners, coming close to knocking us down.

“First stop, Sweet Green!” I shout, the wind seemingly making the words trail out behind me.

We slow to a stop at M St., and I race to push the button that allows us to cross.

The droning voice starts,“Please wait. Please wait. Please wait…” Until finally, the voice turns surprised, like it never expected the light to change.

“Walk sign is on across M St., Walk sign is on across M St., Walk sign is — ”

We cross before the voice finishes its third repetition, hindered only by the weight of the bags. We pass Harris Teeter (a blur of red and green), an office (a smudge of boring, old grey), and slow to a stop as we pass Takorean (Sharp outline of dark grey with a splash of yellow.)

Parking our scooters at the line between Takorean and Sweetgreen, my mom opens the door. Already focused on the chalkboard menu, she asks me,“Same as usual?”

I nod and head over to the forks and napkins, placing two of each in the Nationals bag slung over my shoulder. My mom finishes quickly, and we hop back onto our scooters, turning right and heading down Tingey St. past Nando’s Peri Peri, pasers, the suit store, and Unleashed (streaks of brick, brick, brick, and brick). We soar past the trapeze school and up to the towering Nationals Stadium. The sounds of the vendors and fans wash over us.

Tickets, tickets for sale. Did you hear that Rendon got hurt again! Water! You excited for the game? I have already gone seven times. Five dollars in the Stadium only two here!  Caps, caps for sale! Scherzer pitching tonight. Think that he will be up to standard? Peanuts! Anyone want some peanuts?

The stadium is mostly made of concrete, with big Washington Nationals banners on all of the entrances. It takes up a whole city block and feels like two. The North side has silver baseballs hanging from the top that are as big as cars, giving a shine to the garages that make up half of that side. The south side has a stunning view of the Anacostia and Yards park. The people that are not big Nats fans can spend most of their time looking at the view and eating at all of the restaurants that Nats Park has to offer. The crowd is filled with all kinds of people, young and old. They are all talking loudly to each other, lighthearted with the prospect of a whole night dedicated to baseball.

We push through the swarm of people and make our way to the first base entrance. The crowd thins, and we lock our scooters past the crowd of people smoking.

“Race you to the top!” I say to my mom, turning the last ring on the lock.

We climb the steps two at a time, neither going as fast as we can, but caught up in the excitement of the crowd. We place our bags on the white fold-over tables and walk through the metal detectors, knowing that we have nothing in our pockets, yet being a little bit nervous anyway. Next, we get to the spidery ticket machines where you have to insert your ticket into the blue-green light that emanates from the top. A satisfying beep comes if your ticket is okay, along with a green light that instructs you to push your way through the spindly legs of the machine.

As soon as we get through the many layers of security, we enter the many layers of boisterous crowd. Navigating our way to the escalator, we push by the fans. Everyone is here. Lawyers, retirees, hipsters, little league boys, senators, representatives, families, doctors, tourists, children, teenagers, young adults, adults, women, men, impoverished, middle class, wealthy, one time fans, kind of fans, normal fans, avid fans. We all turn to one at the sound of “Let’s play ball!”

My mom and I bolt up the escalator and into our “nose bleed” seats right after “The Star Spangled Banner.” A long time ago, we had convinced ourselves that the 400s were the best seats in the stadium. Lots of reasons pushed us into those seats, partly because we come to so many of the games that we cannot afford any other ones, partly because we actually enjoy getting to see the whole field from such a high vantage point. My mom and I have sat in those seats for so long that we have gotten a little protective of them. Whenever we are with other baseball fans who are talking about how horrible those seats are, we jump right in with the 400s’ list of values.

The screen starts its whole spiel about the Nationals, and I pull out my giant scorebook. Each side is as big as a laptop, with a dashing black cover and red writing. I slowly write down the teams and the date, savoring all of the time that I have, then I start to scramble as the screen races through all of the lineup.

My grandpa and Mom taught me how to score. I remember sitting down with them when I was eight, them teaching me in their usual way. My mom looking up the most concise, but complicated way and making me struggle through it, my grandpa telling me exactly how he does it, and scribbling down the positions in his beautiful, yet messy handwriting. My mom then took me to a game. We watched, engrossed, as the players went through their complicated motions, writing down as best we could together.

We got on the Washington National’s Facebook page that day. Mother Teaching Daughter How To Score, the caption said underneath the picture of us, arms around each other, bent over our scorebooks. Sweet moment between Mother and Daughter. And it was. My grandpa took over from there until he was killed in a car accident when I was ten, after our second baseball scoring season together. He would take me to many games and talk to me about the people surrounding us, the players, what was happening, what he thought was going to happen, and what had happened before I was brought into the baseball world. After he died, my mom and I became eager baseball fans, going to ten, twenty, thirty games a year, and of course, scoring.

Like always, the minute we sit down, my mom pulls out her food and starts to eat. With her jumbo water bottle in one hand and her many different snacks in the other, she begins to watch the game.

“Let’s play ball!” says a little kid wearing a Harper shirt in front of a microphone, his voice enlarged and projected t

hrough the stadium, and the game begins.

First inning:

“Scherzer going to pitch a no-hitter?” I ask my mom.

“Maybe!” she answers, drawing out the “be.”

First pitch, strike. Scherzer struggles a little bit and lets two runs.

“Ugh. No perfect game, no-hitter, or shutout!” I complain.

Scherzer promptly turns it over to the offense who score three.

“Thank goodness!”

Second Inning: Scherzer comes back and… lets two runs.

“Scherzer! You can do better than that!” I whisper to myself like my grandpa always used to, and write down the score.

The Nats fans are on the edge of their seats, and I am furiously scribbling down the runs. The Nationals come back with nothing this time though, and the fans relax, expecting the second loss of the season.

Third Inning: Finally, no score for the Braves. The fans sigh and relax, this time happy, even though the Nationals are losing. However, Danny Espinosa hits a Sac. fly and Ryan Zimmerman runs home, tying the game.

The light is dimming, and the park turns the big overhead lights on. I snuggle closer to my mom and get a blanket from the bag.

Fourth Inning: Another scoreless inning for the Braves, and one for the Nationals too.

By now, my mom and I have eaten all of the food, and every blank space in my scorebook page is filled with doodling. It is completely dark. Now is the time that my Grandpa would stop watching the game for a second and look for nighthawks. Out of habit, I glance up at the sky too but only see the moths fluttering around the lights.

Fifth Inning: The Nationals pull ahead with help by Zimmerman and Murphy. Nothing else happens except for a single by Ramos that hits the second base ump. The ump jumped to the side to avoid the ball, but it hit him anyway, and he rolled to the ground.

Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Inning: After a long break from stress for the Nationals fans, it starts up again. The Braves score two runs in a row and sighs rocket around, mixed with a few cheers. I settle back in my seat with a sigh.

“They are never going to be able to win now!” I mourn.

Ninth Inning: A zero score in the top of the ninth for the Braves. Nationals up. Score: Braves 7, Nationals 6. The Nats fans inch to the end of their seats. There still is a chance.

Zimmerman steps to the plate. He is 3 for 4 tonight. There still is a chance. There still is a chance. First pitch, strike. The fans inch one millimeter back. There is still a chance. Second pitch, strike. One more millimeter back. Then, bang! The ball goes rocketing to left field where it lands as Zimmerman rounds first base, coming to a rest at second base. There is a smatter of applause, and you can almost hear the squeaking as the fans resume their position at the tip of their seats.

There is still a chance. There is still a chance. There is still a chance. Werth steps up to the plate. The pitcher curls and unwinds, letting loose a shrieking fastball. Crack! The ball makes solid contact with the bat, and it flies through the air. There are gasps, and the crowd rises as one. The ball hangs in the air for a moment and drops… right into the home run seats. There is silence until Zimmerman rounds third, and then eruption. I clap until my hands are raw.

“Werth! Werth! Werth! Werth!” chants the crowd.

“N-A-T-S! Nats! Nats! Nats! Woo!” cries everyone, one for each of the runs.

The team comes running to home plate, ready with a bucket of Gatorade to dump on Jayson Werth, the hero of the night. Werth sprints the home stretch–90 feet from third base to home plate–his long hair flying out behind him. As he reaches his teammates, he leaps into the air and comes down in the middle of the throng. The bucket of gatorade comes down after him, and he parades around the field, his happy teammates trailing after him.

My mom and I turn to each other, and our hands collide in a high five. Everything is perfect. I am with my mom. The Nationals won. It has been a good night, but as we meet in the middle, the young girl sitting behind us bursts into tears. At first, I am confused. Why is she crying? Then I see her Braves shirt, her Braves bag, her Braves hat, her family all adorned with Braves merchandise.

Ohh no, I think, blushing. Did our high five and overwhelming excitement make her cry?

I pull my hand away and bend down to gather up all of our stuff.

Why do I even care this much about baseball? I look down at my Nationals shirt that my mom got me for my birthday, spotted with pen smudges and stains from all of the messy dinners we have eaten here. I look over at my mom, with her short, brown, curly hair, a matching nationals shirt to mine, the bags already on her shoulders. I think about my grandpa, who I loved spending time with, who loved spending time with me.

The crowd roars again in harmony, Werth’s pumped fist coming from the dugout. Another curtain call night.  

I love baseball because my grandpa did, and my mom does, and this stadium does. I love baseball because of all of the scruffy scorebooks, delicious dinners, and fun scooter rides. I love baseball because the crowd is one, cheering and clapping for the eighteen players on the field. I love baseball because it is a memory of my grandpa. I still run into people at the stadium who still think he is alive and just haven’t seen him recently. I love that in some people’s minds, he will live on forever, coming to baseball games, being with me, talking, laughing, living. I love baseball because it is a night alone with my mom, talking, laughing, living. We mimic what my grandpa had done before us, everything from his comments to the players, to nighthawks, to being together in this way. I hope these nights will never end.

The mom of the girl behind us exits the aisle.

“Don’t cry,” she says roughly. “I told you I was sorry I forgot to get you cotton candy.”

Thank goodness, I think. So she wasn’t crying about us.

A big weight is lifted off my shoulders, and I grab the final bag.

“You sure you don’t want me to carry more?” I ask my mom.

“Nope. I got it,” she answers.

I put my arm around her shoulder, and we walk out of the aisle together and down to the stairs. The noise of the crowd is all around us, but we are oblivious to it. In our minds, it is just each other, together.

 

The Floor is Lava

When I awoke, the TV was beeping like crazy. All the stations were showing the local news channel.

“Do not touch the floor,” they yelled. “It will kill!”

Of course, this made me curious. I threw my shoe at the ground to see what would happen. For a second, my shoe was fine, until it burst into flames. It started at the toe, then it went all the way to the heel. It sort of looked like this spontaneous combustion TV show episode I watched once. They were talking about how there were some gases in the body that when mixed with static could light on fire. After watching the shoe, I wondered why all the furniture wasn’t on fire. I had a new plan, which was to throw a pillow at the ground. When the pillow touched the ground, it didn’t light on fire. Now I knew how to get around. I looked at the clock and saw it was 5:15 P.M.

“Mom! Do you know where scissors and tape are?”

No reply.

“Mom… MOM!”

Still no reply. I realized she wasn’t home.

I need to find her, I thought. I threw a few pillows and the couch cushions so I could walk over to the kitchen. I was still too scared to test if I would go up in flames like my shoe. I found some of my supplies in the cupboard next to the wastebasket. My plan was to tape my feet to a pillow. I really hoped this would work because I would be literal toast if it didn’t. As I took my first steps with my new invention, I was incredibly nervous, but it worked! My new task was to go find my mom and other living people. The local news channel had gone offline.

As I stepped outside, I saw my neighbor on top of her car.

“Ms. Morrison!” I called out.

“Jonathan, what are you doing? You’re going to die!” she replied.

“I taped two pillows to my feet so I won’t burn up,” I said, walking towards her car. “I really need your help. My mom hasn’t come home yet, and I don’t know where she is! Does your car work?”

“I was listening to the radio as I was driving back from the supermarket when I heard the news, so yes, my car does work. However, can you make me one of those foot protector devices?”

“Only if you take me to my mom.”

“Deal.”

Ms. Morrison drove us to the local plant nursery where my mom worked as a landscape architect. They designed gardens for other people. She seemed to always be complaining about rude clients or not having anyone to actually plant the plants. Maybe this would be a good change for her.

Once we arrived, it looked deserted. Nobody was in sight. Our footsteps could be heard from a mile away as we walked into the store. Everything was normal, the plants were all labeled and in the right place, and the power was working, just no one was around.

“AAAHHHHHHH!”

As I turned around, Ms. Morrison had tripped over a vine on the ground. We locked eyes as I reached out my hand to help her up, but it was too late. I watched her burst into bright, orange flames as high as the ceiling, then vanish into only a pile of miniscule, gray, unwanted dust.

I sat on the counter for a good 30 minutes wondering what I should do. I felt like I needed someone to talk me into finding my mom or living my life. But I knew my mom needed me. As I looked down at my feet, the pillows were beginning to disintegrate. Some of the down feathers were falling out and leaving a trail. I either needed to find new pillows soon or I’d have to jump from table to table. If my mom was in the store, she probably would be able to hear me.

“MOOOOOM! WHERE ARE YOU?” I called out.

“Jonathan?” I heard quietly.

“MOMMA, WHERE ARE YOU?” I called out again.

“Help me,” I heard even quieter.

I ran as fast as I could to the backroom where I thought she was. Sure enough, she was there, but in a horrible state. She was crying and her left leg was completely gone.

“Oh my god Mom, what happened?”

“I was walking over to my minifridge to grab a Coke when I felt like my leg was on fire, and it literally was. I jumped on my desk and looked at my wound. My wound was completely closed, no blood, no skin, no pain, just no leg. First I heard Jim scream, then Dave, then Kevin, then Janet, and it just kept going on and on. Do you know what’s happening? How are you fine standing on the ground?”

“I was taking a nap on the couch when our local news station was saying something about the ground being on fire. I threw one of my shoes on the ground and watched it go up in flames. I realized pillows wouldn’t light, so I taped two onto my feet. We should get home soon to fix up our pillow shoes.”

“I can’t drive now because of my leg, so you’re going to have to drive us back home,” she told me.

“Woah, now, Mom, slow down. I’m only 11 years old. I can’t drive. I can barely look over the dashboard,” I stated.

“Jon, list our other options right now.”

“Well… yeah, you’re right, I need to drive.”

I took one of the pillows off my feet and taped it to her only foot. We sort of did a three-legged race to the car, but only with two legs. As we got in the car, she taught me the basics of driving. I had a bunch of trouble turning and almost crashed into a parked car, but since there were no cars on the road, I was fine. I also could barely reach the brakes, but that didn’t cause any problems. Our car did get pooped on by a bird though. It was really funny but, also, really startling. One thing I noticed now, that I hadn’t noticed with Ms. Morrison, was that all the stores were vandalized and looted. Everyone was panicking, the streets were trashed, and nothing was normal. Once we arrived home, our pillows were almost completely degraded. We stepped inside and called everyone we knew. Strangely, no one picked up except for my cousin’s cellphone, but all I heard was a single scream.

“Momma, I think we have some crutches in the closet in my room from when I broke my leg. I’m going to go see if I can find them,” I told her.

Sure enough, there were crutches in the closet. We also needed to repair our pillows. I took some duct tape while my mom grabbed a bunch of our smaller, sturdier pillows. We attached them to our feet using Krazy Glue and some more duct tape. My mom and I decided we would venture outside to find more people.

“This California heat is really getting to me,” I told my mom.

“Yeah, it’s almost 100 degrees out here.”

We heard a man screaming. I saw him running on the street and pointed it out to Mom. As he got closer, we could see that he had a few fingers missing and a huge scar on his face. His legs were covered in what looked like rain ponchos and torn-up cardboard. As he approached us, my mom noticed he had a knife lodged in his belt.

“How are y’all doin’,” he asked.

“What are you doing screaming in the street like that?” Mom questioned.

“I want to take your skin off and wear it as my own.”

“Get outta here, you creep,” I said.

“What’d you say?” he said, taking his knife out of his belt.

My mom swung her crutch at him, barely missing. He started charging at her when I shoved him into the ground. He burst into flames and vanished from sight.

“That was weird and scary,” I said to Mom.

“He seemed like one of those doomsday, end-of-the-world predictors.”

“Did you hear what he was screaming?”

“No, did you?”

“I thought he was saying it’s shaking.”

Right after I said that, the ground began to rumble. An enormous fault line appeared right in front of us. The shaking was too much for my mom, and she fell over and was transformed into worthless dust. I ran back inside and jumped on the couch. I didn’t want to be here anymore. All of my family, my friends, and everyone I knew and cared about was gone. I didn’t have a purpose anymore. I couldn’t take it anymore. I jumped off the couch and disappeared.

 

Ripped Jeans

It’s never comfortable, but I do it anyway. Just because my legs will go numb soon enough. Just because I’m way too stubborn to bring a chair and, honestly, I probably don’t deserve one.

So I sit.

Ripped jeans on rugged rocks ripping into my skin. I actually took some time to count it one day, when I wasn’t doing anything (I usually am), and there were twenty six. Twenty six old scars and new scrapes. Twenty six days I sat at the corner of a beach no one goes to, waiting for a person who, in theory, doesn’t even exist.

Anymore.

Waiting for someone who might not even be on the face of the Earth anymore, and someone who might have never existed in the first place.

It hits me just now that I might be crazy. Like actually “wrap me up and throw me in the loon house, boys, turns out I created an entire person in my mind and wait for her everyday after school for hours” kind of crazy.

