Ancient Eyes

I woke up in a hot sweat. I had heard it again! It was so clear this time, so profound a sensation, I knew it had to be coming from within the room. I bolted upright, shouting at the top of my lungs, “WHAT DO YOU WANT WITH MY BLOODY EYEBROWS, YA GREASY PIG!”

I sat quietly in my room awaiting an answer, when suddenly I heard a low creaking noise coming from the depths of my friend’s basement. My blood went cold as ice as I awaited the coming battle. I could hear heavy footsteps getting closer, closer, when suddenly out of the dark abyss, came a hairy, foul-smelling beast from beyond time!

“What’s the yelling about,” said my roommate Bob.

“Well, for one thing, you need to shower,” I said, wrinkling my nose.

“You had another nightmare, didn’t you,” said Bob.

“Yup,” I replied.

“You have to stop reading Lovecraft before bed,” Bob said with a hint of irritation in his voice.

“I know, I know. It just seems so real to me sometimes.”

“This is the ninth time this month,” Bob complained. “I haven’t gotten a full night’s rest in almost a fortnight.”

I glanced towards the clock. It was exactly 3:33 in the morning, the same time that I had woken up the past couple of weeks.

A pot of tea warmed on the stove as I sat with Bob and discussed how to resolve this problem of mine.

“You could see a therapist about it,” said Bob.

“That’s too expensive,” I replied.

“You could just stay away from anything having to do with the occult for now,” suggested Bob.

“NEVER!” I exclaimed. “And that’s final.”

“How about we just talk about it in the morning,” Bob tiredly replied.

I wandered back to my room in the basement, painfully aware of the cold, dark emptiness of it. I wandered to my bed and hugged my Cthulhu plush. I shut my eyes and tried to go to sleep. No sooner had I shut my eyes than I heard the voice again, so clear, so pungent and robust, and in that moment I knew what I had to do.

Not a bad look, I thought to myself after shaving them off. I had slashed them with such haste that my forehead now had many small wounds upon it (I was never especially good at shaving). Are you happy now, I thought. I heard a resounding, No. I panicked. I ran. I felt my thoughts being scattered across the infinite cosmos. I needed to go somewhere, somewhere where they couldn’t find me! I tripped, skidding across the smooth wood floor and slamming my head against the grand piano in the corner. I could feel myself scattering and flames forming around me and the piano. I looked up and saw nothing more than the great eyebrowed old one looking down on me in shame!

The End… Or is it

 

Disney Breaking Out (Part One)

          

Prologue: Before the Time

Holly ordered her sweet peppermint hot chocolate after waiting in the line for way too long. She settled down in her usual spot for the last ten years. The peaceful corner table with quiet music was what she loved about her special time in the cafe. If it were up to Holly, she would spend every moment at her magical reflecting table. Every memory, every moment of happiness, fear, and anger, led up to this one spot.
She began with how it started. In the beginning — she remembered.

 

Chapter One: The Journey to the True Kingdom

Holly and her parents had been preparing for their home-away-from-home journey for five weeks and counting. Holly packed her red with black polka dot duffle bag to the fullest. She arranged her bow shaped purse perfectly with her dearest belongings. She placed her sixteen stuffed animals against the leather backseat. She fluffed her pink and black skirt, perfected her bow, and hopped in the car next to her many stuffed siblings. Mrs. and Mr. Casco smiled at their daughter as she opened her fairy tale book at the start of driving.

“Ya ready?” Her mom, Daisy, smiled warmly. She too was dressed up, along with Mr. Casco. Christopher, Holly’s hardworking dad, put his honeycomb-shaped key into the car. And without another word, the bright red car with a Mickey and Minnie shape engraved in the windshield drove slowly out of the parking spot. I am sure you can tell the Cascos were huge Disney fans.

Holly didn’t mind the long trip to Disneyland. She, in fact, enjoyed it. She couldn’t wait to get there, though. She daydreamed about the rides and characters and hot cocoa. She loved the Matterhorn, the big, hairy monster with yellow, glowing eyes She remembered the story her dad told her when she was young and scared of him. The monster was Harold, and all of his growling was about the fact that he had no chocolate chip cookies. The story made Holly smile.

Next, she imagined the Nemo ride with the colorful coral and fish moving underwater. She remembered the story her mom had told her about being a “mermaid” and sitting on the rocks under the monorail. Back then, when she was a little girl, the managers of Disneyland had real women dress up as mermaids. Holly wished she could have been a mermaid. Holly, through her Minnie Mouse dress and twinkling brown-golden eyes, almost envied her mom for her childhood in Los Angeles.

Mrs. Casco barely talked about living by Disneyland. Disneyland had always been magical to Holly. How? She never knew how the magic worked. The sensation of lighting the Christmas tree at night and Mickey’s Halloween party made her breathless. Every single Halloween, Holly dressed up as Minnie. In fact, she had just stopped dressing up last year as the original Disney characters because a candy giver called her “sweetie.” Holly smiled at the funny explanation of her true age. She just loved Disney! There wasn’t another thought about it.

If it were up to her, Holly would stay six months at Disneyland. The Cascos were staying only sixteen days. Another reason why Holly brought sixteen of her many Minnies and Mickeys. She would bring one stuffed friend each day. She held her Hawaiian Minnie, Golf Mickey, Fishing Mickey, Christmas Minnie, Valentine’s Day Minnie, Easter Minnie, and Christmas Mickey closer, looking back at her other eight stuffed siblings. She made a list of whom she would bring in on what day in her Minnie notebook.

The car flew by the never-ending plains and farmland. Her dad stopped at a little fruit shed and got a carton of strawberries and other sustenance for the drive. Her brother grabbed several strawberries as if to say to Holly, “And this is for taking up the entire back seat with your stuffed animals!”

Tryvis was Holly’s older brother. He was squished up against the door of the car, and whenever the car turned and the animals slid, he would flick them away. Tryvis, unlike the rest of the family, was not a Disney fan. He smirked at Holly and shoved the juicy berries into his saliva-filled mouth. Holly tried to ignore him.

Tryvis wasn’t looking forward to the “short” trip. Sixteen days! Barely enough time to get everything done!

Why did the Cascos stay so long? Holly’s parents did a really good job at covering it up. Well, Mrs. Casco’s maiden name was Disney. Raymond Arnold Disney was her father.

Holly stretched her legs as she slipped out of the car, four hundred miles away from home. Tryvis whined impatiently as Holly grabbed her stuffed animals. He shut the door behind them. The bright moon shone, and Holly could swear she saw three Mickey Mouse-shaped craters. The Disneyland adventure had begun.

The three Disney fans and one annoyed brother opened the door to the private hotel. Holly jumped onto her bed and arranged her belongings in her room. The room had three Disney-themed bedrooms and one and a half bathrooms. The balcony held exquisite views overlooking the Matterhorn and a couple other rides from three floors up. Holly watched the moon and stars shine down and illuminate the pleasant sight of several people here and there in nighttime Disneyland. The sight was amazing, and while Holly had seen it before, it never ceased to amaze her.

Holly took out her ballerina Minnie and held her out in the wind as if she were dancing. “Not to interrupt — whatever that is… ” Tryvis snarled at her, disguised with the ballerina dancing. “But it is time for a late dinner.” He stalked away.

Neither Holly nor her parents had any idea how Tryvis went wrong. He had been a very happy baby, almost too happy. And then one day, it was as if all his joy had been sucked out of him. That day was when four-year-old Holly started talking about her adventures. Everyone seemed to love the happy girl, and when she told Tryvis her stories, he snarled as she turned away.

Daisy and Christopher, Holly’s parents, set up the pizza and sweet lemonade onto the wooden table. Holly savored the fresh pineapple and olives on the pizza. She couldn’t wait to get on the rides at Disneyland the next morning. You see, it was Holly’s job to test all of the rides early, early in the morning, or deep into the night. Don’t tell me you have never heard of her!

Every time Disney cancels fireworks, it is not because of high winds. It is because Holly needs more ride testing time. Every other week, when the park closes down two hours early, that is all the work of Holly. Every time Holly visits the park, the rides become a little bit safer.

***

Holly dreamed of pixies, disappearing cats, a bear with a thirst for honey, and an unusual transformation into a frog. Holly’s imagination was magic. Her kindness was her very own magic. And her favorite thing in the world was magic Disneyland.

Whether it was the magical fireworks of Disneyland or it was the sweet Tigger Tails with soft caramel wrapped around chocolate and marshmallow, everyone who left Disneyland came back for more of their favorite things. Everyone wanted to experience the magic of the characters or the creative roller coasters. Everyone wanted to meet a graceful fairy or travel underwater into the colorful world of an orange and white fish and his friends. That morning, when Holly awoke, she spied her brother snoring noisily, a bit of drool slipping down his right cheek. She quickly wrote a note in her neat handwriting to her parents, explaining why she was leaving so early:

 

My dearest parents,

I am extremely sorry that I am leaving so early. But as you know, duty calls! I am getting a head start on testing all the rides, and if I have time, some restaurants. I do hope you don’t mind, but fifteen days and six and a half hours will go by quickly. And the time is still ticking! I will be back for dinner and find a nice place to eat lunch. I’ll get you a Minnie, Mickey, and Pluto keychain!

Your sweet, loving daughter

P.S. Tell Tryvis that his favorite characters will make their appearance in a couple hours, so tell him to not miss them!

 

She wrote the last part hastily, hoping that Tryvis would for once enjoy his Disneyland trip. He would sleep forever and just lie in bed, thinking about crazy, disastrous stuff. For Holly, it was the opposite. She wished she could simply live in the Matterhorn in the spiraling “icy” tunnels with Herold. She and Herold could be besties because they both loved chocolate chip cookies! In fact, Herold’s craving for chocolate chip cookies could melt the plastic coating right off of his skin and bring him to the nearest cookie stand.

Holly pressed the note up against her mom and dad’s door. She hoped they wouldn’t worry. She skipped cheerfully down the hall leading to the door of the fancy condo, careful not to awake any other special guests. While walking to the secret entrance into Disneyland, she tripped on a tiny, sticky blue rock. The blue rock was a bit uneven and almost had a furry texture. From the beginning of Holly’s trip, she had felt a feeling of distress and mistakenness. She placed the tiny but sharp rock back on the ground and kicked it playfully down the pathway, unaware of her interference. The bushes shook silently as several pairs of eyes appeared on both sides. Holly continued down the path, but as happy, harmless, and innocent she had been, that record was broken. Holly had changed the natural order of effects without meaning to.

Holly loved, loved Disney. She lived for Disney. She was a Disney. So how come she had done something that the most wanted villain would have done? She had been the worst villain in all time without meaning to be.

***

“Hi, Mom. Hi, Dad. How are you?” She looked around. Tryvis was in bed, Mom was packing her purse for dinner, and Holly’s dad was checking his watch impatiently by the door. Then, Holly looked at Tryvis. “How were the characters? Which ones did you see? What did they do? Did you tell them that you were descended from the great Raymond Disney? Of course they probably already know because all Disney characters can tell!” She held her fist up high and looked proud to have been descended from a Disney.

“Oh… it was great. They could totally tell that I was a Disney. They wouldn’t keep their hands off of me. I was so busy that I saw all of them.” Holly looked pleased. Then, Tryvis continued, “I was probably way busier than you! The characters even held a parade just for me because I am a Disney.” Holly looked as if she had just seen a unicorn.

“Wow, I wish I could have been there.” Holly’s parents looked confused.

“You dumbo! I was in bed all day thinking about how trusting you are! You’d believe anything and everything. One day, it’s going to get you in trouble no one will be able to get you out of — not even Mickey Mouse!” He smirked.

“So, you didn’t even see any characters. I wrote part of the note just for you… ” Holly squeaked like a tiny mouse at her rude brother. Tryvis ignored her and rolled over in bed. He reached for his bouncy shaped baseball that lit up and turned it thrice in hand, as if debating if he should throw it at someone.

Holly dressed in her nicest clothes. She smiled cheekily at Tryvis, making him scowl harder. His mouth started to get tired of the tight face, so he fell backward into the soft, luxurious pillows, exhausted from doing nothing all day. Holly tried to cram as much in as possible during the Disneyland trip, while Tryvis was just trying to get through the rough days of happiness and magic. Truly, the Casco younger sister and older brother, Holly and Tryvis, were almost exact opposites. Their only similarity was how they both looked out for each other, even if they would never admit it. Tryvis always wanted his sister safe, even if he treated her badly. Because in the very end, they were family.

As Holly and Mr. and Mrs. Casco headed out the door, Holly wondered why her brother wasn’t coming. She felt bad for his somber mood, but it wasn’t her fault. Or was it? On the walk over, Holly skipped and looked overhead at the monorail track and spied several fireworks going off as cheers rose around them. She continued walking over to Blue Bayou while the crowds were gone. The three family members had a good time looking at the Pirates of the Caribbean boats, talking, and eating a scrumptious dinner.

Meanwhile, Tryvis got into some trouble of his own. He had been looking out the porch balcony, one floor up. He was spying on his family as they walked down the boulevard, hand in hand, and wished either he was happy with them or a storm picked them up and brought them to the Arctic where they would freeze to death. He was angry with himself and in despair, for he couldn’t start being all sunshine and rainbows all of a sudden like Holly! Suddenly, a bright, shining light illuminated the dull room. He turned around and tripped on his skateboard, blinded by the light. On the floor, he sat up and pressed his hand against throbbing head. He shook his head in anger and embarrassment. He crept slowly on hands and knees up to his bed and peeked up. He immediately fell backward into his back. Hesitantly, he crawled around to the right of the bed and grabbed the illuminated, rounded, mysterious object. It felt familiar. He could already realize that someone was trying to interact with him through one of his objects. But who was the question, and why this object? Things were getting heavy and mysterious, and with Tryvis’ somber record, who could he ask or cry to for help? Tryvis crouched down, object in hand, and reached open-fingered toward the light source.

***

Holly checked her Minnie Mouse watch. “Oh my! It is time to go check some more rides! Doodle-dooh!” She skipped off in ambush of fun. On the way there, she got an ice cream sandwich. She opened the wrapper, expecting a regular Mickey shaped cookie, but instead a Mickey with fangs holding a tiny staff appeared before her. She looked confused. “It isn’t Halloween!” she murmured under her breath. After eating a bit of her tart ice cream sandwich, she didn’t think much of the funny shaped Mickey. This was only the start of them taking the glory from Him. I’ll give you a hint. Him is the big boss. The one that everyone knows about — the one that’s all powerful — Him.

 

Chapter Two: True Disaster Eats Mice Cheese

Hints gathered up and layered upon layer upon layer. Holly took several hours just to try to piece together what was happening to the magic. Babies started crying at Mickey’s touch. Even the snickerdoodle and chocolate cookies were losing their magic. As a result, Holly got up earlier and earlier with each day to come. And on the eighth day, Holly was up by four and going to bed at nine. Every day, she would pace around the area where she found the sticky, blue little rock. “It has to be a sign, or a warning, or even a secret passage!” Holly would whisper to herself.

Not all of this mystery was new or bad to Holly. She enjoyed suspense and trying to figure out what was happening in the magical kingdom. Day after day, guests stopped piling in, and rumor had it the movie makers of Mickey’s Darkta Holiday Cruise, the new movie, had gone dark. Everyone, even Holly’s mom and dad, seemed not to notice how dark Disneyland had become. Holly didn’t have really any real answers until the eighth day of Holly’s trip.

While she was pacing, something extraordinary happened. She slipped on another one of those sticky rocks. She fell on her knees, head facing the floor. She bent down to pick it up, and as she tilted her head upwards, a fur ball made a sneeze. As she opened her eyes… big, black, adorable eyes stared back at her. She fell backwards, again and opened just one eye. Can it be? She hesitantly rubbed the blue alien. Stitch had come for help.

***

Tryvis continued to hold the bright ball in his left hand.

“Oh, Tryvis! What a handsome boy.” A mysterious, evil voice filed through the room. A voice that just screamed disaster and evil. This voice tried to butter Tryvis up, making her seem to tell her wicked truth. “I can see why your sister is all happy and jolly. She is very sick. She has too much happiness and goodness. The illness makes her a stealer. She stole your happiness! You can’t let her do that!”

Tryvis looked horror-struck. He always wanted the best for his sister, except now, because of the sickness. She was stealing his happiness. At first, he looked scared and worried for his little sister, and then greed and hatred filled his face. He wanted his happiness back! “What do I do?” Tryvis looked determinedly at the little ball.

“Oh! I just knew I could count on you to save us! What a brave, brave, boy! Your sister hasn’t only been stealing your happiness, she has been stealing ours too!” A softer voice made a sad whimper, but then she went on. “Please help us!” A sound of bubbles trickled out of the ball as a purple hand reached out of the ball, signaling an arrangement.

“Do we have a deal?” crackled a purple monster. Tryvis shook the slippery hand without hesitation.

Nearly a mile away, Ursula pressed the “off” button next to her crystal ball as she crackled and sneered and snickered evilly. She had a deal, a deal to make evil back in the movie business. A deal to completely destroy the minion — Tryvis.

Ursula grabbed her shellphone and headed into the poor connection boot. “Guess what, we’re in business.” An evil crow made an obnoxious sound in the background.

“Now, now, Diaval. This time, we’ll praise Chernabog in triumph. We are going to use the boy. He is foolish enough to trust that ocean lizard!” She giggled violently up into the heavens. She wrapped her crippled fingers around the heavy trison bar, waiting for the lightning bolt symbol. She stroked Diaval evilly, holding her staff. Her horns struck up jaggedly, making a fearsome shadow.

The dark witch with dark magic and with a dark plan strode around to the prison bench, waiting. The ugly witch stared at the clock, knowing that the Cascos had been at Disneyland for two days. She revealed her palm, trying to get a burst of evil magic. “Oh, well.” The unique design of her very own prison restrained the witch’s magic. All that she could conjure was a little dusty wind of yellow-green.

“Oh guard! I see a rat! Get it away from me!”

“Well, he might just bite out all of the evil from you. And again, there is too much evil for just one rat to devour.” The Evil One rolled her eyes. “I’m coming… ” He tilted his head almost through the bars, spying for the little rascal. Meanwhile, Diaval scuttled along the ground. The guard clearly wasn’t smart. The dim light didn’t help, along with the black bars. While he was leaning down, the gloomy witch snatched the keys from the guard’s waist. He was so busy looking for the rat that he didn’t even notice her grabbing his keys.

“Oh my! I think it flew up to the ceiling!”

“That’s impossible!” Maleficent quickly unlatched the prison door. She stepped out into the deserted hallway and placed a spell under the guard.

“Nothing happened,” the mysterious witch cited.

“Nothing happened… ” the guard repeated.

“Maleficent is still in prison.”

“Maleficent is still in prison.”

“Good, good — good.” Maleficent smiled evilly.

“Good, good — good.”

“No! Don’t repeat any more!”

“No — don’t — ”

“Ugh. Useless.” The Evil One relatched the door, keys in hand.

The useless guard awoke and said, “I just had the strangest dream!” He shook his head and stood his post again.

Diaval crowded approvingly. Maleficent stroked him and muttered, “Brainless.”

***

Holly peered expectantly at Stitch, waiting for his quiet response. Holly wiped her brow after seven hours of sleep last night. Her time to sleep went lower and lower, for she was eight days into the trip. Stitch eagerly took Holly’s hand and pulled her close to the first rock. He tried to touch the original rock that Holly had first kicked. An invisible force blocked Snitch’s hand.

Stitch motioned towards Holly’s hand. She picked up the rock carefully. “Wh-what? I don’t understand!” Holly stared at Stitch in the eye, placed his paw in both of her hands, and spoke convincingly. “I am going to figure this out. Whatever evil, whatever is happening here — I will figure it out.” Snitch looked sympathetically at Holly and pulled her over towards a bush. She tried to back away, afraid of what terrors or mishaps she might find. Curiosity always got the best of her.

She pushed back a couple of leaves and found an unrecognizable bear. His red shirt was ripped on the side. His fur and short tail was ruffled. He clutched his broken honey pots — and yet he greeted Holly with some sort of a smile. “Oh, Pooh bear… what happened?”

“Christopher Robin wasn’t able to save me this time,” he said in his poor, soft voice he always had. “She knows that it is out of place. She knows her time has come. You must put it right! And if you don’t — ” Pooh’s eyes grew fearful, yet Holly looked confused.

“Who? What back? How do I do it!” Holly huddled around Pooh, nearly begging for information. Pooh’s face drained of color and held his fist against his forehead, as if an invisible force withheld his speech. Holly, on the edge of her seat for information, looked back at Stitch, but he simply shrugged. It was as if Stitch had completely forgotten the topic that they were talking about. Holly’s eyes went big, and Pooh hung his head.

“It restrains me. I can’t say. I’m not able to! The same reason Stitch couldn’t!” He tried to hint, but his paws formed back into a stressful fist. Holly looked sympathetically at Pooh but disappeared behind the bush, heading back to the hotel.

“Oh, bother.” Pooh was left, hands still holding his head against his ripped red shirt.

Holly made it back for a lunch with her parents, and yet, Tryvis wasn’t at home. He must have run an errand, she guessed. Half an hour later, with mud on his boots, Tryvis appeared, hungry. “Hi, big brother! Whatcha doing for the rest of the day?”

He said nothing, except take off his fancy coat and throw it on the ground. He stepped on it. Muddy boot stains with the imprint of his shoe stuck against the black striped leather.

Tryvis’ little sister made a disgusted face and smoothed her own skirt and blouse gently, as if treasuring every moment of them before Tryvis, too, stepped on her clothes. The family of four ate dinner, none of them knowing what was to come.

That night, the wind blew. It whipped the hairs of people riding roller coasters. Rain poured down. People slipped on the normally beautiful landscape of Downtown Disney. The bright lights streamed across the walkway above on the shops fell, starting a small fire. Minnie’s bow kept on falling off as children went to hug her. And at Goofy’s kitchen, the Mickey Mouse waffles were cold. The bacon was all fat. The characters didn’t go to several tables.

Tryvis seemed to become sicker and sicker with each day. Holly’s parents didn’t notice anything, though. It was as if everything was normal. In fact, Daisy Casco even said something really weird. “Oh, Darling!” she had said as Holly went out the door. “Do be careful of the smoke from the fire! They were just putting it out.” After that, her mom went back to making breakfast for Tryvis. Holly looked shaken. Why isn’t she alarmed that Disneyland might go up in flames? After that, Holly Casco didn’t give it much a thought.

With five days left to test rides, Holly still didn’t figure out the mystery. On day eleven, an unhappy Stitch appeared again. “What do you want now?” she responded impatiently. Stitch looked a little hurt and stared down shyly at his feet. “I’m sorry, it’s just… why can’t you tell me what is going on?”

“Go back to the beginning since it started,” Stitch whispered, almost embarrassed by interrupting Holly’s annoyed behavior.

Holly sat next to Stitch behind a bush. Stitch’s eyes gleamed with a tiny bit of mischief and knowing the answer.

“What started? My trip? My life? Disneyland?” Holly tried to think. When did she first see Stitch? She didn’t see Stitch at all until a few days ago. “I never saw you until a few days ago.” She pointed out what was on her mind.

“But you did see part me. And one of Winnie the Pooh’s favorite artifacts. We combined sci-fi and fantasy.” Stitch had never talked this much, especially to a human. But when good and evil are at risk, including all of the good characters’ lives and popularity, someone must take charge to think and act outside the box.

“Oh my! The rock!” Stitch nodded gleefully, his adorable smile beaming proudly of his hints that no other characters could think of. “That’s why you and Winnie the Pooh came to see me first. The fur was yours, and the sticky mixture was… honey?” Stitch nodded again. “But what do I do with it?” This was when Stitch changed faces, looking troubled. “Well, I think I’ll sleep on it. Clearly, you can’t tell me, so I might dream about it and get answers — I get all of my great ideas from dreaming!”

Stitch nodded, as if saying, “Well, this is a good start. I’ll report to the others! Bye!”

“Bye!” whispered Holly. She checked if the coast was clear and then headed back to the hotel.

***

As she neared the condo, Maleficent, Ursula, Jafar, and Lady Tremaine posters littered the crowded street. No one seemed to notice the difference. Okay, Holly tried to gather her thoughts. What do I know? It all started with the rock. But what do I do with it is the question. No one seemed to notice the poster change or the difference in the magic. I am not sure if this is good or bad. The park seems to be more crowded every time! Well, I have decided — this isn’t good.

A crowd gathered around something… or someone! Holly tried to peek through the legs of cheery adults, but they wouldn’t budge. “Excuse me,” she whispered. Or at least it sounded like a whisper, because of all the racket the crowd and thing was making. It seemed to be a character. Holly followed the crowd. Along the twisting pathways, the character was taking the fans, Holly looked above at all the crooked trees. That wasn’t correct! Lanterns normally lit the way! Holly whimpered under her breath.

Holly followed the crowd into a clearing. As they circled around her, all Holly could bear to see was the ambiguous shadow. The character was holding a clear glass of water, spinning the drink around in her hand. And Holly ran. She ran as fast as she could. Holly didn’t care who she knocked over — she just had to get out of there! The character that ate all of the Mouse Cheese gleamed with green eyes, crackling behind her smirk. She looked sneakily at Holly’s back. Overhead, a crow spoke annoyingly.