Oh, man.

I can feel my palms start sweating at the thought — because that’s super messed up, right? — I could make it on TV or something. Chills.

Dr. Phil, if you’re out there… who am I kidding? Dr. Phil is always out there. Dr. Phil, buddy, you’re perfect, and I love you, and I know you can read my thoughts right now. I know.

Ha… just kidding.

I weigh the pebble I stuffed in my pocket earlier in both hands and choke down a laugh because I really shouldn’t be laughing. I might not think Dr. Phil is secretly monitoring my thoughts now — but you know, if I’m really crazy, I might soon. Or maybe I’m onto something?

I chuck the rock into the sea. Probably not.

Tracing the ripples as they surface with my eyes and my fingertips, I think about the sea, the stars, everything beyond everything. Time and space. Me and Gwen. Dr. Phil and my possible mental delusion, and how beautiful the beach is on winter afternoons. Even in ripped jeans and freezing, I can appreciate beauty.

And this, right here, is beautiful.

It would be more beautiful if it weren’t below fifty degrees, but you know, I’ll take what I can get.

“Hey,” a voice calls out from a couple yards behind me — probably just on the outskirts of the rock cliff I’m on now — and I jump at the sound, my heart all of the sudden interested in a track/cross country combo. “What up, Maxine?”

Ah.

I know that voice.

“Hey, man,” I say, coolly. “Good to see you.”

And it is good to see him. He may be the only person it’s good to see right about now — and I smile — because having someone here will have to put a pause on my existential crisis.  

Jude.  

My best friend.

It really is good to see him.

Hey uh,” he calls out, starting to climb the rocks, pausing to eye one falling down the abyss, “Didn’t see you at school?!”

“That makes sense!”

Then his eyes dart to me, shining. Alive. The color of storm clouds and concrete and steel. His hair, cocoa brown, falls loosely over his olive skin, and his smile beaming brightly at me silently says, go on.

“Didn’t go in today,” I say. “Cici’s sick.”

“Yikes.”

Cici’s my little half sister. She’s cute. Around four or five —  really sweet — my only complaint is that I can recite around three episodes of Danny Phantom and make mass amounts of pizza bagels. Big enough to feed like three grown men. And apparently, one Cici.

He nods. Closer now. Halfway up.

“So, how long you been up here?”

I have to stop and think about it. And when I do, I recognize I have no idea what time it is. I freeze.

“I got here around three?”

“Oh lord.”

“What?”

“It’s eight.”

“No kidding…” I say, taking my phone out of my back pocket. And to really no one’s surprise but my own, it’s eight thirty seven, and I’d magically been here for five hours.

“That sucks.”

He sits beside me, and there’s a faint moment of silence. Remembrance. Grief for all the hours I just wasted sitting on this big rock thinking about famous talk show hosts and the ward.

“So, spider Max… tell me, how’d I know I’d find you here?” he asks.

“Easy.” I say. “You’re super creepy.”

He staggers backward, as if somehow wounded by the thought, and leans against the rock, facing me. Me and only me, and somehow, I know. I know what he’s about to ask.

I say nothing.

“Are you ever going to tell me?”

Nothing.

“I mean,” he catches his tone. “You don’t have to tell me anything if you don’t want to.”

Zip.

“But you can trust me.”

Waves.

“If you want.”

You can trust me. I repeat in my mind. You can trust me. I brush my hair behind my ears and rest my head in between my arms, draped at either side. Are you ever going to tell me? My throat chokes up, and I breathe in the sea air. If you want.

I can trust him? Trust him? And tell him what?

My vision super focuses on the sea, straight through him and his questions. The “oh, you poor thing” face I can tell he’s ogling at me. That classic untimely look. Coupled with a ridged brow and a sympathetic half cock of a smile, squinted eyes, pouted lips… he feels bad for me. Or something. I cannot stand it. I cannot stand when people pity me.  

I grit my teeth and ball my hands in fists, tightly squeezing the color out of them. They’re so blue, they’re purple at this point. Everything around me goes blotched and hazy, and I want so badly for the world to just stop for one second. Stop so I can catch my breath. Stop so I can figure out what’s wrong with me.

There’s something wrong with me. I feel like I’m dying.

“Is this what dying feels like?” I say, as I swallow the lump in my throat, and it falls to my chest. Now I’m not about to break down crying, but I feel the exact same.

“Am I still alive?”

Maybe I’m talking to Jude. Or Gwen.

“I think I’m crazy.”

And I do. And I am. Or? Who knows. What.

He sits up, looking at me, looking for my eyes. Which, by the way, are not looking at him. They’re looking at the sea.

“For Gwen,” I say.

Out of the corner of my eye, I can see his expression. He’s shock and confusion embodied in a teenage boy. He’s lost. So am I, actually. Haha. I turn to him. I can feel how bland my face must look to him, the numb exterior I’ve put up to the world. No one can touch me now.

His eyes, once strong and fierce and confident, are scared. Full of love that cannot fix me now. The color of loose change, pencil shavings, hair in old age… they look to me in empathy. Screaming silently.

I bite my lip to keep from laughing. I absolutely should not be laughing. Nobody’s laughing. Nothing is funny.

“Hey,” I say, “hey” being the only thing that I can get out of my mouth. “Jude. You said… I can trust you?”

“Yes. Yes, you can. I, uh, are you alright? Maxine?”

“When I was eleven, I used to love swimming.”

“Ah… I’ve never seen you swim. You swim?”

“Not anymore,” I reply.

Not until I know she’s okay.

“It was July or something. I don’t remember.”

“Oh?”

“I came out here with baby Cici and my parents. We sat over there.” I point to a strip of sand to our right. It’s covered in snow now. “And it was one of those, you know, we had another kid but we still love you the same spiel, so they let me do what I wanted. Helped me build sand castles and stuff. You know. Then we went in the water.”

“That sounds… nice.”

“And the tide pulled me away from them. Pushing me under the waves. I couldn’t breathe. No one could get to me. I was in the middle of the ocean. Oh man, I have never been so scared in my entire life.”

“What the hell.”

“Then I was under, and I kept going down. I was going to die there. My life was, like, flashing before my eyes. It was terrible. I was falling under so fast, Jude. I saw fish I’d never seen before. And the sun. It was so far up, I thought I’d never see it again. I was so scared.”

“…Max?”

“It was starting to hurt. The not breathing and stuff. Then…”

“Then?” he asks, putting his right hand on my left shoulder.

“Gwen.”

“Gwen? As in ‘for Gwen?’ That super ominous thing you said a couple minutes ago.”

“Yeah.”

“Go on.”
“She saved my life, broseph.”

“Is that who you’re waiting for? Is she like… a–”

“Mermaid,” I say, tearing my stare away from him and back to the sea, a smile growing on my face as the thought of her surfaces. “It was green… some kind of beautiful, arctic green tail and lavender hair. Tan skin, brown eyes. I saw her face underwater, then I saw it on land. She saved my life. Pulled me up, or something, I don’t know. I don’t know.”  

He doesn’t say anything to that. I get it.

So I go on, “She was… young. Like me. Beautiful. You know. Perfect. And we talked. She told me about mermaids. I told her about people. We talked until it was night, and she said she’d come back one day. Back for me. Then she dived headfirst back into the water.”

“And you wait for her,” he says.

“And I wait for her,” I repeat. “I told my parents.”

“Oh man.”

“They think I’m crazy. That I swam all the way back to the beach somehow and passed out. That Gwen was never here, and I just made her up because I watched The Little Mermaid and couldn’t process the idea of death.”

He presses a fist to my cheek, lovingly imitating a fist to the face.

“Damn.”

The way he says it is breathless. I can almost see his brain trying to process everything. The wheels that must be turning in his head. I kind of feel bad, you know. Usually, he’s thinking about soccer, guys, and video games.

“So,” I say, leaning forward, letting my hair cover my face. “Do you think I’m crazy?”

“Why would I think you’re crazy?” he asks. Like the idea never even crossed his mind and I’m the sanest person in the world. “Of course not. I’m big on the supernatural stuff. You know that! Plus, like, seventy percent of the ocean is unexplored, and y–”

My shoulders heave as tears stream down my face. Like a broken waterfall… the rain.

“Hey…”

His voice sounds apologetic. Like he’d done something wrong, that telling me I’m not crazy is the opposite of what I want to hear, that somehow, getting the biggest secret off of my chest and welcomed with open arms would make me sob. And, okay, I guess he’s right. But I’m not heaving because I’m sad. I’m heaving because this is the best I’ve felt since that same day in July I can’t remember.

“Thanks,” I say, picking up my head and wiping a tear stream off my face. “Thanks, Jude.”

“Of course.”

 

We stayed there the rest of the night, and I told him about Gwen. The stars beamed, ocean rushed, and cherry rose gas station. Vodka kept us warm and safe from the bitter cold. Everything about it was perfect. And after that, I had someone. A secret henchman.  A sidekick.

***

 

Three Years Later: College

Warm conversations and light-hearted small talk escape into my earbuds as I get on my bus home. Lights whizz by. As do people. The only constant being me, my music, and my thoughts. The drip of the air conditioner, the binder in my lap. Everything is at peace.

I feel like this is the end scene of a movie where you drive into the sunset with the girl or guy of your dreams and a tank load of cash in the trunk. Feels just like it.

I smile to myself. A big one, too. Teeth and everything.

I look forward, seeing some of my classmates a couple rows ahead. We usually get off at the same stop and gossip about professors and our futures and what to do with my psych major and what a liberal arts major is, but not today. So I keep to the back and get off a couple stops early.

The beach breeze flows through my red scarf, and as I take it off, I spot him.

“Jude!” I call out, running as fast as I can in ripped skinny jeans and knee high boots.

It’s nice to be so close to him. He’s studying in Greece, I think. Greece or Japan. We text and facetime, but, you know, just being next to someone is unmatchable.

As the night goes on, we rekindle what we used to be. He tells me about a guy named Chris, and I tell him about my evil professor, Mrs. Garfee. It’s so easy talking to him.

“Really?” I ask, shrieking slightly in laughter, trailing on my “y” and turning to face the ocean I used to spend so much time in.

I’m not an artist, but I promise I could paint this from memory any day. Easy. The blues and beiges of the water and sand, and how it mixes in with the dark black of the rock cliff.

“Uhhh, of course? Never in my life have I ever been that disrespected, so of course I hi–” He inhales sharply, and his eyes widen.  

Like he’d just seen a ghost. I know that expression. But not why it’s on him.

“Jude?”

He points to the water, and alas, there she is.

He hadn’t seen a ghost. He saw a mermaid.

“Hey, Maxine.”

 

The End  

 

Downward Spiral

THURSDAY

George woke up sweat-drenched and anxious from his slumber. Before he could think, George’s thirst couldn’t be contained, and water was what he desired. Unfortunately for him, this was not possible. His surroundings began explaining themselves: the absence of windows, the tiny lantern serving as the room’s only light source, and worst of all, the rope that tied him to a wooden chair. Suspicion only increased when he noticed a massive trash can next to a writing desk. Recalling the past events was a struggle for him, but the reason for this difficulty was unknown. He was certain that he was being held captive, and George thought, Food will be brought any second now. And seconds passed, then hours, then days. His stomach screamed in agony, and his throat cried in pain. Tied to this chair for the past three days, George began to ask, “Will you comfort me when I die, Mr. Wallace?”

But Mr. Wallace didn’t respond. Instead, he slowly vanished as George reached his long-awaited death.

 

TUESDAY

“I’m sorry, sir, but we can’t hire someone with a crime of this magnitude on their record,” said the employer. “Jobs don’t come easy for a guy like you, Mr. Wallace.”

Walking away from the building as fast as he could, George’s hopelessness became more agonizing than ever. His fridge was empty. He wouldn’t be able to live in his apartment for much longer. He couldn’t wash his clothes, and his depression was corrupting his brain. As a last ditch effort to save his life, he bought a stack of loose-leaf paper and a pen, and walked back to his two-room apartment. When he entered his old, dark, and sweaty home, he hastily sat down and got into his writing position. George was never a great writer, so ideas were quickly scrapped, and papers were crumpled. After four hours of torturous disappointment, George fainted from heat exhaustion.

 

WEDNESDAY

George woke up.

Dehydrated and hungry, George managed to lift himself from his chair and wondered, How long have I been asleep? As he rose from his wooden chair, a wave of inadequacy washed over him once he saw his trash can filled to the brim with failed ideas. Walking out of the room, George began to notice something strange. An old friend that he had met in prison, Mr. Wallace, was waiting for him, with only a rope in his hand.

“I always knew you were a disappointment.”

Mr. Wallace jumped onto the skinny and frail George, overpowering him with his unfathomable strength. Blood was spilled as each one of Mr. Wallace’s sharp knuckles rushed into George’s skull. Succumbing to the pain, George became unconscious.

 

When the Lights Go Out

Three minutes before total darkness. Three minutes before a killer’s in my house. Three minutes before the lights go out.

And tonight at 9:30 P.M., we will be talking about th-” the spokesman stopped talking as I changed the channel to a random TV show.

“There is absolutely nothing good!” I said as I threw the remote over to the other side of the couch.

Why don’t you want to be my fri-

The TV shut off, as well as the lights. Plunging me into total darkness.

“What! There’s no storm!” I said, whining to myself.

I stood up, and my giant, fluffy ears folded over themselves. I started to walk over to the front door. I reached out to grab the shiny, gold door knob.

Bang. My head shot up, as well as my ears.

“Who’s here?” I whispered under my breath.

BANG!

BANG!

“Where is it coming from!” I shouted, annoyed.

I walked back over to the couch and sat down, crossing my arms over my chest. The TV turned on, and the bright light filled the room. Standing out in the darkness. Commercials were playing, so I ignored them. I sighed and reached over to the remote and tried turning the volume down, but as I turned it down, the TV got louder. I tried turning the volume up, just in case the buttons mixed themselves around. But again, the TV got louder. I screamed as the news turned on. I could hear the spokesperson again.

“So, Linda. Have you heard about the crazed killer?”

“No, George! But how does he attack?”

“He goes to the victim’s house and turns off their power. He then stalks them for hours. And it all ends in a bloodbath.”  

The voices stopped.

“Is that why the powers out?!” I screamed into the darkness of my home. “If so, please don’t?!”

I slammed my hands onto the couch, stood up, and ran over to the stairs. I slid on my feet and felt them fly out from underneath me, and I was lying on the floor. I scrambled up and sprinted up the stairs. I stopped in the hallway to catch my breath. I put my head down, and my hands on my knees. I lifted my head back up only to see a dark figure in the hallway only a few feet away from me. I screamed and stood still. Frozen in fear. Frozen in shock.  Frozen in time.

I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I felt dizzy. I was scared. No. I am scared. I don’t  want to die. I want to live my life.

“I-I don’t want to die…” I said in a shaky voice.

“Don’t worry, sweet girl,” the figure said in a demonic sounding voice.

It wasn’t natural. It sounded almost glitchy. I could feel tears well up in my eyes, stinging the corners, wanting to fall. I wanted to lock myself in a room. I ran to the stairs and bolted down them. My feet slipped out from under me, and I screamed as I tumbled. I hit the floor with a loud thud. My ankle was hurting, and I could feel warm, sticky blood trickle down my arm. I pushed myself up with shaky arms. I could feel my tail fall limp at my legs. I stood and looked around.

“Samantha…” the voice called out.

It was coming from all around me. Even if I covered my ears, I could still hear the voice. I started to slowly walk around with my hands in front of me. I screamed as I felt something cold touch my hand. I jerked it back and cradled it. I started to make out the shape in front of me.

“Just some stupid vase,” I whispered to myself, turning around.

I continued to walk around, trying to find a room to hide in. I smiled slightly as I saw a hallway in front of me. I ran down it, thinking of which room to hide in.

“I need to hide. I need somewhere small. The bathroom,” I said thinking aloud to myself.

I ran over to the door and grabbed the handle, turning it. But it didn’t work. I fumbled around with it a bit more, but I soon gave up. I turned around and put my back against the door, sliding down. I could feel tears slip down my cheeks. I pulled my knees up to my chest and buried my head into them.

“Samantha. You better run,” the voice sang.

I shot my head up and wiped the tears away. I slowly stood and looked around. My tail was wrapped around my leg, and my ears were bent to the sides. I was shaking in fear. I didn’t know what to do. I could barely walk, let alone run!

“I-I can’t,” I said, wanting the voice to hear me.

Or not to hear me. I didn’t know what to do anymore. I felt something wet splash onto my leg slightly. I turned my head to the right, to see a bright light. A match, standing out from the darkness. The only source of light. I watched as the person dropped it. A small flame started to fall, spinning in circles. My eyes widened as everything seemed to slow down. I jerked my leg away from the floor and put it behind the other leg. I watched as the match hit the floor, and it all lit up. Flames shot up and started to slip up the walls, making it look like there was a portal right in the middle of the hallway. I screamed as they grew bigger, the orange in the flame dancing around. I turned around, not wanting to see the flames, only to see the shadow. He was forming from the darkness in my home.

“I told you to run, but you didn’t listen,” it said in a monotone voice.

It had an aura with a fiery red glow that seemed to hold sorrow, hate, and fear. Sadness from other souls. Hate from being betrayed. And the fear of death. The aura was familiar. I’ve felt it before, whether it was from my Aunt’s basement, or in my room at my parent’s old house. I know he’s seen me before. I shook my head, getting the thought out of my mind.

“Sammi… You need to run,” it sang.

I could even hear the smirk in its voice. My eyes widened, and I whipped my head around to see the flames disappearing.

“H-how did you do that?!”

“Don’t ask questions. Just run…” The smirk was so big in its voice.

“You just want to torture me for as long as you can,” I spoke, trying not to stutter.

I put my feet behind me. One after the other, backing away slowly. I heard it laugh, the tone was dark and fearful. It seemed to be made of fear. The fears trapped in the house. The fears in my mind.

“You’re made of fear itself,” I paused taking in a shaky breath. “You were created by the fear, hate, and sorrow trapped in the world. You aren’t real unless I want to believe you are,” I stated, trying to not let my fear show.

“Silly, silly Sammi. You couldn’t be further from the truth,” it chuckled under its breath. “Sammi, why won’t you listen to my warnings?” it asked, laughing a bit.

“B-because I know you won’t let me run. You just want me to suffer,” I whispered, making him laugh at me.

“I only give the warnings to the people who shouldn’t suffer more than they already have, but you just won’t listen! I’ve given you three chances!” it started to shout at me angrily.

I could feel tears slide down my cheeks and onto the floor.

“Why do you want me? Why is it me?” I asked clenching my teeth, to stop myself from crying.

“Because your name was picked,” it spoke, coming towards me.

I gasped, my eyes widening. It chuckled, pushing me to the floor.

“What do you mean my name was picked?”

“Exactly what I said.”

“I don’t understand what you’re saying. Why is my name in something to be picked?”

“Because it is.”

“Why is it?”

“Because you were cursed when you were younger!” it yelled, annoyed at me.

But I wanted answers. I didn’t care what happened, no matter how angry he got.

“Why was I cursed?”

“Because you were born on October 13th, and it happened to be a Friday!” it shouted louder.

It leaned over me, and I cowered in fear underneath It. It burst into laughter. I glared and kicked it in the leg. It stopped laughing and growled at me.

“What? Can’t handle being kicked?” I asked, laughing to myself.

He growled louder, and his eyes lit up. They were glowing orange.  I nervously laughed and backed away.

“Big mistake, Sammi!” it growled, leaning closer to me.

I could feel its breath on my face.

“Dude! Get a breath mint!” I yelled pushing his face away, which only caused It to growl at me again.

I yelped as it grabbed my wrist and started to twist it. I was screaming in pain. It was unbearable; it felt like my wrist was on fire. There was a deafening crack. I dropped to the floor and cradled my wrist, crying. It burst into laughter, watching me.

“Shut up!” I screamed, still in tears.

It continued to laugh at me. I lifted up my leg and kicked it in the knee. It stopped laughing and started to snarl at me. The growl kept getting deeper and deeper every second. I stopped crying and wiped away my tears with my good hand. It shot out one of its arms and grabbed me, dragging me across the floor.

“Please stop! I don’t want to die!” I screeched. “Please?!” I begged, wanting him to stop the torture.

CRACK!

I grew silent when I heard a noise. It stopped moving and pushed me in front of itself.

“You should have listened. But you didn’t, so you can come with me and suffer,” it said, stomping on the floor.

I screamed as I realized what it was going to do.

“No, please no!” I shrieked as I watched the walls warp and rip open, revealing a purple mist pouring out of it.

I cried as it began to drag me into the hole. I grabbed onto the wall, trying to hold myself from going in with It. I soon gave up as my wrist was burning from being broken. I let go and was dragged in. Screeching for someone to save me, but all there was… was the darkness in my home.

 

A Rainbow Appears

A Rainbow appears. When I started 6th grade, I thought I was gay because I liked to cross one leg over the other when I sat, and I liked talking about my feelings. Then I started finding girls pretty again and learned how to sit leaning back with my backpack on and my legs splayed out. Gay was something that described my grandma’s and some of my mom’s strange, effeminate friends. Strange because all of Grandma’s friends were strange. In the latter part of 6th grade, once I had a round table in the front-back end of the lunchroom and a regular group that took the B61 together past 4th ave, gay meant lame or stupid. Gay was the tiny cookie in the cafeteria that day or the friendly comment made when a vicious comeback was expected. Gay was something they called each other on South Park and Family Guy.

In 7th grade, gay was the wierd, emo kid with dyed pink and blue hair. In 8th grade, gay was cool in girls but scary in guys. In 8th grade, boys played football with their shirts off while girls sat in the grass. Trans was the strange porn you accused your friends of watching while you called them gay. In 9th grade, gay was what you thought would be a good wingman and the strange kid you talked to sometimes and maybe hung out with in a group once or twice. In 10th grade, gender-queer was my music teacher of five years, a camp counselor who was all-around badass, and one of my favorites, David Bowie, and the Australian person from Orange is the New Black.

Gay was a 5th Avenue pride parade and Cherry Grove in the summer. In 11th grade, queer was me and three, four, two, three of my close friends, and kind of a little bit of everyone. Eleventh grade was the year “the group got gayer.” Queer was feeling guilty, and paranoid, and the urgent need to end every sentence with bro instead of habibi. Gay was why, as my dad said, we had no leftist unity. Gay was rich, white men taking advantage of the efforts of women of color like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. Gay was the two dads of my one friend who lived in a certified mansion. Two dollars beat $1.70, and both certainly beat my $0.70+ odd child support payment I got. There is no gold pot at the end of the rainbow.

 

Basketball Should Not Be Done with One-and-Done

In 2006, a rule was implemented that stated that all players picked in the NBA draft must be 19 years old during the calendar year of the draft, and any player, who is not an international player, must be at least one year removed from the graduation of his high school class. This rule has come to be known as the one-and-done rule. In the 2017 NBA Draft, 10 of the first 11 players drafted were one-and-done players, with the lone exception being an international player, Frank Ntilikina. At 18 years old, Ntilikina was younger than most of the one-and-done players selected. I am a basketball fan who enjoys watching the NBA and the NCAA tournament. I am a Knicks fan, and many of my favorite basketball players are one-and-done players, including Carmelo Anthony and John Wall. NBA players want to be able to declare for the NBA draft right after high school. Many people want these student-athletes to be forced to go to college for more than one year, while others argue for a format similar to the MLB’s, where athletes have the opportunity to declare for the draft after high school. But if they do go to college, they must stay for at least three years. However, I believe that the one-and-done rule should stay the way it is. It gives fans the opportunity to watch players for a year in college and then see them compete at the highest level in the NBA.

Many college basketball observers argue that players need to stay in college for longer than one year because 19-year-old kids are not mature enough to handle millions of dollars. As Jason Clary wrote in a 2009 article for bleacher report, “Go from rags to riches too quickly, and these athletes may not know what to do with their money. Before you know it, they could own a ten bedroom house on Miami Beach with a BMW and Ferrari in the garage. You may say ‘what’s the big deal?’, but both you and I know this is not how money should be spent.” There is also a common belief held among many college basketball fans that the one-and-done rule is bad for college basketball, a point that it is very difficult to counter. They argue that having the best college players leave for the NBA after one year ruins the entertainment value of college basketball, as many fanbases lose their team’s best player each year. Although going one-and-done usually works out for the players, critics of the rule argue that some players have a false sense of confidence and make the costly decision of becoming a one-and-done too early. Jereme Richmond, Tommy Mason-Griffin, Evan Burns, Thomas Hamilton, Jonathan Hargett and Adrian Walton were one-and-done players who were not drafted at all and did not go on to have success in the NBA.

The one-and-done rule may not be the best thing for college basketball. The one-and-done rule ensures that the best young players, who would otherwise be dominating in college basketball, are playing in the NBA. If it wasn’t for the one-and-done rule, players such as Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, Myles Turner, Ben Simmons, and Lonzo Ball would still be playing college basketball. But consider the early careers of Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving, Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, and Kevin Durant. All were one-and-done players who were also all-stars within the three years after they left college. These players were capable of being NBA all-stars during the years that they would have been in college. Had they stayed until their senior year, they would have missed out on those early chances to prove themselves against the superior competition in the NBA and the resulting increase in the appeal of the game. The best basketball players belong in the NBA, and most one-and-done players are good enough to compete in the NBA after their freshman year. Those players do not belong in college basketball, and they should be in the NBA. Also the NCAA tournament is not any less successful due to one-and-done players. In fact, the 2017 NCAA tournament was one of the most watched NCAA tournaments in history. The one-and-done rule does not ruin the NCAA tournament, it just gives players who are capable of playing in the NBA an opportunity to join the NBA earlier.

Many people believe that 19-year-olds are too immature to handle millions of dollars. Critics argue that 19-year-olds are too immature to handle all of the money they earn and that they will waste it on cars and other expensive things that are not good long term investments.  The NBA should not make a rule to deny every great 18 or 19-year-old college basketball player the ability to secure their future by declaring for the draft just because some of them make bad decisions with the money. Professional athletes can use their money on whatever they want. It is not right to deny them money as a result of things they buy.

The drafting of one-and-done players does not always pan out, but that is largely because one-and-done players often declare for the draft before they are ready, or before they are good enough to be a high draft pick. But not becoming a one-and-done may also hurt a player’s draft stock. Failing to choose the correct option may mess up a player’s career. Ivan Rabb would have been a lottery pick if he had declared for the 2016 NBA draft. Instead, he elected to return to Cal for his sophomore season and was a 2nd round pick in the 2017 draft. He would have been guaranteed a salary of $7,807,100 in his rookie deal had he declared in 2016. Instead he dropped to a second round draft pick, where no contracts are guaranteed. This was a costly decision for him. If a player is going to be a first round pick, he should use the one-and-done rule and declare for the draft rather than risk injury or a bad season, which could derail his career. However if the player is not going to be a high draft pick, it is not a good idea for them to become a one-and-done player. However, each year several players make the decision to leave for the pros too early and are left in a bad position when they are not picked. The one-and-done rule does not cause these problems. The decisions of players who are not that good causes this problem.

The one-and-done rule allows for the best college basketball players to join the NBA. The one-and-done rule is a change that has caused lots of controversy during its 11 year existence. I believe the addition of the one-and-done rule was a positive change for the NBA. The best basketball players in the world belong in the NBA. I’m excited to see all of the one-and-done players from what is supposedly a very promising draft class, and all of the top players in the 2017 draft class are one-and-done. One-and-done players are what the NBA draft is built around. One-and-done players are part of the reason the NBA draft is exciting, and the 2017 NBA draft had 3.4 million viewers. Every year, basketball fans get excited to watch the players who were drafted by their favorite team whenever the team has a high pick in the draft. I am excited to watch Frank Ntilikina, an 18-year-old French point guard, play for the Knicks this season. The best draft picks are usually one-and-done players, and young European players, and they often make for the most exciting rookies.

 

Works Cited

Aaron Dodson, All the NBA Draft’s One-and-Done Lottery Picks: A Scorecard (theundefeated.com, 6/22/17)

National Basketball Players Association Website (http://www.nbpa.com/cba_articles/article-X.php)

Jason Clary, College Vs. Pros: Should Athletes Leave School Early? (bleacherreport.com, 12/13/09)

Kerry Miller, Ranking the Worst 1-and-Done Decisions in College Basketball History (bleacherreport.com, 6/24/14)

2016-2017 NBA Rookie Scale (basketball.realgm.com)

NCAA, 2017 NCAA Tournament is Most-Watched in 24 Years Across Television Through First Sunday, Plus Record-Setting Digital Consumption (ncaa.com, 3/20/17)

 

The China Doll

For days, I hadn’t been receiving mail… But the flag was finally up! I got mail! I burst out of my front door and opened the mailbox. Inside was a small parcel and a letter attached to it. I opened the letter, anonymously sent…

Hello Charlotte!

Hasn’t it been a long time since we have talked? You should be about 20 years old already, right? Anyway, I got a new house full of these intricate little details that will allow you to find me. (I still remember the time when you told me how much you wanted to play an adventure game when I got a new house.) Remember, I am in the last room. By the way, there are a lot of rooms, and in every room, you will find clues that will help you move to another room. Please come visit me anytime today.

– Your Best Pal

I had a best pal. Her name was Lucy, but she moved to Australia five years ago. It was even more curious that the letter was sent by my “best pal” from the address of my school. Rumour has it that she had, in fact, come back to start a strange paranormal business really close to our old school. I knew there was something to do with making china dolls, but I couldn’t seem to remember it all. So I decided to set off at once, but before that, I needed to open the parcel. It was packed really tight, as if something would break.

I opened the parcel carefully and found a china doll inside that looked just like me. A little me? How scary is that? Beside it lay a small note: Bring me, it said. I was hesitant, but I did as I was told. I got into the car and looked back into the box and found that the doll was standing up. I never stood it up before.

As I neared my old school, I realised that there was a small hut at the back of the school. The doll was pointing at it. That had to be my “best pal’s” new house. Behind the looming, gothic tower of the school, the hut seemed eerie. I didn’t even want to get any closer than I was to this house. The tower was exactly how I left it when I graduated: the gargoyles still as magnificent, the stained glass windows still as shiny, the doors still as tall. But something in the air just made everything off. I never remembered the hut being there, but it seemed really old. Two eyes stared at me from beside the hut. What was it?

Anyhow, I made up my mind. I had to go in there to investigate. First, I had to check whether the small but quite handy, tactical knife my dad gave me was in my pocket. We never went anywhere without it, for we were looked upon as allies with the enemies in the civil war.

I opened the front door as slowly as possible, trying not to make a sound, but the door gave a chilling creak, and bats flew out into the warm summer air. As I stepped into the hut, I realised that it was very dusty but well furnished. I picked my way through what seemed like a never ending hallway, but there were no rooms on either side of the hall. Only pictures with ghastly creatures all staring down at their intruder, in this case, me, hanging everywhere and anywhere you could imagine. At last, the moment that I had been waiting for, a door appeared up front. When I reached out to turn the brass knob, I heard a deafening crash behind me.The main door was locked! Oh, why did I have to walk into this trap? How was I supposed to leave now?

A gust of cool wind blew past me, and the box I had brought with me opened slightly, just wide enough for me to take a glimpse at the doll trying to get out. On its back was a small note — never saw that before — it told me to let the doll lead the way. How is the doll supposed to lead the way? I thought. Just then, the doll jumped out of the box with a clank and pushed open the door to my first room. It was surprisingly big, only a bit smaller than a ballroom. On the far side of the wall, there was an engraved riddle and two doors. The riddle said, “In one room, there is a blazing, hot sun that will burn you to ashes; and in the other, there is a fearsome dragon that will eat you alive. Which door would you choose to open?” Both were very bad endings, but the sun always sets, so… I’d have to wait until sundown.

It was not a long wait, in fact it was only a few minutes before the room with the sun became dark. The sun was actually artificial, made by the brightest lights you could ever imagine. I eased open the door, avoiding the spot where the sun had just been. I darted to the door standing wide open on the opposite side of the place where I was just standing. Suddenly, a figure stepped out into view. It was a doll, a life-size china doll! I gasped. He wore an outfit for riding, his eyes gleamed.

“Come and choose your horse,” the doll taunted, “You will race with me. The person who arrives to the door first wins, and gets a pass to leave this room.” He smirked.

There were two horses, one with three legs, and one with a crooked neck. Their coats were rough, and their eyes were glazed over. How was I supposed to win?  I got my strategy ready and decided to use the horse with a crooked neck, since I only had to ambush the dolls horse by riding my horse a bit slower than his. Once the race started, I reflected a light from above against my knife to catch my horse’s attention. Then, I rode the horse a bit slower, and plunged my blade into the doll’s horse’s back legs. It slowed to a stop.

“You evil woman!” the doll screamed, “You outsmarted me! You will pay for this!” And with that, the door appeared in front of me, and I stepped into the next room.

I was in a library. There was a book sticking out of one of the shelves, and I took it down. I opened it, and it turned out to be a box full of letters. I found my name on all of them. They were the letters that I wrote to my friend while we were on vacation. I flipped to the last letter — It was addressed to me! I opened it up carefully, not wanting to make even one crease in the paper.

Dearest Charlotte,

We are sending this to inform you about something that you should have known about us. We are spies for our nation. Since the war has started, we want you to know that we will be on a mission for our country. Because your best friend’s (who I  think is called Lucy, correct me if I am wrong) parents are allies for the opposing country, we may have to kill them. I am sorry for having to do this, but Lucy’s parents wanted to keep the leader who persecuted people for no reason.

– Daddy and Mommy

Was that why my dearest friend had decided to stay and start this business? Was she really this mad to not even think of talking to me about this whole thing? Ah, now I remember the rest of the rumour: She was supposedly making dolls that would suck up all the strength and the soul of someone just for sacrificial purposes. Now that was not how I remembered her to be like. I moved to put the box back in its rightful place. As I pushed it into position, the whole shelf moved, opening the way into the next room.

It was a warm room, with a small brick fireplace, and new leather seatings. My doll plunked onto a nice cushioned seat, leaving me to sit on the hard wooden chair, but when I sat down, I fell through the chair. Was this a hallucination created to make me go crazy?

Then the doll spoke. “I see, you have found out the truth to this room, but no, you will not go crazy. You’ll only lose your strength to me!” How did the doll know what I was thinking about? “With every room that you escape from, you will lose a tiny bit of your strength that I will take in. That is why I am able to talk to you right now… By the way, to escape this room, you will have to find the key and gather all the strength you have to pick it up and leave the room. If you don’t use up all your strength, then you won’t be able to see your folks again… It’s your choice, use your strength and try to save both yourself and your folks; but if you stay in this room for too long, all three of you will die!”