Holly knew it. All of the good characters knew it. The bad characters smiled at it. Change was coming to Happiest Place on Earth — something dark — something bad.

 

The Memories

 

Chapter One: The Earthquake

April opened up her dictionary and gasped. “Jackson!” she screamed. Her friends thought it odd to have a pet caterpillar, but it was amusing sometimes. This was not one of those times. “Jackson!!” she screamed, even louder this time. She finally saw him on the corner of the table. “There you are Jackson. How many times have I told you not to eat my dictionary!” She glanced at the dictionary, which was covered in holes. It looked like an expert piece of lace. She wagged her finger in Jackson’s face, knowing that he most likely could not understand her, but she enjoyed it anyway. She set him back down in his tray, which was full of as much foliage as possible. April knew that it was not very comfortable for a caterpillar to live in an apartment, so she tried to make it as luxurious as possible. She frowned at her dictionary, but moved on, and sat back down on her bed. She picked up her book, and flew instantly into a land of danger and suspense. How could Lord Jeffrey marry Grace when they were in two different social classes and their parents forbid it? How dramatic, how unresolved! April knew it was time for dinner, but she had to read another chapter. And that was when the earthquake struck. It heaved the earth from side to side, making it dance like a clumsy ballerina. Books slid off of April’s bolted-in shelves, and she flew out from her bedsheets to hide under her bed. She heard some of the old, unstable complex crumbling elsewhere, but she didn’t dare move from her position. After what seemed like an eternity of worry, it stopped. The ballerina stopped her dance, the earth stopped its heaving. She crept out from under her bed, only to hear her mother tearing through the door.

“Honey, honey, are you okay? Are you hurt? Did anything hurt you?” her mother shouted.

“Yeah, yeah, Mom. I’m fine.” April suddenly remembered Jackson and rushed over to his tray. He was happily munching away on some leaves, oblivious of what disaster had just struck. April let out a breath of relief, only to become worried once again. “Is the rest of the complex okay?” she asked her mother, her voice shaking.

“I don’t know, sweetie. I didn’t check yet,” her mom said, confused. April rushed down the stairs and out the door, only to have the color drain from her face. Half of the apartment building was cracked and crumbling, including the apartment next door. April ran back inside to get the key that she had to her best friend Erica’s apartment. She tore back to apartment five, the one next door to hers, and thrust the key into the lock. She frantically opened the door, and instead of seeing the home she practically grew up in, the couch she sat on, the floor she walked on, she saw rubble. Where her memories were made was just rubble. When her mom was at work, when her mom was broken down crying, when her dad left after April was born, Erica and her family were there. But now it was all reduced to rubble. And then she heard a shout.

“Help! I’m stuck!” It sounded like Erica was in tears. She sounded broken, like the building around her.

“I’m coming! I’m right here!” April shouted as she pushed away at the pile of rubble that was surrounding Erica’s voice. She finally saw her friend’s face, a circle of dust broken by streaks of tears.

“April! April. Thank you. I missed you. I just I can’t… ” her speech was broken by a fit of sobs. April sat down next to her and rubbed her back. She stood there for ten minutes or so, just comforting her friend. After all those years of comfort from Erica, the roles were reversed.

“Are you okay? Is anything broken?” April said calmly. Erica didn’t answer. “Is anything broken?” April repeated, lightly tapping her friend on the shoulder. Erica looked up at her, a confused look plastered on her face. “Is anything broken?” April said frantically. Erica just kept looking at April with her confused, worried eyes.

“Oh god, oh god. I’m calling 911,” April said, frightened that her friend could no longer hear her words of comfort. “It’s gonna be okay. It’s gonna be okay,” April whispered, more for herself than for Erica.

The next few hours were a numb blur of flashing lights and loud noises for April. If you talked to April now, she would tell you that the moment everything came into focus was when the doctor walked into the waiting room.

“I’m afraid she has permanent ear damage and will not be able to hear anything from now on,” the doctor said solemnly. Erica’s mom fell down sobbing into Erica’s dad.

April heard a quiet, “If we hadn’t gone out… ” coming from Erica’s mom. April’s mom looked at her, not sad for Erica, but sad for April. April needed to go into the hospital ward. She needed to see Erica. The doctor was so calm about it, like this happens every day to him. How could he be calm about this? Too many dangerous thoughts were floating through April’s head. She started feeling dizzy, like she was inside of another earthquake. Like the earth was dancing another deadly dance. She shrieked, then crashed to the floor. She woke up later, to her mother fanning her face.

“Honey, are you okay? I think we need to get you back home,” her mother said

“No!” April half-shouted. “I need to see Erica!” She felt sick, but she would never leave until she could see Erica.

“I agree. I think you should get some rest,” the doctor said.

That stupid doctor with his stupid serious voice and his stupid ideas, April thought.

“I don’t want to go yet!” April shrieked, like a toddler throwing a tantrum. “I need to see Erica!” She felt her mother and the doctor pulling her toward the car while she flailed dramatically. She suddenly felt dizzy again and fell onto the waiting room couch next to her.

She woke up later to the smell of pancakes wafting into her room from the kitchen. The pancakes floated in, all by themselves, while a plate materialized in front of April. She dug into her pancakes, while a two-foot long Jackson rolled around at her feet. Suddenly, the earth was doing its dark dance again, and she spiraled into darkness. Her mom was in front of her, saying something, shouting something, but April couldn’t hear it. She was trapped in a cage, and she couldn’t get out, she couldn’t get out, until she woke up. But this time, it wasn’t her room.

 

Chapter Two: The Boxes

She still smelled pancakes, but it was a different room. She saw normal-sized Jackson on his tray, so she wasn’t dreaming anymore, but there was nothing else in her room. It was like a blank slate. “Moooooooooom!” she called. “Why is the room that I am in not my room?”

Her mom walked in, puzzled, until she finally realized what April was asking. “Oh, the complex was too dangerous to stay in, so we’re renting a different apartment for a little bit,” her mom answered calmly.

“How did I get here?” April asked groggily.

“After we came back from the hospital, you were knocked out cold. I think it was just from shock. I just slid you into bed.”

“But what about my stuff?” April asked frantically.

“It’s all in boxes in the living room.” Her mom nodded toward a few boxes marked “April” in the other room. April never realized how little she had until it was all put in boxes. Most of them were books, but a few boxes held sentimental objects, memories. Her first toys, her favorite stuffed animals, her thoughtful pictures. Her life could fit into a few small boxes. April heard a “Bye, sweetie!” and the sound of the apartment door closing. April sat up in her blank white bed and picked up “The Adventures of Lord Jeffrey,” which had been carefully placed on her white bedside table, probably by her mother. She contemplated reading it, but right now, her life was practically a storybook, and she didn’t want to forget her own tragedies. She crept into the kitchen, still wearing her worn-out clothes from yesterday. She took a plate out of the box marked “kitchen” and picked up some pancakes off of a plate her mother had prepared. Next to the plate was a note that read:

Morning Sweetie!

Had to leave early for work, hope you understand. There’s no school today, so you don’t have to worry about the Monday homework load (yay!). Don’t leave the house until I get home, and don’t do anything too mischievous. Enjoy your pancakes!

Love, me

April would have put some whipped cream on her pancakes, but upon inspection of the fridge, all she could put on her pancakes was peanut butter, eggs, or milk. She sat at the pristine breakfast bar and ate in silence. After what had happened, she could only think. She trudged back to her room and sat on the white bed. She was unsure what to do. She didn’t want to do anything, but she was way too bored to do nothing. She got her phone and her speaker from one of the “April” boxes, and proceeded to play melancholy piano music. If someone else did this, April would sarcastically play an imaginary tiny violin while pouting exaggeratedly, but this was different. She was too emotional and too sleepy to play happy music. She thought that maybe she should do something productive and decided close her curtains and take a nap instead. She woke up much later to a tickle on her face.

“Jackson! How many times have I told you not to scare me like that!” She gently pulled the blue caterpillar off of her face and looked at his tray, which was now almost empty. “Oh you’re huuungry. That’s what it is.” She wanted to obey her mother’s instruction not to go outside, so instead she leaned out her window, and picked a few leaves off a few trees on the sidewalk that were planted by the state to “brighten things up a bit.” She placed them neatly on the tray and sat. And thought. Thought about Erica. Thought about the future. Thought about the past.

She never sat and thought this much, but she never finished, because her mom came in with a loud “Honey! I’m home!” April sighed and fell back against her bed. “Honey? Are you here?”

“Yup, I’m in my room that is not my room,” April replied jokingly. Her mom walked in, looking flustered, probably from traffic.

“How was your day?” she asked.

“Good. I slept. And ate. How was work?” April said groggily.

“Okay. Williams got the numbers messed up again, and Higgins is going to be furious… ”

“Typical Williams.”

“So now I have to fix everything and we had to move into a new office because of the earthquake and uuugh, it’s just chaos is what it is.”

“I’m sorry about that.”

“Oh, it’s not your fault, it’s just darn Williams again!”

“That Williams! One day he’s going to be the death of the company!”

“You have no idea who I’m talking about, do you?”

“Nope.”

“Well, thanks for the support.”

“Anytime.”

“Well, I’d better get dinner going… What do you feel like? You’re the real champ.” April’s mom punched her playfully.

“Well, I would love some peanut butter omelettes,” April said sarcastically.
“Oh my gosh, the groceries! I completely forgot… I am so sorry. Do you want takeout? Chinese?”

“Chinese sounds great. I’ll text you my order.” April used to just tell her mom her order, but after getting cow feet soup instead of chicken soup, she thought she should text it instead so her mom would remember.

“Okay, I’ll let you know when it arrives.”

“Thanks, Mom!” April’s mom left the room. April sat. And thought. When can I talk to Erica? was the main topic of this mental conversation with herself. But of course I can’t talk to her because she won’t hear me. But then how can I talk to her? She eventually decided she probably shouldn’t think these thoughts, especially with impending Chinese food. She didn’t want a relapse of her melancholy music moment this morning. So instead she played with Jackson for a while. There is only so much you can do with a caterpillar as a pet, but you can give it different objects, and see how it reacts. Right now, April was experimenting with a piece of hard candy before her mom shouted for her to come get Chinese food. When April walked into the kitchen, she saw candles and fancy napkins thoughtfully laid out on the breakfast bar. Usually, April and her mom ate separately because her mom had work to do, but on rare occasions, like birthdays, they would eat together.

“With all that’s going on, I thought we could eat together,” April’s mom said.

“Yeah yeah, that sounds great,” April said, kind of sad, but kind of happy that this meant less thinking time. They got plates out of the “kitchen” box and piled on chow mein, rice, and kung pao chicken. They sat down and dug in.

“So how long are we going to stay here?” April asked, breaking the uncomfortable silence.

“As long as necessary. We probably won’t be moving back to our old complex because it will take a while to rebuild. And most of it wasn’t earthquake safe anyways, which is why some of it crumbled. Plus, we were really close to the epicenter. Thank god our apartment was okay, though. It’s newer and more up to code,” her mom answered. April could feel all of her childhood memories slip away. All of the movie nights at Erica’s, gone with the rubble. The building could be rebuilt, but April’s memories stayed crumbled and dusty. “This building is far away from most of the damage though, and it is much newer and much more earthquake safe.” April didn’t really care that much about the building. She wanted to know about Erica.

“How’s Erica?” April asked, hoping for good news.

“Good. The communication specialists at the hospital are contemplating giving Erica ASL lessons so she can communicate better, and they were wondering if you want to join,” April’s mom said carefully.

“What’s ASL?” April said, confused and worried.

“American Sign Language. I just know you two are practically joined at the hip, and there is an interpreter, but they thought that maybe you two would want to be able to communicate without someone translating your every thought.”

“Yeah. Sounds great.” April picked at her Chinese food. She felt her eyes tear up, and soon drops of salt water started dripping into her chow mein. “Is Erica gonna get her hearing back?”

“Oh honey. The doctor doesn’t know. For kids her age, it’s hard to tell. And her parents might not able to afford an implant.” Her mom left her position at the breakfast bar to come hug April. “It’s okay.”

“I just want everything to be normal again,” April said, her voice breaking, glad to have her mom by her side again.

“It’s okay. I understand,” her mom said lovingly. April felt a surge of anger. She didn’t understand. She couldn’t understand. Nobody understood. As much as she longed to be with her mom, she shoved her away.

“No you don’t understand! Nobody does!” April stormed off into her room. She sat. And fumed. And thought. And thought. And finally fell asleep.

 

Chapter Three: The Hospital

The most important night of Erica’s life was all a blur of sirens and people talking in serious voices. If you communicated with her now, she would say that the moment everything came into focus was when she woke up in a hospital bed. Her parents were across from her and hugged her as soon as her eyes opened. “Where’s April? I need to see her,” she said frantically. Or she thought she said. She couldn’t even have the comfort of her own voice. Her parents took out a pen and a pad of paper.

They wrote down, “You can’t see her right now. We are glad you are awake.” It took a while for them to write all of this, and when they finished, Erica started bawling. She looked up to see the doctor suddenly in the room. When did he get there? He stared down at her with a serious face and started making weird motions with his hands. Almost like… sign language?

“What are you doing? I don’t understand. Can you write it down?” He sighed, clearly disappointed that she didn’t understand already, and handed her a wooden clipboard with papers attached to it, and a pen tucked into the top. It read:

Patient: Erica Edelman                      .

Gender: Female            .

Age: 14       .

Town of Origin: Paducah, Kentucky                   .

Diagnosis: Severe hearing loss                                    .

Cause of Diagnosis: Broken eardrum                                .

Status of Diagnosis: Permanent?                .

Medication: None                      .

Potential Operations: Cochlear implant?                  .

 

It was the first time in Erica’s life that she was speechless. The world seemed like it was spinning around her. She fell into a fit of sobs and then she saw the doctor and her parents speaking. She felt a needle in her arm and fell into a deep sleep. She woke up later to the sound of sirens, again, only this time, it was dark. She was sitting, alone in a field. The sirens grew louder and louder and louder until she fell, like Alice, into the rabbit hole. Curiouser and curiouser, until she woke up. She was alone, in her hospital bed. She saw a vase of roses (her favorite) on a little table beside her. Across from her, there was a cheesy ballon that said “get better monsoon!” and it had little painted-in rain droplets. Sitting on her bedside table, next to her roses, was her teddy bear Max. Part of his ear was coming off, and he had been washed so many times that his fur felt like trodden-down carpet, but he was comforting nonetheless. She picked him up and hugged him as hard as she could, happy that he was here, but unsure of what would come next.

 

Chapter Four: The Meeting

April was sitting on the bench reading her book, when she saw a girl out of the corner of her eyes, bawling, holding a teddy bear. April was invested in her book, but she wanted to help this girl, so she put her bookmark (a piece of scrap paper) into her book, and nestled it in her arm. She skipped over to this girl, her brown curls bouncing behind her, and knelt down beside her. “Why are you crying?” she asked this little girl.

“I got this new” — gulp — “teddy bear” — gulp — “and I named him Max,” April glanced down at the fluffy teddy bear the girl was holding, “and this girl came over and said he was — he was” — gulp — “stu-hu-hu-pid,” the girl said, her speech broken by her intense bawling.

“Well, sometimes people have different opinions, and we just have to be proud of our opinions, and not let it bother us.”

“I mean, I guess so,” the girl said, finally calming down.

“I’m April, by the way.”

“I’m Erica. Do you think Max is stupid?”

“I think he’s great,” said April.

 

Chapter Five: The Memories

April had brought the boxes into her room and was almost done unpacking her books. Today was another day off of school, because the school had been damaged by the earthquake as well. Until now, she had been happily sleeping, but she decided she should get some work done. “There,” she said as she placed her last book onto her bookshelves. “It’s finally starting to feel like home.” But now she had to face the boxes that held her memories, her emotions. She was afraid that when she opened her other boxes, it would open her, and she didn’t want to deal with that. But she had to, eventually. She got her scissors and carefully slid them under the tape that separated her and her memories. The first thing she pulled out was an empty mini popcorn box. She had been saving this for ten years, since she and Erica were only four, and she was invited to her first movie night. The popcorn had been warm and buttery and coated with a thin layer of sugar, unlike the microwave popcorn April’s mom had time to make. They sank into the dark green couch and started Kung Fu Panda. The idea was ridiculous, but also hilarious, and they laughed and laughed until their last drop of laughter was spent for the night. When it was finally time for April to leave, she and Erica refused, and they insisted that April stayed for a sleepover. Her mom agreed, and April and Erica spent all night talking. All night. Drop. Tears spattered the red and white stripes of the mini popcorn box. April set it back in its place. She would unwrap her memories another day.

 

Chapter Six: The Email

A tray was set in front of Erica. It held her favorite food in the whole world: popcorn. It was warm and buttery and coated with a thin layer of sugar, just like her dad made it for movie nights. Next to the popcorn was a tablet. It had “Kentucky Hospital” written on the back, and the screen had a few scratches, but it was intact. She pressed the large “on” button on the side, and the screen lit up. It had a few different large boxes displayed on it, each in a different color. One of the boxes read “games” while another read “communications.” There was a small gray box in the corner which read “email.” Erica clicked on that and was sent to a familiar email screen. The first email she sent was, of course, to April. It read:

To: April

Subject: Hello!

April,

Hello! I hope you are okay. I am having lots of fun at the hospital, in case you are wondering (can you hear my sarcasm?). How’s Jackson? Is he still adorable? I sure hope so 😉

Your friend,

forever and always,

Erica

 

Chapter Seven: The Ice Cream

April picked at her sandwich. It was her favorite, ham and cheese; she thought she might treat herself after the popcorn box incident. She heard a rumble from her stomach region and decided she should probably eat something. She took a bite from her ham and cheese sandwich and decided she wasn’t hungry. She decided that if she didn’t want to eat a ham and cheese sandwich, she probably didn’t want to eat anything. Her mind flitted to ice cream and lingered there for a moment. She opened up the freezer and frowned, as the only kind of ice cream they had was coffee. “Blech,” she whispered to herself. She’d have to go out for ice cream. Her mom was already out, so she texted her. The conversation read:

– Yooooo! Hope you are having a good day. I was just wondering if I could maybe go out to get some ice cream? (Also do you know of any good places around here?)

– Sounds fun! There’s a place down the street called “Cold Stone Creamery” that I’ve heard is great!

– Thanks!

The chocolate ice cream was cold against her tongue and a relief from the heat wave that had hit Kentucky. She had brought her book to the store and had started to read. April heard a plop! as dripping ice cream hit the pages of her book. “Ugh!” she said as she got up to get a napkin. She set her dripping ice cream against her glass of water, to hopefully try to make it stay upright. She saw people start to fill the store as it neared noon, the hottest time of the day. She was struggling to make it to the napkins through all the people, and right when she was about to get to the utensil table, she fell. She felt her nose crash against the floor, but it felt somehow unbroken.

“Oh my god, I’m so, so sorry. Are you okay?” a guy about her age turned to her, apologizing profusely. “I think I might have accidentally tripped you.”

“No, no I’m fine. Is my nose bleeding?” she said, her hand flying to her stinging nose.

“Yeah, here,” the guy said, handing her a napkin.

“Thanks,” she said, turning back to get her ice cream.

“Wait, what’s your name?” the guy said.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said. She had a little bit of trouble holding the napkin under her nose while also holding her book and her ice cream, but she managed. She just wanted to leave the store as soon as possible. The door dinged as she left, and she immediately felt a wave of relief wash over her as she started to walk down the street. She saw all sorts of people walking along with her, like dog walkers, business people, and even people her age. She finished her ice cream halfway through her walk and threw away her wrapper into a nearby trash can. She was now finally free to look around! She saw buildings towering to her sides, and she felt intimidated. This was a newer area, so not a lot was affected by the earthquake; everything was still picture perfect. She made the decision to only look at the ground so she would feel better. After what seemed like an eternity of sidewalk, she arrived at “Liberty Point Apartments” and trudged toward her section of building. She turned the key, walked into the apartment, and plopped on the couch. Suddenly, she heard a ding! And she turned to her room, where the sound seemed to come from. She walked to her temporary desk and looked at her computer. She had an email! She opened it and discovered it was from Erica, of all people. April replied:

To: Erica

Subject: Greetings!

Erica,

Greetings! Jackson is adorable, as always, and I am happy you are enjoying the hospital (sarcastically, of course). Also, my mom mentioned ASL lessons… what are your thoughts on the matter? Send my love to Max.

Your friend,

Forever and always,

April

Before she sent the email, April turned to look at Jackson, the real star of the email. But the tray was empty. Where could he be now? April thought, not sure what mischief the tiny caterpillar could be up to. It had been a full day since she checked in on him, so he could be long gone by now. Then she remembered, a few months ago, when she first got Jackson, she was scared he would run off, so she put a tracking sticker on him. It was tiny, and wouldn’t disturb him, but it was useful because the caterpillar could travel unusually long distances. She pulled out the little device that tracked the sticker and found he was in a hospital nearby to the apartment! How on earth did he get there? Well, no use dwelling on it now. She grabbed her key to the apartment and set off once again.

 

Chapter Eight: The Caterpillar

Erica was sitting in her bed, playing one of the little games the tablet provided for her, when she felt a tickle on her face. Erica pressed the “camera” button on her tablet and switched it to selfie mode. She gasped as she saw a chubby blue caterpillar on her face! But this wasn’t any blue caterpillar. Erica could recognize this caterpillar anywhere. “Jackson! How on Earth did you get here?” Erica said. She thought she might as well enjoy his company, if he’s here. She put him on one of her fingers and watched him crawl around for a while. Suddenly, Erica’s door burst open.

“Jackson! If you are disturbing a patient, I’ll… ” April stopped, mid sentence. Standing right in front of April, holding a tiny, blue caterpillar, was Erica. They stood, opened-mouthed, looking at each other. Erica felt tears coming down her face. April rushed over to her. They hugged. And hugged. The wait was over.

 

George

Beep! Beep! Beep!

George sat up. He turned off the alarm. He put on his slippers. He walked into the kitchen.

Crack! Sizzle, sizzle, sizzle ssssssssss. George cooked himself an egg.

He poured some orange juice. He ate his breakfast in silence.

“Meow!” George said goodbye to his cat. He opened the door. He walked outside of his apartment. It was a penthouse apartment.

Jingle jingle slam! George closed the door. He locked the door. He went into the elevator. He rode it to the ground floor.

He got a cab.

“Where to?” the cab driver asked.

“Fourth and twenty-ninth,” George replied.

George arrived at his destination. He paid the man six dollars and twenty-nine cents exactly. He got out of the cab.

Beep beep! Woosh! Bum Bum. George heard the sounds of New York City.

He walked into his office building. He rode the elevator to the very top floor. He greeted his secretary. He walked into his office. He sat down. He looked out of his floor to ceiling windows.

He saw the bright energy of New York City and sighed at the life he could have had, and even though he had reached the top, he couldn’t help but want to start a new life, to start from the bottom again, to live the process again, to think new thoughts, to dream new dreams, to change lives for the better, to help in the world, instead of accounting.

Accounting never changed lives for the better.

George got up. He threw everything off of his table. He turned his table over. He ripped off his tie. He started a new life.

 

You, Simply

The sunshine was hot and bright, reflecting on the stream like rippled fireflies. I could feel the world around me, moving, changing too fast. Sometimes I felt like it was moving without me, like it needed to move without me; like I was running and I couldn’t keep up. Jared walked slowly beside me as we made our way through the old, abandoned park.

“I notice how cynical you are, Karrie Rainier,” he remarked, feeling in front of him with his shiny, black cane. He smirked a bit. “Why?”

“There doesn’t have to be a reason for a person being cynical, Jared Hale. People just are,” I reasoned, chuckling to myself. I ruffled the back of his hair.

“Okay, let me reword it: why do you hate people so much? You don’t talk to all that many people besides Pema and me. What’s your thing against the world?” he asked. His voice sounded sweet and innocent, but also distant, and wondering. Jared was curious. It was his mission to truly seek people: who they were, who they were going to be. He wanted to know people like he knew himself.

Well, that was the only way that he could know people, through their personality. It wasn’t like Jared could see anyone, literally. He was blind. He saw through his fingertips and his mind and his hearing. He could feel, with his heart. Maybe that was why he asked so many questions, so he could see clearly enough. He had a chiseled face and fawn-colored hair, cropped neatly with a nice wave in the front. He was kind of pretty.

And me? I was Karrie Rainier. I could see just fine, and I think that was my biggest enemy.

How do I explain this? I guess you could say I was the bruised apple, or the broken window. I was the girl who would get passed by in the hallway and could hear the terrible things that strangers said about me as they walked by. I was the girl who would get on the weight scale and see the number that made me guilty until I couldn’t go back to sleep. I was the girl who read the magazines and the health websites and never got any better. I’m “undesirable.” “Imperfect.” “Ugly.”