With that, the doll picked itself up and disappeared into the fireplace. The fireplace! That had to be the door for me to escape from this room. Though if I were to exist for a second in this room, I might use all my strength. I had to find the key first. I scanned the room and found a small penny coloured thing glistening on one of the shelves. It was the key! I picked myself up and ran to the closet, using all my strength and focusing it on the key. It floated upwards. Now all I had to do was to guide the key to the lock and open the door. I slowly brought the key to the fireplace. Then I found the keyhole right on top of it and pushed it in. It turned automatically. All at once, a cold wind blew from behind me, sending me plummeting into a candle-lit room.

There were bodies lying everywhere in the room, from adults to teenagers, even babies! Dolls were sticking out of their mouths. Their eyes were rolled back, deep into their skulls, and they stank of rotting flesh. The dolls all stared at me with their glistening marble eyes, their mouths curled up to form evil smiles, triumph reflected in their well-polished pointed teeth. A shiver ran down my spine. I was confused, whoever did this to these young people must be a cold blooded person! A door banged open, and a bruised and cut couple were dragged out. Both had looks of anguish in their eyes. Their looks rang a bell in my mind. They were my parents.

A voice rang out of the darkness, “Finally, we meet again! Though this time, we meet not in a happy mood, but in a vengeful spirit. Your parents killed mine, leaving me with no food, no shelter, no nothing. So I had to rely on the souls of these people to survive. It was a hard life at first, but I grew used to it. Soon after I got settled in with these corpses, I realised that I will only have the strength to revive my parents when I find the family that took my childhood away from me.”

I screeched, “You’re going to kill my family? What did we do? I don’t think that my family would ever want to kill someone’s parents. They care for people rather than kill them!” I said urgently. “Please don’t do anything to them! Please!”

“Charlotte, patience,” she said tauntingly. “Going on. At such an early age, I had to find my way around, but I was soon able to get the help of my faithful servants. Listen Charlotte, it is I, Lucy, who seeks revenge upon you and your family.”

As she said that, she stepped confidently out of the shadows. Her long hair tumbled around her shoulders, and her black cloak swept the cold stone ground majestically. Her lustrous gleaming eyes shone with a hint of power over everyone. A knife glistened and glowed from underneath the cloak, her long fingers wrapped tightly around the handle, “Long time no see, Charlotte.”

I couldn’t take it anymore. I stepped forwards, advancing towards Lucy, my tactical knife held tight in my hands.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa! Not so fast, Charlotte!” said Lucy, stopping me in my tracks. “There are consequences to this. You can try killing me, but if you don’t succeed, your doll will suck your soul out of your body. Remember, your strength is already running out! Also, the reason why I didn’t want to tell you the thing about my new business is because you would have most definitely disagreed on it. Adding on, it would allow you to know exactly how to avoid having your soul sucked out of your body.” She ruefully smiled at me and said, “There goes your parents!”

Then, unexpectedly, she pulled out a doll that looked exactly the same as my dad, but just as she was about to make the doll suck up my dad’s soul, I hurled myself against her, sending the doll flying through the air and crashing to the floor, shattering into a million pieces.

“Don’t you dare do that!” I said.

A sleek, black cat leaped out of the shadows and stalked into the candle-lit room. The two eyes looking at me from beside the hut must have been this cat.

“Cat! Get that wretched creature away from me!” Lucy said.

At last, I found Lucy’s weakness: cats. I picked the cat up gently and stroked it. Protect me from her will you, I thought to the cat. If I didn’t see incorrectly, the cat winked at me.

Interrupting my thoughts, Lucy said calmly, “Daydreaming again, aren’t you, Charlotte dear?”

“Don’t call me that!” I shouted angrily. “You have no right to call me that, Lucy!”

“Oh, really?” and with that, she pulled out another doll.

Every detail on it was matched to what my mom looked like. Just then, the cat tensed and leaped in a perfect arc into the doll, wrenching it from Lucy’s grasp, and flinging it into the air. The cat landed meekly and sat staring at Lucy, while calmly licking her paws. Job done, the cat seemed to say. But Lucy still had the power to kill me! I realised that with every blow that Lucy received, the more cracks appeared on the dolls lined up behind her. I had to destroy all the dolls. Punching each of the dolls, I noticed that Lucy was staring helplessly at me, her arms hanging limp at her sides. I almost felt sorry for her. No! I had to be persistent.

As the last doll was destroyed, Lucy slowly disappeared, screaming, her hair tangled, her cloak stripped to pieces, and her eyes glazed over. I defeated her! I wanted to scream out loud, but I knew I had to keep quiet, because Lucy still had other dolls in the hut, and they were still alive, and they might want to avenge their master.

“Dad? Mom?” I whispered.

My dad grunted in answer, trying to pick himself up. Suddenly, a doll came running out with a knife and dug it deep into my dad’s stomach. Then it moved on to my mom.

“No! Don’t do it!” I screamed.

I lunged myself forward, but something grabbed me from behind. It was the little me!

“Let go of me! Let go of me!” I screamed, landing a blow on its head.

It shattered into a million shards. But I was too late to save my mom and dad. They were both dead, and the doll had left. I screamed, crumpling onto the floor, sobbing as the echos of laughter rang through the room. I found a small note clenched in my mom’s hand when I looked up.

Dear Charlotte,

I know that even if you see us today, we will not be able to be with you, as we have another mission to accomplish. What you see in front of you is the sheddings of our human bodies, but next time you see us, you will still recognise us. Just to remind you again, we did not die when we got stabbed.

Love,

Mom and Dad

There was still a ray of hope to see my parents! So I decided to keep myself healthy and safe until I saw them again. I darted to the nearest exit, picked up the expectant black cat, and pushed open the door. Nothing had changed. My car was still there, the sun still hung low in the sky, and the wind was still blowing. When I eased open the hut’s door once again, it was only a small shed full of gardening tools, and nothing else, not a single piece of evidence that Lucy’s hut once stood there.

***

Ten years later, the school was closed down. There was supposedly a haunting in the school. There would be a lady heard wailing in the shed. Archeologists dug deep down into the Earth and found that there were bodies of long lost relatives, and there were pieces of china pieces in their mouths and scattered on the floor. The walls were cracked, and there were candles everywhere, all burned out. Many people believed that this was a sacrificial chamber, but they did not know of any reasons why there would be china pieces in their mouths. Only I knew why. I am currently 31 years old, and have started a family, but I have not told a soul — except for you — about the incident in Lucy’s hut.

Charlotte,

Please go to the basement at 12:00 AM  sharp today. You will find out why.

Love,

Dad and Mom

 

To be continued

 

I see you lurking. Watch this.

     

“I see you lurking. Watch this.” – Trivius Caldwell

It was a lonely existence. One of many in a huge crowd. He wanted to believe he was special, but he had no proof. He had friends, but they were just convenient. Gossip travels quickly in a small building.

The two-hundred-year-old girl who still couldn’t leave the school also felt alone. She was not solid, and he could only see her outline, but she was there. Following him. The living souls warned him of a vengeful spirit, but she was his only friend. When his momentary companions walked away, both literally and emotionally, she was still lurking.

The gym was empty Thursday afternoon except for two. He saw her, sitting on the bleachers, with her sad smile. He wanted to cheer her up. He did a cartwheel for her, but he didn’t know why. Those who could do them said it was nothing; those who couldn’t said it was stupid. She clapped and a laughing breeze blew in from the window. He was a crazy person who talked to himself if he talked to her, but here, they were alone. He showed her his new comic, which the others had dismissed. It became their afternoon. He showed her more things over time. Trivial things that everyone could do. He showed her how he could juggle, with his phone and finally his diploma. She was always there, but she could never leave. As he drove away from the school on the last day, he saw her waving.

Ten years later, when Mr. Waters is frustrated — his students don’t care about math, his colleagues mock his lack of a wife — he recites equations to the empty school gym. He hears clapping and sees a familiar face sitting on the bleachers.

 

Home

“Ellie.” The sound of my name jerks me out of a stupor. I’ve been thinking in silence for a while. “Ellie!”

It’s Jason, the guy who is maybe, sort of, kind of my friend. I mean, he’s 15 like me, and he comes to see me a lot.

“Oh, hi!” I say.

He puts a box of pizza in my hands. It’s about 3:30 in the afternoon. He must be out of school, which has only been in session for a month. I’m sitting behind the pizzeria.

“Here,” he says.

I push it back.

“No, you keep it,” I say.

“I’m serious,” he insists. “Take it.”

I give in. It’s a box of pizza. This thing could last me like half a week. If I have two slices per day, I can make this last for four days! I store the box behind the dumpster along with the rest of my meager possessions. This includes a pair of shorts, for when the weather gets hot, and a jacket, for when the weather gets cold.

I’m currently wearing my jeans and a black t-shirt. These are the clothes I wear all of the time. My long jet-black hair is pulled back in a ponytail.

“Oh, and something else.” Jason pulls out a book. I gasp and take it. Since sixth grade, when we met, Jason has always given me the books he’s done with.

This one is very long, and by the description given by Jason, it’s very intense. I’ve never heard about this one. It’s called The Book Thief.

I start to read it an hour later, once Jason has left. It’s amazing. I really hate that I have to do it, but as I read, I grab my money box and my cardboard sign that says, Please help. Need money to live, and plop down on the sidewalk. I hate staring at that little box and just waiting for people to come.

When my growling stomach tears me away from the book, I look up and see the money box has money in it. Not a lot, but for me, every penny counts.

See, ever since I was nine, I’ve had to save money. It all started when I was ten. Dad was never part of the picture, and Mom was all I had. Even before she started coming home later and later, I hated home because it always felt half-empty. First I thought it was work, but then she started drinking. She was out until midnight or later. Until one day, she didn’t come home at all.

They told me it was a car crash. She had been drinking and driving.

I was only ten years old, but I had already lost both of my parents.

They wanted to put me in a children’s home, but I didn’t want to go. Twelve years old is too old for a tantrum, but I threw one that day. I ran away.

New York City was filled with homeless people, so I figured one more wouldn’t make a difference. I hate it, but I have to beg for money.

It’s getting dark, so I grab a slice of pizza out of the box and wolf it down. Then I put on my jacket and settle in behind the dumpster to read more.

Books have always been my one distraction from thinking about things I really don’t want to think about. When I’m reading, it’s like I don’t have to worry about me anymore. Instead, I can worry about the character’s problems. It’s much easier because I know that there’s a solution hidden somewhere in those pages.

After a while, when the only people walking across the streets are people who look somewhat suspicious, I know it’s time to go to sleep. Living behind a pizza place has its benefits. For example, I have a plentitude of empty pizza boxes. Every night, I build a little shelter out of cardboard and hide behind it to sleep.

I close my eyes and drift into nothingness.

When I wake up the next morning, there are three people there. Not one of them is Jason. I can see them through the cracks in the cardboard.

“Why is there a pile of pizza boxes out here?” one of them says. It’s a man. He’s a little bit, uh, heavy, and he has brown hair.

“Dad,” a girl says. This one looks a little older than me. She has long brown hair and does not take after her father in body type. “I think there’s a person in there.”

The third person, a little boy with brown hair, pipes up. “Why is there a person in there?”

“They must be homeless, Ben,” the girl says. Ben ponders this.

“Can we see?” Ben asks. I sit there, frozen, not daring to move.

“Sure, Ben,” the man says, “but be careful.”

I close my eyes again and pretend to be asleep as they carefully remove the cardboard to reveal me.

“Hey,” the girl says. “Hey, kid,” she shakes me.

“Huh?” I say groggily, pretending to wake up. “Who are you?”

“I’m Sienna,” she says, “This is my father, Tony, and my little brother, Ben. We own the pizza place.”

“I’m Ellie,” I say.

So these are the people who have, unknowingly, been letting me sleep behind their store.

“Nice to meet you, Ellie,” Sienna says. “Why don’t you come inside? We can have a more proper introduction.”

“Okay,” I say suspiciously, getting up. I still am not sure if they won’t report me to a foster home.

Inside, it is deliciously warm. Nothing like the crisp, autumn air I’m accustomed to in the alley.

“So,” Tony says, once the four of us are seated at a table.

“So,” I repeat.

“How long have you been living behind there?” Sienna asks me, getting straight to the point.

“About five months,” I admit sheepishly.

“Five months?” Tony exclaims. “How have we never noticed you before?”

“Well,” I say, “I spend a lot of time behind that cardboard… thing… you saw.”

“Impressive,” Sienna remarks. “Well, I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but you can’t live there forever.”

“Why not?” I ask, even though I know the answer.

“Ellie, you’re, what, thirteen?” Sienna asks. I nod. “So, you’ve got to be smart enough to know why you can’t live there forever.”

“I know that, but I’ve been doing pretty well on my own,” I say, “and, besides, there’s nothing to go back to anyway!”

That last part just slipped out.

“Ellie, what exactly happened to make you homeless at twelve years old?” Sienna asks.

I clam up. I slide down in my seat a little, even though it’s babyish. I fold my arms.

Sienna raises her right eyebrow.

“Ellie, you’re not a baby. You can’t stay homeless forever. I bet you’re not even going to school. You can’t grow up without an education. You probably live off of pizza, if anything, which can’t be healthy.” Sienna starts throwing these at me, while Tony just sits watching, and Ben is off somewhere doing who-knows-what. “I have to give you somewhere more permanent to live.”

I stare at her, not exactly knowing what this means.

* * *

A couple hours later, I am sitting on a bed in a room in The Kellerman Children’s Home.

So much for living behind Tony’s Pizzeria.          

Sienna gave me a backpack to put my extra stuff in, but when I got here, I shoved all of it in the little dresser they gave me. Except for The Book Thief. I keep that on my bedside table.

The bed’s really comfortable. Well, I haven’t slept in a bed for a year, so anything is comfortable. It has a blue blanket and a pillow with a white pillowcase.

I’m still sitting there when another person comes into the room. She looks around my age, with curly, brown hair and the biggest brown eyes I’ve ever seen in my entire life. She’s wearing a black tank top and a flowy, pink skirt.

“Hi,” she says, sticking out her hand. “I’m your roommate, Liv!”

“Hey,” I reply, shaking her hand. It’s been awhile since I was around other girls my age. This is going to take some getting used to.

She sits on her bed and hugs her pillow, which is identical to mine.

“It’s been so long since I’ve had a roommate,” Liv exclaims. “This is going to be fun!”

“Yeah,” I say. “Fun.”

At The Kellerman Children’s Home, everyone from the crying babies to the moody teenagers eats in one big room, which is extremely unpleasant. There are so many tables and a buffet with food that is worse than the food I got when I was homeless. It smells disgusting. The air is filled with quiet chatter and occasionally a wailing baby. That night, I eat dinner as fast as I possibly can and rush back to my room.

I grab The Book Thief and suddenly a thought floods back to me. Jason. He doesn’t know where I am. Tomorrow, he’ll probably come to that little alleyway and find nothing. Just a bunch of cardboard. I guess he’ll think I’m gone for good. I stare at the cover of the book and let my thoughts crash through me like a tidal wave. I stare at the cover of that one finger pushing over a domino. That’s how the world works, I guess. When one thing happens, it sets off another thing, which sets off another, which sets off another, and it keeps going. When I was a little kid, my dad left, and that set off my mom’s drinking problem. That set off that horrible night where I waited anxiously for her to come home, and she never did. That caused me to run away, which caused me to be homeless, which meant I lived behind a pizza store. It all eventually led to Sienna discovering me, and putting me here.

And now, here I am.

When Liv eventually comes back into our room, she finds me lying face down under the covers. She is obviously able to take a hint and leaves me alone.

Good.

***

I live in The Kellerman Children’s Home for two weeks. In those two weeks, I become steadily more horrible to be around. Liv leaves me alone for the most part, and I think she really does try not to hate me, although I wouldn’t blame her if she did.

They enroll me in seventh grade at the school near here. I only missed the last two months of sixth grade and the first month of seventh grade so I’m pretty much all caught up.

I spend most of the school days absentmindedly staring out the window. The leaves on the trees have turned the most spectacular shades of orange, and yellow, and red, and I love looking at them. I occasionally break out of my trance to do actual schoolwork or write something down. I take as long as I can to get back to the Home, because I hate being there and having the freedom of walking from school is luxurious. All the kids get the option to either take the bus or walk, and I chose the latter eagerly.

Today, I take the long way, like usual. I’m walking around, looking around, not exactly looking where I’m going, when I realize where I am. I must have taken a wrong turn a couple blocks back, because I’m standing… right in front of Tony’s Pizza.

I stop short. There it is, that little alleyway where I hid for all those months. I decide that it can’t hurt to look at it again. I cross the street and walk into the alley. It’s like I never left. The cardboard structure is intact. That last box of pizza Jason brought me is sitting there. The pizza is gone, though. Rats must have gotten to it. I slide under the cardboard and I’m back to when I lived here.

All of a sudden, pizza boxes are ripped off of me, and I’m staring into Sienna’s face, angrier than I’ve ever seen it.

“I knew it,” she hisses. “I knew you would come back.”  

“I wasn’t coming back to stay, I just — ” I protest, but she cuts me off.

“Inside. Now.”

I get to my feet, and we go into the store. This is just like last time, except this time, it’s only Sienna, and she’s fuming. Meanwhile, just like last time, I’m terrified.

Once we’re sitting, I say, “I wasn’t coming back to stay, I was walking past on the way back from school, and I just wanted to be back here again!”

“Why?” Sienna asks. “Here you had nothing. There you’re taken care of.”