I came up with an idea about it in my mind: I called it an ocean. I just kept sinking in it. I kept sinking in it because I was not worthy of swimming back up. No one would save me, they were willing to let me drown, probably because I wasn’t pretty enough to deserve life. Yeah, I simply stated it. I knew it. I knew what I was. I didn’t want to have to put up with lying to myself like most people do. Honesty was the right thing, right? That was why I was honest with myself. I was honest that I was a disappointment, and I wasn’t getting better.

To answer Jared’s initial question, I avoided people because they didn’t want me. They never did. I didn’t even want me. There’s no way I would tell him that, or so I thought.

I used to wonder why I was still here. Society silently discarded their undesirables, so why hadn’t I followed along? Wouldn’t it be easier to be in a place where I could feel…

Happier?

Prettier?

Somewhere better than this god-awful place. Somewhere on land, not in my ocean. Maybe not even on land, but in the sky. That beautiful, heavenly place. So far, far away…

I stopped in my tracks, shaking away the frightful thoughts.
“Well?” he demanded playfully, smiling.

“You wouldn’t get it,” I warned. “Nobody does.” Jared punched me gently in the arm.

“I will, trust me,” he promised. While there was laughter and innocence in his honey-sweet voice, there was also truth. Reliability. I was like a puzzle to him, and he couldn’t quite piece me together. We had known one another for over a year now, and I still hadn’t opened up to him.

Would he think any different of me if I told him how I felt? Would he imagine me as some piece of shit? How did he see me now? How would he see me afterwards?

Then I realized, if Jared was really loyal, if he was really worth it, he would see me the same. Right? He wouldn’t care. I had to trust him. He would understand.

I would not replace his eyes with the eyes of society.

“Fine, I guess,” I promised reluctantly. “But you better not tell this to anyone.” But what would be an easy way to tell him? Would it ruin his innocence? His faith in the world? His faith in me?

I knew I was really, really overthinking it. It sounded more and more pitiful as it rolled over in my head. But the rock in my psychological ocean started to sink. Down, down, down…

Down into the deep pits of the midnight zone.

Past the sunken Titanic of feelings I don’t like sharing.

Down to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, where the horrible insecurities banished themselves.

And dizziness rang in my mind.

“Sometimes, I know, in the back of my mind, I feel… different,” I confessed to him. I felt my palms get sweaty and my cheeks get hot. If he could’ve seen me then, he’d probably have laughed at how uncomfortable I looked. He didn’t say anything, he just kept walking, not looking at me.

“I feel like I, well, I don’t quite fit in. Like, I was born not to fit in and everything I do makes me even more desperate.” I continued, “And nothing I do works.” The ocean of emotion started to rumble, making me feel seasick inside.

“I don’t quite get it,” Jared told me. His confusion startled me. I started wondering: what was that life like? Not knowing? Not feeling the social walls built around him? I realized how little I knew about Jared. Who was he? Why was he so…

Well, I wouldn’t say “perfect” was the right word. More like, pure? Or was he lying to me, to try to push me away. I wanted to know. What was behind the glassy, sightless eyes?

Unable to get the right question out, I continued to elaborate.

“I guess I feel like I’m not as pretty as people want me to be. I know, people tell me it’s not important. Judge on the inside and that’s what counts. But we all know that society tells you differently. Why else would there be a million diet options hovering around radio stations and magazines and on TV?” I found myself ranting. Damn it! Had I gone too far? Was Jared getting tired of this? That was when, of course, his words knocked me away. I didn’t know he would address the situation so beautifully, so gracefully. He opened his mouth to speak.

“Have you ever heard the saying, ‘beauty is the eye of the beholder?’” he asked curiously.

“I mean, maybe on the Twilight Zone but probably nowhere else,” I started.

“Well, I guess it means that what you look like doesn’t matter in the long run because everyone sees you differently,” Jared explained. “Like, there’s no point in conforming to society. There’s no exact definition of pretty, you know?” I tried to understand, but I felt like I had heard the same lecture before. I didn’t know exactly what anyone meant when they said that. It was the default phrase, an overused lecture.

“Jared, you can’t be naïve,” I murmured. “I think we all know — ”

“No, wait, hear me out. Think about it. Some people can’t see, and we still have valid opinions. I think that counts for something.” He started talking louder. I could hear the truth singing in his clear, low voice. He had a point, and I still didn’t understand. But somehow, I felt like he really, genuinely wanted to show me something I had never heard before. Curious and frustrated, I pushed on.

“I’m not trying to offend you or anything, but I don’t think you see it,” I tried to reason. Jared fiddled with his hand. He exhaled.

“I think I see it,” he said, almost to himself.

“Yes, but I feel personally like I’m not good enough. Like, I can see. A lot of people can see. What they see is me. Just me,” I scoffed, running my hands through my hair. I felt a bead of sweat.

“Yeah, but that doesn’t matter is what I’m saying,” Jared argued. I didn’t know what to say. I bit my lip.

We had reached a little gazebo by a stream, where Jared sat down. I stared into his glassy, sightless eyes and wondered what he was seeing. What he was trying to make me see.

“I know we’re both confused about each other,” Jared pointed out. “Me being blind and all, and you, with your problems.” He said it so bluntly, but it was still gentle. It didn’t hurt when he said “problems.” It might’ve been the beautiful softness and gentleness of his tone.

“I just don’t understand what you’re trying to convince me of. Or how you’ve never felt different or excluded… ” I began.

“Well actually, I guess I wasn’t clear before. I have felt different or excluded,” Jared admitted. The pain in his voice made me upset. I almost wanted to fight all the demons in his head, face-to-face. They were not allowed to hurt him. It also made me realize that Jared was battling his own fights. He just fought them differently than I did.

“What do you mean?”

“I felt different before, but maybe when I said I don’t really get it, I don’t get how people think those things are so bad.” His words just confused me. But he kept talking. “I guess being excluded taught me the beauty of being blind. I was different. Yeah, I couldn’t go anywhere without a little extra help, and I’ve never been able to read like a normal person, but also something else. While everyone else was judging people by their looks, writing diet tips in magazines, editing false images, I’m only exposed to words and actions and feelings. Looks are totally void to me.”

I listened curiously. I felt like I was starting to grasp it, what he was telling me.

“I know that whatever voices in your head are telling you that you’re ugly don’t have to matter. I know that you can live your life only seeing what is inside. I see people for who they are. And I think you should too,” he explained. Pause. Silence. Thoughts and contemplations.

Suddenly, when I looked into those glassy eyes again, a whole new meaning emerged. Jared was not sightless. He could see everything. Everything that truly mattered. I could not speak. I could only feel the connection between his eyes and the truth. Jared was not blind. He just saw a little differently. Through one small conversation, the only one that mattered, he showed me this new idea.

“Jared, I never knew you thought of it this way.” I noticed that my voice had lost its hardened, cynical tone and came out quiet. My own voice, sounding unfamiliar. Possibly because I was taking up most of my energy thinking about myself. Realizing, maybe, I could be beautiful to somebody, because their opinions are valid too.

Or not really. Not in the obvious way. But Jared, he must’ve imagined me beautiful. If he cared about me that much because of the way I am, am I beautiful? If he analyzed my personality as beautiful, would that make me beautiful too? It was a weird thing to wrap my head around. Being beautiful.

I had never been beautiful before. Or maybe I had. Maybe all this time, I was beautiful in ways I did not realize. Me: beautiful. Me: pretty. Me: desirable. Maybe I was worth it. Maybe whatever creator up there blessed me with this incredible life because I was worth it.

Back in my metaphorical ocean, I stopped sinking. I felt myself suspended in this one moment of time, unable to quite understand anything. It was that moment of thought, when nothing moved except for the heart in your chest and the blood in your veins.

Suddenly, I saw a light at the surface of my emotional ocean. A boat. A hand reached down from the boat, prompting me to grab on. Was it worth swimming back up? Trying to clean up my emotional mess? Or should I just keep sinking? Should I conform?

No. Because I was beautiful and worth it and good. Jared reassured me of that. I was something I should fight for.

I could feel my head reaching the surface of the water, and I could breathe again. Even if just for a second, I felt free. Free from my anxiety, free from society, free from my ocean of self-doubt. I smelled the fresh, salty air of self-acceptance.

I knew it would be a long journey back to the land. But Jared had started the journey for me. My journey to self-acceptance, the one thing that I might’ve needed. If I could will myself to swim all the way to the land, even if it would take me years, it would be a story that would change me and maybe the world forever.

I sat in that gazebo with Jared at my side. Never before had his poetic, aesthetically pleasing way of life affected me this much. This boy, this boy who I had hardly known. This boy who was not blind but was the best seer of the age.

“Thank you.” Those were the only words I could squeeze out of my mouth. And then, the long pause of silence. The blind boy who could see. The girl with the underrepresented body who was beautiful. That was who sat under the gazebo. We were proud, even just for one moment. One little string of time.

“Karrie,” Jared interrupted. I liked hearing my name. Something I thought people cringed at saying. My name sounded nice, like it was meant to be said. We looked at one another, no words exchanged. We both knew that neither of us had much more to say. Just think.

I guess I walked away from that gazebo and that day a little differently. It still loomed somewhere in my mind, maybe forever, but the rest of my life slowly started to change. I noticed it change, even when I got home from that walk. It kept changing with each passing day.

I ate more, a healthy amount. I would exercise but not force myself to pass out. Maybe I even opened myself up more. Just a little. Still, it was change. It was change if I ever saw it.

Sometimes I still look in the mirror and see the self-conscious girl who would only wear baggy clothes and who would cover up her face with her hands. The girl who was submerged in her own water. Don’t get me wrong, she’s still there.

But she at least had something else in the back of her mind, that while society’s expectation seemed so real, it was really fake. Some people lived wonderfully without it. Some people whose eyes work just as well. They might just see some things in a different light. So even if she was still there, she had something to look to.

I never forgot that walk. I never forgot those silky words that helped me escape my ocean of dread. I never forgot peeking out of the waves for the first time. That day told me that living another day is an accomplishment itself.

I didn’t want to go somewhere else. I didn’t want to fly away with all of society’s discards. Because I was more than that. Everyone was more than that. Jared helped me to see that.

Slowly, I cut through the blue waters. The land was getting nearer. Not the sky, the sky can wait. No, I wanted to live. On the land. That was where the other girls who needed help were waiting.

If I were to reach out to another girl, maybe my age, who was struggling and fighting and just couldn’t catch her breath, I would probably tell her something like what Jared told me:

That she is everything she thought she wasn’t good enough to be and more. Her ocean’s surface isn’t far away. Sometimes the world will ask for you, changed.

But really, all you have to be is you, simply.

 

He Laughed like the Ocean

        

The tide pulled the water closer to my feet

He threw his head back

And bellowed

He laughed like the ocean

I sifted the sand through my fingers

Knowing what would happen if

I too

Did not laugh

He tries

I think he does

I know he does

I hope he does

But his heart was as cold as the Hudson River

Maybe even colder

I chuckled

There was no joke

I, like a child;

Asked to go into the water

The sun was setting

Every movie ever told me this was supposed to be romantic

But it’s not

He nods and and I jump up

Slowly walk towards the water

A woman stares at my scars

And all the ways he marked me

He tries

I think he does

I know he does

I hope he does

So I started running

Farther away from him

And closer to God

Or what I hope was God

I ran till my feet could no longer touch the sand

I kept swimming out into pinkness

That water was deeper than snow

Not colder

Just deeper

 

Forever Standing

        

When someone looks

Down on you

When they laugh

At your differences

When they criticize

Your similarities

When you want it all to end

So you hide away

Tears streaming down your cheeks

Thinking to yourself:

“You don’t deserve to be here”

 

Remember, to see is a gift

To come home to your loved ones and say:

“I love you”

Is a blessing

To stroll on the beach,

Sun shining down on your back

Water lathering your toes

Is a miracle

To have compassion and be able to give back

Love that others have given to you

Is a wealth that cannot be measured

 

When you are looked down upon,

Someone somewhere is looking up and saying,

“Thank you”

Because now those tears on your face won’t be on theirs

Because you didn’t give up and didn’t give in

Because maybe, just maybe, you powered through

All the hatred being poured onto your shoulders

Sweat drips down your face in effort

But you are still standing

You will keep standing

You won’t dare stoop down for a rest or a drink

You can’t

So you will keep standing,

Forever

The Food Chain

    

 

As I stepped out of my house that day, I saw my neighbor George putting a leash on his pet human. They did this every day, walking down to Little Piggy’s human-burger shop to grab a bite to eat, which disgusted me. It is horrible how animals treat humans like nothing and are treated as lower than low to the rest of society. I wish I could do something to stop this madness.

But who am I to say anything? I am a lonely sheep, too low on the government-enforced food chain to make an impact. What am I saying? You can’t understand me anyway.

“Well, Sparky,” I said to my own pet human. “I have to go out. I will not be long.”

I walked down the street past Little Piggy’s shop, past Jim Jam’s gas station and took a left, toward the city. I was about to walk into my office building until I heard a scream coming from a nearby alleyway.

I rushed towards it and saw two boars kicking around a human who had a couple of bruises and a cut above his shoulder.

I yelled at the attackers, “Stop! Don’t hurt him!”

The first boar turned and spat, “What are you gonna do about it? You’re lower than us on the food chain.”

The second one punched the human once more and turned, saying, “Why don’t you go back home, human lover?”

I pleaded with them, “Stop, you’re hurting him. Please, stop!”

The boars kept on kicking the human.

I ran at one, knocking him to the ground and bruising my shoulder in the process. The second one grunted and grabbed me, lifting me off the ground and shouting, “You fucking farm animal! I will gut you like a baby human!”

Then, the first one pulled out a switchblade and flipped the shiny piece of metal out, pointing it at me. By now, my shoulder was already swollen, and I began to pray for some sort of protection.

As if on cue, there was a sound of a K9 police siren coming our way, getting louder and louder. The two boars dropped me and ran out of the alley. The two dogs slammed the brakes on their car, getting out and racing after them, leaving me alone, which I thought was typical.
I grabbed my shoulder in relief and stood up, walking over to the human.

“Hi, my name is Leonard. What’s yours?” I said in a soft voice.

The human shook his head. Could… could he understand me?

“You know what I’m saying?”

The human nodded.

“Do you have a home?”

The human shook his head. I made the best decision I could.

“Okay well, I guess you can come live with me. I have another human at home. His name is Sparky. I could name you Spot. That’s where I found you.”

The human shook his head violently.

“What about Spot?”

The human nodded and jumped about.

After a few hours at the vet, Spot was vaccinated, and we walked home. As soon as I opened the door, Spot ran in and jumped on Sparky. At first, Sparky was shy and afraid, but after three weeks or so, they started to form an inseparable friendship. Wherever Sparky went, Spot followed, and wherever Spot went, so did Sparky.

One night I had to go out because it was my mother’s birthday, so I asked George if he would look after them. I figured nothing could go wrong. Little did I know, that was the night that everything would change.

George sat down on the couch with an apple and turned on the TV to watch The Bachelorette, where one Foxy Fox would be able to choose from ten other foxes who would get to take her hand in marriage. He was watching so intently that he forgot to feed Sparky and Spot and was neglecting them. My humans tried to get George’s attention by squealing and jumping on him. George started to get mad and backhanded Sparky in the face. Sparky got mad and started making hand motions to Spot. Spot made hand motions back in response.

George was shocked and said, “Wait, what are you doing? What are you saying to each other?”

Just then, the humans jumped on him, knocking George to the ground. Spot ran and grabbed sheets in his mouth while Sparky kept jumping on George. When they came back together, they tied George up.

That was when it got way, way worse.

Spot and Sparky peed on George, covering him completely. When I got back home, George was screaming slurs and insults, tied up in bedsheets, and soaked in yellow liquid.

“What happened here?” I asked, not believing my eyes.

“Just help me, Leonard!” George screamed.

I untied the tangle of knots and tried to calm George down.

“Okay George, I want you to take a deep breath and explain to me this. Why are pawprints across Sparky’s face?”

“It was those fucking humans! They communicated with each other!”

I tried to stay calm, thinking about my two humans possibly talking with each other. What would they have said? Did they… plan this?

“George, that’s crazy. I think you need to go home and get some rest.”

He growled in response. “I know what I saw.”

“Just go home, George. You did this to yourself.”

He picked himself up and left in a huff.

As soon as the door shut behind him, I made hand motions towards Spot and Sparky and started to shout at them, forgetting that I didn’t need to use my voice when using the sign language we had developed.

“What the hell were you guys thinking? I’ve told you no communicating around other animals!”

Sparky and Spot bowed their heads. Spot motioned that he was sorry and that he didn’t know why they had gotten so mad.

The next couple of days were normal, until I caught George trying to peer through my window with binoculars. He even set up a couple of cameras outside his house.

One night, I came home from work tired and had forgotten all about the cameras George had set up. At that point, I had been with Sparky and Spot long enough that signing with them had become somewhat of a routine.

Suddenly, I heard sirens, loud and painful. Two cop cars pulled into my driveway, and a dog and three coyotes, all in body armor, came bursting into my home.

The lead coyote shouted, “You are under arrest for teaching and communicating with humans! Anything you say or do is and will be held against you in a court of law!”

Then, the three coyotes grabbed the three of us and shoved us in to the driveway. The last thing I saw was George’s smug face staring through his front window as we pulled out of the driveway and went down the road.

I knew I could not go to jail and survive. I was prey. The other guys would kick the crap out of me, and I’d be ripped to pieces. But what about poor Sparky and Spot? What would happen to them? The shiny, black rubber wheels stopped in front of a rectangle-shaped building that read police station, and the cops led us out of the car.

I asked one of them what they were going to do to Spot and Sparky.

The cop said, “Don’t worry about them. There’s a special place for them.”

As they split us up and took me to my cell, I could not help but shed a tear.

The next morning, I woke up to a loud buzz as the cell door opened. There was a platypus standing in the doorway.

“Your name Leonard?”

“Yes.”

“My name is Mr. Richer. I am going to be your defense attorney against the prosecution led by Mr. George, who has accused you of disturbing the peace by teaching and communicating with two humans.”

Richer led me into a van, and we drove. As we were driving, I couldn’t imagine how Sparky and Spot were feeling.

Before long, we stopped at a big building that read COURT of LAW and JUSTICE.

Mr. Richer turned to me from the passenger seat. “We’re here. Are you ready for this?”

I replied, “I’ve got nothing to lose except what I’ve already lost.”

Richer looked at me for a long time before saying, “Well then, let’s get to it.”

As we walked inside you could smell the sweat and stress from previous cases. It was as if I had turned into a magnet for the eyes in the room. Everyone stared at me.

One person yelled, “Animal lover!”

Another yelled, “Farm animal!”

I heard a loud bang of a gavel, and everyone went silent. I looked up to see an old elephant sitting behind the podium. She said her name was Mrs. Tuskworth and that she would be the judge in my case. I glanced to my left and saw George sitting with a kangaroo that was dressed in a suit and tie.

I sat down, and the judge began to speak.

She asked, “Both of you know why you are here, am I right?”

“Yes.”

“Yes.”

Judge Tuskworth cleared her throat. “Alright, what happened? I want both of your sides of the story. George, you go first.”

The crocodile stood, looking smug and fearful at the same time. “It was a peaceful evening when I saw the disturbing connection between human and animal. It was clear that an unspoken bond had been formed between that sheep and his pets. To my knowledge, it looked like they were planning to overthrow the government and destroy the world with their human army! They will enslave us all again, I tell you! It’s happening!”

The judge looked at George in concern. “Thank you George, that’s enough for now. Leonard, it’s your turn. What happened?”

I stood up, looking at the wise face of the judge. I took a deep breath and began to speak.

“First of all… so… I came home late from work and asked Sparky and Spot if they were hungry, that’s all. Second, why is communicating with them such a bad thing? I am bridging a gap between our two worlds. Who knows? Maybe they know things that we don’t, and if I can teach it to all animals and humans, it could seriously be of use! Animals could communicate with us. Like what if a human sees something suspicious like a robbery and can’t tell anyone? What if there was a gas leak, and the human can’t tell the animal to get out of the house?”

The judge raised her hoof to stop me speaking. “Okay, Leonard you have made your point. But may I ask both of you: how would you execute your beliefs or ideas? George, you first.”

George stood. “Well first, I would start by chopping off all humans’ fingers, and just in case, we would have to cut off their tongues.”

Tuskworth thought hard and said, “Okay, George, point taken. Leonard?”

I stood, angry at George’s words. “I would set up a business with my own funding and hold classes where I could teach humans and animals the language. I would have Sparky and Spot teach the humans while I teach the animals, and then we would bridge a gap in our society. I am sorry, judge, but what George is saying is immoral and crazy.”

Tuskworth stood and spoke one last time, “That’s it for today, I think. I will discuss with the government council. We will continue our session next week when I will decide who is right. Court will be adjourned until then.”

She banged her gavel.

When I was outside of the building, I called an Uber to drive me home. When I got home and opened the door, everything was a mess. The sofa was thrashed to pieces, and the coffee table was turned on its side. All the doors were pulled out, all my cabinets were open. It was like someone was looking for something.

Was I robbed? Did… did George do this?

I started to fix and clean everything and look for what they would’ve taken. Someone must have done this just to mess with me.

The next few days were mellow. It was not the same at home anymore without Sparky and Spot.

Finally, after one of the longest weeks of my life, it was time. The next day was the last hearing at the court. It was the final decision. We sat down, and the judge started to say, “Leonard, we will not provide funding, but we think you can, and will, bridge the gap in our society. You may have your humans back.”

I jumped up in joy. I’d done it! I’d won! I couldn’t believe I won!

Suddenly out of nowhere, George jumped on me, knocking me to the ground, thrashing me with his sharp claws and tearing my suit to pieces. I felt a piercing in my skin as blood started to run down my chest. Luckily, there were two security guards on standby who tackled George to the ground, knocking him unconscious.

My surroundings started to darken as my eyes started to close. When I woke up, I had a sharp pain in my chest. There was a monkey in the room, dressed up in a lab coat.

The large chimpanzee spoke in a calm, soothing voice.

“Take it easy, Leonard. You have nothing to be afraid of. I’m gonna take care of you. You’re gonna be just fine.”

Just then, Mr. Richer walked in with Sparky and Spot.

I asked, “What happened?”

“Everything’s taken care of, Leonard. George has been sentenced and is going to jail for a while.”

“That’s a relief.” I laughed as Sparky and Spot jumped on me. “I’m so happy to see you guys! The doctor said that he thinks I should get some rest now, okay?”

I shut my eyes and pictured my communication business and where I would build it as I fell into a deeper sleep.

The next week, after all my injuries were healed, I had my brand new staff break ground, and since then, it’s been three years. My business has been doing great. We are working hard to finally bridge the gap between animal and human.

I decided to finally start a family, and in the year after the incident, I married a lovely sheep named Clara. Two years later, we had three kids, two boys and one girl. Sparky and Spot grew and eventually, they told me that they wanted to be let go into the wild. That was a hard day.

Now, I sit here, writing this story. Even if I am a sheep, now I feel like a lion.

 

 

A Project Complete

The chill in the air woke me up; I forced myself to smile. The feet of the lucky rushed by, nervous about being late to work. The cars passed while kids screamed to their parents, not wanting to go to school.

Another day of seeing our problem not being resolved. I had to smile though, to show that I knew it would happen. Today would be the day. The sun was still rising over the endless horizon of the sea. I stretched and immediately noticed a pain in my shoulder; I had slept crookedly again. When my spine rolled up off the ground, the hard rocks sank into my skin. But today was different. I felt it in the air. A little kid wearing a navy blue school uniform walked by, tugging his father’s sleeve. Both were wearing hats.

“Please, Father! Please! I promise he won’t eat all the cheese! Can we ask his mom?” His father’s hands clenched, and his face turned red.

My father would’ve taken his belt and given me a good bruise down my back if I was six and asked him anything.

The doves flew in, bringing with them a love song and flying away at the slightest movements. The water was yet so violent. The waves so big, one would be careful of surfing. Even though it was mid-September, the weather was getting cooler.

I rummaged in my bag and found two Oreos a little girl kindly had given me while her mom wasn’t looking.

“Breakfast,” I mumbled and ate the cookies.

My Cardinals cap still laid empty next to me, except now it had a Twix wrapper in it.

Probably some half-hearted greedy person thought my hat was trash. But soon, the wrapper was carried away by the wind.

After an hour or two, the streets were calm, everyone at their destinations except for me. My destination was right where I was. I watched the waves, finding myself very bored. I started dancing, but no one was there to appreciate it.

I realized I smelled like expired milk. That might be why nobody wanted to be with me. Maybe I could go down to the shore for a quick, clean bath. No one was there to see me.

I decided to go and left my bag by my spot. I ran down the stairs that led me to the beach. Down by the shore, I took off my clothes and jumped into the water. After swimming a bit, a big wave started to form, but I was too into the water to swim back in time. The wave five times my size crashed on me as I frantically swam to the shore. But as the wave hit me, I felt all the air left in me leave.

Waking up on the shore was a big surprise. The first thing I saw was an even bigger surprise.

She was blond and looked about twenty years old. That was all I could make out of her, but she looked at me in concern.