“Please don’t make me go back!” I sort-of yell. “I’m miserable there. I don’t know what’s going to happen, and I just want to be back where I know what my life is and how it goes!”

“I’m taking you back there,” Sienna insists, despite my desperate plea.

A lump materializes in my throat, but I swallow it down.

***

I’m back at The Kellerman Children’s Home. By now, Liv must be bewildered. I’ve spent most of my time here moping. I haven’t talked to her at all.

I am curled in a ball under my covers when Liv pokes me.

“Ellie?”

“Go away, Liv,” I say.

“It’s not Liv,” whoever she is says. I poke my head out of the covers. Long, blonde hair and green eyes. Sienna. I pull my head back.

“Ellie, I understand why you’d be mad at me.”

“Go away.”

“I would be mad at me, too!” she continues, ignoring me.

“Go away,”  I say it louder this time. Sienna keeps talking.

“So I’m making it up to you.”

I slide my head out. “How?”

“After talking with my dad and Ben, we’ve all decided that the only option is to let you come live with us.”

“What?” I pinch myself. When it is definitely not a dream, I jump out of bed.

“Yeah!” Sienna tells me. “And technically, my boyfriend and I would be your legal guardians.”

I can hardly believe my luck.

A week later, I move out. It’s the happiest day of my whole life.

“Hi, Ellie.” A man with black hair wearing jeans and a sweatshirt introduces himself. He’s Sienna’s boyfriend. “I’m Josh.” Following this are so many jokes that I can’t remember all of them. By the end of it, I am rolling on the floor.                

I will have no problem living with him.      

***

So it started with my mom. Then homelessness. Then Sienna and Tony and Ben. Then The Kellerman Children’s Home. Now this.

And somehow, this crazy, messed-up, life of mine ended up okay.

 

Purple

       

The color of kings

Lies in my roots

And flows through the minds

Of all men.

The warm, toxic comfort

That lies in a hue

Comforts me time and again.

The blood of royals

Is squeezed from fresh grapes

And they drink it

Along with their cheese

Its rich, heavy scent

Flows with the wind

And teases the gullible breeze.

It’s dark and infectious,

But beautifully so,

And possesses a sickening grace,

And it’s the color I picture

When I’ve come to my end

And the soil embraces my face.

 

Heard, Not Seen

   

Frustration embodied

By monsters that fly from lips

That have seen many years.

Or, sometimes fairies that don’t fly.

Like when a man chats up my father,

Yet when I speak, doesn’t say a word back.

Like when I’m told that I wouldn’t understand something.

I’ve gone through things far darker

Than piles of bills or a fender bender.

I’ve doubted my worth and swum through black oceans

But, yeah, I wouldn’t understand a conversation about politics.

I’m “too young” to know about that thing that happened.

Yes, my body has only been around in this form for twelve years.

But my mind has endured so much more than a 12-year-old should.

My mind is not a twelve-year-old.

People whose minds are twelve spend their days worrying

About makeup, social statuses, and baseball.

I worry about why I was put here on Earth

If I’m good enough or deserve to do things.

I ponder things the racist man at the dog park

Has never even known could be pondered.

And, yet, he thinks I’m not even worth speaking to.

Children are more than things who vomit and cry.

They have feelings, and they feel them much stronger than

Any adult.

And this world is teaching them that they aren’t even worth being spoken to.

I wonder, do all the adults complain so much

Because they’ve closed themselves off from the joy only a child can bring?

 

Time Wears Gloves

     

Time wears gloves on its hands.

It tiptoes past us,

Cautious of alerting us to its shadowy presence.

We only notice its movement once it has gone.

 

It tiptoes past us,

The absence echoes other absences, stolen and loved.

We only notice its movement once it has gone.

Ghosts coat all our rooms in dust, the fixtures in dust.

 

The absence echoes other absences, stolen and loved.

Plucking memories without a trace

Ghosts coat all our rooms in dust, the fixtures in dust.

My mind used to be so much more.

 

Plucking memories without a trace

I feel empty

My mind used to be so much more

I long for the beach. I want to feel the sand tickle my toes

 

I feel empty

Time wears gloves on its hands.

I long for the beach. I want to feel the sand tickle my toes

Cautious of alerting us to its shadowy presence.

 

Peeled Away

     

A layer of skin has been peeled away

Revealing what lies beneath me

Secrets exposing themselves

In the burning light

 

Revealing what lies beneath me

A heart like a broken clock

In the burning light

The timing of feelings is always slightly off

 

A heart like a broken clock

Our face like its display

The timing of feelings is always slightly off

It’s imperfect, but not needing to be perfect

 

Our face like its display

Hands covering the eyes, the expression of the lips

It’s imperfect, but not needing to be perfect

Only safe from such piercing, cold indifference

 

Hands covering the eyes, the expression of the lips

A layer of skin has been peeled away

It’s imperfect, but not needing to be perfect

Secrets exposing themselves

 

Anger and Fear

    

Anger and fear are very similar

they both lead to death

fear: the most powerful spark in history

anger: a flame that burns faster

 

They both lead to death

crossing a high, wooden bridge

anger: a flame that burns faster

plunging us unwillingly into the waters below

 

Crossing a high, wooden bridge

chasing our hopes for love, for glory, for honor

plunging us unwillingly into the waters below

where rapids pummel our limbs

 

Chasing our hopes for love, for glory, for honor

swimming against the tides of time

where rapids pummel our limbs

shoving us towards the shores of death.

 

Swimming against the tides of time

anger and fear are very similar

shoving us towards the shores of death.

fear: the most powerful spark in history

 

Cooking: Bridging Past and Present

It’s eight in the morning. My muscles are aching from swim practice, barely allowing me to stand, and yet, it is time for me to pick up the pan and move my omelette effortlessly. This is practically a Sunday routine for me: wake up at 5 in the morning, go to swim practice at 5:30 for two hours, and cook breakfast for my family. Cooking is a joy. It’s an experiment, a piece of art, and a way to show my love.

It all started one day when I came back from swim practice. I was starving, and breakfast wasn’t ready. I tried to make scrambled eggs. It was a disaster. That incident marked the start of my cooking quest. I have always loved cooking since. The amount of mistakes I’ve made, though, is incredible. Thinking back on it, I’m surprised I stuck with it. It took me lot of tries to master the simplest omelette, but since then, I have been improving rapidly. Learning my mother’s classic Chinese dishes and her new improvised ones, I was pushing the limits of cooking and was experimenting with eggs, salted duck eggs (that failed), tea eggs, my daily microwave eggs, and baked eggs.

It’s no surprise that I decided to cook. I love eating, and my parents have always been cooking extravagant meals. My grandma cooks almost ten dishes for five people to eat, and when it’s the lunar new year, our kitchen is like the New York City streets. All the relatives come over, and I am always amazed by the quantity and quality of the food presented that day. My earliest memory of cooking is helping my mom make her spring rolls.

I volunteer at a non-profit organization called CAAMNY, the Chinese American Association of Metropolitan New York. Part of CAAMNY’s function is to help Chinese children in New York who are seeking treatment for RetinoBlastoma (RB), a form of eye cancer. I have always helped those children, even before CAAMNY was founded, bringing them traditional Chinese snacks and desserts. After my passion for cooking struck in, I was cooking for them. For festivals, we made them homemade mooncakes, traditional rice casseroles, sticky rice, and red bean buns. Food is a great way to bond and bring the families a reminder of China. We talk about the ingredients, different methods of cooking, and our favorite dishes. It improves my Chinese, and I look forward to meeting with them again, learning another recipes or just getting to know how their day was.

Cooking combines my chinese ancestry with my life in America. I put Asian and Western cuisine together. Fried fish in a chinese tomato broth or lamb skewers with five spice powder, pepper salt powder, worchester sauce, and shanghai spicy soy sauce.

I have used cooking to give back to everybody. I cook for my family, friends, members of CAAMNY, and some people in the hospital. It has taught me to appreciate, to respect the mothers of children, who gave up everything to give treatment to their children. It has taught me to give and to become a better person.

 

Watermelon Tree

Turtle And Strawberry

I am Turd the turtle. I like my strawberry. My daddy turtle says that one day, my strawberry will rot and die. I don’t believe him. I try to hold my strawberry in my mouth, but my mouth is too small. I have to push my strawberry everywhere. Everyday, I try to hold the strawberry in my mouth. Sometimes, I accidentally bite the strawberry. Oops!

I live in a fish tank with my dad. The tank is ¾ water, some dirt, and the rest is a rock that I sleep on with my strawberry. Once I pushed my strawberry into the water. Good thing strawberries float! It took a whole hour to push the strawberry out of the water. I was so exhausted that I ate a seed of my strawberry.

A few days passed, and my strawberry grew a small green spot on him. I asked my dad what it was. He said it was mold. I still don’t believe him. I think my strawberry got strawberry-pox. The only thing I could think of to cure it was to eat the green spot. So I did. It didn’t taste so good, but at least my strawberry did not die.

The next day, strawberry was green all over. Maybe my dad is right. Strawberries rot. I dug a grave in the dirt for my strawberry and rolled the strawberry in. I covered it in dirt and went for a swim. I will never forget my strawberry friend (snack).

 

My New Marshmallow

For my first birthday, I got a marshmallow as a pet. My dad gave me this because he said it did not rot. I believed him then. The marshmallow was very squishy. I slept on it. I could actually hold the marshmallow in my mouth because it was so squishy.

My marshmallow didn’t roll very well, so it was kind of boring. It just sat there all day. My dad said that I should eat it because marshmallows are meant to be eaten. That I didn’t believe. Why would anything be meant to be eaten? I ate the marshmallow any way.

 

I Got A Watermelon

Watermelons are big and round. They are light green with dark green lines. They are also very heavy, so heavy that even I couldn’t push it. The watermelon was floating around in the water because it took up the whole rock. I could push it in the water. The watermelon was going to rot because it was a fruit. I learned that from my dad. I just knew it would take a while for my watermelon to rot. It was too big to rot fast. I ate the watermelon in one bite.

 

Mr. Goldfish

I will admit that I am kind of mean and fat. I am mean because I eat my fruit friends. I am fat because a normal two-inch turtle can’t eat a full grown adult watermelon in one mega-bite. There is one thing in my tank that I can’t seem to catch. His name is Mr. Goldfish. He can’t talk, but that is what I call him. He kind of looks like my strawberry on his side with flippers. Mr. Goldfish is a goldfish. He is very fast for a full grown, one-inch goldfish. I bit his dorsal fin, but he could still out swim me. When I am bored, I always jump into the water and chase him. Even though I probably won’t taste goldfish in my life, I still enjoy chasing him around my little fish tank. I don’t think that my dad cares about me chasing Mr. Goldfish because I need to get my exercise.

 

I Found A Human

Today I will climb out of my fish tank and see what is giving me all my fruit and candy. The fish tank is really slippery, but maybe I can climb up my palm tree. Today is the day to find what is outside my fish tank because I can’t find Mr. Goldfish. Maybe goldfish get moldy too.

My palm tree is made of plastic, and it has branches and leaves. I can put my feet on the branches and climb up. My dad is still sleeping, so he does not know. If I get out, I will build something so he can get out. Climbing the tree is easy, but now I have to jump from the tree to whatever my tank is resting on. I jump and land on the floor. It does not hurt because of my nice, protective shell. Then a hand scoops me up and starts yelling. I think that this is what my dad calls a human. He says that they are the ones who feed us and captured him from his pond. Humans are really big.

I am as big as one of the human’s fingers. I run around his hand, not knowing what to do. The human put a marshmallow his hand. I eat it right away. The human put me on the ground next to something with wheels. I get on top of the thing and lie there. My little legs can not reach the ground. The human pushes me around on the thing. It probably would have been very fun if I was not so scared. The human put me back in my fish tank. My isolated home.

 

Dad is Scared

When I crawl back onto my feet, I see my dad looking at me. I think he is mad. He isn’t. He just wants to know what I saw out there. I tell him what I saw and heard. I tell him what I saw and asked him what was the pond like. He says that it is a place much bigger than our little tank. So I ask him how did we get here. He says that he injured his flipper, and the humans took him and fixed him. They decided his flipper would never be good enough, so they put him in a pet shop.

 

I Escape Again

My dad says that I can escape and try to find the pond. I ask why he is not coming. He says that his flipper hurts to much, so he can’t climb trees. So I say bye to my daddy turtle and climb the tree. This time, I get lucky and fall on my legs, so I don’t have to flip over. I walk to the door and go through the dog door. Wait, they have a dog?! I hear paws scraping on the polished floor. I run like a little turtle trying to make it to the ocean. I make it to the bushes, and he can’t chase me any more. Turtle beats dog. I look for a pond, but I find a football. Eh, I’ll find the pond. And hopefully watermelon trees.

 

The Pond Is Big

I think I found the pond. The pond has many people walking around it. It also has a lot of ducks. Good think ducks only eat the little things swimming around. I find a rock that has a good spot for me to rest on. The pond is not so good because it does not have watermelon trees. Maybe one day I will go back and find my dad. Then my owners will give me a watermelon.

 

Untitled

      

They say the opposite of love is not hate

It’s just indifference

 

And because

those who seem to love me

those who really know me enough to love me

seem so few and far between

They say the opposite of love is not hate

It’s just indifference

 

And because

those who seem to love me

those who really know me enough to love me

seem so few and far between

That I wish to be hated

wish for angry looks

eye rolls

scowls

not just

 

indifference

 

I don’t think

I have ever been hated

not really, truly hated

yes, I’ve been disliked

distrusted

Have had people turn away

 

But it was more like disinterest

standing in the rain

Waiting

For someone to look my way

 

And I know this sounds like I’m just

Waiting to be discovered

But maybe it’s more like

I’m waiting to discover

Waiting to find a way to be hated

 

Waiting to find a way

To stop crying alone in my room

With my cat

And pocket fulls of those

Awful Fig Newtons

My friend’s mother

Keeps giving to me

But I’m too polite to refuse

 

And someday

I know

I will be hated

I look forward

To having someone look me in the eye

And say

Claire

You are such a bitch

 

And I’m not delusional enough to think

That someone hasn’t said that

about me

already

But I want them to say it

to my face

 

Because every once in awhile

It’s nice to know that you matter

It’s nice to know that

someone cares enough about me

To hate me

 

Because the one thing I cannot stand

Is apathy

Indifference

To be ignored

To be forgotten

 

And I look forward to that day

Because right now I feel all that I am doing

Is looking backwards

At all the incredibly awkward

Things I have said

or done

 

And although in those

Twelve whole years I’ve been alive

It doesn’t seem like there would be enough time

For so many unspoken words

 

But somehow there is

And maybe it’s just the hormones

coursing through my veins

Or the fact that I spend

So much of my time

In my room

Reading about long dead urban planners

 

But sometimes I feel like I should just stop

Thinking

so

much

Because sometimes

All those words

Seem to just pile up

 

Like that shrine of stuffed animals

I have under my bed

 

And eventually get forgotten

Or I get lost in the thoughts

I climb under my bed

And hide in those stuffed animals

all

day

Long

Because sometimes it’s good to be six years old again

But sometimes it’s also good

To crawl out from

Under my bed

Bring those thoughts

Out

Into the light

 

Because maybe if I bring one of those

old stuffed animals

Out into the light

And give it to my cat

She may hate it

But also

What if she loves it?

 

And even if you are hated

It’s better than collecting dust

Underneath my bed

 

And if you’ve survived this incredible

Dose of angst

 

Maybe some of it makes sense?

 

because

Being hated sucks

I’ve watched mean girls enough times

To attest that that’s probably true

 

But sometimes if you hate something

Oh so much

It’s easier to start to love it

Then not to care?

 

And maybe because

I’m a chronic idealist

 

I believe that if everyone just started to care

 

If everyone dropped that shield of apathy

And indifference

 

Maybe some things would get better

 

My father once told me

That the best people

Are those who think about something

Besides people

Besides caring what someone else does

Or thinks

 

And I agree

I have met some really shitty people

Who I can’t help but admire

Because they know what they love

And they love what they know

Because it’s nice to see someone

Who loves

 

But I also disagree

With what my father

Told me

Because sometimes it’s good

to think

About people

Sometimes it’s good to know

People are thinking about you

 

But I think

What he really meant

was that I shouldn’t let

The people

Become me

 

It’s good to care

It’s great

Actually

But I don’t want that feeling

To become me

 

And since my claustrophobia

And my introversion

Clearly mandate

That sometimes

I need space

 

if only everyone just took a second

To notice

Maybe they could

hate

 

And I’m not saying

That everyone

Has to love

everything

 

I mean

Somethings about me

Are pretty

Worthy to hate

 

Like all those times

I ignore the recycling bin

Or the fact that I

Take an hour to decide

What kind of candy

I want in my junk drawer

 

But there are some things

To love about everyone

 

Like the time I cried

For hours after accidentally

Killing a spider

Or when I organized

My cabin to recite

Howl by Allen Ginsberg

 

But when everyone is

So complicated

The one thing

We shouldn’t do

Is not to notice

 

Don’t let the possibility

Of hate

Overwhelm you

 

Because you know

At the end of Mean Girls

Kady is loved

Once again

 

LOL, the potato

One day there was an average potato. That potato liked to play ahhhhhh! It was sort of like catch, but you were the one being thrown. Sometimes, you would get a major concussion or two, but typically, only minor ones. Otherwise, it was pretty scun (scary fun). He liked to hang on vines, but when he did, he didn’t have a very nice time because no one picked him from the vines. He liked being picked from… well, anything. It felt fresh… but one faithful day, the potato found out that he was a special potato, a potato with the cursed power of LOL! He first didn’t know it, until during a normal game of ahhhhhh.