“Are you okay? You were knocked out pretty long.” She brushed the hair out of my eyes and looked me straight in the eyes.

I said I was okay and checked that my clothes were on. I was in my clothes, which was weird since I had them off a while ago. Maybe she’d put them on? She helped me go back to my spot by the street and wrapped a towel around me even though I was already dry.

“It’s three in the afternoon, by the way. You should eat something.” She caught me eyeing a food truck across the street.

“Yes, please.” My stomach spoke for me before I realized I was asking a stranger for food.

“Hamburger?” She rummaged through her purse and pulled out a twenty, making her way to the Burger Shack across the street.

I licked my lips.

 

After gobbling up the delicious hamburger, the lady said she had to go. The sun started to set while people started coming back from work. More busy feet and crying and complaining, when I should have been the one complaining since I have the street as a home. Everyone walked past me as if I were nothing.

But then, about an hour and a half later, four men in black uniforms and earpieces walked up to me, looking like they were lost or tired. Uh-oh! Why are they here? Did I do something? But before I could come up with an alibi, they stepped aside and made way for a blond lady.

A blond lady! I immediately got up and recognized her as my savior from the waves. She said nothing but took a paper from behind her back and held it out to me.

I looked at her, and she nodded with a warm smile. Shakily, my hand reached out for the

paper and took it. It read:

         Kris Yalgougly,

         Temporary Apartments

         Under Construction

         For those in need

         Head of Public Attention,

         Ashley Nofraih

I looked around and saw the construction workers and trucks had started to come in, the men examining blueprints. They were starting to build some places I could call home as I had requested five years ago. They settled down a couple blocks into the city and started to build.

I smiled at her. She smiled back. At last, peace.

 

 

No One’s Safe

Everyone has a fear, one that drives them insane. A fear which paralyzes you and consumes your soul. A fear that may or may not be real. Right out of Tennessee, located in the mountains, is a little Italian town called Nessuno è Sicuro, with a population of 746 people — well, now 745.

Emily walked out of her home for the first time in days. She needed food. She walked past the park and past the barber shop. She turned the corner and walked into the supermarket. She filled her basket with two six-packs of ramen and minute cook rice, and when she got to the checkout counter, there was a new cashier she had never seen before. Emily gave him the groceries and pulled out her wallet. As she looked up, the old man with a white beard was staring at her. “Hey, young missy. You look like that missing girl, except you don’t have that screwed up, ugly eye like her.”

“It wasn’t screwed up or ugly.” Emily grabbed her groceries and ran out the door.

Emily had a physical condition where her knees buckled quite often without her controlling it, and as she walked home, her knees buckled, and she fell in a puddle of water. Emily looked down to see her face in the water. It looked just like her sister’s. She started to cry. She just wished that she didn’t look like her sister so she did not have to see her face every day. She got up and she ran to the park. As she collapsed on the bench, she turned her head to read a missing poster. It said:

Two weeks ago, a girl by the name of Luara went missing. Luara was a 16-year-old girl by the time she went missing. Luara is a tan girl with red hair and one blue eye, and she is blind in the other eye. There is a cash reward. Please find her.

When Emily saw this, she felt her heart drop. She ran home and slammed the door as she fell on the floor. Emily was Luara’s best friend and identical twin sister. Emily kept thinking about what the cashier had said and how he called her sister’s eye “screwed up and ugly.” Emily and Luara’s mother was dead, and their father was a drunk who didn’t even care that Luara was missing. The two girls had a hard life, their mother died when they were two due to a car crash, their father beat their mother, and well, then Luara went missing. Emily always thought that the night before her mother died, her father came home drunk again and was punching her mother because he thought she was having an affair with her boss. Her father later told them that their mother had tried to leave them, but then she hit a tree with the car and died.

*Ding-dong* “Go away!” *Ding-dong* “I said go away!!” *Ding-dong* “Go the hell away!!! Ughhh.” Emily ran downstairs and opened the door to see Sheriff Davis standing on her front porch. “What is so urgent, Sheriff, that you had to ring my doorbell three times?”

“Sorry Emily, I know that you are worried and upset, but we have some new information about your sister you might want to hear.”

“What information? Please, please, tell me everything you know.”

“Well, we know your sister did not run away. We suspect it might have been a homicide. I am so sorry, and I know this information is stressful to hear,” the sheriff said, while fidgeting with his fingers.

“No! No, she’s not dead. She can’t be dead. This isn’t possible. Please oh please say this is just a premature verdict!” Emily’s heart started to ache, and she tried to hold back the tears.

“I am so sorry, Emily, but this is most likely what happened to her.”

“But — but they haven’t found a… a… a body yet.” Emily started to choke up.

“Again, I am so sorry, Emily, and we will get to the bottom of this, but please take care of yourself. Have a good day.”

“Excuse me, you don’t just ring someone’s doorbell three times, tell them their sister was murdered, and then say have a good day! I mean, what the hell is wrong with you?! Do you have no empathy? Just go away, just go.” Emily’s knees buckled as she fell to the ground.

Later that evening, the news had been spread around the town, and Emily finally cracked. She cried and cried until her face went pale and she fell on the floor.

*Ding-dong* “No please… please, no.” *Ding-dong* Emily couldn’t get up, she couldn’t feel her legs, and she just wanted this all to stop. She did not want to open the door. She just kept crying on the floor for a minute. Suddenly, she felt warm, strong arms wrap around her, and she just stopped crying.

“Luara? Luara, is that you?” Emily looked up only to see Jack’s face.

Jack was one of Emily’s best friends. He was a pale 16-year-old boy with brown eyes and brown hair, and although he loved Emily, he had never liked Luara. Jack had come to check on Emily after he heard the news about her sister. Emily started to cry again, and so he held her tighter.
“Hey Em, don’t worry. Nothing can hurt you when you’re in between my strong arms!”

Emily stopped crying, and Jack looked at her face to see she had fallen asleep. She must have been tired from not sleeping for a while, he thought. Jack stayed up as Emily lay asleep for three whole hours. When Emily finally woke up, stretching and yawning, she realized that Jack was still there and screamed.

“Umm, how long was I out?” Emily asked.

“Not long, only a couple of hours. You should sleep a little longer though. It’s not healthy for you to not get any sleep.”

“Thanks, but I — I have to find Luara!”

“Emily, Luara is dead. Sheriff Davis told everyone last night.”

“But — but they haven’t found a body, which means they don’t know yet.”

“I am sorry Emily, the sheriff announced it while you were asleep, they found her. Well… they found her remains.”

“What? But she’s only been gone for two weeks! That’s not enough time. It isn’t her. It isn’t her!”

“I really am sorry, Em. I’m here for you.”

“You’re lying to me! You’ve never liked Luara, and that’s why you’re telling me these lies! I don’t care what you say, I’m going! I’m going to find her!” Emily walked out of her house and slammed the door behind her.

As Emily walked through the town, she saw people smiling as if things had gone back to the way they were. They were acting like no one had gone missing, like there hadn’t been a murder and there wasn’t a body. Emily wanted to scream. She wondered why nobody was worried, why they weren’t acting like someone would if another person had been murdered. She started to cry. She ran as fast as her legs could go until she reached the police station and fell to the floor in front of the sheriff, bawling and screaming.

“Where is she? Where is the body you claim is my sister? Huh?! Where is that… that thing, that you have mistaken for my sister? Where is it? Tell me!!!”

Sheriff Davis took Emily to the morgue. They walked into a room, and Emily gasped. All that was left of Luara was her ripped up body, her bones, some rags which were her clothing, her hair, and her one blind eye. Emily felt a sharp pain in her stomach, her heart started to beat faster, and she was short of breath. She remembered when she and her sister were seven years old, and Emily had been sick with the stomach flu. Luara stayed up all night to distract Emily from the pain by talking about their birthday and how fun it would be. They had wanted to celebrate their birthday with all of their friends and eat chocolate cake. Emily never thought that this was the way it would all end.

Two days later, Emily finally stopped crying. She told the sheriff that he had better start an investigation right away. She was trying everything to get her mind off of the thing that they had called her sister, but nothing was working. Emily was sitting on the couch in the living room when she heard *ding-dong.* “Just come in,” she muttered.

Jack opened the door and came in. “Hey, Em, I think I have something to help you ease the pain.”

“What?”

“A party! I’ll be there too. It will help, just please come. Please.”

“Fine, I need something to help me right now, so I’ll try anything. Anything.”

“Great, then I’ll pick you up at seven.”

“Great.”

After Jack left, Emily got up, and she headed to her father’s room. He was passed out from being drunk. His closed eyes started to shift back and forth rapidly as he slept. Emily had never seen this happen to anyone before and did not know if this was normal. Emily looked at her father’s strange eyes in shock. Suddenly, his eyes opened up to reveal a glowing yellow, and Emily got scared and ran down the hall to her room. Emily’s room was clean and had two beds, one for her and one for Luara. It had pink, striped wallpaper that was starting to peel at the top. There was a leak in the middle of the ceiling and a metal bucket on the ground for the water to drip into. Emily sat on Luara’s bed and cuddled up under her sheets. They still smelled like Luara, and Emily felt safe and warm as she fell asleep.

When Emily got up, she was careful to not move the covers too much as she didn’t want to lose the feeling of Luara. She walked over to the vanity they shared and started to comb her hair, and when she looked in the mirror and saw the dark circles around her eyes, it was like she saw Luara. Emily called out to her.

“Luara! Luara, come here! Come back to me!!”

Then, Emily remembered it was her reflection, and she got so pissed that she punched the glass and shattered the mirror. Her fist was bloody, but she didn’t realize because of her crying. She suddenly heard the doorbell ring. Emily realized she’d forgotten all about the party as she fixed her hair and ran down to the door. She didn’t know why Jack had come early. She opened the door to see Danny instead of Jack.

“Uhh hi, Danny. What are you doing here?” Danny was one of Luara’s best friends. He was a 15-year-old boy with green eyes and dark brown skin. He normally never talked to anyone except Luara, but now that Luara was gone, he at least needed to talk to someone like her just one last time.

“I wanted to see Luara one last time. You look just like her, I’m sorry,” Danny said in a quiet voice.

“Uhhh… Co-come in.” Danny walked through the door and looked around as if he had never seen the inside of their old house before. “Danny are you okay?” Emily asked.

“Yeah, why?”

“You just seem a little out of it.”

“I’m sorry, I-I-I just miss her. I don’t really like people, but she… she was different.”

“I’m sorry, Danny. I understand how you feel. Hey, do you maybe want to come to a party with me and Jack tonight? I know parties aren’t really your thing, but it might make you feel better.”

“Sure, but ummm, is that blood on your hand? I can help you out if it’s a cut.”

Emily hesitated, she didn’t want him to think she’d done something bad. After a moment, she said, “Umm thanks, but it’s just raspberry jam.”

“Oh okay. Can I stay with you until the party?”

“Um yeah, sure. Just take a seat in the living room over there.”

The room was dusty and old. There was a sofa next to an old bay window and an old, antique coffee table in the middle of the room. On the wall facing the right was a big fireplace. The hardwood floor started to break. However, the room was cozy. Danny sat down as he waited, and just then the doorbell rang.

“Hi, it’s Jack. Em, you ready?” Jack shouted through the mail slot in the door.

Danny opened the door. “Hi Jack, Emily is upstairs getting ready. Come on in.”

After a moment of shock, Jack entered the old house and sat on the sofa. As he sat down, dust came up from the sofa, and he started to cough.

“Danny, are you okay down there?” Emily called.

“Yeah. Jack’s here too, by the way.”

“Okay, I’m almost ready.” Emily combed her hair, and she ran downstairs to see Jack and Danny. “You guys ready to go?” Emily asked. Both boys said yes, and so they got in Jack’s car and drove to the party. The party was at a tall townhouse made of brick. There was an alley on either side of the house. One of them led to a big backyard. The three teenagers walked down the alley and opened a gate to the backyard. There was loud music playing, people dancing with drinks in their hands, and Emily could swear she smelled a person barbecuing. The party smelled of cheap booze and roasting meat, and the smell of roasting meat would have been mouth-watering by itself, but mixed with the smell of cheap booze, it was nauseating.
“Hey, Em you want a drink?” Jack asked.

“Uhh… no thanks, I don’t drink.”

“Okay. Danny, you?”

“I’ve never had one before, but it must be fun!” Danny said.

“Lmao okay, two drinks coming right up.”

The three teenagers danced and ate. Emily wanted to leave. Danny and Jack had gotten drunk, and Jack was starting to yell angrily at random people while Danny was acting dazed and had started touching people and making them uncomfortable.

“Hey guys, I’m ready to go home now,” Emily said.

“Em, just stay a little longer,” Jack said as he started to laugh. Danny was passed out on a table by the speakers.

“Look, if you guys want to stay, I’ll walk home.”

“Okay, Em! Night night.” Jack started to walk back to the crowd of dancing people. Emily was shocked that he didn’t try to help her get home. She started to walk away and as she opened the gate to one of the alleys, she saw that the other end was blocked off.

“Ughh, damn it. This is the wrong side!” Emily said, and she was about to leave when she saw a person at the end of the alley. She wondered if he was drunk and needed help leaving. Emily walked up to the man but gasped when he turned around suddenly.

His eyes were shifting back and forth and glowing yellow. Emily thought they looked similar to her father’s eyes. His mouth was foaming and had two large, sharp fangs sticking out of it. He started to grow hair from all over. A tail sprouted from behind the man, and then all of a sudden he grew wings. Emily stared in shock. She wondered what this thing was and whether she was going to die. The thing looked at Emily and started to go after her. Emily ran, screaming down the long alley all the way back to the party. Her heart was beating so fast it felt as though it would burst. She was hyperventilating when she finally ran through the gate and tried to find her friends. She found Danny passed out on a table and grabbed him and started to shake him. Danny, still very dazed, said, “Hi Mom, what time is it? Is Santa here yet? Hauhah.”

“No it’s me, Emily! And what? It’s June! Get up, there’s a monster thing. Help! O-M-G, O-M-G, we need to leave!!! Come on, get up! Come on!” Danny started to get up as Emily frantically looked for Jack, who was dancing next to two women when she found him.

“Jack! Jack, come on we have to leave! There’s — there’s a thing outside!! It-it-it it’s a monster thing!! We have to run, come on!”

“You’re delusional, Luara! Did you meet my friends? Uhh… umm… this is, uh, blonde girl number one and blonde girl numbah two.” Jack waved his drink in the air. “Look at my big muscles! Huahha.”

“Come on, Jack, you’re drunk. We have to go! Come on!!”

“Luara, I told you to just go if you want to go! Just go the hell away!”

Emily couldn’t believe he was acting so mean, or that he’d called her Luara. Emily grabbed Jack and Danny, dragging them to the car. Suddenly though, her knees buckled, and she fell to the floor and couldn’t get up. Jack and Danny couldn’t help her since they were too drunk. They all watched as the monster thing flew over the brick wall of the alley and started to head straight toward them.

“Jack! Danny! Help, please! I can’t get up!” Jack and Danny’s bodies filled with fear when they saw the thing. Jack grabbed Emily and started to run to his car. He threw Emily in the back as Danny hopped in the back as well. Jack threw open the door to the driver’s seat, grabbed his key from his pocket, and dropped it. The three teenagers were too scared they had forgot that Jack had been drinking. His hands were so sweaty he kept dropping his keys, all while the thing was coming straight toward them.

“Jack, pick up the key! Jack, come on!”

“I’m trying to, it just — it just — ”

“It’s right there, Jack! Hurry!”

“Got it!” Jack started to drive away. He drove past the supermarket and turned the corner past the barber shop. They saw more of the monsters in the park, and as they passed, the monsters looked up at them. The teenagers felt their bodies go numb. They couldn’t move or speak. Everything was quiet. And then the things started to fly at the car. Jack hit the gas pedal and sped sixty miles per hour down the road. He drove past the houses and buildings until he crashed into a tree. Emily had been so scared she forgot Jack was driving drunk. She looked out the window and saw the things approaching them.

“Run, RUN, we’ve got to RUN!!!” she screamed.

The teenagers unbuckled their seat belts and tried to run. “I-I-I think I’m stuck! Danny, Emily, help me please!” Jack yelled. Emily and Danny helped Jack get out, but they cut his leg in the process. The three of them ran into a nearby store for shelter.

Emily thought about how her sister could have been killed by one of these things. These things could be people she knew! Emily thought about her sister and who could possibly have done this to her. Who could have hated her so much. And that was when she realized…

Emily gasped as a thought came through her head, and her body went cold. “Jack… where were you two weeks ago?”

“What? Why?”

“Jack, just tell me where you were.”

Jack frowned. “Emily… you — you don’t think that I could’ve done that to Luara… do you?”

“Jack! Where were you?”

“I don’t want to tell you!”

“What could you have been doing that’s worse than murdering my sister?” Emily demanded as she started to cry.

“I was high, okay?! I didn’t want people to know about it,” Jack said angrily.

Emily didn’t believe him. “That’s such a bad excuse, even I could do better! You were high? I mean come on, you could’ve said you were on a date or at a party, or even at the movies! But you had to say you were high? You hated her! You-you-you’re one of them, aren’t you?”

“What? No! You’re paranoid. Why the hell would I be one of those things? You don’t really think I’m one of those things. Do you?”

Emily and Danny started to back away from Jack. “St-stay away from us, Jack! Danny, we’ve got to run!”

“Guys wait! I said wait!” Jack grabbed Emily and threw her across the wall with all of his strength. “Emily, I’m sorry, but you can’t think I did that. Do you really think that?”
“Jack, why would you do that to her?” Danny helped Emily up and started to run out of the shop. As they ran, they saw Jack limping behind them trying to catch up. They turned around to see one of the things jump on Jack and rip him apart.

He called one last time to say, “Em, this is your fault!”

Emily started to cry. Her childhood best friend had just died. She had seen him get ripped apart, heard him scream… she could even smell his blood in the air. His screams echoed in her head, but she couldn’t think about them for long. She needed to run away.

Emily and Danny ran to Emily’s house. They didn’t stop until they made it in and slammed the door behind them. They fell to the floor as they tried to catch their breath, and Emily looked over to see her father sitting in a lounge chair. The fire in the fireplace was roaring in front of him as he stood up and turned around. Emily got up and ran to give him a hug. Her father was shocked, but he hugged her back. Emily started to cry again.

“Da-da-dad! Ja-Ja-Jack, he — um, he was the one who killed Luara,” Emily said as she tried to not get fully choked up.

Her father hugged her tighter, “Oh, sweet, sweet daughter. You innocent dumb girl… your friend wasn’t the one who killed your sister. You didn’t really believe that, did you?”

“What — what do you mean?”

“I mean, your friend didn’t kill your sister. You two come sit down.” Emily and Danny walked over to the couch and sat down. “Let me give you a little history lesson on your beloved hometown.”

Emily froze in fear, scared for what her father was going to say.

“A long time ago in Italy, there was a man who decided to create a new race. He made 23 of these, well, creatures, and he watched as they changed and they became monsters. The man tried to keep his creations a secret, but one night someone broke into his lab and found them. The spy told the city what he had seen, and they all grabbed their torches and stormed his lab. The scientist found out they were coming though, and so he took his creatures to the dock, and they fled in the night. He sailed to Louisiana where they were eventually attacked. The scientist was burned at the stake, and only thirteen of the creatures survived. The creatures ran until they were safe here in this town called Nessuno è sicuro. None of the people speak Italian here except for some ancestors of the original 13, but Nessuno è sicuro means no one’s safe. Emily, your ancestors are two of the original 13, and your mother and Luara weren’t safe here.”

Emily and Danny were frozen in fear, their lives had been a lie, everything they knew was a lie. “You’re lying, none of this is true,” Emily insisted.

“Then explain the creatures outside. Explain your dead sister — your dead mother even!”

“Mom died in a car crash, Jack killed Luara, and those things out there they are not real! I don’t believe it!”

“No Emily, I killed your mother, I killed your sister, and those things out there are your flesh and blood. They’re family.”

“No! Why would you kill Mom? Why would you kill Luara? You don’t kill the people you love!”

“Love? Who said anything about love?” Emily’s father let out a sneer. “They didn’t have the gene activated like you and me. They weren’t strong enough, and so I did what I had to do!”

Emily’s heart felt a pain she had never felt before, a feeling from deep, deep down inside her. The agony started to spread all over her body as she started to scream! Her eyes started to glow, her mouth now had fangs and was foaming. She grew wings, a tail, and hair grew all over her body. This pain felt like no other pain in the world.

“You’re changing. You’re doing it! Embrace it! Hahahaha!”

Emily’s mind began to shut off, her body charged at Danny — she didn’t mean to, but she couldn’t help it. Emily ripped Danny’s head off of his body, and it flew across the room. The blood splattered in her face and got into her mouth. It tasted bitter. Like… well, how else could you describe it other than like your friend’s blood? Emily’s mind was shutting off, and she could feel it. Her father started to run, but she grabbed him and threw him into the fire. She didn’t want to do this, and she tried to fight, but it wasn’t working. Her father’s body caught on fire, which set the house on fire, burning both her father and Danny’s bodies.

Emily flew out of the burning house and watched as it crumbled. As the monster took over Emily, she saw bright lights and heard loud noises coming from all directions. Emily felt like she was drowning and couldn’t swim to the water’s surface. She finally reached the bottom, and her mind fully shut off. Emily couldn’t see anything, feel anything, or hear anything. She was just asleep, and later that night she killed everything in her sight, until there was nothing left living in the small town.

Emily woke up on the cold, hard street. She looked at her hands to see that they were covered in blood that she didn’t know how had got there. She stood up, remembering nothing of what had happened the night before. The streets were covered in red, the air reeked of iron. Emily walked through the streets and saw bodies covering the sidewalks, guts on the walls, in the streets, in the trees, and even on the street lights. The remains of people she knew and people she did not were scattered everywhere. Emily walked over to where her house used to be and sat down on the burnt remains of the place she once called home. She wanted to know what had happened the night before. She wanted to know if she had caused all of this destruction herself, and more importantly, she wanted to know if she could do it again.

 

The Lost Gold

Once there was a bank employee named Paul who worked at one of the world’s most sophisticated gold vaults. It was called the global bank. Loads of gold was stored in the building’s basement. It was one of the largest in the world.

Paul was doing his normal business, working with people setting up bank accounts when his manager, Mr. Smith, told him that the security cameras in the gold vault weren’t working and that he must check the problem and fix it, as Paul was also an engineer. Only once before, Paul had been down in the vault.

The bank owner gave him the combination numbers to open the vault. There were several locks and complex doors; it needed to be like this to prevent any robbery. After the innocent employee headed toward the lower levels, he found the door. It was massive. There were so many intricate locks that laid in front of the door. Paul casually entered the combination code to open the vault, but something strange happened. The vault’s massive door was not opening.

Paul was completely shocked. The door just wouldn’t open. But then, he realized something. Mr. Smith only gave him the combination numbers, not the exact pattern. With six numbers in the combination, there would be tons of different six digit numbers to open the vault door. And then Paul thought, Why would my manager give me the numbers but not the proper code? Trying to avoid going back upstairs, he pursued the attempt to open the door. He tried each and every pattern possible. After nearly 30 minutes of trial and error, he finally opened the door with the correct code/pattern. When it was opened, Paul was amazed because he had only seen this much gold once in his life.

His boss had done another strange thing: he did not specify which security camera was “broken.” Paul examined each camera extra carefully and saw that all the cameras were working properly and were intact. He began to get a little suspicious. He was at the same time confused. He climbed down the ladder from the security camera in the ceiling. He was about to walk out until something strange caught his eye. One of the golden bars in the vault seemed to be chipped. A little, gray dot appeared on the gold bar. Paul inspected it closely until he uncovered a baffling sight. He realized the gold stored in the vault was fake when he saw missing paint on the gold. They were just gray steel bars painted gold.

Paul scratched the gold and sure enough, the gray steel became more visible. He was shocked. He didn’t know what to do, but he knew what was happening was wrong and that he should put an end to it. But he began to uncover something else. If Mr. Smith instructed him to fix security cameras that were healthy, why did he send Paul down in the first place? Did Mr. Smith deliberately do this because the gold was a counterfeit, and he wanted Paul to find out? Paul didn’t know why. He thought about calling the police. Never in his seven years working at the bank had he witnessed anything like this. He exited the vault and headed upstairs thinking to himself, The manager has recently been preventing people from going into the vault. But one thing still lingered around in Paul’s mind: If my manager was so protective of the gold vault, then why did he casually tell me to go down? Does he trust me? As Paul went to his office to tell Mr. Smith what happened, he felt a bit nervous. He opened the door to the manager’s office and stressfully entered the large and nicely decorated office. It had a beautiful, lavish floor and a modern interior design.

“I think the gold downstairs is fake,” Paul said anxiously.

“I know!” Mr. Smith said in an angry and annoyed tone.

Paul had no idea what to say next. “You’re a fraud,” he said.

“I’m no fraud, but a very clever person,” Paul’s manager said in disgust.

And with that, Paul left the manager’s office. But he had an idea. An idea that would expose Mr. Smith.

Paul believed that the bank’s money was stolen by the owner and kept in his household. And replaced with artificial gold. He assumed that Mr. Smith had stolen gold to sell it and make money. He was determined to stop it and decided to follow Mr. Smith to his home. So at 5:00 p.m., Paul got into his car and saw Mr. Smith enter into his car. Immediately, Paul followed him. After 30 minutes of following Mr. Smith, they began to exit the city and enter into a small town. Luckily, his manager was oblivious to the car following him. At the edge of the town in a large house isolated from the neighborhood, Mr. Smith stopped and pulled into the front of his house. Paul parked his car a few yards away and watched Mr. Smith walk into his house. But then, he realized that he didn’t think about how he would get into the house. After Mr. Smith entered his home, he got out of his car and walked around the side of his house. He looked through one of the basement windows. He saw a door and could see something shining through. It could only be gold. Paul found out how to enter into the basement. One of the windows was small and had a very small opening. With a stick he found in the front yard, he pried open the window and squeezed through and got into the house. He had a sack with him to hold the gold. He got past the door and took some gold and filled up the sack. It got heavy, but it was manageable. Suddenly, Paul tripped and made a loud noise. Seconds later, he could hear someone coming down the basement steps. Despite having throbbing pain in his knee, he threw the sack outside and climbed out, but as his leg got out through the window, Mr. Smith ran toward him. With all his might, the manager grabbed Paul’s leg and tried to drag him through the window. Paul, who already had his knee in pain, used all his power to pull his leg back. Mr. Smith was pulling harder than ever. He wouldn’t let Paul get away. But something the manager had just noticed was that the shoes on the “thief’s” feet were strangely familiar.

“Paul!” the manager screamed. “Come here.” Normally, people would think that Paul would break away, but instead he had the feeling that Mr. Smith was trying to welcome him. Paul decided to go through the window thinking he could uncover something.

“I understand you tried to steal the gold to give the police proof,” the manager said in an annoyed tone. “But there is a big reason I deliberately led you right to the artificial gold. You see, I secretly work for another business that’s illegally selling gold to make money. I led you to the counterfeit gold because I wanted you to join me. You’re one of my most intelligent workers. I want you to be part of this business.”

Paul knew this was wrong but realized he would make a ton of money. Still, he declined the offer, and Mr. Smith made a big mistake. And with that, Paul ran out through the window, and Mr. Smith chased after him.

“I will call the police. I will end you,” Mr. Smith threatened. Paul immediately got into his car and sped away. There was nothing Mr. Smith could do. Calling the police made no sense, because if he called the police, he would basically be calling them because someone declined a job offer. Paul was in total control of the situation. Knowing that he just caught someone doing something illegal, he could easily call the police and get Mr. Smith into trouble.

The next day, Paul told the FBI that Mr. Smith was making money in an illegal business. The whole FBI crew came that morning. Mr. Smith was furious at Paul and came face to face with him.

“I will destroy you,” he said angrily. But for now, Mr. Smith’s five-year imprisonment would keep Paul in good hands.

Paul was glad he did the right thing. He was well-known internationally because he exposed one of the most illegal businesses in the world. People in the illegal business knew about Paul and what he did. Despite all this glory, the employees in the illegal business that weren’t sent to jail were after Paul. And Mr. Smith would be back.

The hunter would soon become the hunted.

THE END (FOR NOW)

 

What Separates Them All

The air around the harbor blows every which way, cool gusts of wind sending the waves that lap by the shore into a frenzy. The summer sun sinks into the sky, replaced by dark clouds that settle on the horizon, as a light breeze shifts to colder, increasingly high temperatures, frigid enough to make the hairs on Farah’s neck stand up. Everything around here changes in a fraction of a second. The ripples in the water become choppy waves in a matter of minutes, the palm trees once static sway with such motion that they nearly blow over.

Farah detests it. The unpredictable weather breaks fishermen’s boats into halves, endangers the lives of the children swimming by the cove — making the entire village regard the sea with apprehension, despite centuries of the two living side by side.

She spends a month in the miserable seaside town every year. Any major city or outpost is hours away, and the nearest airport is nearly a day’s journey. The coastal village couldn’t be further away from any form of modern day civilization, isolated at the very tip of the Mediterranean. Neither is there any cellular service, and Farah quickly finds herself buried in boredom mere hours after her family’s arrival.

A clap of thunder startles her, and she turns away from the sea, just as a slow patter of rain can be heard as it drums against the roof of the house. Fanning an arm on top of her head to shield herself from the increasing speed of the downpour, Farah makes her way past the dock and up the coastline. Poor weather calls for hazardous conditions, and a night cooped indoors. She reminds herself that she’s only got twenty nine days left, and picks up her pace to make it back inside before she’s soaked to the skin.            

Farah can see the warm crackle of the fire and her family seated in a circle by the hearth through the window of the house, her younger cousin sitting below the easy chair as their grandmother weaves through Laila’s hair, her nimble fingers forming a neat plait that lies down her back. Her cousin enjoys their month in the village by the sea to an extent that Farah can’t understand. She holds a parallelled view — she can just remember the recent years of never looking forward to their summer vacation along the coast of Turkey.

The very truth is that when she’s here with her family, she never feels more out of place. Farah looks like them all, her tan skin and thick brown hair only a few shades lighter than the surrounding community. She can pretend she fits in all she wants, but she knows she does not. Her tongue can’t twist to form harmonized vowels or thick rolls of Ks and Rs, all everyone can hear is the voice of a foreigner. Her family attends the mosque every week, and Farah can merely hum nonsensical syllables that she strings together, can never blend into the way her relatives pronounce everything with such grace, as if the beautiful words can just roll off of their tongue. The fact that Farah is not bilingual is the defining factor that separates them all.

She wonders if her family is ashamed that she doesn’t speak the dialect like they do. They’d never fully accepted that fact that only one of Farah’s parents were Turkish, and her mother’s passing had made their relationship strained altogether. Farah’s grandparents had worked so hard to get Farah’s mother through her years of schooling, had risked so much to help support her when she moved overseas, and losing their daughter had left a heavy mark in their lives. Farah, the only child of her parents, was the last remaining bit that her grandparents had of their mother. Had she failed them for having the inability to hold on to what her mother had passed on?

When her grandparents looked at Farah, they saw the very same girl who’d stood in front of them decades ago, waves of dark hair framing her face, almond shaped eyes, exact matches to theirs. When they saw Farah, they saw the hope of the future their own daughter had had in her, the one who blazed trails and set a new path for herself, outside their bubble of home. But when her grandparents saw Farah, they also saw what they’d lost, and maybe Farah was too painful a reminder for them to see.

***

Farah greets her family and makes her way upstairs, her footsteps quiet thuds against the wooden floorboards. She shares a bedroom with her cousin, the very one that used to be her mother’s. The photograph by the bedside table makes her lips tug into a small smile — it’s one of her rosy cheeked mother, beside her two brothers, and Farah’s grandparents. If she looks at it close enough, she can see the resemblance of herself. When Farah’s mother was alive, Farah would share this room with her parents every summer. Her anne would sit by the floor of the closest and laugh with Farah, and the two would pour over old photo albums, and she’d show her the window that she’d rigged in her teens to sneak out at night without her parents knowing. Farah stands in the very same place she once did with her mother, seven years ago, thumbing through the old dresses of her mother’s that line the inside. She pulls one out and holds it to her nose, because if she tries hard enough, she can smell the familiar scent of rosewater and saffron, a comforting memory.

At the very back of the closet is a dusty pile of schoolbooks, ones Farah’s mother saved to teach her Turkish as a child. The covers are stained and pages are missing, but staring at the same images she did as a four year old help her formulate syllables she tries to sound out together. Learning Turkish isn’t too hard of a task, but only spending one month in Turkey doesn’t give her much time to learn the language properly. She forgets everything she learns once she gets back home, and she hasn’t met one person in her town who’s Turkish beside her. Farah knows that it’s hard for her father, but she’s caught in the middle. She looks nothing like anyone in the States, nothing like her father, and while her looks bear similarities of those around her when she’s here, she’s regarded as the yarim turk, the half-white Turkish girl.

Merhaba, Farah,” Laila passes a warm smile to her cousin, “wanna come downstairs with me? Baba brought new rolls from the market, and they’re toasty.” She glances down to where Farah flips a page of the textbook, “Hey, I remember those — Auntie Zehra used to teach us from them, right?”

She puts her back against the wall, facing Farah, “Here, I’ll help you — repeat after me! Baba will be thrilled to hear you say this.” She passes Farah a cheeky grin, “It’s, uh, merhaba kaltak.”

Minutes later, when Farah repeats the phrase to her uncle, his eyes go wide in surprise, and Laila’s brother has to conceal his laugh behind the table. He gives her a bemused smile, “Don’t let anyone else ever let you say that, Far. And don’t take lessons from Laila.” Laila is in peals of laughter, and Farah’s cheeks flame a bright red. But her uncle’s twinkle is bright as he tugs at her braid. “I’d be happy to teach you some — your mother would’ve loved to hear this.”

Farah rolls over on the bed that she and Laila share, just as her cousin nudges her. Laila’s voice is quiet, as to not wake the household, and her gaze drifts to the photograph that stands on the table, “What was his name, Farah?”

Her eyes close and her throat tightens, but she breathes a quiet response, “Imran.”

Laila reaches out to grip Farah’s hand, “I would’ve loved to meet him, Far.”

“Yeah.” The Mediterranean breeze flutters through the open window and blows stray hairs onto Farah’s face. “I would’ve, too.”

The warmth of her cousin’s embrace is comforting, and Farah lets out a breath that she hadn’t realized she’d holding. Seven years ago, Farah lost her mother, and her miscarriage had meant that Farah had also lost a brother. And the only thing she has left of them are the people with her now. If she can’t push herself to bridge that gap between the people she loves the most, then her family is going to be one more thing that she loses, too.

Her grandfather takes her out on his fishing boat the next morning, their quiet ritual of Sunday mornings. The salty sea air wafts through the breeze as he pushes the boat far out into the cove, as it bobs along the waves. Farah glances up towards the cloudy sky and hesitates before passing him the paddle, so that she can swim out to climb aboard. She wades in knee deep, and the fog settles across the sea, just enough so that she can still see where the boat floats on the sea.

As soon as she makes her way across the beach, the waves swell in size, and cascade abruptly against the rocks. Worry etches across her features as a clap of thunder echoes in her ears, and the summer sun seems to disappear under the expanse of dark billows in the sky.

Farah lets out a scream as the heavy seas overturn the boat, and her grandfather is swept under by the current. She keeps a trembling finger pointing at his exact spot, not wavering her gaze, to keep track of where he is. She shouts in broken Turkish and curses every bit of her bones for not taking the time to memorize the shouts of help. The calm sea seems to turn angry with rage, and the light hues of blue turn dark and stormy, reflections of the clouds overhead, the storm settling on the horizon. Farah doesn’t stop yelling even when her voice turns raw, consumed by the sound of waves crashing against the rocks — the dangerous, sharp landmarks that will kill any sailor if they’re thrown against them. Her knees buckle under her as the villagers run towards the water, her nails digging into her palms, and she sinks into the sand, a quiet sob escaping her throat.

Farah stays by her grandfather’s side through the night. The boat was torn apart on the rocks, and he’d washed up on the shore, bruised, bloodied, and battered, but with a wisp of a heartbeat still sound in his chest. They’d called the doctor and cleaned his wounds, letting him rest, but Farah didn’t dare to sleep.  She kneels by his bedside now, helping take shifts with her uncles and grandmother. The events of today register in her mind that the family she’s taken for granted for so many years, are the ones she could never imagine losing.

Her grandfather doesn’t stir for days, and neither does Farah, spending her hours tending to his needs and pouring over the dusty Turkish textbooks piled in the corner of her mother’s closet. Her uncle helps her, and her skills in the language increase more than they ever have in the past fifteen years. Because now, Farah truly has a desire to learn. When her grandfather wakes, he slips a wrinkled hand into hers, and she squeezes it gently, tears pricking her the corners of her eyes.

“You’re just like your anne, jaan,” he whispers. “You make me smile, just like she did. Your mother was wonderful. My Zehra was her own person,” his voice catches as he lets out a waver, “just like you are.”

Farah slides under the covers, next to her grandfather and wraps a gentle arm around him as he falls into a peaceful sleep, the warmth of his embrace just like her mother’s. The language that divided Farah from her family also brings them together, and as her eyes drift close, she realizes that just like the people she’s with, she might grow to love the idea of this home.

***

The salty summer breeze whips at her skirts, and Farah lifts her son up onto her hip, as they gaze out at the sea. “This is Turkey, jaan,” Farah smiles softly, and presses a kiss into his curls, ones very much like hers.

Where Farah stands is where her mother did, decades ago. And when little Imran’s fingers curl around Farah’s thumb in joy, Farah looks at the house behind her and down at the sands that seep between her toes, the water that washes against the beach. It used to be a reminder of what Farah lost. But now, it’s just a reminder of what has changed.

 

The Bathroom Mirror (Excerpt)

The next day, Mary woke up to find a note on her bedside. Of all things, her sister thought this was the most appropriate. Love letters on how much she missed her. Mary snatched the paper from her bedside and opened it. You have been warned. If it had been written in any other way, then maybe she would have taken it seriously, but the font Helvetica? Really? She was worth way more than this basic font. She discarded the paper where she did everything else: underneath her bed. Getting out of bed would have usually been a problem, but today it just felt like that day. She jumped onto her very gritty floor and nearly slid. She still slept with socks on, like a weird person. She glanced in the mirror as she headed to school, simply because she was that weird person who slept with their clothes for the day already on. You only ever realized this if you lived with her. From past “friends,” Mary had learned that telling people she poured her milk before her cereal was probably not a good conversation starter, unless she wanted to be teased mercilessly.

Besides all of that, Mary was walking to school with someone following her. Every step she took and every block she turned, she felt a presence there with her. She burst into a sudden sprint to school, and at the door she was greeted with a familiar face she hadn’t seen in quite a while. She was not sure if she should be mad because he never texted back or happy that Josh was finally back. He ran his hands through his thickly gelled hair, and she rolled her eyes. No greetings were needed, as they were back to talking about Josefin’s abnormally big ears. Secretly, she felt bad. Who was she to judge? But she was just so glad Josh was here, that she didn’t really care what they were talking about.

Finally, the elephant in the room was addressed. “So… where were you… all this time?” Mary said casually.

“Oh you know, just taking care of business,” Joshy struck back. Afraid to make things too awkward, Mary let it be at that. What business? Mary wanted to ask. What could be so important that you would just leave? And right after that whole mirror incident too? This was getting complicated, and she didn’t want to get too deep into it, so, again, she let it go.

The rest of the day, she went from class to class as if nothing was happening. But there was still a presence that she could feel following her. She kept looking back so hard that her neck started hurting. Her whole experience of just being was super eerie. Like when she had that weird dream of being in that girl’s body and that man… Mary didn’t understand why this was happening to her. Or why it would happen to anyone for that matter. In her confusion, she did what any other teenager would do and Googled it. She didn’t really know what to type, not that anyone had ever talked about being through this, so she looked up Bloody Mary. She saw what she expected. A Wikipedia page on how Bloody Mary died. Murdered in a dungeon by her caretaker, Harold Green. Chills ran down her back. Slowly, she was able to piece things together. She got up from crouching on the bathroom floor, as she smelt the girl in the next stall completely gassing the place. She scrunched up her face and ran out of the bathroom. Everyone knew the school bathroom was for meeting, talking, dancing, possibly peeing, or even making Snapchat stories if you were that girl, but no one ever actually used the bathroom.

With her face flushed, Mary ran to last period, her phone lodged between her books. She was probably the only girl too paranoid to leave her stuff in her locker.

 

Michael (Excerpt)

   

Chapter One

 

Daniel took a breath, stepping off the subway. His flight from Seattle had just landed, and he was able to catch a train that went straight from JFK Airport to New York City, his old home. Though he hadn’t visited the large city since three years ago, when he did live in the area, he still felt like he belonged there. He used to believe he did belong there, as all of his friends and connections were there.

His mother was able to get him a plane ticket and arrange for him to stay at his friend’s house for a week or so. Daniel was excited and could barely sit still on the flight. Texting and calling weren’t the same as seeing his friends in real life. He walked down the street, avoiding the crowds, while turning off airplane mode on his phone.

Daniel stopped as he noticed that he was there, at his friend’s home. It was arranged as a surprise for Percy, one of his good friends. He wondered how much they had all changed. They must have changed, hadn’t they? When he left, they were only eleven years old, and now he was fourteen. He was shorter back then, and he had changed his hair since then, and he wondered how much they had changed.

He wondered how much Michael had changed. Michael, his best and closest friend. Michael, the one who had drifted the farthest away from him after he moved. He couldn’t wait to see him. Daniel had decided on visiting him in the first few hours of his trip. He wanted to hug his best friend like he hadn’t in years, tell him all about life in Seattle, and see the people he had grown to know as part of his family.

He walked up the stairs, pressing the buzzer that was on the wall. He immediately got access, and a feeling of nostalgia ran through him as he looked up at the darkly lit stairwell that he remembered so well. He quickly climbed up the old stone stairs, his feet making soft thumps as he scaled the three stories it took before he was standing there.

Daniel stood in front of the door he remembered. It was a red door with a small peephole. Some of the paint had chipped off, showing the dark wood that was hidden underneath. He took a deep breath, swallowing his nervousness, as he knocked on the door three times.

“Mom, I got it!” Daniel heard someone say, who sounded very familiar. Though the voice was deeper and louder, he couldn’t help but smile at the sound of his old friend’s voice. The nervousness climbed back up his throat as the door swung open to show a shocked Percy.

“Daniel?” Percy asked, his voice quiet and shocked. Daniel smiled, looking his friend up and down. He had gotten taller, much taller (though Percy always had a few inches on Daniel when they were younger, he was at least half a head taller than him now). Percy’s hair was still the same dark brown, and his eyes looked like a more vivid hazel than they did three years ago. Percy wore a red T-shirt and jeans, and old, worn, black Converse that looked exactly like the pair he had worn when he was younger, though they couldn’t have possibly been the same as his feet looked five times larger than they were in the past.

“Hi, Percy,” Daniel said, trying to keep his voice steady when really it was shaking with excitement. Percy enveloped him in a hug, and Daniel hugged back, knowing he missed the feeling of his friend’s touch.

“How come you didn’t tell me you were coming back?” Percy asked as he pulled away, punching Daniel in the shoulder, causing him to yelp.

“Hey!” Daniel said, rubbing his shoulder. “It was a surprise. Your mom helped set it up.” Percy turned around and glared at his mom, who was standing in the doorway of the kitchen, her phone out and blinking, signalling it was recording.

“Wow, Mom, thanks,” he said sarcastically. “Here, come in. So, are you staying? You’ve honestly missed so much.”

“I think I’m staying for a week or two,” Daniel said, dropping his bag next to the door. He stepped into the apartment, which looked the same from what he could see. The light wood floors and cabinets on the walls were the same, and the kitchen looked the same — white cabinets and countertops, which looked good in Percy’s mom’s opinion (though Percy disagreed, as he had thought that all their science experiments they had done when they were younger would ruin the cabinets).

“How’s your mom’s job going?” Christine, Percy’s mother, asked, referring to the reason that Daniel had moved away from them in the first place. She handed him a mug of hot chocolate.

“Good, she says that she really likes it, and it pays well, so she thinks she’s going to stay there for a while,” Daniel said, taking a sip of the hot chocolate, frowning as it scorched his tongue.

“You always make it too hot, Mom!” Percy exclaimed when he took a sip, sputtering at the unexpected heat.

“Hey, it’s not my fault. I just turn on the kettle and that heats up the milk, not me!” Christine said, holding her hands up in surrender. “I’m going to take the dog for a walk. You two can catch up.”

Daniel looked at Percy in surprise. “You got a dog?” he asked. Percy had always wanted to get a dog, but he never could because his older brother Charlie was allergic.

“Charlie’s twenty now, and he moved to college. He’s actually in Florida right now, enjoying the nice, warm weather while we have to suffer in this cold,” Percy said, scowling. “But that means I get to have a dog.”

“What kind of dog is it?” Daniel asked, looking around, now noticing the dog bowls and kennel in the living room.

“A small one, some kind of mix. That’s what the breeder said, anyways,” Percy shrugged as the door closed, signalling they were alone in the apartment.

“And how are the rest of them? Jace and everyone else?” Daniel asked, sitting on the couch in the living room.

“He got another guinea pig, two actually. And a lizard gecko, and a few more fish,” Percy said, counting the animals that their friend had gotten. They called Jace the Animal Whisperer, because he always had at least five different kinds of animals, whether it be guinea pigs or snakes.

“How’s Michael? I haven’t talked to him in a while,” Daniel asked, causing Percy to frown.

“He moved. Somewhere in Oregon, I think.” Percy sighed, taking a sip of his drink, his mood lowering at the mention of their friend across the country.

“Really? When? Why?” Daniel asked. Percy shrugged, sinking into the couch as he took another sip.

“About a month and a half ago. I don’t know why he moved. One day he just disappeared, and we didn’t hear from him for a week. Then, my mom got a call saying he had moved to Oregon,” Percy explained, putting his empty mug of hot chocolate on the coffee table.

Daniel thought back to a month and a half ago. A month and a half ago, he was still in Seattle and texting his friends daily. But a month and a half ago, his messages and calls weren’t being returned from Michael. And then a month ago, his messages weren’t being delivered and his calls rejected. Maybe that was why, he had lost his phone or gotten a new one.

“My messages haven’t been sending to him since then,” Percy exclaimed, revealing a problem similar to Daniel’s. “My mom just thinks he got a new phone, but I think he would’ve told us before they disconnected his old one.”

“We should go to Oregon then!” Daniel said with a small, playful smile, causing Percy to laugh.

“Sure, ‘cause my mom would totally allow that five minutes after you stepped off your plane to New York. And we don’t even know where he lives!” Percy laughed, the mood lightening.

“Sure, but we could find out, maybe. I want to talk to him!” Daniel declared. “We need to get the group back together.”

Percy frowned. “But Daniel, you’re going to be here for barely a week. And how would we be able to find him?”

“Maybe the landlord of his old apartment knows something,” Daniel speculated. “Or his cousin! His cousin lives in Greenwich Village, on Fourth Street. They’ve got to know something.”

“Do you really wanna do this the second you get back to the city?” Percy asked. “We should at least go and surprise Jace. We can’t leave him out of this.”

“We’ll do that first. But please, I haven’t seen you guys in three years. It should be four of us, not three of us and one of them missing,” Daniel pleaded, seeing the conflict in Percy’s eyes.

“But Daniel, it was three of us and one missing for three years,” Percy said, causing Daniel to frown. “We never saw you, and we still managed to have fun. Sure, it wasn’t the same, but isn’t different good? What if neither of them have information?”

“But what if they do?” Daniel asked. “It can’t hurt to try, right?”

Percy sighed, standing up, and Daniel cheered in victory.

 

Telekinesis Boy

My name is Igor Parentheses Daily, and the moment I woke up today was the first day of the rest of my life.

When I woke up, my phone was on the other side of the room. I didn’t want to get up to reach my phone, so I imagined the phone flying into my hand and thought, That would be cool, so the phone got up and flew into my hand! I was so surprised that I dropped my phone. At least that turned the alarm off.

When I got on the school bus, I decided to test whether it was a dream or not. I went to say hi to my best friend, Daniel. We had been friends since we were three. We loved to play pranks on our other friends.

I went up to him and hollered, “Look! It’s a bird!”

He didn’t fall for it. He said, “I am not going to look.”

I replied, “Okay, suit yourself. It’s not my bag that’s being flung out the window.”

He turned around to see that his bag was hovering in the air, about to be thrown out the window by an invisible force.

Daniel responded, “Nice. Wait, did you steal my levitate-a-bag ropes?”

Suddenly, I felt nauseous. I realized that using my powers is hard. It also takes a lot of energy out of me. I would only use my power in small amounts from then on.

In gym class, our teacher Mr. Schwarzonator told us that we had to run the pacer. I decided otherwise. When he pushed the button next to the light switch, the program started.

“Get on the line,” he barked.

I got on the line just as the announcer started to speak. “The fitnessgram pacer test is a multi — ”

I was just thinking, The fitnessgram pacer test is a blah blahblahblah blahblahblah blah blah, when the announcer announced, “On your mark, get ready, start!”

I just stood there. Didn’t do a thing.

When Mr. Schwarzonator shouted at me, “Start running, Daily!” I still remained motionless. When he reached to blow his whistle, I moved it to the other side of the room. Now, it was Mr. Schwarzonator’s turn to stay motionless. By then, all the kids had stopped running and started high fiving me.

One asked, “How did you do that?”

Another questioned, “Wait, wait, wait. Did you steal my rope that I use to throw whistles across rooms?” It was probably the highlight of my day.

The next day, I decided to try and figure out how I got these powers. I searched my memory for what I did two nights ago. I started from after dinner.