One of the “human mans’” (people) tripped on a “rock fact rock,” which is a rock with a painted face on it. He also tripped on a mythical doge, which is a specific type of doge that you take pictures that you write phrases on. The doge picked him up and ran off with him. The potato felt very confused. A bit later, while riding the doge, the potato grew arms, legs, and a face. His face had no nose, and he had no hair. He started becoming a screaming ladtatato (screaming ladka + potato). He started running and screaming. He bumped into a princess. She was wearing jeans and a blouse and had blonde hair.

She said, “Yo. Dat be me… ”

The potato said, “Okay?” and backed away slowly.

He went back home, but on his way… he found a crosswalk!

He found a random cannon dude that just happened to be there. The potato went into the cannon because he thought it would help him cross the road. Three… two…one… blast off! And he flew up in the sky and hit the floor.

“Ouch!”

He saw a tv that had a sign next to it saying, “TV of LOL for $5.99.”

The TV said, “Mr. um… potato. You have the power of LOL. The power of LOL makes crazy things happen to you! Like with the potadoge-”

“How do you know about tha-”

“Shush! Nobody needs to know… but anyways, to get rid of it, you have to play peanut butter jelly time for ten hours. Can you do- LOL OFF TIME. BREAK!!!” said the TV.

And then the TV suddenly shut down.

“Oh. Okay,” said the potato.“Well home is only a block away.”

He looked northwest and saw his house and a flagpole? By the way, he was horrible at Mario games.

“Gosh darn power of LOL!!” he said.

He ran over to the house as fast as he could, but it was covered by blocks. He needed a power up to break the blocks and a mega one at that. Even he knew they were, like, super rare! He ran around and found one, and a… Mario? Mario used it… turned gigantic… saw him… and… and…

The potato was running, screaming, and well, hiding… but he was too slow. He saw a foot above him. The bricks on the house opened. To the door! He sprinted to the house, got on YouTube, and “PBJ Time” wasn’t there. He thought, What’s the weirdest video posible… ah! dfsubrjfwbhkjrfuywbgyuf on YouTube!

He searched it… and it was there!  The words, LOLs, and memes were taking over, all out to get him, oh no! What to do… watch! He clicked the link… A one day ad?! This is insane! Oh, a skip ad button. Now that makes more sense! One… two… three… four… five… six… seven… eight… nine… ten… skip ad. WARNING: no internet.

“Dang… ”

He knew he had to make it himself! After the potato finished, he thought it didn’t stop. And he was right! Even more memes than before. He saw a ping pong ball next to him. And do you know what it does? Bet’cha you don’t! Or… maybe everybody does. who knows?! Well… the potato said, “Hello sir!”

The ping pong ball didn’t say a thing.

“Um, hello?”

Silence.

“Umm…”

Silence.

“Do you speak?”

Rattle rattle.

“Mmmmmmmmmmm!”

“H-e-l-l-o.”

“Ummmm, hi? (works every time!)”

“I- a-m- v-e-r-y- h-u-n-g-r-y-!”

“Well, I ain’t got no food!”

“Well, you’re food.”

“No I’m not…”

“Yum,” and the ping pong ball quickly ate the potato!

And inside… he found another dimension… filled with beauty and potatoes above imagination… wow…

“Ahhh!!!!”

The potato, for some weird reason, just happened to be above a five foot pit. Pow! He fell right onto a sign that said: This place is weird. This is the pit of duplication. Say re-copy if you need another. You will now be duplicated. Whip, whap, wop, lip, laup, lop! went the sign. In a few seconds, the potato saw something… like a mirror. Himself…

The second potato said, “Elp meh plez! Muh fut iz stuk.” (Help me please! My foot is stuck.)

“I guess duplication messes up your grammar. So nope!”

He climbed and climbed…

“Re-copy!”

Whip, whap, wop, lip, laup, lop! went the sign again.

“Hey yo! I’m a duplicated potato!” said the third potato.

“Doge!” (dodge) said the second potato.

And than the third potato started chanting doge memes.  

“Much unhappiness. Need help. Wow. Dislike. Very trapped. Wow. So abusive. Many sufferings. Such discomfort. Yearn for freedom…“ and at that, the third was mashed by a pastry cutter

Back to the original potato who was still looking for that “PBJ Time” video. And, I’m guessing you know that this dimension has terrible wifi! But if he was lucky, he could go to the center, get a feather, and make the ping pong ball barf him out than he could escape. He ran towards the town square where he found a local hedgehog that could move faster than the speed of sound.

The potato tried to hop on the hedgehog, but it was running away. And as you know, potatoes just gotta go fast. Every time the hedgehog got faster, so did the potato until the potato finally reached the hedgehog. He rode it , and all the way over to the core he went! Vroom. Oops. It was only one centimeter away. He plucked a feather from a bird that was nicely flying by. He tickled the core, and he went, “Kitchy kitchy koo!”

Ah, ah, ah. Barf. Ewwww! The ping pong ball barfed out the potato. And the potato rushed over to his beloved laptop, clicked on his “PBJ Time” link, and watched it for ten hours. And a soul of memes appeared, nodded, and left. It kinda looked like a purple fireball, but with trillions of memes flying around. He did it, and the power of LOL was gone. The world was still in peril… he thought, Wait, I should’ve killed that duplicated me! He was stuck, so he couldn’t watch the video. He must STILL have the power of LOL!!!”

The end… or is it?  BUM BUM BUUUUUUUM!!! Because it’s not. The potato actually just got eaten at the end. Wap, wap, waaaaaaaaap.

Okay, now the end!                

 Fin.

 

Gray Existence

I am sure there used to be colors. Back before the end of the world, before nothing mattered. Maybe in pictures, but pictures are blurry and gray and evil and old.

Subways are decidedly the worst. Everyone is miserable. It’s a rule. You must be miserable, and nobody will look you in the eye. If you look them in the eye, they’re allowed to kill you. And in the misery of unblinking, unbreathing bodies, I am always certain that someone, somewhere, is crying, sobbing for something they’ve lost a million lifetimes ago. The sky is dark, so dark I am considering it might be night again. I don’t know. Lately it’s just the same above ground as it is below.

They say “it’s darkest before the dawn,” but dawn hasn’t come in quite a while. The sky has stayed dark and emotionless ever since the sun exploded and poured dark paint into all of the places that used to have eyes.

I used to have eyes.

I suppose I still do, although I don’t seem to need them anymore.

 

Once upon a time there was a girl. Maybe… maybe that’s where we begin.

I was sixteen and largely unimpressed with the world when I met the witch. She was dark, and she was pretty, and she could tell a million lies without once opening her mouth. She called me beautiful, and I almost believed her. When you were with the witch, everything would seem so beautiful, and everything would seem so horrifying, that you couldn’t bring yourself to look away. She had blue eyes… maybe that’s all that matters because as all the colors disappeared, I still remember blue eyes.

I was nearly eighteen when we ran away from home. I was sure the car was red. I was sure her eyes were blue. Back before the ocean rose and swallowed the streets we drove away from, back before the stars fell down and melted the wax figures we called family. Back before the colors disappeared, and I learned to regret everything. We ran away from home.

We called the city ‘hellscape.’ The city meant freedom, and freedom meant war.

There was music. I was sure there used to be music, and the battle cries of deluded soldiers still ring fondly in my ears.

I was eighteen and two months when the witch disappeared the first time. We lived in a small, old room that I couldn’t bring myself to find beautiful. We lived far and off in hellscape and fought our little wars. She stole away in the night and was never to be found. I thought, she must have run to some other city to fight with some other poor soul, to find some other version of freedom. I was sure there were still colors, but they became dimmer.

I was nineteen when the witch came back. Maybe the original, or possibly a new one, nonetheless all the same. She wore flowers in her hair and red paint on her lips. I was sure she had blue eyes, and that’s all that matters.

We met outside a store that sold candy to children and beer to minors and misery to all who opened its doors. She was beautiful. She called me depressed.

She came with potions to take the fear away and spells to bring the colors back, raging and in full force. She had a bag of tricks that would make everything seem so beautiful and send me into an emotionless blur, free from the burdens of existence.

I was twenty when I realized I would never feel again. And it was when she realized that not even her many potions could fix my emotionless state. The witch disappeared for the second and final time.

I stood motionless and emotionless as the flowers and the fighting and the witches disappeared from my life.  

I was twenty-one when the world ended. I suppose that the oceans had been rising and the stars had been descending long before I opened my blank and senseless eyes. The world ended in a series of bright, flashing lights that ate away at any fragment of hope and any shred of sanity that I desperately clung to.

I was twenty-one when the colors disappeared and the world quickly changed into streaks of gray and black and white, like the fading hair of an old man.

I was twenty-one when I staggered onto a subway with useless eyes staring blankly ahead, feeling nothing, and listening to the insufferable sobbing of those who had lost everything, and thought of the uselessness in pulling my mind through this cold and broken world.

I was twenty-one when… once upon a time there was a girl… I was twenty-one when… maybe that’s where we begin… I was twenty one when…

Today I am twenty-two. And although birthdates stopped being recorded when the world ended, and the children disappeared, I suppose I still remember.

Like blue eyes.

I find solace in the fact that people still believe I may return to a place with colors…

 

Cindy: A Cinderella Retelling

I was picking up all my papers off the school floor like I always did at 3 p.m. That was when my stepsisters would knock them out of my hands. It had kind of become a daily thing. I heard the bus leaving. WAIT! The bus?! Oh no! It came early today. Stepmother’s going to kill me. I must have had a very panicked look on my face because someone came over to me. A boy.

“Are you alright?” he asked.

“I just missed my bus… ”

I just expected him to shrug and walk away, but instead he said, “I’m driving home, wanna ride?”

“Okay… wait a second, I don’t recognize you. Do you even go to this school?” I asked suspiciously.

“Yes, of course- ” he replied, leaning out to grab my arm.

“Don’t touch me!” I yelled.

“Yes, today was my first day,” he replied.

“Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know! I would have shown you around.”

I was very embarrassed for accusing him of being a kidnapper.

“It’s okay. Pretty girls like you shouldn’t have to worry about little old me,” he said.

He was looking at his shoes. I was pretty sure he was blushing. I felt a blush coming to my cheeks too, and I turned away, smiling.

“I’m Kai.”

“I’m Cindy. Nice to meet you, Kai.”

Kai drove me home. As soon as I got home, you can bet my stepmother was upset.

“Cindy, where have you been? It’s 15 minutes after the bus arrived! I told you no after-school activities because you have to do the dishes straight away so the girls and I can have our afternoon tea!”

“I’m so sorry, Stepmother. I missed the bus and-”

“That is unacceptable! Your father spoiled you, and now he’s left me his mess to clean up!”

“Don’t talk about my father like that!” I yelled.

“Talking back, such a bad habit. I have my work cut out for me.”

She had her work cut out for her? Living with her was harder than all the chores I have to do everyday. After that, she yelled at me for a good five minutes more. I went to go do the dishes. Oh no, here come my stepsisters.

“So, missed the bus did you, Cindy?” Britney sneered.

“How’d you get home? Did you walk?” Whitney laughed.

Something about the sentence made me find my voice. “I met this guy named Kai. Today was his first day. He drove me home,” I answered.

Britney glared at me while Whitney gasped. “Kai?! That’s my new boyfriend! Stay away from Kai!” Whitney yelled at me.

Ugh, she must have meet Kai during the school day today. I can’t believe I actually thought I had a chance with this guy. This is what they do with new people: take them right away. As if I didn’t feel bad enough, she grabbed one of my mother’s plates and smashed it on the floor. Then, they ran out. My mother’s china. How dare they! That’s all I have left of my parents. Tears started rolling down my cheeks; I couldn’t stop it. I took the broken china and ran up to the attic. The attic was where I slept. It was my bedroom. I put the china next to my bed.

“I’m sorry, Mom,” I whispered.

“Cindy? CINDY??” my stepmother called. “Where is our tea???”

“Coming, Stepmother!”

I ran down the stairs, back into the kitchen. The first thing I did was hide the rest of my mother’s china. One of the things I learned, through acting as my stepfamily’s maid, was how to get tea together quickly. Not but two minutes later, the tea was in the pot and the teacups were on the tray, along with the mini sandwiches. I brought it out to them.

“It’s about time.”

My stepmother rolled her eyes while Whitney glared at me, and Britney stuffed mini sandwiches in her mouth.

“Now, Cindy, go sweep the living room, mop the bedrooms, make sure you feed the cat and give him his bath, wash the windows, and do the laundry. When you’re done with that, I’ll give you the rest of your chores.”

“Yes, Stepmother.”

I was happy. So far, she had given me less chores than usual. But, she would give me more later, so maybe I was speaking to soon.

***

The Next Day

“CINDY! WHERE’S OUR BREAKFAST?”

“Coming right up, Stepmother!” I responded.

I brought out their breakfast.

“Cindy, pour me some tea, dear.”

“Of course, Stepmother.”

I started to pour her tea. The teacups were very beautiful. The design was blue and yellow; it folded out in patterns, creating an image on the cup.

“I can’t wait to see Kai at school today. I think he’s going to ask me to prom!” Whitney said, happily.

“What?”

In my shock, I spilled the tea all over my stepmother’s lap.

“Oh! Ow! Hot tea!”

She squealed in pain. Grabbing napkins and patting it, she scolded me. “Silly child, look what you’ve done!”

“I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean-” I tried to explain, but she cut me off.

“You are more trouble than you’re worth! Go! Grab your things, and walk to the bus stop early! Before you ruin anything else!”

With that, I grabbed my things and ran out the door. Once I made it to the bus stop, I sat down and started crying.

“Ugh! Why am I so stupid?!” I screamed into the air.

“I don’t think you’re stupid,” a voice said behind me.

I turned around to see Kai’s smiling face.

“You don’t know me,” I said, turning away.

Kai’s smile turned to a frown.

“What’s wrong? I thought we were friends?” Kai said.

He sounded pained, but I just ignored it.

“Are you dating Whitney Lockwood?” I asked.

Ugh, why did I say that?

“Um, yes. Why do you care?” he said.

I buried my face in my knees so he wouldn’t see the tears spilling from my eyes. I didn’t even know why I was crying. I really was stupid.

“Hey, don’t cry.”

Kai sat down next to me and pulled me close to his chest. I tried to stop crying, but I just started crying harder into his shoulder. I calmed down and sat up.

“I don’t care. I just heard a rumor,” I mumbled.

“Oh, okay,” Kai said.

He almost sounded disappointed?

“Hey, babe.”

Just then, Whitney and Britney came up to the bus stop. With them came a crowd of students. You could hear them whispering, Kai and Whitney are so cute! Look at little Cindy. She’s crying haha.  Kai stood up and hugged Whitney.

“Awwww,” everyone went.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey, babe, we’re going to prom together, right?” Whitney asked.

“You two would be the cutest couple there,” Britney added.

“Um, I don’t know. What I mean is… prom is tomorrow. So, I mean, do we have to think about it now?”

Kai trembled. He was obviously terrified. Then Whitney gave him her puppy dog eyes.

“Come on, Whitney, don’t give me that face,” Kai plead.

Whitney started fake crying.

“Oh, don’t cry. Okay, okay, prom together.”

“Yay!” Whitney clapped her hands.

“Yay!” everyone cheered.

She linked her arm in his. Then the bus came, and I cried some more.

***

The Next Day

I ran down from the attic to the kitchen and started getting breakfast ready. Once the tea was ready, I put the teapot, along with its matching teacups, on the tray with mini muffins, of course. As soon as I set the tray down on the table, Stepmother told me to leave.

“What?” I said, confused. “Shouldn’t I pour your tea like every morning?”

“No. Not after yesterday. Go clean up the kitchen and then head down to the bus stop.”

“Yes, Stepmother.”

I went and grabbed myself a muffin and put the dishes in the sink. Then I headed over to the bus stop. I sat by myself until Kai came over a few minutes later. Why was he always early?

“Hey, Cindy, I need to tell you something-” But, he never finished that sentence because just then, Whitney and Britney came over (once again with a group of students).

“Hey, boo-boo-bear!” Whitney exclaimed.

Then, she saw that he was next to me once again.

“Kai, are you cheating on me?” Whitney said in a pained voice.

“Of course not!”

“Then, why are you always with her?” Whitney sneered.

“I-we’re just friends. Right, Cindy?” Kai asked me.

His eyes were pleading for help. I turned around, looking him straight in the face.

“Not even.”

Kai just stood there, looking at me with the most hurt look on his face. I turned away.

“Cindy, wait-” he pleaded.

But I just got up and walked into the bus.

***

After School

“Cindy, help me with my dress for prom,” Britney said.

Prom. I wished I could go. But, I guess it would just hurt to see Kai and Whitney dancing. I wish I could go to prom with Kai! How I wish!

“No! Help me with my hairstyle for Kai!” Whitney said.

“Help me!”

“No, me!”

Whitney and Britney started arguing about whose needs were more important.  

During that, I did Whitney’s hair. Next, I helped Britney with her dress.

“Done,” I said.

Whitney and Britney looked at me, confused.

“Go look in a mirror.”

Both went to look.

“Oh! My gown is gorgeous!” Britney exclaimed.

“My hair! Kai will flip for it!” Whitney gasped.

They did both look very pretty. Kai would think so too. Sigh. Britney and Whitney looked at me.