First, I did my homework. Second, I took a shower. Third, I watched some of my favorite TV show, The Boss. Don’t see anything that could have given me superpowers then. I went back further, to around lunchtime. First, I went to boring classes. Second, I went onto the nice, little, abandoned cliffside that had ghost stories about it. Third, I went home to eat dinner. Which one could it be? I went on a limb and decided that it was probably the ghost-storied, abandoned cliffside. I decided to go back there the next day to find out more about my powers.

The day after that, I went to the abandoned cliffside after school. I saw these glowing, green rocks, but they weren’t green like grass, more like that part of the ocean you don’t want to explore. I picked one up and studied it. It was shaped unlike all the rocks I’ve ever seen. Instead of being circular, it was jagged. If someone told me it was a moon rock, I would have believed them. Then, someone knocked me unconscious.

I woke up in a lab, held down on a chair, and took a look around. There was a wooden desk in the corner, which looked unused and forgotten about, but that wasn’t my real concern. The sharp-looking tools on the desk were my real worry. I wasn’t going to get tortured! I looked at what was holding me down. It appeared to be a simple zip tie. I made the knife on the table fly to me and tried to get it to cut the zip tie, but it hit me instead! Owowowowowowowow! That hurt, but luckily, it was only across my arm, it didn’t stab me. I realized that without being able to see my restraints, I couldn’t move the knife toward them without risking it stabbing me. I had to take the chance.

I started to move the knife very slowly out of my plane of vision, hoping to keep it in control. It hit me, and it hurt, but as it hit me, it cut into the zip tie. I kept on cutting, and after three minutes or so, the zip tie broke. I decided to pretend like I couldn’t move even though I could, to throw off my captors.

After 15 minutes of this, an intimidating man walked in. He told me, “I want to learn about your powers.”

I replied, “Let me go!” Then, I tried to trip him using my powers, but he seemed to be able to deflect it.

He looked amused. “Well, well, well, someone is trying to use their powers. Sadly, this room dampens them, so no telekinesis for you.”

I didn’t believe him. “Well, that’s kind of funny.” As I stated this, I telekinetically picked up the extra zip tie behind him. I continued, “Because… wait, why can’t you move your legs?”

Mid-sentence I had zip tied his feet together. It was hilarious! He tried to walk backwards but tripped on the zip tie! When he fell back, I zip tied his hands together. Now that he was stuck, I stood up, zip tie free, and started out the hall.

Since this facility captured and zip tied me, I wasn’t eager to explore, so I just tried to find a way out, and while I was searching, I saw hallways among hallways of rooms looking identical to mine. I promised myself I would free those people later. I did eventually find the exit, at the end of the only hallway with no attached rooms or hallways, then left the building. After a couple of minutes and some asking, I oriented myself to the city and took a taxi home. When I got home, I decided that I would find the people that the scary guy worked with and turn them into the police, using my powers to help.

When I woke up the next day, I pulled my phone from across the room with no effort and realized that my powers were improving. I had so many questions about them. How did I get it? Is it like a muscle, so that I can improve it while using it? Does something generate it? I wanted to solve all of those mysteries, but first, I had to defeat that man. I am going to call him TG, for That Guy.

After school that day, I went and tried to find the lab, but was unsuccessful. I was shouting and was so frustrated that I couldn’t think straight. When I got home, I was watching a random TV show, then a Star Wars ad popped up. It showed Yoda telling Luke, “You will only find what you seek when you stop looking,” and I knew what I had to do.

On day five of having my powers, it was Friday, so I got out of school early and had more time to search. During school, I tried to develop my powers. In gym class, instead of moving Mr. Schwarzonator’s whistle across the room, I tried moving bigger things. While we were playing basketball, it was Daniel, a new kid whose name I forgot, and me versus the best kids at basketball in the grade. There was Peter, whose dad made him play at least two hours a day everyday since he was three. There was Coby, whose Mom played professionally for 15 years, and finally, last but certainly not least, there was Jack. Jack was six feet and six inches and was the only sixth grader that could dunk. He could also make any shot, as long as it was closer to the hoop than the half court line.

We were severely outmatched, with only two minutes left on the clock and my team losing by 15 points, but I had a plan. When the other team got the ball, they immediately passed to Jack, which they had been doing for that entire game. He got it and started going down the court, fast as a lion. I pushed the ball away with telekinesis, but made it looked like Jack just tripped. It went out of bounds, and my team got the ball. I took it out, passed it to Daniel, and told him to shoot, even though he was at half court. As he shot, I telekinetically moved the ball into the hoop, giving our team three points. I did this for the rest of the game, giving our team the ball, then making ridiculous shots. By the end of the game, we won by nine points.

After the game, Jack asked me, “Did you steal the ropes that I use to make ridiculous shots?”

After school, I set my plan in motion. I went near the cliff with the rocks and didn’t do a thing, like in gym class. I just stood there. Suddenly, I heard a movement in the woods and turned around to see my most fearsome foe. That guy! I faced him, ready for battle.

He said, “You know, Igor, I generate your power. It was me who originally found the stones, so I have the ability of telekinesis. It was also I who told the ghost stories about the cliff to keep everyone away from them. The only reason I didn’t knock you out the first time you came here was because I wanted to see if the stones still had any power in them. Now that you’re here, I assume they do. And you cannot defeat me, because I can stop generating the power, and you won’t have them anymore. The only downside to stop generating the power would be that I would no longer possess it, but that won’t matter if I am in jail. So, I will give you two options. Forget this ever happened and you can go about, freely using your power, and having a good time. Option two is that you fight me and die, or I will go to jail and you won’t have your powers. So what do you chose?”

I answered, “I choose the one where you stop making all of those incredibly long speeches.” Then, we fought.

At first, he had the upper hand because he had had his powers for so long, but I was catching up, countering his attacks and sometime putting in my own. Granted, we weren’t actually moving when we were fighting, just standing there, using our abilities and looking like statues.

After a couple of minutes of dodging and countering, blocking and dodging, he finally pinned me to a tree and muttered, “Don’t try anything funny,” but as he said this, I pushed him back into a different tree, so it sounded more like, “Don’t try anything fuuaaaaa!” Once he was pinned, he cried out, “Remember. If you take me into the police, I will turn off your power, and your life will be as boring as ever.

After he told me this, I had a split second decision to make. Do I want my power more than justice for that man? I was so startled by this decision that That Guy had time to get up and knock me unconscious once again.

This time, when I woke up, I was pinned down on a cold, metal table, with little droplets of water going down my forehead every five seconds or so. “This must be to distract me, so I can’t use my telekinesis,” I muttered. I also had a blindfold on, probably to keep me from seeing anything to move to cut myself lose. This was going to be hard to escape.

Suddenly, a voice whispered in my ear, “I know you’re awake. It must be hard to not be able to use your power after five amazing days of having them, but I can’t have you trying anything.” It was That Guy. He continued, “Guess what, Igor? I finally decided to just pull the stones from the dirt. I really don’t know why I didn’t do that before. Now, I don’t need the power I have now, because I can figure out how to take more from the rocks. You know what that means? No more powers for you!” And with that, he left.

Suddenly, I felt my power being drained from me. It happened so precipitously, like it was a bullet being fired from a gun. It was so painful, a bullet ant would have empathy. I made a decision in that moment. I would get my power back and stop That Guy. I realized that my arms could still move, even though I was chained to a table. I took off my blindfold and realized that the only thing holding me down were zip ties on my feet, which I quickly undid and went to the door. That was unlocked too. It seemed that That Guy didn’t care about me now that he took my powers. Good, that would make it easier to take his.

As I started out of the faculty, I decided to free some people along with me. The first one I freed was a timid, little seven-year old, and she told me that her name was Kira. When I asked her what her power was, she told me that she could control computers by hacking them with her mind. I asked her if she could see things on a computer other than data, like videos, and she said she could. I asked her if she could find glowing, green rocks on the security cameras, and she answered that she could and then gave me directions to them. I knew this was a long shot, but I asked her if she could remotely open everyone’s cell door, and she told me she could, but that wouldn’t undo the bindings. I was fine with that. I told her to open all of the cell doors, then free as many people as she could, and get out of there. She wished me good luck, and off I went.

I started down the path that Kira had instructed me to go to, but soon realized that whenever she said left, she meant right, and vice versa. This was going to be harder than I thought.

After a couple wrong turns and plenty of backtracking, I finally got the hang of remembering to reverse rights and lefts. When I reached the room they were allegedly in, I searched for the green rocks. The room was small enough that it wouldn’t be a major challenge to find the rocks, but my only problem was that the room was very crammed, with too many drawers to count, and materials strewn about. This might take a while.

Suddenly, I heard a loud alarm blare through the facility, and a soothing voice said, “T-minus 10 minutes until self destruction sequence initiates.”

After five minutes or so of hurried searching, with me looking at my watch all the time to see how much longer I had, I saw something green and shining under a tarp, so I decided to search it. When I lifted up the tarp, I heard a snap. It was a tripwire! I dove forward, trying to avoid whatever could hit me, but nothing happened. I was in the clear, for now. I went to the green rocks, and when I picked them up, an anvil fell where I was standing before I dove forward.

Suddenly, I heard a voice say from behind, “Well, well, well. Looks like someone wants their powers back. The only problem is, I will touch the stones, and then I too, will have powers.”

“I don’t want my powers back, I have my powers. If you haven’t noticed, I am holding the stones,” I replied.

Then, I used all of my brain power to push him back as hard as I could, and he flew into the doorway horizontally, so that his head and legs took the brunt of the impact. He started to get up, grunting, and I hit him again, this time focusing the push on where he hit his head. He screamed in pain, and then fell unconscious.

The computer voice spoke again, “T-minus two minutes until self destruction sequence initiates.” I looked from That Guy to the exit, then back to That Guy, and then lifted him with telekinesis, as if he were on an invisible gurney. Because I had to focus on holding him up, I put the stones in his lap so that my hands were free. Then, the computer said, “Self destruct sequence initiating.”

At first I was afraid, I was petrified, is the beginning of a song from the ‘70s that my parents like to listen to, but it is exactly how I felt. Afraid and petrified, but when nothing happened, I relaxed. Then, the room I was just in exploded.

I started running as fast as possible, with rooms exploding behind me as I went. This was very difficult because I had to maneuver That Guy out of the way as well. When we entered the hallways, filled with rooms of people, the explosions stopped, and I started to free them.

Then, the computer voice announced, “T-minus 30 seconds until next stage of self destruction,” and I almost panicked, but somehow managed to keep it together.

When I freed all of them, and told them to run for their life, the explosions in the cells started again. I started running, but for a split second saw a kid, maybe six or seven, held down in a room that I missed, and I knew what I had to do.

I think I had maybe five seconds until his room exploded, so I used that time to undo his bindings, throw him out of the room, telekinetically, of course, then, when the bomb exploded, I absorbed it in what one could call an invisible force field. I somehow didn’t die, so I ran out the room to the little boy. I didn’t have time to tell him what was happening, so I simply said, “Follow me.”

We started running as fast as we could down the hallway, the explosions going on around us. Suddenly, the computer voice announced, in between explosions, “Stage three of self destruction initiating.” I heard a distant explosion. Suddenly, the ceiling started shaking, and where we had been a second before got smashed by falling chunks of ceiling.

The six-year-old and I started sprinting, me occasionally sidestepping to avoid rubble that would have fallen on me, but the six-year-old just ducking under it.

He asked me, “Why are you sidestepping?”

I didn’t respond and kept sidestepping. We approached the last corridor until the exit, but we had one problem. It was filled with rubble, blocking our path. I focused my mind and tried to think of something peaceful, like trees moving in the wind, dancing, with the sun lighting them up, but in a good way, that makes you wonder why not everything is like that, and then, I lifted up the entire corridor.

It was so excruciatingly painful and stressful on my mind, I would not have been surprised if I lost my powers the next day. I almost dropped That Guy, which would have killed him in his condition. I wondered what the six-year-old’s powers were, but I had to stop because I had to put all of my energy into lifting up the hallway. I started to walk slowly through the corridor, and the six-year-old followed.

He said, “That’s awesome! I wish I could do that. By the way, my name is Aaron. Nice to meet you.”

I grunt-responded, “My name is Igor. Run until you reach the end of the corridor.”

But he, oblivious to the danger, said, “No, it’s fine. I’ve handled worse than falling building before.”

“Huh?” I replied, not having enough leftover brainpower to realize that his power was invulnerability.

We went on, with Aaron talking about how he loved pancakes and occasionally telling me a bad joke. He was really energetic. After what seemed like a lifetime, we reached the exit and stumbled out of the building, me exhausted, Aaron cheerful. What I saw before me was not superpowered children, but scared children, so I helped them. I went around to each and every one of them and asked if they knew their address, and if they did, told them to wait. If they did not, I asked if they knew their parents’ phone number. Some were older than me, the ones that just asked me where we were so they could find their way home, so I told them, and they went, but some stayed behind to help me.

Half an hour later, everyone was home. That Guy, whose name turned out to be Dexter, was going to trial. I asked the cops to not tell my mom that I was in danger, so they didn’t. Luckily, it was only six o’clock. I went home and took a shower immediately, so my mother wouldn’t ask what happened. After dinner, I started watching the final episode of The Boss, but in the middle, I realized that I would have to get rid of my powers. Because I put the stones on Dexter’s stomach, it gave him powers, but I got them first. I assumed that if I got rid of my powers, Dexter would lose his, so I had to do it. I focused all my willpower and imagined the power seeping out of me, and then, I tried to move my phone with my mind, but it wouldn’t work. I had lost my power.

I continued the show, and it ended without warning. The boss had just retired and was no longer stressed about anything. He was simply sitting on a lawn chair, on the side of a beautiful lake, with trees moving gently, like a dance, in the light breeze, and the sun setting slowly, yet beautifully. It was a very serene moment. Then, just as precipitously as my powers vanished, and my life returned to normal, the show cut to black.

 

Animals in Captivity

According to the Zoo Statistic, about 751,931 animals are living in institutions, and many of them are killed each year (Statistic Brain, 2017). Researchers have noticed that African elephants in zoos have lifespans of about 17 years, while wild ones live for about 36 years (Curiosity Staff, 2015). This is a massive difference, which means that zoos, where people collect wild animals in parks or gardens, are not beneficial to animals. Therefore, animals should not be held in captivity, as it harms them physically and mentally.

Starting off, many people say that the animals living in zoos will suffer physically and mentally, as their social needs are not the same or can’t be met in human society. Though some zoos do try to improve their conditions, zoos around the world differ in quality and in techniques for protecting their animals. An aquarium in Orlando called Sea World got a dolphin named Betsy who was previously in perfect condition and healthy. However, once Betsy arrived at Sea World, she started eating irregularly and quickly died (Sentinel Orlando, 2016). This conveys the fact that animals are not adapting to the institutions because they are held captive from their own lives, so there would not be any decent point in caging them. Adding on, people are harmed by keeping animals in captivity. There are incidents where dolphins kill workers or elephants critically injure people. It is a risk for them to be in zoos or aquariums, as these accidents are caused by the animals not being where they are originally supposed to belong.

Going on, multiple sources state how expensive zoos and aquariums are and also how they are a waste of resources to human civilization. Spending the money to create a “similar-looking” animal compound is less beneficial for overall conservation efforts. That same money could be better spent in a more centered conservation project. Some zoos spend upwards of $1 million a year just to maintain a single exhibit (Orens Shayna, 2017). There is a difference between having animals inside a small room with translucent walls for people to watch for entertainment and having them in places that focus on animals and their safety with much more freedom. According to Newsela, the San Diego Zoo in 2014 spent more than $10,000 on just advertising, according to its public financial statement. Like stated before, many institutions waste big amounts of money on things that are useless compared to other things the money could be spent on.

Furthermore, numerous zoos can’t provide enough space, so either way there isn’t a sufficient point in keeping animals when they could be free and live wherever they wish.

Tigers and lions have around 18,000 times less space in zoos than they do in the wild. In other words, zoos are not suitable for animals. There are sicknesses and diseases animals get from being too claustrophobic, which worsens the population. The territory becomes dirty and bacteria grow, making the animals become sick. Some say that keeping animals in captivity allows the animal population to be stable and stops certain species from being endangered. However, this is not the case. When animals are kept in small spaces, they become stressed, which causes them to not breed or reproduce. Having all the animals in captivity won’t prevent animals from being extinct and instead will be worthless.

All in all, animals should not be held in captivity, as it both harms animals and makes them suffer, since the human environment differs from their own habitats. Furthermore, there isn’t be any purpose, and it is a waste to keep animals in captivity. People come to zoos for enjoyment, and though these animals are stunning, their feelings and their lives are not the same in captivity.

 

Works Cited:

Orens Shayna. “Issue Overview: Should we have zoos?” Newsela, 2017. https://newsela.com/read/overview-zoos/id/28237/

Sentinel Orlando.SeaWorld won’t breed, replace unusual dolphins.” Newsela, 2016. https://newsela.com/read/seaworld-dolphins/id/14791/

Statistic Brain. “Zoo Statistics” Statistic Brain Research Institute, 2017. https://www.statisticbrain.com/zoo-statistics/

Curiosity Staff. “Do Animals Live Longer In Captivity?” Curiosity, 2015. https://curiosity.com/topics/animals-in-the-wild-versus-in-captivity/

Annabelle F. “Animals Should Not Be Kept In Cages” The Bell Magazine, 2014. http://thebell.global2.vic.edu.au/animals-should-not-be-kept-in-cages-annabelle-f/

 

Elite Cat Trainer

I used to be a dog person. Dogs were my whole life. I was a professional dog trainer, and not just any professional dog trainer. I was sponsored by Fluffy Friends™ and licensed by the American Dog Corporation. Until… my favorite dog, Betsy Fluffercins (the s is silent), a dog I had raised from birth, betrayed me.

One morning, I woke up to see her wagging tail only to be followed by her jumping up and pooping on my face. Even now, I am not fully recovered from this full-blown betrayal. But back then, I didn’t even want to live at all. I stopped eating, drinking, and doing anything that made me happy. I didn’t deserve to. I had failed as an elite dog trainer.

In my state of depression, I did the worst thing a man like me could do on his laptop. I watched cat videos.

But… what was this feeling? Why were these cat videos making me feel such a way? This… this was the same sensation I felt when I first met The One Who Shall Not Be Named. This was it. This was the thing God put me on this earth to do. I had to become…

The world’s first elite cat trainer.

I felt like I had once before. My drive to live had been restored. As quickly as humanly possible, I sprinted to my car and drove as fast as a Toyota could to the one place where I felt at home. Fluffy Friends™.

I sprinted through the automatic sliding doors, past bunnies, fish, and for the first time in my life, I walked past… the dog section. People gave me confused looks, knowing I was an elite dog trainer. Not anymore, I said to myself. Not anymore. And as I stepped into the cat section, I became a new man.

We locked eyes. A single tear rolled down my face, because I knew… I was in love again. She was gorgeous, a beautiful dotted pattern on her coat, and her lightning blue eyes made her stand out from the other Egyptian Maus. She looked stunning, no, heavenly as she groomed herself with her picture perfect pink tongue. I knew I had to do it, to purchase this majestic creature, I had to step inside… the cat section.

My first step hurt. I felt anguish through my entire body. Everything I’d ever known, gone. But, no matter how much it hurt, I knew she was worth it. My steps were slow and each one was like a stab to the heart, and I was about to turn back when, “Mew.” She mewed for me! At this moment, I swore I wouldn’t fail her, Betsy the Second.

Wait. What was this I saw. A… three-year-old trying to buy my cat! I was hoping it wouldn’t come down to this. I needed a weapon. This three-year-old girl was a fierce one, with nails sharper than daggers. I grabbed the nearest dog leash and used it to lasso the she-devil down. She wasn’t crying from the blood dripping down her face, but the pain of losing the one thing that mattered. Betsy the Second. After the questionable looks from the security guard, I quickly purchased the Egyptian Mau and took her back to my lovely Toyota.

The car drive back was quiet, and I didn’t know why. I tried all my usual tricks to get dogs to like me, but none of them worked! I fed her everything I could think of, from apples to zucchini. I was upset of course, but I assumed it would improve as the day went on. It didn’t. I was really questioning why I bought this cat in the first place. Until one fateful day…

I woke up ready to return Betsy the Second, when out of the corner of my eye, I made out the figure of a fluffy cat coming my way. Oh no! This is exactly how my relationship ended with The One Who Must Not Be Named.

“Just do it,” I yelled. “Just get it over with.” But then… But then… I felt a wet tongue gently stroke my face, and I knew I had made the right choice. Betsy the Second.

Once the ice broke, I found out how wonderful cats can be! They are so affectionate, but when you’re busy, you can spend some time alone without them bothering you. Plus after a week, my mice problem was nonexistent! Now I don’t know what I saw in dogs. While dogs are dumb and clumsy, cats are agile and quick-witted. Betsy the Second seems to understand everything when I talk to her! And because of our deep bond, she can perform marvelous tricks!

For example, I could never train Betsy Fluffercins (remember, silent s) to eat with a knife and fork, and Betsy the Second didn’t even need any training. I also trained her to jump through hoops one inch in diameter, and she has the ability to breathe underwater. (Unfortunately, after many tests, we have figured out that The One Who Shall Not Be Named cannot breathe underwater.)

This is why I think every human should have a cat. They are just as nice as dogs, but can be responsible when you need them to be. I haven’t doubted my decision to get a cat to this day… except for, you know, that one time. I am also proud to say that I am on my way to become the world’s first elite cat trainer. If you want to see her perform, she will be on Saturday Night Live and for the first time will be breathing underwater while going through a fire hoop.

 

The Purple Guard

Chris looked out at the barren desert, seeing nothing but sand. No trace of the Pobergontoply rock. He had hiked so many miles and still hadn’t found the Pobergontoply rock. He needed it in the next five weeks to bring back to HQ to get turned into a bomb to cover the Red Square with red blood. He took out his advanced tech to scan for the Pobergontoply signatures hidden deep within the sand. He had been searching for months and still had nothing. HQ would kill him if he didn’t have the rock.

The Pobergontoply rock was a rock from space that was super rare, and recently, a Pobergontoply meteor fell into the desert, but the meteor was so small that no one saw it fall. The organization Chris worked for had secret intelligence systems all across the world and were looking for Pobergontoply and noticed the rock fall. The Pobergontoply rock could be turned into a bomb that could completely decimate a country the size of France, and when dropped at the right spot, could destroy Russia’s capital and more.

Chris was part of a group known as the Purple Guard and was working to stop communism by toppling communist countries and destroying and killing countries and people that practiced communism. Russia was currently their main target and needed the bomb to destroy them. The KGB didn’t know anything about the plan or the Pobergontoply bomb, and the Purple Guard needed to keep it that way. Before becoming part of the Purple Guard, Chris was part of the CIA. What people didn’t know, was that the CIA secretly supported the Purple Guard, and Chris was sent by the CIA to observe progress.

After many long hours, the scanner started to beep.

Chris jumped up off his camel and frantically grabbed a shovel. He started digging, but after going down about half of a foot, he couldn’t dig farther. He dropped his shovel and scraped the sand off the hard surface. For the next few hours, he dug around the hard surface, and when he was done, he saw a smooth, shiny metal surface. He dug deeper, to pull out the rock. Two minutes later, he heard a low rumbling noise. He ran back as a huge metal creature rose from the ground. The creature was fully made up of metal, definitely a robot. It had a huge trunk and two long pointy horns Its large eyes were gleaming purple. It was an elephant, but it was way bigger than any elephant Chris had ever seen.

He pulled his computer out of his pack and quickly opened it. He hacked into the robot creature’s programming and found that it was sent as a gift to the Purple Guard by the Verlerbofs. The Verlerbofs were aliens who lived under the surface of Mercury. The Verlerbofs worked with the Purple Guard to overthrow communism. Looking deeper into the programming, he saw that the creature was programmed to eat any humans it saw. Chris began to get scared, but he then noticed that there was a way to control the elephant, and that was to sneak up to the robot and press a button hidden on the belly of the robot.

He crept forward as the elephant shook sand off its body. He crept closer, and suddenly, the elephant spun around, facing him. He knew that if he ran, the elephant would run after him, catch him, rip him apart, eat him, and kill everybody on the planet. He knew that his only choice was to run at the elephant and go for the button.

He dashed forward. The elephant swung his head, and the elephant’s trunk hit him, and he went flying backwards. He quickly got back up and ran at the elephant. The elephant began to swing his head, and Chris slid as he winced in pain from where he had hit the ground. The elephant stomped its, feet kicking up dust and creating mini earthquakes. Chris saw the button and reached out for it as his foot was impaled by a Pobergontoply horn. His vision blurred as he felt blood spilling out his leg. With a final jolt of energy, he pushed the button. The world went black.

Chris woke up to find that all his wounds were healed. He felt no pain on his leg where the elephant had impaled him, and he saw no blood staining the clothes he wore. He sat up to see the elephant facing him. A million thoughts whizzed through Chris’ mind. How was he healed? Did the elephant heal him? And most importantly: what should he call the elephant if he could control him? It needs a name!

He looked up at the elephant and asked out loud, “What should I call you?”

A clear male voice answered him.

“Call me whatever you want to call me.”

“Okay… Then I’ll call you Ray.”

“Okay.”

Chris asked another question. “Did you heal my leg?”

“Yes I healed your leg, and I also ate your camel.

“Uhhh… Okay. Well, can I ride you?”

“Okay.”

Chris stood up. He realized that he was in a dilemma. He needed to bring the Pobergontoply back to HQ, but in doing so, he would risk the friendship between the Purple Guard and the Verlerbofs. The Verlerbofs definitely didn’t want them to disassemble the robot, but the Purple Guard needed the Pobergontoply to create the bomb to make Russia go boom. Chris thought for a while but still couldn’t find a solution.

Chris had only come up with three options, ask the Verlerbofs for permission to disassemble the robot, bring Ray to the Purple Guard, or to go rogue and abandon the mission and be hunted by the Purple Guard. Being hunted by the Purple Guard was never good. They tortured and then burned people alive that disobeyed them.

Chris decided to bring the robot back to the Purple Guard. He hopped on Ray and rode across the desert. He rode all the way close to China where he made the elephant into a little sculpture. Throughout his journey with Ray, Chris grew very close to Ray. He took an air taxi to Hong Kong where he then went underground to the Purple Guard Headquarters hidden behind a secret door in the sewage pipes.

When he entered, he took in the familiar sights and smells of HQ. Computers sitting in a half circle around the door, a huge screen on the wall facing the entrance, and smaller rooms on the right and left sides of HQ.

He said hi to boss Luigi who asked where the Pobergontoply was. Chris reluctantly showed him the elephant. He knew that by giving Ray to Luigi, he would lose his friendship with Ray. He showed Luigi that the Pobergontoply elephant was a robot sent from the Verlerbofs and that he could control it. The boss told a guard to send it to one of the side rooms to be disassembled and then shipped to Italy to be turned into a Pobergontoply bomb. Chris lowered his head in defeat knowing that if he didn’t give Ray to Luigi, he would never get revenge on Russia for what they did to him. Chris went to a room behind one of the siderooms and then went down a long hallway, and at the end of the hallway, he entered his room.

When he entered his room, he saw his bed tucked into a corner of the room with a wardrobe across from the bed. The was also a chair, a TV, and a desk. He set his stuff down on a desk and looked at the photo that was on his desk. It was a photo of him and his brother the day his brother left for Russia. That day was 19 years ago. He remembered the day when the Russian government sent back his body. That was 17 years ago. He remembered seeing his dead body, he remembered burying him, he remembered enrolling in the CIA, and he remembered promising that he would one day destroy Russia. Now that was becoming reality.

Chris spent the next month preparing to be the pilot for the mission to destroy Russia (Mission 78). Chris insisted on being the pilot for the mission. He wanted to be the one to destroy Russia. And plus, this would be his last mission with the Purple Guard. After this mission, he was going to go back to the CIA. In this time, Chris thought about Ray and what they might do to him. The bomb was shipped back to Hong Kong five days before the mission was scheduled.

Chris took off. He flew his plane over China. As he flew over the target, he pressed the big red button. With a burst of speed, he turned his plane around. He heard a loud boom! He knew he had succeeded. He landed back in China 50 minutes later. The mission was a success. Most of Russia was now destroyed, and most importantly, Russia’s communist government was destroyed, and Chris had gotten his revenge.

For the next few days, the Purple Guard celebrated the destruction of Russia.

Ten days after the mission, a message from the Verlerbofs was transmitted to the Purple Guard.

You stupid losers!!! You killed our elephant, and your petty race will pay!!! We will come for you!!!

The Purple Guard began to get worried. They started setting up armies all over the planet and started to ask other countries to do the same. Two weeks after the message was transmitted, 37 spaceships were spotted. Right after that, the sky all over the world was darkened by millions upon millions of human shapes falling from the sky by parachutes. The next morning, Chris almost fainted.

Millions of humans were walking like zombies and grabbing or killing anyone that wasn’t a zombie. He took out a gun and opened fire on all the zombies. The bullets seemed to bounce off their bodies. The zombies all simultaneously turned on him and began walking towards him. He took out out a knife and threw it at the zombie. It pierced through the zombie, and the zombie fell down. Chris realized that bullets wouldn’t kill the zombie, but anything made of steel would pierce the zombies. He rushed at the zombie holding his knife. He stabbed all the zombies and moved on to other zombies. He told other people that things made of metal would kill the zombies, and soon, he had gathered up almost all of the survivors in an effort to make the zombies leave.

After three years of hiding and fighting their way through hordes of zombies, finally, the zombies left in their spaceships, but more than 79% of Earth’s population had been killed.

Chris led his group of people through the zombie apocalypse, and now they needed to start over. Chris started settlements of new cities and towns on the ruins of big cities. Chris easily became the leader of the new civilization he had started, and soon he had created a successful nation. But after 29 years of ruling his new civilization, Chris died of a mental illness, something like PTSD due to his horrific experiences with homicidal undead aliens from Mercury. His country continued to thrive even after his death.

 

Alice’s Choice

The air was filled with the taste of something creamy and buttery — cake.

Alice glanced up at the large, maple table overshadowing her, and then at the oversized, empty glass bottle laying beside her. The smell of cake wafted from above, and Alice knew that the delectable dessert was on top of the table. Doors of all variety and size adorned the walls, and the ceiling, well there was no ceiling at all! Instead, high above her was a long hole with a miniscule hole of light at the top. From what she could see, the sky was turning vermillion, as day was slowly engulfed by darkness. This must have been the hole she had fallen from, Alice realized.

How had everything gotten so big? she wondered. She recalled the tangy taste of the liquid she had drunk from the glass bottle, and then the tight, squeezing sensation that came after as her surroundings gradually grew larger and larger.

Alice crawled towards the bottle, its surface catching light and shimmering as she turned it over. The words drink me were inscribed on the bottle’s side, and she hugged her knees wondering what had just happened. Curiosity raced through her, ensnaring her mind in wonder.

Getting up, Alice paced around the room, examining each door. The doors had to lead somewhere, anywhere from here. Eventually, she came to a small, locked door her size, with a shiny door knob and gold paint peeling off from the door. An abnormally large keyhole was fitted above the door knob, and Alice could hear strange sounds coming from it, like a jungle. The sharp scent of something floral wafted from the hole, enticing her to come closer. Alice had to know what came behind it.

She scanned the walls, searching for anything that could help open this door, her eyes almost passing over a black key shrouded in the shadows. She picked up the key, about the right size for the keyhole, and the cold weight in her hands calmed her. A strong, metallic smell came from the key, permeating the air with the smell of iron.

The metallic scent reminded her of the smell of the pots and pans she would deal with at home. Everyday, she would wake up early to help her mother cook, but not out of goodwill. Her daily activities would include cooking, cleaning the house, and other menial tasks. The act of doing the same tedious drudgery every day eventually resulted into feelings of boredom and even resentment towards her family.

Alice realized that she wasn’t sure if she wanted to return.

“I don’t want to go back,” Alice said to herself.

“Nobody’s making you go.” A croaky voice rang out from the shadows, as a tall, green body stepped from the darkness.

A frog stood, fully clothed in a burgundy, satin suit. Shockingly bright spots of lime dotted his skin, and he twirled a wooden cane between his hands before finally setting it down and laying his webbed fingers on it. A black, silk top hat rested on his head, and his large, translucent eyes peered at Alice, who was staring back with wonder.

“What’s the matter, child?” The frog bent his knobby knees to lower himself to Alice’s level.

“I’m conflicted, I suppose. I don’t know if I should try to find my way back home, or continue exploring this… wonderful land,” Alice confessed.

“Well, why would you want to go home?” the frog asked.

“Because I know that place, because it’s familiar, and it’s home, and… and all of those things,” Alice said.

“But… ” the frog prompted.

“But this place, it’s so new. It’s so different from what I know. Everyday at home is the same thing over and over again; it’s driving me crazy,” Alice said. “And this place, it’s so full of wonders and things that I just have to explore.”

“Then, stay here,” the frog said, spreading his webbed fingers. He raised his foot and stomped on the floor, sending waves of dust flying, and revealing a small trap door in the floor.

“But I might want to go home!”

“Then, go home,” he lifted the door.

“But I want to stay and go explore this land!”

“Then, go!” the frog bellowed. He jumped into the hole, his voice echoing below the moss-eaten floor.

And then Alice was alone again.

She looked at the key, before setting it into the keyhole and turning it. The resulting click resounded throughout the large room. She set her hand on the doorknob and twisted it, pushing open the door.

Outside was a ravishing forest. Different types of flowers populated the sylvan landscape, and the sky was roofed by vast trees. The sun-dappled ground was covered with moss and ivy, and the forest smelled of petrichor and pine. Cool humidity settled on Alice’s skin, and a flock of birds flew past her. She soon realized they were not birds at all, but a deck of cards flying in the air.

Alice stood in the doorway. She could feel the allure of magic and wonder drawing her in. She lifted her foot past the threshold ready to set it down, but hesitation clouded her thoughts.

Alice knew that if she went back home, she would never have a life of imagination, of wonder, of freedom. This was the first time ever that she could have a change, a decision to make. Setting foot in this land would mean no more days of listless boredom and endless monotony.

But what if there were things, dangerous things, that could harm her in this land? Well, she just had to take a chance, didn’t she? The only thing holding her back from doing something new was her own doubts. It was a bet against herself, Alice realized. She brushed past her doubts and breathed in, ready to begin a new life in this land of wonder.

Alice took the chance and stepped into the forest.

 

The Darkest of Depths

       

The Bathroom Toilets

“Hey! Hey Daniel,” Jack said in a whisper. “Let’s go to the bathroom so we can escape class.”

“Okay, I’ve got Ben,” Jack said. “Let’s get going.”

“Great idea,” Daniel said. “Just let me finish this one problem… done.”

The classroom was big and had desks, chairs, charts, graphs, and number lines. Boring and extremely ordinary. Jack, Ben, and Daniel quietly snuck out and walked down to the bathroom while the math teacher, a big-eyed, brown-haired, tall, glossy woman, helped students with multiplication and division and direct proportionality.

“C’mon guys, let’s go! We don’t want somebody to catch us,” Ben whispered, racing down the hallway.

“Wait,” Daniel said. “Just because you’re quicker than us doesn’t mean you have to rush ahead.” He caught up to Ben and tugged him by the hand. Daniel received a visible shock, so he quickly pulled away from Ben.

When they got to the bathroom, they huddled in a corner.

“So, did you see that new game, the one with the amazing fantasy storyline?” Jack said.

“Yeah, I just got it this weekend. It is so cool! Totally worth the twenty dollars,” Daniel replied.

“Hey, check this out,” Jack said. He ignited a flame on his finger and plunged it into the sink nearby. The water sizzled and bubbled as it evaporated.

“Cool!” Ben said. Jack looked at his friends in the mirror over the sink.

“Hey, Daniel, your hazel eyes are really cool, especially in contrast to your brown hair,” Jack said.

“Why, thanks for noticing, I guess. Yours is really cool too, with your black hair and red eyes. And Ben, your blond hair and blue eyes are cool too,” Daniel commented.

“Thanks,” said Ben. “I think this all has something to do with our powers. I mean, your eyes would be blue like mine if you had electric powers, or red like Jack’s if you had fire powers, or nature colors if you had nature powers, like Daniel. Standing together like this, you really notice how different we all look.”

Suddenly, the water in the toilets glowed, and the toilets flushed for no apparent reason.

“What the… ” Jack said. Slowly, Daniel walked up to one of the closed stalls where he could see the toilet glowing and knocked on the door.

“Hello? Are you all good in there?” Daniel said hesitantly.

He realized the door was unlocked and pushed it open. “Hey, guys! Come look at this,” Daniel said. Jack and Ben slowly walked over and looked in the stall. The water wasn’t water anymore. It had become a swirling portal.

“Ah!” yelled Ben. “What’s going on!”

“Just what I needed,” Daniel muttered.

The portal glowed even more, and suddenly their feet were sucked down the toilet. “AHHHHHHH,” they yelled as their bodies went under, all of them trying to grab onto the slippery bowl of the toilet. The rest of the portal was flushed down with them, and the toilet flushed normally.

 

A Dark Realm with a Cold Reaper

“No matter how many times I do this, I never get used to it!” Ben yelled as they flew through the portal with its interdimensional purple energy swirling around them and sucking them forward.

“Look, there is the end of the portal,” Jack said. They flew out of the portal and landed on the floor with a thud.

Daniel looked up. “Wow, look at this place!” he said with awe. Everything was black — the sky, the floor. Yet they could see. They stood up and walked around with slight curiosity, but looked for an exit. It was just black as far as the eye could see.

Suddenly, a figure appeared. A hooded cloak completely covered its face and a scythe was strapped to its back. Two minions stood at its side. One was an elf-like thing completely made out of snow, with razor ice claws and teeth. The other was taller but looked the same, with a staff that had a crystal that looked like a mini portal. Then, the figure unveiled its face. It was a woman with a scar over and under her left eye, partially covered by an eye patch. Her long hair hung around her face like icicles.

“Hello,” she rasped. “I am Chloe.” Her voice was like nails scraping on a chalkboard and cold like an untamed blizzard.

“Uh, hey Chloe,” Ben said, then added in a whisper, “Guys, what are we going to do about the crazy psycho woman?”

Then Chloe said, as if reading their minds, “You could start by coming with me and being good little brats.”

“Um, no thanks,” Daniel replied, taking a small step backward.

“Maybe we could distract her?” Ben suggested in a whisper.

“Good idea,” Daniel said. “I think I know exactly how to do that.”

“My boss wants you preferably alive but, if forced to, he said I could kill you,” Chloe said, touching the blade of her scythe lovingly.

“Look, lady,” Jack said. “How much is your boss paying you to do this? Maybe we could strike a better dea — ”

“Silence, fool!” Chloe screamed.

“Just joking,” Jack said.

“Why do you want to kill us?” Daniel asked.

“Because I’ve always wanted vengeance on elementals like you. You see, about 3,000 years ago, I had a husband who was an elemental, and one day he and his other elemental scum found out that the eternal flame was flickering.”

“On my signal, we run,” Daniel whispered so Chloe couldn’t hear.

“Hey, I heard something about the eternal flame last year. What is it?” Jack asked, trying to continue the conversation.

“Who is your boss?” Ben asked.

“Not important. Speaking of backstories, yours is horrifying and dark. My kind of story. So anyway, he and his friends went off to save the eternal flame even though they knew they might never come back. In the end, they saved the eternal flame but didn’t make it out. I knew that he never really cared about me and only about his elemental pow — Hey, what do you think you’re doing?!”

Daniel, Jack, and Ben ran away as fast as they could in the opposite direction. Ben ran the fastest, tiny sparks flying behind him.

Daniel turned around and said to Chloe, “Hey, creep, as much as we would love to hear your thrilling backstory, we would rather not die.”

“Well, what are you waiting for? After them!” she screamed to her minions with rage.

Jack, Daniel, and Ben ran for five minutes, all the while rapidly dodging balls of glowing snow and balls of ice emitting mist.

“Careful!” Daniel said, looking back at the snow balls. “That’s liquid nitrogen. That stuff will freeze you solid!

“Look, a temple!” Jack said. Chunks of stone were everywhere, littering the ground like ancient ruins. It did not look inviting in the least, with the crumbling door/archway at the front and the old, half-eroded, scary dog gargoyles on the shredded flying buttresses, but they had no choice but to seek shelter there.

They ran through the temple, and then Daniel stopped.

“Go, I’ll hold them back!” Daniel said. He thought about nature with its natural energy and raised his hands. Tree roots snaked their way out of the ground and completely blocked the entrance. Then, he ran to catch up with the others.

“NOOOOOOOOOOOO!” Chloe yelled in frustration. “This can’t be!”

 

The Temple of Webs

Daniel finally caught up with the others deep in the temple.

“Well, we are finally safe,” Jack said. “At least for now.” He ignited a flame on the tip of his pointer finger so that they could see their terrible surroundings. Shadows danced across the walls like ghosts. The columns that lined the temple ruins were held up by stone statues of people, their rock-hard faces contorted in rage, fear, and agony. Cobwebs hung everywhere, some were unnaturally huge. The walls were embedded with fossilized bones and human skulls. Jewels covered the limestone walls and floor.

Except for Jack’s flame on his finger, everything was in total darkness. They then found a whole other room, exactly identical to the last one, except for weird paintings lining the walls.

“Wow, these look like ancient hieroglyphics,” Ben said. “If these are what people thought about, then they must have gone crazy at some point.”

On the walls were pictures of giant spiders breathing fire, attacking towns with fires, and having people run away before them. A tornado with an eye and claws was standing over the whole thing like this was some kind of show.

“Hey guys,” Jack said. “Does that eye look familiar to you?”

 

Suddenly, the room shook, and rocks fell from the ceiling. One landed near Daniel, and the shock wave sent him flying backward.

“Uh, guys,” Ben said in a very nervous voice. “ Do you hear something?”

“You mean, besides the rocks trying to crush us?” Daniel yelled.

“Yeah, he’s right,” Jack said. “It sounds like the shuffling of lots of legs. And look, the cobwebs are glowing!”

“Oh great, with our luck, we will have to… Ahh! A giant spider!”

 

With a thud, a spider that was very big indeed landed on the ground and hissed a loud hiss. Suddenly, part of the ceiling collapsed, separating Daniel from Jack, Ben, and the spider.

“Oh no, what am I going to do!” Daniel yelled in panic. “I have to find a way back to them! Wait, what’s that?” Under a pile of rubble, there was an eerie, purple glow. Daniel pushed away the rubble, and underneath there was a ledge. At the bottom was a little room that looked like it was going to collapse at any second. A portal swirled at the end, glittering invitingly.

Daniel slowly climbed down, but he fell and cut his knee in the process. Despite the pain, he stood up and walked to the portal. Maybe this portal will lead me back to my friends, he thought. Then, another crash shook the ceiling above him, and the walls started to move. With a start, he realized more spiders were awakening around him, and there were so many of them. Hurriedly, he bent his legs and jumped into the portal.

 

A Cheesy Fight

Daniel appeared on an island made out of a sticky, whitish-yellowish substance that smelled terrible. The palm trees, the sand, and the water were all made out of it. The only thing that wasn’t made out of it was the sky, which was still black. Daniel began to explore a little bit. The smell was revolting, and the yellow ocean stretched out for miles and miles on end.

“Man, this didn’t take me back to my friends, it took me to a yellow island. I wonder how to get off of it. Maybe you have to try and eat it ‘cause it looks a little like cheese? I guess that’s where I’ll start.” Daniel bent down and tried to bite the cheese, but he screamed in disgust. “What kind of cheese is this?” he said.

“The kind that gives you anger,” said a mysterious voice.

“Well, I guess if you put it tha — wait, who said that?” Daniel said. There was no reply. Then, suddenly, fins emerged from the cheese water, also made out of cheese. About ten or maybe more. They circled the island first, then jumped out of the water. The fins were attached to sharks made out of cheese. Daniel summoned cheese roots from the ground and hit the sharks out of the air and into the water with a sound like a bullet through the air. They hit the water with extreme force, sending cheese waves up high, and yet the sharks didn’t have a scratch. No dents in the cheese or anything.

Wait, Daniel thought, If these sharks are invincible, then how do I defeat them? Then, a shark much bigger than the others emerged from the water with a man made out of cheese wearing a cheese poncho riding it.

“This is what you might call a cheesy fight,” he said.

“Ha ha,” said Daniel. “Very funny.”

“To have the privilege to summon a portal to get off this island, you must first defeat me and my sharks,” the man said, squaring up.

“Oh yeah, before I destroy you, I want to find out your name,” Daniel said, bracing himself. “So… what is your name?”

“My name is Maxarella.”

I’m almost out of ideas to stall him, but I still can’t figure out how to defeat the sharks. Okay, it’s time to resort to the back-up plan, Daniel thought, sweat beating down his forehead. Suddenly, Daniel noticed marks on some of the sharks’ fins that looked suspiciously like bites. A happy, confident thought popped into his mind. Daniel bent his legs and jumped onto a shark and bit it as hard as he could. He focused all his anger on the cheese man for trying to kill him, all while trying to stop himself from gagging. The cut on Daniel’s knee immediately healed with little, green sparks flying from the wound. The feeling was refreshing, like being in a painful position and then being allowed to relax. I didn’t know I could do that, Daniel thought. The shark dissolved into mist with a sound that sounded a lot like a fart. That’s it! Daniel thought. That’s their weakness. Daniel summoned vines that carried him to the other sharks.

Some sharks ran away, realizing that Daniel knew how to beat them, while others tried to fight and ended up thrashing while Daniel was on top of them. Multiple times, Daniel was almost thrown off before he got the chance to bite them. Maxarella, meanwhile, was summoning balls of cheese from his hands and throwing them desperately at his oppressor.

“Well, Maxarella, it seems I’ve learned two things from this experience,” Daniel said as a cheese ball flew over his head. First, your weakness is that you can’t survive being bitten. Second, if I focus on my anger, I can heal anything.” He bit into the shark he was standing on. Just like the last one, the shark dissolved with a fart-like sound. Then, his roots carried him to the next one and the one after that and the one after that until all the sharks were gone, except for the big one that Maxarella was standing on.

“Well, Max, you’re looking a little blue like blue cheese.” Then, he hopped on the shark and bit it. The shark dissolved into mist with a fart sound.

“NOOOOO,” said Maxarella, as he dissolved into mist when Daniel bit him. Daniel rushed back to the island and looked around the tiny island for the portal. He soon found it waiting for him. Daniel quickly spit into the cheese sand to get rid of the terrible taste in his mouth. He thought about his friends and jumped into the portal.

 

Hopscotch with a Lava Pit

“Oh man,” Jack said, trying to catch his breath. “That… was tiring.”

“I know, right!” Ben said, also out of breath. “How did we even manage to defeat that spider?” Jack and Ben were sitting in the temple which had rocks strewn across the floor. Sweat was covering their bodies, and their hearts were pounding like drums.

“Well, we survived, and that’s the important thing… except for one of us,” Jack said.

“Don’t say that,” Ben said. “For all we know, Daniel could be fine, just trying to find his way back.”

Jack stood up suddenly. “Let’s see if we can dig through the rubble.” He tried lifting one of the rocks and fell back with a crash. “Man, these things weigh more than a ton, literally. There is no way we can get through.”

“Hey, look,” Ben said. “Are you seeing what I’m seeing?” He pointed to the spider with interest.

“Uh, an endless temple which we will never get out of?”

“No dude, I’m seeing a door inside the dead spider’s mouth,” Ben said.

“Yeah,” Jack said with sarcasm in his voice. “And pigs can fly — wooah!” A wooden door with a brass handle, shiny and new, was actually sitting in the spider’s hairy, slime-covered mouth.

“Should we go in?” Ben asked.

“I… guess,” Jack replied. They slowly walked in. The spider’s mouth was hot and sticky, covered in hairs. Jack and Ben tried hard to crawl around the hairs and also tried hard not to gag. Once they made it, Jack grabbed the brass handle and opened the door. The room on the other side was a long hallway with doors at the end. It smelled like sulfur and ash. They paused and listened, feeling the earth tremor below like the earth itself was angry.

“Whew!” Jack said. “I’m glad we made it out of that, because that was disgusting.”

“That must be the way out,” Ben said.

“There is only one way to find out,” Jack replied. He took a step toward the doors. Suddenly, fire sprang up out of the ground and engulfed his foot.

 

“Ah!” Ben yelled.

“Don’t worry,” Jack said. “Remember fire plus me equals no harm.” Then, a pit appeared at the end of the hall, and lava erupted from inside. “This hallway is filled with traps,” Ben said. “I can guide us through them.”

“Okay, the first part was obvious. The second part, not so much. How will you know how to guide us through them?” Jack asked.

“Oh, I’m surprised I didn’t tell you,” Ben said. “Remember that science class where we learned about electrical currents? Well, in that class I learned that I can sense electrical circuits, so I can sense the traps in the walls.”

“Cool, very cool,” said Jack. “But what about you? I’m okay with lava, but will you be okay? It could probably fry you.”

“No, I’ll be fine. Anyway, basically what I’m saying is, follow me and step exactly where I step.”

“Fine with me,” Jack said.

They slowly made their way across the hall, dodging axes, logs, flames, toxic gases, and random holes that appeared in the floor. They ducked, rolled, jumped, ran, punched, and ducked some more until they reached the lava pit.

“This whole thing reminds me of hopscotch,” Ben said. “Okay, last part is the lava pit. There are small columns of stone that we can use to get across. Step on the columns that I step on because some of them will collapse when you step on them,” he added hurriedly.

Step by step, jump by jump, they finally made it across the pit of lava. Then they ran to the doors and were about to open them when they suddenly disappeared.

“I guess this is some kind of illusion,” Ben said.

“Hey, look in the lava pit,” Jack said. In the pit there was a door about twenty feet down from the top, lying horizontally in the air. The smell in the air was worsening rapidly.

“Okay, this is definitely real,” Ben said, “so let’s get jumping.”

He jumped down and landed on the door.

“Now it’s your turn Jack.” Jack bent his legs and jumped but missed the door by a millimeter and flew down towards the lava. Suddenly, a lava geyser appeared and shot Jack back up to the top of the lava pit. Ash filled the room, making it nearly impossible to breath.