“What?” they asked.

“Oh, nothing. I just — wish — I wish I could go to prom,” I blurted out.

I shouldn’t have said anything. Whitney and Britney bursted out laughing.

“You at… prom?”

I hung my head down, embarrassed. They kept laughing. I walked out and ran up to the attic. I looked out the attic window as Whitney and Britney left for prom.

“Cindy!!!” my stepmother called. “I’m going out! I’ll be back around 12:30 am! Don’t forget to clean the cinders out of the fire! The girls will be back around 12:30 am, too ! The house better be spotless when I get back!”

With that, she left, the door slamming behind her. I ran downstairs, out to the garden in the backyard.

“I wish I could go to prom! I wish I wasn’t worthless!” I cried.

But, I am worthless, just a maid of a girl. Just a cinder girl.

“Are you alright, dearie? I heard crying.”

I looked up to see an elderly woman smiling at me.

“W-who are you?” I asked.

“I am your neighbor, dear. My name’s Faye Godmother, but my friends call me Fairie.”

“Oh, hi. I’m fine,” I said.

“Oh, but clearly you’re not. Tell me what’s wrong,” Faye said in a calm, soothing voice.

I took a deep breath.

“My stepsisters are at prom, and my stepmother said I can’t go, but she’s right. I don’t belong there. I don’t fit in.”

“Prom?! My dear, you must go. Prom is your night. No one else’s,” Faye said. “I’ll drive you there myself.”

I wiped the tears from my face.

“Thanks, but I can’t go looking like this,” I said.

Faye’s eyes sparkled mischievously.

“I just so happen to have a dress at my house. Would you like to borrow it?”

“Oh no, that’s your dress. I could never. Plus, I’m not allowed to go,” I said sadly.

“What time is your stepmother getting home?” she asked.

“12:30.”

“Then, just be back by midnight,” Faye said.

So, we went over to Faye’s house. I changed into the dress. It was the most beautiful gown I’ve ever seen with white lace sleeves and lace trimmings. Then, a bright sky blue covered the rest of the gown. Oddly enough, it fit me perfectly.

“And these shoes,” Faye added.

She held out glass slippers.

“Are those made of glass?” I asked.

“Yup, but they’re quite comfortable.”

She held them out for me to try. I slipped them on. She was not wrong. They felt like slippers.

As if Faye could read my mind, she smiled at me and said, “A bit like slippers, aren’t they?”

I just nodded. Faye drove me to my prom.

“Thank you so much!” I thanked Faye.

“Just be home by midnight!” Faye reminded me.

“Wait, how will I get home?” I asked.

She smiled at me.

“You’ll get a ride with a special someone,” she answered.

“How do you know?” I asked, but she was already gone.

I took a deep breath. Then I walked into the room. The gym was decorated with banners and ribbons. People were dancing, and there was music. Then, suddenly, the music stopped, and everyone looked at me. I saw Kai and Whitney in the middle of the dance floor.

“Wow,” Kai said, looking right into my eyes, refusing to let me look away.

“Um, hi,” I said. “You all can keep dancing. I’m just gonna be here.”

The music started up again, and everyone started dancing again. Except Kai and Whitney.

“Come on, boo, let’s keep dancing,” Whitney said, grabbing Kai’s hand.

He pulled away, not even looking her in the eyes.

He said, “I’ll be right back.”

Then, he started walking over to me. The look on Whitney’s face was priceless as she let Britney lead her to the side of the room.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey.”

“You-you look really pretty tonight. But, I don’t mean just tonight. You always look pretty. I just mean that–” He rambled, but I cut him off.

“It’s okay. I get what you mean.”

We smiled at each other for a second, but then reality sets in.

“You’re here with Whitney. Shouldn’t you be dancing with her?” I asked.

“I-Cindy, you’re the one I like. It’s always been you. I don’t like Whitney, not one bit. I just felt so much pressure to fit in, and I’m so sorry. I was blind and stupid. Please forgive me,” he confessed.

He looked so serious. There were tears coming from his eyes, and he was holding my hand so tightly, like he was afraid to let go.

“I forgive you.” I gulped.

He was so close now. I could feel his warm breath.

“Thank you, thank you! Cindy, I promise I’ll never do anything this stupid again!”

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” I grinned.

Kai laughed.

“Speaking of promises, I better go tell Whitney she’ll have to find a new Prince Charming,” he joked and left.

Prince Charming, huh. This night had been pretty magical. Minutes later, he came back.

“How’d she take it?” I asked.

“Well, I think I took it harder than her. She slapped me,” he said, his hand on his cheek.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Maybe this will make it feel better.”

Then, I kissed him on the cheek.

“Much better,” he said with the brightest smile. “Wanna dance?”

“Sure,” I said, shyly.

Kai led me out to the dance floor. We started dancing. Then, my shoe fell off. Out of nowhere, Whitney ran onto the dance floor and grabbed my shoe.

“I’ve got the shoe! I’ve got the shoe!!!” Whitney screamed.

“Give Cindy back her shoe!” Kai demanded.

“What? No, Kai, babe, you’re supposed to love me now. These shoes… they put you under a spell,” Whitney yelled.

She sounded crazy. Clearly, Kai thought so.

“I love Cindy for her, not her shoes. Now, give it back!”

Kai grabbed the shoe out of Whitney’s hand.

“May I?” Kai asked.

I put my foot out. He slid the shoe on, looked up at me, and smiled. Whitney’s jaw dropped.

Finally, she said, “It must be the dress!”

She reached out, trying to grab my dress. I stepped back. Kai got in front of me, trying to stop Whitney. Then, Britney ran onto the dance floor.

“Whit, you’re acting a little bit crazy. Let’s go.”

“No! Not with my boo-boo-bear!!” Whitney screamed.

Finally, Britney dragged her off the dance floor. I looked at Kai and bursted out laughing. He looked confused.

“What’s so funny about Whitney trying to take your shoes and dress because she thought that they would magically make me love her…” Then, Kai bursted out laughing, too. “She’s crazy,” Kai added.

“Yup. My crazy step sisters,” I laughed.

“Those two wack-a-dos are your step sisters?” Kai asked. “I’m so sorry. They’re horrible to you at school, and you have to live with them?”

“And be their personal maid,” I added.

“That’s horrible,” Kai said.

I shrugged.

“It’s my life.”

“Not anymore. I will help you, I promise,” Kai vowed.

I smiled, then, looked out the window to see a car driving away. I couldn’t tell who it was, but the license plate said ‘Bibbity Bopity Boo.’

 

THE END

 

Love of Tomorrow

Prologue

New York City. A place of dreams, filled with the rich, and… the others.

My name is David Y. Johnson. I own Cogsworth Industries, the largest company in the world, beating Amazon. I know, pretty crazy, right? I have about fifty-six main factories. As the second-richest person in the world, I have to work harder than any other person, but sometimes I can take days off. And there are relationships here and there, but never like this.

Oh, and I forgot. I’m an agent.

 

Chapter One: The Start

April 21st was the day when the Cogsworth Building opened. It is the largest building in New York, around four hundred stories higher than the Freedom Tower. I could smell the eggs, lightly cooked, but not too light that it was raw, just how I liked them. Georgia licked my face with her wet and rough tongue. My cheek was covered in dog saliva. The door was slightly opened, all the way across from my bed. I slipped on my slippers, feeling the fuzz, but only my right slipper was there. It seemed like my left one was somewhere. My eyes were half open, everything blurry.  My foot left the brown carpet. It felt like I was walking on a soft panda before, but my left foot touched the cold marble floor. The room was all white with a little black here and there. My curtains automatically opened, the sun shining on the white painted walls. It shined even brighter on the walls. I got to the doors, my eyes opening wider. I looked out my balcony, seeing Meredith, the cook wearing a white apron with dark black hair like the night, making food already.

“Why, hello, sir,” she said.

“Hi,” I said, walking down the stairs. “I see you’re earlier than usual.”

“Well, your opening is today at 10:00.”

She put the finished eggs and toast on the plate, passing it to me.

“Oh yes, of course…” I said, totally forgetting that I had it. “It’s an important day.”

“Of course, sir, and your friend is here to bring you there. Or… friends.”

“Oh shoot!”

I stuffed my mouth with the toast and added some eggs. I ran up, taking off my clothes, and grabbing my hanger. I put on my suit, looked outside, and saw the limo out on the road. I opened the door to leave.

“So long, sir,” Meredith said. “Shall I hire the services to help with the party?”

“Yes, do whatever you need.”

“So long, sir!”

The door slammed. I pressed the button, and the elevator came quickly.  I ran out, the doorman holding the door.

“What’s the rush?” Meleney asked, opening the car door.

“I don’t have all day to discuss this, Mel.”

I called her that to annoy her. She’s smart, and she knew what Mel meant.

“I told you to stop calling me that!”

“Why would I? It’s fun.”  

“Seriously?! You’re making me act like an actor.”

“Oh sorry,” I said.

She made a disgusted face.

“Besides, I thought you liked acting.”

We pulled into the building. Getting out of the car, people surrounded me. Bodyguards came to push them away. I put on my sunglasses. They put in my ear piece.

“Sir, your call is in two minutes,” the voice from the ear said.

“I’m coming. Keep them distracted.”

“On it.”

I walked on the podium, standing right in front of the huge building.

“Hello, ladies and gentleman. Today is the special day of the opening! The second tallest building in the world!”

Everyone clapped.

“Now, let us begin!”

***

It was early night. People flooded in, wearing skinny dresses, and some, large skirts. The men had their hair combed to the top, the light shining upon their hair. I felt my stomach gaging, afraid of what people thought about my speech.

“Why, hello, Mr. Johnson.”

“Hello, Mr. Mayor. Thank you for coming.”

“Well, if you’re going to build a large tower in my city, then I have to come, don’t I?”

“Oh!” I laughed, “of course.”

I walked over to Meleney. Her golden, tight dress shined on my eyes. It felt like millions of stars, as if she was the center of attention. People were talking to her. After all, she was one of the head chiefs of New York. Her straight, black hair draped down her back, and some was on her right shoulder. As the classical music got louder, and the lights seemed to dim, I stared at her enticingly. She slowly looked over to me, and it seemed that her face was shining! Her perfect, blue eyes seemed to have moved like an ocean. Dolphins of love were swimming out of her eyes.

People started to fade out, dark all around us. I grabbed her hand. We danced on the marble floor, one mover after the other. She controlled me, and I controlled her in perfect sync until the moment was lost when a server came between us. All of it was a day dream…

“Ah, David. You’ve finally come over.”

“Yes, I couldn’t leave y-” I stopped, noticing of what I was about to say. “I mean, I couldn’t leave my other guests.”

“Oh please, David. You’re far too busy with your other actual guests. We’re family. Greet your guests first, and then we can talk,” my mother said, holding my father’s hand.

Her light white dress was more flurry than the other guests.

“Thank you mother,” I replied, silky and soft too, like I was having a great time, but this was a mistake.

Parties are not my thing. I knew that from the start, but somehow I convinced myself to have the party. The Cogsworth building shined brightly. The blue flickered, the roads and paths were lighted by bright, white lights.

“How beautiful,” my mother would have said.

“Look everyone! The fireworks are about to begin!” A man from the crowd exhaled.

He ran towards the large glass window to see the rest of New York and, more importantly, the building. More people followed, watching. I was already there, drinking my drink. I stood, looking at nothing but the building.

Suddenly, a single firework shot up, sparks following the trail behind the flash. It happened again! Everything became black again. My vision zoomed into the firework. It was like a rocket, flying far away until it exploded into millions and millions of shining flames, flickering. With that, the large bang hit me. I was back. I had to stop whatever was causing this. Unless it was just love. But, no it couldn’t. I didn’t want it to.

“Wow! So amazing! Who’s in charge of the fireworks?” Someone asked.
“Val, or Valentine…”

I didn’t know that Meleney knew his name. I got a call.

“Do not fret, sir. I’ll get it,” Meredith walked over to get it.

She talked, while fireworks were launching.

“Oh!” she said, sounding surprised.

I got worried.

“What is it?” I asked.

“It’s for you,” she said.

I took the phone from her hand, “Hello?”

“We have an emergency, David. The fireworks aren’t in control…”

“Oh god.”

I grabbed Meleney. We work together.

“Where are you going?!” the mayor stopped us.

I started trying to figure out what I should say, or what Meleney should say.  

“We’re going to the building. Someone is…” I started.

“Is trying to move a heavy box! We need to help him.”

“Okay…” the mayor walked past us.

We ran to the 28th floor. I owned three floors. The 29th floor, or the Penthouse, is where I have my living room, kitchen, and a study. It’s also where I have my parties.  The 28th is the agent room. We had suits: some of them had upgrades, and others fit our needs. We snuck out and got into a dark, fast, and small limo. It headed to the tower: the top was creaking, and starting to fall.

 

Chapter Two: V for Valentine

We ran out. I could feel that something was worse than I thought.

“Well?! What are we waiting for?” Meleney caught my attention.

I was staring at the tower. I grabbed my wrist. Suddenly, a shockwave of time shocked the universe. Only Meleney could move with me.

We ran inside, opened the door, and ran up the stairs. We ran to the fifteenth floor, sweat starting to drip.

“How many flights have we gone up?” I asked, stopping, leaning upon the railing.

“Only fifteen,” Meleney said, annoyed that I was too tired to walk. “There are about… 2970 floors more.”

“Oh wait!” I screamed.

I looked at my wrist, pressing a button. Suddenly, I appeared on the 2970th floor. I opened the door, the freezing, blowing wind brushing on my face. Meleney appeared right next to me.

“Glad you could come,” I said, walking towards the explosion.

Time moved so slowly that a car going two hundred MPH went around thirty MPH. The explosion was just starting to get bigger. The needle was starting to fall along with Val. His hands and arms were spread out as if he was wanting to go with the tower.

“Oh no…” Meleney looked at him. “But why…?”

Then she looked at me.

“We don’t have time for this, Meleney!”

I ran, taking out my watch. A little robotic finger appeared out of it. I stretched it out and put it on my finger. A white and blue sticky substance came out, sticking the wires to my fingers. Meanwhile, Mel grabbed the man and the fireworks. She let them go into the air instead of staying underneath the needle. When I turn time back to normal, people from all over would see the huge fireworks. The wires started to come together, and the needle slightly started to come back up. To make sure it wouldn’t fall again, Mel added a ‘glue’ to make it stay.

I touched the pad, and time went back to normal. We used the elevator to get down. Finally, once we got home, people stared outside.

“What was that?!” the mayor screamed.

“Are you okay?! The mayor told us you were right at the building at the time!” my mother ran and hugged me.

“I’m okay, Mom…”

“You could have died!” Ms. Gensa said. She was the one who paid the workers to build the building. “All my money! Could have been for nothing,” she screamed as if it were the end of the world.

Meleney walked up to me and whispered in my ear, “Where are we going to put Val?”

“Don’t worry, I have a health center on the 28th floor.”

“I’ll sleep over tonight, just to make sure. Is that okay?”

“Sure… ”

***

The party ended. I made another speech before thanking everyone for coming. Meleney stayed in the health lab, staring at Val. I walked down to the health lab to see Meleney looking frozen.

“Whats wrong?”

“What? Oh, nothing.”

“Something’s wrong. I know it.”

“I never told you? Val is my uncle!”

“Oh no. I’m so sorry…”

“It’s fine, really… I should get some shut eye.”

“Good night,” I walked out, going to my room.

Meredith was already gone. I opened the creaking black, wooden door. Georgia was sleeping on the bed. I took off my clothes and went to bed.

 

Chapter Three: Blood Piles

It was 8:30 am. The curtains didn’t automatically turn on. My eyes were ready for the sun, but the curtains never opened. I got up, wondering what was wrong. The lights didn’t turn on either.

What is happening? Why was all the electricity out? I wondered.

As I walked down to the kitchen island, Meredith wasn’t there. When I opened the door, she was there, trying to press the doorbell. She had a card that scanned to open the door.

“I’ve been out here for over an hour, sir!”

“Sorry… ” I opened the door for her.

“I ran downstairs and asked for a key, but you don’t have a keyhole!”

“I’m sorry… ”  I said again.

She put on her cook apron.

“It’s okay, sir.”

She started to cook. I sat at the table, looking at the newspaper. The headlines were: “Half Destruction of the Tower! Saved by a Mystery…” I read the rest that said people saw me, Val, and Meleney, but they couldn’t see our faces. It only said: “People saw other people rescuing a man.”

“The tower needle was about to fall, until all of sudden, bang! With the explosion, the needle was back to the top!” a witness said.

The newspaper bolded the witness’s name, Otis Robertson.

I’ve heard that name before, somewhere. He had to do something with the agents, but I don’t remember much.

It was already 10:45 am, and Meleney wasn’t up yet! I had cancelled work because of the attack. I decided enough was enough. Meleney and I were supposed to work together and see what Val’s criminal record was, or anything at all about what happened.

I walked downstairs. I saw wires on the ground. Water spilled, and I avoided the electric waters. I got to the stairs and saw a small blood trail led to the stairs.

“Oh god… ”

I touched the stairs. My slippers were on the first floor. The blood was cold. Something happened last night. I got to where Val was sleeping, the rehabilitation bed. It was empty. He was gone.

I looked in the other room. There was more blood there. I looked at the couch, and blood piles dripped from the couch where Meleney was sleeping. Her hand was the only thing I could see from the door. Her hand was dripped with blood, still falling. Her white nail polish was now with red strips of blood.

I ran over. Her corpse lay there, her mouth slightly opened. Her chest bled blood still. Her mouth also had blood in it, spilling. I grabbed her, my hands covered in her blood.

Meleney!” I screamed, echoing through the whole apartment.

I held my cheek next her bloody one. My hot tears, boiling, fell on her blood.

***

Police came to the sight. Valentine’s fingerprints were found on her chest and the knife. This knife said something on it: “2X9.” The writing was made of blood. It was written everywhere on the walls and on her.

I felt horrible. It was my fault that I left her alone down there with a maybe-killer. I needed to fix this somehow. I looked through my things, trying to find something with time.

“God dang it!” I yelled, crashing all the things hanging from the wall.

They fell and broke. I put on my suit, took out the watch, and tapped it. Time froze with the shockwave. I walked out, closing the door, and looked out the window. I saw police about to drive away with the body. I knew it would be all over the news in just a few minutes. I wondered if I would stay frozen in time forever, trying to make it look like I didn’t just disappear, but I did. Suddenly, I heard a knock on the door.

But time was frozen. No one could move!

I opened the door, and suddenly I was kicked to the ground. A knife missed me by an inch. It was the same one, but this one had thin, very light blues line all over it as if it was vains of blue blood, glowing. I looked up.

It was Val!

“Why?! Why did you kill her?!”

“It’s all part of the plan. You’ll find out, unless you wanna join her.”

I flipped up, grabbing the knife. I threw the knife, but it moved with normal time, very, very slowly. As I looked at the knife, he kicked me down. He kicked me again, against the window. The window started to crack, and the real time started to come back. He threw four large, glowing spheres. Two of them stuck my hands to the window, and the other two stuck my feet to the glass.

“I’m sorry Dave… if you can’t help me, I can’t help you.”

One last kick shattered the glass. I fell in the normal time, but everything surrounding me was still frozen. I was about to hit the ground, until the sticky substance that was supposed to glue things together came out and stuck to the wall. It was like Spiderman! I swung and shattered the windows. Val was about to stab Meredith in the neck.

“Look who’s back!”

He turned around. I grabbed his wrist, throwing him across the table. The table started to flip in frozen time. I turned on normal time. He fell and the table crashed on him. Meredith screamed, hiding behind the island in the kitchen. I grabbed his neck.

I would have said, “No one kills my Mel!” But instead, I threw him out the window. His body crashed on the ground. My face was red with anger, until Meredith grabbed a gun and shot. The bullet hit my back.

 

Chapter Four: Too Many Davids

I opened my eyes. I was lying on the ground of the roof. The needle was still starting to fall. Suddenly I got up and saw me and Meleney! The same actions of what happened last night.

“Holy…!” I screamed. Meleney and I looked at me. “Uhh…”

Suddenly the fireworks exploded.
“Umm… David? Why is there another one of you…?”

“I have no idea…”

They took a long look, and a small moment of silence fell over time.

“I’m you! From the future… ” I started. “And I have come–”

The shockwave shocked me. My watch exploded in my face, burning me in normal time somehow.

I woke up on the street of where the building was. It was when the explosion happened, again! I saw the limo, seeing the door to the building open. I went inside the limo, trying to turn it on. After a while, I took out a gun from the limo.

“I don’t remember having this…” I said, looking at it.

It had a glowing electric ball inside. I tapped the button. It shattered the limo windows and sent out a giant blue portal. I got out of the car and looked at the portal. I ran through it, hitting myself.

“David –” Meleney was about to finish her sentence.

“Another me?!” My past-past self said.

“Oh god.” My past self said.

Everything wasn’t making any sense.

“Drop Val! Quick!” I said, “He’s going to kill you, Mel!”

“Seriously? Even your future self calls me Mel?!”

I noticed that I was duplicating. I grabbed the fireworks from underneath the needle. Suddenly, bang! It exploded, again.

I woke, again. I got into the car. My other self, who I now called David two, took the gun. I turned on the car.

“Watch out, me!” I yelled.

David two jumped into the portal before me. The car went through it too.

“David why –” Meleney was about to finish her sentence.

David two was about to yell, “Drop Val, Mel!” But all he could get to was “Drop–” before I crushed him with the car by ‘accident’. I ran out.

“Drop him, Meleney!” I yelled. She looked at me. All of a sudden, David two grabbed the fireworks. I ran to him to push him away, but the fireworks hit Meleney and exploded.

“God dang it!” I yelled.
“Great job, Me three…”

“Mel!” the original me yelled.

With Val in her arms, they both hit the ground in normal time. I took out a gun from the car. It was finally a normal gun. I shot David one and two, along with me.

I woke up on the 2700th floor, running up to the floor where everything was happening. Once I got up there, David one, two, and three were dead. The original me was crying, turning on normal time. The needle started to fall in normal time. The gun lay on the ground. I picked it up and shot myself again.

I finally woke up on top of myself on the roof.

“Ahh! Future-future me?!” David one screamed, standing up.

I landed on my face.

“God dang it, me,” I kicked him to the ground.  

I grabbed the gun from David three’s hand and shot David two. The fireworks were about to explode. Finally, I grabbed them and let them out into the air. I grabbed Meleney’s wrist and tightened it, not caring if she was in pain. I had enough of this. Suddenly, someone shot me!

I landed on the car, going through the portal.

“Meleney! Please! Let go of Val, he’s going to kill you, and maybe even kill me!”

“But, I haven’t told anyone but –”

“He’s your uncle!” David three yelled.

“They are from the future, Meleney…”

“Yeah, trust us…”

She did nothing for a while, but then finally let him go. All of us let a sigh of relief. All of a sudden, everything turned white. A large light hit all of us.

I finally woke up in bed. The curtains opened like normal. Meredith was already cooking. I stared at her, knowing that she would kill me, but not knowing when.

“Good morning Dave…” Meleney walked out of the doorway.

I looked at her, just to make sure. I said nothing but just hugged her.

“Wow! What happened? Why are you hugging me…?”

All of sudden she hugged me back. A tear fell from my eye. Meredith got up from sitting. I looked over, pressing my watch just in time. Her gun was about to shoot. I could see the sparks slowly moving. I grabbed the bullet and aimed it at her. Real time came back, and she was dead.

 

Chapter Five: Life Again

It was twenty years after the attack of Val. I moved to the Berkshires, Massachusetts with Meleney. We had two kids, Harrison and Dakota. The small house is right in the middle of the woods, far away from the tower.

I knew I wouldn’t ever join them again. My company is now owned by a woman named Ava Neumaier. She’s now the richest person in the world. I went all the way down to the fifteenth, but that doesn’t matter to me. Harrison is now sixteen and is working for Ava. Dakota is only twelve but is learning fast from her mother. Meleney stays at home with me. We are not ‘secret agents’ anymore. We’re known as the “Time Watchers”. We help with time, but crime has gone down.

But when I thought that everything would be normal, I was wrong again.

On 2037, April 23rd, someone named Oliver Shakins was messing with time somehow.

“I’ll go get him, It’ll be easy…”

“Dave, you can’t do everything on your own.”

“I just want to get rid of him. Besides, I don’t want the thing with the tower and you with Val to happen again!”

“Fine, but be safe. Dinner’s at seven, and the kids are coming at four.”  

“I will.”

I grabbed the suit and my watch. I ran into the ‘time car’. It opened a portal, not knowing where it would go. The car opens a portal to whenever there is a problem in time. I was still going through when everything started to turn red. I looked around, when suddenly, a large flash of light blinded me.

***

I woke in a small cottage. It was my house when I was little. It was my childhood. I saw me, my sister, and my dad. It was the day when my sister was taken. Her name was Meleney, like my wife. That’s one of the reasons I married her. My sister was taken by the government. I never knew why. But I think I now know. It —

“Why hello, David…”

It was Oliver. He was wearing a black suit.
“Why? Why did you send me here?”

“So you could learn the truth…”

“The truth?”

“Meleney, she was taken because…”

“Because she was ‘out of this world’,” I said, looking down.

“No, because her time powers were not from a watch, or suit. It was in her blood. She was dangerous…”

“How do you know?”

“Because I helped to take her. I was the head chief.”

I knew it! I said in my mind. That’s where I heard his name. He was the head chief for the government and specialized in time.

“Your wife…”

“You do not bring my wife into this conversation.”

“Look…”

A table appeared out of nowhere. He put a slip out of his pocket. It said: “Meleney Johnson, born 1971, Mother: Alexis Delhi. Father: Willie Johnson.”

I looked up at him. I grabbed it, starting to cry. My stomach turned, everything twisted. Memories of Mel, destroyed. A garbage can appeared.

“If you need to, you can –”

I threw up into the trash, gagging every moment, my lunch from yesterday, and the dinner dates all away from my body. I looked around, dizzy, and food came up again, all over the table this time. I grabbed a gun, still dizzy. My hand was shaking, along with the gun.

“Shoot me, Dave. I served my purpose. You killed my mother. I’ll meet her in heaven.”

The gunshot pierced through him. All of sudden, everything started to go away, glitching.

I got in the car, looking at the picture of Meleney. Driving away, I felt sick again. I got home, holding the slip. I put it on the table. I watched as she opened the slip.

“Honey, what’s this?”

“Meleney Johnson…?” I said, grabbing a beer.

“My last name is Forder, you know that!”

“The government erased your mind and made you Meleney Forder…”

“Oh my god!” She said, walking to the kitchen. She threw up in the trash as well, “I never knew!”

“You didn’t?”

“What if I did? What would that have done?”

I looked at her. I walked outside, getting the time car. I drove away, watching the woods leave. I drove up the mountain. I went to the top, grabbing the portal gun. I shot it, the portal opened behind me. I watched the sunset, and the large Cogsworth building. It shone in my eyes.

I froze time. When I grabbed the beer, I also grabbed her watch. It would make her time normal. The government tore out her powers when she was young. When they extracted the time blood, they put it in her watch. I pushed the car into the portal. It slowly fell.

Before I went in, I threw the beer. I never drank it. I never would. I took the pictures of my children. I tore them out with the glass. The portal led to 1979, when all of it began. When Meleney was taken. I couldn’t have let her marry me. I couldn’t have let them take her.

 

Living

Allen walked in unknowingly. He was grinning, feeling particularly happy for no reason at all. But he stopped when he saw Betty, who was lying on a bed, looking pale and her wrists bloody. He ran to her side.

“What is it? What happened? Are you okay? Wait, don’t answer that, you should save your strength. I should get a nurse-”

“Al-Allen,” she gasped, clearly struggling to speak.

She was definitely in pain. How much, Allen didn’t know. He grasped her hand.

“I’m right here. It’s okay, you’re going to be okay — ”

“You — ” she paused as she coughed and struggled to breathe, “You love me, Allen.”

“Of course I do, but I don’t understand what that has to do with what’s wrong with you.”

“It… it hurt. But now –” she paused and coughed, ”I’m not… not hurting anymore.”

“But you’re dying! I don’t understand, Betty!”

“I’m sorry. There’s noth — ” she took a moment and tried to take deep breath, “nothing left. Nothing left in me.”

Allen choked on the oncoming rush of tears.

“Betty… please… hold on for me. Please, just save your energy. Don’t talk, I’ll find a nurse or something. Just please, you can’t let it have you. You know you can stop it. You know you can fight back. Why are you letting it win?”

“I c-can’t fight anymore. I’ve run out of fight.”

In that moment, Allen seemed to forget Betty was dying, and one question simply burned in his mind as he started to sob.

“Don’t-don’t you love me?” he stuttered, his voice shaking.

Betty took his hand and put it on her face, and he felt her tears roll down her face underneath his fingers.

“That’s… that’s exactly it.” She paused to take a few shaking, rattling breaths. “I held on for you. But I can’t hold on anymore. All my fight I put into loving you.”

“It’s not that hard to love.”

Betty smiled a tragic smile and kissed his hand.

“It’s not hard to love, but it is that hard to live.”

She closed her eyes. The world stopped existing. It stopped turning, people stopped breathing, and Allen barely felt like he was there. He didn’t feel himself sobbing and screaming and kicking and begging and running as far, far away as possible from her body.

He didn’t feel himself run into series of nurses and doctors as they realized what had happened and came rushing into the room to see Betty’s body. He ran past them, kicking and screaming and sobbing and struggling to breathe, barely seeing where he was going as his eyes blurred painfully with tears. He left the hospital and found a bar nearby. He didn’t feel himself drink until he had passed out.

He didn’t feel himself begin to slip away from the brink of reality. He didn’t feel after the moment that Betty’s heart stopped beating, her lungs stopped breathing, her eyes stopped blinking, her mouth stopped kissing, her feet stop running, her hands stopped holding his, that she stopped loving.

Not stopped loving — love lasts after death.

The moment he couldn’t love her anymore because when they say love ends after death, they mean that wherever the dead person is, they can still love the person that’s alive.

But how can you love someone who doesn’t exist anymore?

***

Betty had just set a new record too. It had been almost six months since she had cut herself.

She was so close to being better, but that was the point, wasn’t it?

You’re so close to the end, when all of a sudden —

Allen drank himself to oblivion.

The beer bottle and the razor had become his and Betty’s demons. Before they thought they were a refuge that they could always go back to. They always knew they would be there and knew if they did go to them, everything would be okay. Allen knew when he was drunk, nothing else mattered. Betty knew that if she cut, she’d be dead and nothing else would matter.

But after being together, instead of wanting to go to the beer bottle and the razor, they hated them. They were so happy together. They hated the idea of their illness torturing them. They hated that death and mental destruction. They had started seeing the bottle and the razor as demons that taunted them. Now, the beer bottle was glued to Allen’s hand again. He didn’t care. All he did was drink. He didn’t eat, he didn’t sleep, he didn’t talk to other people, he just sat in a corner and drank.

His world had become the bottom of the bottle, trapped inside its interior. He tried to get out, but he couldn’t climb up the bottle. He was trapped.

Trapped in endless loops of drinking and being reminded of tiny details that made him think of Betty.

Drawings on the bottle label would make him think about when she made him read that book on Impressionists, or when the cool liquid touched his lips, he thought about how it felt when she kissed him.

The rest of the world didn’t touch him. Nothing touched him but these minor, small things about Betty.

***

“Would Betty want you to drink?”

That was the first sentence someone said to him after Betty died that he actually took in.

“What?” he replied softly.

His sister, Kira, who had been the one talking to him at the moment, and the one who had raised this notion that somewhat made Allen re-enter reality, was practically stunned that her brother had responded to her. She cleared her throat and repeated the question.

“Would Betty want you to start drinking again? I mean, if you were the one who –” she struggled to not say the d-word, “passed away, would you want her to start cutting again after?”

For a brief moment, Allen thought about reacting negatively towards his sister for asking such a painful question so soon after Betty had died. But Allen knew she just said that because she was desperate and needed him to stop drinking, so she was trying every tactic she could until she could find one that worked to convince Allen he had to stop drinking. (Even though Allen knew he wasn’t going to, at least not anytime soon.) So he put that thought aside and thought back. He knew the right answer. The right answer was of course not. He wanted Betty to be happy. He wanted her to live a full life and one day move out of the hospital, find someone else, and live the rest of her life happily.

But Allen knew what answer was inside his head, which is that if he was the one who died and Betty was grieving him, he would want her to start cutting again. Because he knew without Betty, he couldn’t win this battle against the bottles. He couldn’t overcome it. And he wished he had been the same thing to her, her support in the battle against the razor. But she had left him, and he knew the truth: she didn’t really love him after all.

So even though it was a truly awful, awful thing to want, he knew the answer was yes, because it would mean that Betty really had loved him after all.

But did that mean he didn’t really love her? Did he only love her because he thought she loved him?

If the answer was yes, then he wouldn’t be drinking.

So he did love her, he loved her so much, he hated himself. He loved her so much, he hated her.

So that’s why he drank.

***

Love was dangerous. Love was even more dangerous than the stupid bottles. Love was even more harmful to himself than drinking.

If he hadn’t fallen in love, then he wouldn’t be falling down this hole.

If he hadn’t fallen in love, then he would have kept drinking and be dead already. And that was what he wanted.

He didn’t care it was selfish, he’d been fighting for long enough. Betty died selfishly, not caring about how Allen would be left after. So why couldn’t Allen do the same?

Maybe he was braver than her. Or maybe being with her had taught him to be braver than her, to be less selfish than her. Maybe her death was a lesson to him to keep fighting, to not let the bottles win. Was that why she gave in?

Did she know that the two of them was only a temporary fix, and that if she was gone, it would motivate him to be better than her?

Did she actually care about him that much? Or was it the very small part of Allen’s mind that did know his sisters loved him and would miss him if he died, so he was trying to convince himself to keep living?

Allen knew that was stupid. His sisters didn’t love him. They didn’t need him. Kira and Tasha were happy. Kira was engaged to her girlfriend, who she simply adored, and Tasha was about to graduate medical school. They didn’t need him. It was egotistical to think they needed him.

Maybe he needed them. Maybe he had been trying to fool himself that they needed him, but in reality, he needed them more than he thought. Had he been leaning on Betty to try to forget about his sisters, knowing it was only a matter of time before they forgot about him, because they didn’t need him? Did he ever really love Betty?

***

What did love mean?

What did death mean?

What did anything mean?

Why did Allen exist?

What was he supposed to do?

What was next? Questioning everything he’d ever known? Trying to find someone to blame? Trying to understand his feelings about the people around him? Trying to figure out a way to die? Trying to pick himself up again and recover? Try to stay sober?

This was the dark hole he’d been falling down, drowning i