“NO!” Ben yelled. Then, using his electric power, he shot back up to the top and ran over to Jack. Ben knelt down and checked Jack’s pulse. He was still alive although he was laying still, his eyes closed, unmoving. In addition, weird fire swirls were running across his skin. “What am I going to do. He needs help, fast!”

Suddenly, an eerie glow rippled through the room. Then, a portal appeared in the wall and out of it shot a figure that almost knocked Ben into the lava pit.

“Sorry, Ben,” Daniel said.

“Daniel!” Ben said. “What happened to you?”

“It involved a lot of cheese with a cheese island and cheese sharks and a cheese man with a cheese poncho.”

“Well, Jack needs our help. He fell into a lava pit but is still alive.” After he said this, Ben stared at Daniel for a whole minute until Daniel coughed into his shoulder.

“Right, right. Well, what are we going to do about Jack?” Ben said, getting back to panicking about Jack.

“Okay, stand back. I got this,” Daniel said. He focused all his anger on the lava pit for hurting Jack and put his hand on Jack. All the swirls immediately disappeared, and Jack sat up.

“Whoa,” Jack said. “What happened?”

“Thanks to a lava pit, you nearly died!” Daniel said.

“Hey Daniel, you’re here!” said Jack. “Welcome back.”

“Thanks,” said Daniel. “But now we’ve gotta get out of here. The door down there is the way out, right?”

“Yeah, I certainly hope so, because we went through all this trouble to get to this door!” Jack said with irritation. “Also, I now know what it’s like to be burned. I think the lava is enchanted to burn even me. I haven’t been burned like that since, you know.”

Daniel summoned roots, flowers, and leaves and created a bridge down to the door.

“C’mon,” he said. They walked down into the lava pit and stopped at the door. Jack bent down and opened the door.

“Alright,” Ben said. “Let’s go.” Together they jumped through the door.

 

Deja Vu

As they sat up, they became more aware of their surroundings. They were sitting on a stone bridge, except the stone bridge wasn’t really stone at all. It was half rock, half molten magma, and they had bubbles around them to protect them from the heat and radiation. The bubbles were in the shape of their outlines and seemed to move with them. Not only that, the walkway was floating in space. Black with stars everywhere, in every direction. The infinite expanse of space was so beautiful, it was hard to describe. They could see the Milky Way, and they could see Mercury, Venus, and Earth. And, of course, they could see the infinitely huge sun stretching out before them.

 

Sunspots seemed to stare at them like huge, black, beaded eyes. Arcs of gas leaped up, and settled down again. The gas seemed to envelop them as if it was mist made of fire. They walked towards the sun slowly, in awe, but surely. As they approached the wall of fire that was the sun, the gas pulled back, revealing a tunnel made out of what seemed to be solid gas, like an arc of fire. They stepped into the tunnel, and then the gas wall closed behind them like a door. They walked through the tunnel for what seemed like forever. Then, they approached this pod-like object that was a disk with a semicircle of swirling ice on top.

“I think we’re supposed to jump on it,” said Jack with anticipation.

They held hands and stepped in it. Power surged through them like nothing had ever done before. Arrows made of ice that appeared on the walkway pointed them down the tunnel, and they knew exactly what to do. They ran. Because of the energy, they ran at over 10,000,000,000 miles per hour, speeding along the tunnel so fast they basically flew. The sun’s gas was rushing past them, resisting their speed, but they pressed on. Then, after a few seconds, an invisible force told them to slow down, and they came to a halt at a gateway made of ice, broken in half down the middle. All that energy drained out of them, like water in a spilled cup.

They seemed to be standing in ruins of a castle. There looked to be an invisible bubble of force that made a sphere-shaped hole in the sun, and that hole is where the castle was. Shards of white stone were everywhere. However, the path to the main part of the castle was still intact, with a little bit of chunks floating around it. They walked slowly up the path to the front gates of the castle. An entire half of the castle had been blown apart. They came to a staircase. Liquid nitrogen was foaming and dripping from two bowls, one on each side of the door. They walked down the spiral staircase, so deep in the castle that it was very cold, and they could feel ice-cold power trying to take over the heat that was the sun. They emerged in a room that was completely blown up. It was supposed to be a smooth field of ice, with walls surrounding it and a ceiling on top. However, instead the walls and the ceiling were completely blown apart, and where they were supposed to be were holes looking out at the sphere of gas that surrounded the castle. The only thing intact was the floor, but it was covered in rubble.

“Wait,” Ben said. “Look at that, in the center of the room.” They gathered around a circle carved into the field, with a mini circle at the center. Both of the circles’ outlines were glowing. Then, a line appeared, cutting both circles down the middle, and then the mini-circle split apart at that line and out rose a ball of light, so filled with energy and heat that it blinded them for a second. It smelled, emitted, and sounded like pure energy, humming with power. The ground around it was black and crackling with energy.

Then, light from the ball poured into Jack, making his hair turn red and blaze with heat and fire. His pupils in his eyes turned into little fireballs, and his entire body seemed to be emitting smoke. Light from the ball then poured into Ben. His hair turned blue and coursed with electricity. That electricity ran down his entire body and into his hands which sizzled with power. When the light finally poured into Daniel, his hair turned the color of wheat, with strands of hair turning into leaves. Markings like vines engraved themselves into his arms, neck, and legs, and a wave of dim light burst from him, healing injuries, and making everyone feel wonderful. They all knew instantly what this was.

“The Eternal Flame,” said Jack with awe.

 

A Cold-Hearted Reunion

Then, something else came out of the circle hole. A white wisp, almost like a ghost. Then, the white wisp landed on the ground. It swirled around and around, and then it began to change. It grew and shaped itself into a human shape and solidified into a woman with icicles for hair, a scythe on her back, and a long robe on her body. Chloe.

“AFTER THEM!” she screamed. Then, the ground shook, and thousands of wisps exploded out of the hole, solidifying into Icers, their teeth bared, their staffs swirling. Jack, Ben, and Daniel ran back all the way to the entrance in the field and stood there, facing the impossibly huge army.

“Now I remember,” said Jack to his friends. “This is the castle of that ice spirit we fought last year.”

“You dare try to steal the core of the sun,” said Chloe.

“Oh, so that’s what that was, besides being the Eternal Flame,” said Daniel in realization.

“This is vengeance for the last time we met. Icers, ATTACK!” Chloe yelled, waving her scythe like a maniac.

Jack jumped up 30 feet in the air and summoned an incredible amount of fire. He then blasted that fire in a wave of heat that vaporized at least five hundred Icers, shrieking as they faded into puddles. Ben raised his hands to the sky and summoned a very powerful lightning bolt that struck him. His hands sizzled, and he sped in the air towards the enemy and blasted them with electricity from his hands, cracking with heat and static as they pounded their targets. Daniel summoned a storm of leaves as sharp as daggers and pushed them telepathically towards the enemies. Then, he ran towards another group of Icers, raised his hands, and summoned vines that wrapped around all the remaining Icers, and around him. He drained their energy the way a tree drains nutrients. All the Icers were now melted water, or piles of snow.

 

“Your turn,” Jack said to Chloe with glee. Chloe screamed in rage, leaped up, swung her scythe above her head, and smashed it down. Ice power hit the three fighters, and they flew backward, their bodies smashing into the ground when they landed. Chloe then summoned a small ice and snow tornado, and sent it flying towards Jack.

 

The snow swirled around Jack for a second and then quickly dissipated, evaporated by his fire. Jack summoned a fireball that grew bigger and bigger in his hands. Heat rippled around him like water flowing. Ben stood up and started waving his hands majestically. Electricity arced between his fingertips, trying to escape. Meanwhile, Daniel breathed in and out heavily, and green energy flowed peacefully out of his mouth in tentacles towards Chloe. As they grew closer to her, they solidified into branches and wrapped around her body, tying her to the floor. Suddenly, a lightning bolt came from what seemed like nowhere and struck Ben’s hands. His fists were completely enveloped in electricity as he jumped up, swung his fists back behind his head, and crashed down towards Chloe.

The sound was unbearable, and the smell of ozone filled the air. Chloe was thrown back, her body rippling with electricity and her cloak flew around her. There was now a small circle of charred ground where she lay. Then, Jack threw the fire ball at Chloe. The whole world was on fire as Chloe screamed and the fireball exploded.

When the dust cleared, Chloe was gone. In her place was a divot in the ground, and in the center, was a man.

 

Germany

       

“Why can’t we leave this place?” Michael said.

“Why would you ever want to leave East Berlin? You have everything here. Food, school, medicine. Why would you ever want to leave?” his parents responded.

“I want to see the outside world!”

“Outside world? Pfft. Now go to bed before the Stasi comes to whip you!”

He went to bed without questioning it. He had seen people get whipped to the point of bleeding and get beheaded for more serious crimes on top of a platform that was right in front of the Brandenburg Gate, where the scandalous West Germans over the wall as well as the public could see it happening. These people were people who tried to escape through the wall or tried to steal something and survived but got beheaded (head melted off with a very powerful laser) on a daily basis. After he thought of this idea, he got up quietly and got on his computer. He searched on Deutschesuche and searched how to leave Germany. His computer started freaking out and spewed warning messages saying, Warning. Leaving Berlin will result in death or severe punishment. Do not attempt to do so. You have been warned.

He hoped the government wouldn’t find out what he searched, but they controlled the Internet, so he thought they might have already known and would come to arrest him the next day. He heard footsteps and instinctively fell on the bed to pretend he was sleeping. The door opened with a creak behind him, and he heard his mom whisper, “I think he is asleep,” and closed the door behind her.

The next day at school, he asked around with the teachers and students about how to leave Berlin. It was like the word “leave” didn’t ring a bell in their head. Besides the one or two people who whispered to him about how people got punished and beheaded for trying, the rest just stared at him blankly and said, “What?”

When he asked his friend Fritz, he said, “Shhh!! Don’t ever say that in public! If the Stasi gets wind of that, they’ll kill you and your parents at Brandenburg gate! No questions asked.”

He thought he might have already alerted the Stasi that he wanted to escape because he had basically asked everyone in the school. People had been known to rat out their friends and family so they would get a reward or a promotion in school or work. He couldn’t even trust his friends or parents. They could have easily turned him in and not blinked an eye. One lead he could follow was an old baker, a friend of his when he was little, who owned a bakery down the street and had tons of books in a secret closet. He used to read Western stories to him. But when he escaped through a tunnel that he built under the shop, which only he knew about, he found that the bakery was abandoned along with the books and the tunnel. He had not visited the place since.

A few blocks down the road was the bakery, an old building around when the cruel Nazis were around. The third and second floors were bombed out and boarded over the sign and the windows. He went to the back of the building and opened a dusty door, which creaked. He walked down the stairs to the basement. If you looked at the basement, there was nothing wrong with it. There was a pile of boxes in one corner and three sacks of flower in the other. But he knew there was a small tunnel just behind the pile of boxes. He moved the boxes with some effort and stared down the long, damp, and low tunnel. He crouched and moved forward. It felt like forever, but finally he made it to the end of the long tunnel. He came out in an old building’s basement. He could tell it was a basement because of all of the house junk that was lying around. He climbed up a hatch and got onto the street.

He heard, “Hello.” He understood that was English. He had made it.

 

Summer Bod: An Analysis of Body Image and its Impact on Young Women

Marilyn Monroe once said, “To all the girls that think you’re fat because you’re not a size zero, you’re the beautiful one. It’s society who’s ugly.” In the cruel environment we live in today, society’s wrath of a constant strive for perfection gets intentionally strung and tightened on the necks of so many young women. The media take a condescending pull at the puppet strings that control our lives, teaching people to not love and appreciate themselves but to instead strive for an image that a nonexistent monster (named society) created. Because of this horrible creature, self-esteem is threatened through advertisement, lack of representation in entertainment, and social media.

The dominance of the advertising industry uses a force-feeding strategy to commercialize a product by first demonstrating the idea that there truly is a problem to begin with. This mainly exists cosmetically with a constant strive to be “beautiful.” This endorsement approach not only sets unrealistic expectations, due to constant photo editing, but can even cause eating disorders for many young women. During a February 2018 photoshoot with a Riverdale star, Lili Reinhart, pictures of Reinhart were taken and photoshopped for Cosmopolitan Philippines’ monthly issue. Not only did this action bring outrage to the star herself, it also brought many unrealistic expectations for young girls across the country. With expectations being labeled as what makes you cosmetically “beautiful,” people often look to products the advertisers are trying to sell on the ads, even if there was never a true problem to begin with.

A lack of diversity and rendition in the categories of race, economic standing, and sexuality also leads to an overall decline in self-esteem. According to the Thrive Global website, “[A] lack of representation is isolating — it causes one to perceive themself as ‘different’ and unusual. Minorities and marginalized groups need to know they are included and celebrated as a regular part of the world.” (Thrive Global). In addition to this existing in the entertainment industry, social quarantine exists in the cosmetic industry. When selling foundations, many makeup companies across the world lack specific or even any darker toned products. When Rihanna’s Fenty beauty foundations were released, the darker shades, which were in a greater and more specific scale, sold out everywhere on the first day. This amazing accomplishment proved how more cosmetic diversity was needed but also how wrong beauty companies who believed that darker tones wouldn’t sell were.

Lastly, social media and its constant grind for attention has taken a toll on self-esteem in its own way. With each notification scientifically designed to release a chemical called dopamine, the system of followers, likes, and comments strikes a yearning to receive attention through “likes.” So, many people today constantly compare themselves to others with more likes or followers, which often leaves them with a feeling of worthlessness and a decline in self-appreciation. According to The Huffington Post, “60% of people using social media reported that it has impacted their self-esteem in a negative way” (HuffPost). In addition to this impact, social media also leaves people at a strong reliance on approval from others, even if it is through a screen.

Society’s wrath on so many young women creates a hankering to be superficially beautiful. Through objectifying ads, not enough delineation, and Instagram’s (and other networking sites’) hierarchical platform based on how many taps your photo received, my generation’s obsession with being prepossessing and personable has come to a high point in time. If we continue on this route, it will soon become impossible to see the true beauty in ourselves and in others.

 

Works Cited

https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/blog/the-influence-of-the-advertisement-industry-on-childr  en-and-eating-disorders

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/why-on-screen-representation-matters_us_58aeae96e4b01406012fe49d

http://time.com/4459153/social-media-body-image/

 

Little Lemon

Once upon a time, in the village of sugar lemons, Momma and Poppa Lemon had just announced the arrival of Lester the Lemon. Even from miles away, you could still hear Lester crying while his parents were celebrating. Sugar Lemon Land is all yellow and happy. There are positive quotes everywhere. The water is bright blue and sparkling. Everyone knows everyone.

“Lester, sweetie, don’t cry,” said Momma Lemon. Sweet lemons normally learn to speak right when they are born, so Momma could tell something was wrong. Speaking was an important aspect in sweet lemon life, because they need to communicate if they lose a sugar crystal or if a drop of juice gets squeezed out of them. If any of those problems occur, they will be taken to Sugar Sweet Lemon Rescue Center and get fixed, and if they don’t get fixed, they could have a permanent scar or injury forever. At day care, Lester was the only lemon who could not speak, and the teachers couldn’t give him what he needed. Ten different teachers came, and not one of them could teach Lester to speak. On Lester’s first birthday, a big surprise appeared. Lester spoke, and his first words were…

“When can I eat the sugar cake?” Momma and Poppa were overjoyed. At day care, Lester started making friends now that he could say “hi” or “what’s your name.” Lester was about to turn two when another obstacle came along.

“Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday… ” sung Lester’s friends. At that moment, Lester realized something. He saw that all his friends were sugared, and he was the only lemon that was sour. He suddenly felt so alone, so different. He ran into his room and shut the door. Back in the living room, Momma and Poppa were deciding whether they should talk to Lester or leave him be.

“I can’t believe he found out this way!” exclaimed Momma.

“I know, on his birthday as well. Let’s get him a sugar suit!” said Poppa.

“Are you crazy?! That would make Lester feel even worse!” said Momma. Up in Lester’s room, he was lying in his bright yellow bed, reading The Yellow Book: Volume Two. Then suddenly he thought, It’s okay that I am different. It means that I am special. I will prove that I am the same, maybe better than those sugar lemons! And with that, Lester jumped out of bed and opened the door. He looked at the better picture.

Even though sometimes Lester was left out, he also didn’t have to deal with problems like losing a sugar crystal. But Lester wanted to enjoy sugar lemon activities. He wanted to play Don’t Lose Sugar Hopscotch and Sugar Swimming Class. His friends included him as much as they could, but sometimes they just couldn’t. His parents tried to sugar him, but the sugar fell right off. There was also one problem. Lester couldn’t smile. He was sour. He wanted to, but he always had a bitter, mean look on his face which gave him a threatening appearance, even though he had a kind heart.

So for a few more years, life went on in the same way. He graduated from middle school, high school, and college. He got a job as a chef making banana pie and other yellow foods. Then one day, Lester did something unforgettable. He saved someone from going to Sugar Sweet Lemon Rescue Center. So here’s the story. It was a normal day, and Lester was taking a walk along Lemon Lane, and he saw a little lemon eating ice cream. Suddenly, he saw a sugar crystal fall off of her from the lemon peel. It was like in slow motion. He jumped and caught the crystal and put it back on her.

“Thank you so much, sir!” she said.

“You’re welcome. Make sure that doesn’t happen again!”

Soon, every lemon knew. News spreads fast like a busy bee. Lester became famous. He received huge amounts of money, which he donated to charities to help find new cures for illnesses, such as rotton sugar disease and such. He got the Sugar Award for saving a little lemon and when he got the reward, he smiled. A big, fat, non-sour smile.

 

Damaged World

The light was just coming up while Abby Red crept along the side of the river. The cries of the werewolf echoed in the distance. Glaring out of narrowed eyes, she hid behind a tree as the werewolf slunk past her. Abby breathed out.

“Abby, are we ‘afe?” her little brother Theo whispered, his front toddler teeth still somewhat nonexistent. She was about 15, her little brother about five. He looked up at her with wide brown eyes, his dark curls bouncing in the soft breeze. Abby’s eyes widened as she noticed the movement, grabbing Theo’s hand and pulling him along the path to town. She stopped after a while, licking her finger and holding it up to the breeze. Theo watched her intently.

“It’s going… east. Okay.” Abby glanced down at Theo. “Our scents will be blown to the werewolf, and then where will we be?” Abby looked up and screamed, shoving Theo out of the way. He tumbled to the ground, looking ahead just in time to see Abby get snatched up by the werewolf.

“ABBY!” he yelled.

“Run!” she shouted to him, kicking the werewolf so it would drop her. “Liam, this isn’t you!” she yelled at the werewolf, breathing quickly. “Let me go!” Theo couldn’t look away as the werewolf bit Abby, tearing her up and throwing her to the ground. Theo got up and ran, yelling for help from the other warrior patrols that were stationed out in Foxtail Forest. At last, he got to the Thundersong’s base, unable to get out any words but “dead.” Patrols went out to look, but they didn’t see anything besides a large amount of fur and a huge claw stuck to a tree.

 

Chapter One

I live in a damaged world. My old town, which I can’t remember anymore because I was barely one year old, burned to the ground when a group of pyromaniac elves got hold of Yoli County’s flint and steel supply. My old city’s inhabitants left when the famous Foxtail Forest werewolf, formerly known as Liam Towers, attacked Abby Red and we had to evacuate. Now I live with the Thundersong, a group of amazing people who are all dedicated to defeating evil. My dream in life is to be a warrior of the highest order. To be honored and respected. For people to know my name all over the world.

“Alexa! Are you up?” I look up sharply from my careful writing, accidentally smudging the last word in the paragraph.

“Yes, whoever you are, I am up. I was just finishing the summary of my entire goddamn life.” My little sister Katherine struts into my room, wearing a brand new, stretchy fighting suit. She’s about 11. My mother died just after she was born, so the only memory I really have of my mother is her brown, curly hair. I inherited it. Kathy twirls around, grinning at me, and I raise an eyebrow.

“What do you think?” she asks eagerly.

“Sweet,” I say, shutting the door to my tiny room in the Thundersong base. “Who got that for you?”

“Jacob. He’ll make one for you, too, if you want.” I shake my head, leaning back on my chair and putting my legs up on the desk. My room is one of the bigger ones, with oak paneling and a rug made from wool. I actually have windows to the outside. My bed probably has the best sheets, except for the hospital room. My desk is one of my prized possessions, except for my leather gripped daggers. One of them, which I never use, has a real ruby on its pommel. I’m a skilled knife fighter. It’s my calling card.

To the fighting suit I say, “Nah, that’s fine. Purple isn’t really my color.” Kathy moves my head up a little and ties my dark brown curls up in a ponytail. Most people at the Thundersong northern base have dark hair and dark eyes, skin of all colors, but I’ve never seen somebody with blonde hair and blue eyes up here. I myself have hazel eyes, a healthy mix of brown and green. Different people see different colors, usually — I like to ask.

“Okay, then. He could make one in blue or something,” Kathy says about the suit. She knows better than to press me, on anything, letting the subject drop after the last sentence. “Alexa, did you know that Theodore Red is going to join the Northern Thundersong base? I’ve heard he’s hella dreamy.”

“Theo Red?” I repeat, incredulous. “But… doesn’t he… he has post-traumatic stress disorder. Right? I mean, he saw his sister get bitten by a werewolf only miles from here.”

“I would think he has PTSD, it makes sense. But rumor has it — and this time the rumor is correct — that yes, Theodore Red is coming up North.”

“Wow,” I breathe, exchanging a look with my sister. “That’s actually pretty cool. He’ll have the best room in the base. Ya know, his sister was an honored warrior. And when she got bitten, Theo started training right away, so now he’s a really important person. At least he was, until he moved down to the South base and had to start all over again.”

Kathy finishes with my hair, handing me a mirror she got from one of our friends in the South.

“So, you’ve been working on your writing assignment?” Kathy asks me, peering over my shoulder to see what I’m doing. I nod, handing it to her.

“Yeah. I accidentally smudged the bottom word, but I’ll turn it in anyway. See how I do.”

“It’s a competition, right?”

I roll my eyes.

“Obviously. So apparently I win a training lesson with some really skilled dude. He’s only really skilled if his — ”

Somebody screams from down the hall. I’m on my feet in an instant, grabbing my shotgun and racing down the hall. My sister stops in her room to grab her katana. Adrien Young from the downstairs boys dorms comes sprinting up the stairs as we’re going down, causing a slight collision.

“What’s going on?” I yell, struggling to regain my balance without shooting anyone.

“I don’t know,” Adrien says, breathing heavily. “I just ran out of there. I think it’s a mutant or something.”

“Mutant what?” I demand, grabbing Adrien before he can run out.

“I don’t know!” he wails. I shove him and Kathy, and I run down, out into the main hallway. It’s a mutant, all right. Two huge wolves, no doubt from Foxtail Forest, are circling two of the youngest recruits of Thundersong.

“Eloise and Brianna,” Kathy tells me, looking pretty heroic in her new fighting suit. Her katana has a new handle cover, and it’s pretty awesome. “Hang on guys, we’ll be right with you!” she yells to the other girls. Brynn, Lee, and Josh are already there, trying to figure out a way to distract the wolves. Brynn tosses her black braid, pacing just like the wolves when she sees me. As I mentioned before, I’m a very skilled warrior, if I do say so myself, and I am respected. I worked hard to be where I am today. I started from basically nothing, joining the Thundersong just a little after the Abby Red scandal when I was seven.

“Okay, Alexa, what’s the plan?” Ross asks me, coming beside Kathy and me.

“I’m not sure,” I reply. “I want to try get someone on top of the wolves, and then we can try to stab them. Once one is down, the other one will either run — ”

“And we pursue it and kill it.”

“ — Or we trap it and find out how it got so… big and ugly.” Kathy laughs. Ross nods pensively.

“I think Kathy’s pretty nimble.”

“No, she’s not getting up there,” I say protectively, flinching when I imagine Kathy getting either thrown off the giant wolf or maimed by it.

“Got it. Katherine, run across the room and tell Brynn, Lee, and Josh what the plan is.” Kathy nods, zipping across the room and talking quickly to Brynn.

“Stay!” I yell. “I’ll go up!” I hand my shotgun to Ross. “Throw this to me once I’m up there.” Closing my eyes, I bend my legs and run. I leap on top of one of the wolves, just barely getting onto its back and getting a good grip. Ross hurls the shotgun up, but I miss it, just barely. The wolf howls, bucking wildly, and I yell in spite of myself. “Oh, God,” I mutter. I grab one of its ears, hanging on with my left arm while I try to reach my dagger at my belt. People are yelling, but I can’t focus on what they’re saying. Cursing softly, I grab my dagger and struggle to cut its neck deep enough. It yowls with fury as I score its neck, cutting the skin just barely. Desperately, I sink my knife into the wolf’s neck and surrender to gravity. I land on the floor nimbly, glancing up and feeling almost like I’m in an action movie. People clap, and I smile slyly to myself as I get to my feet. My ankle cries out in protest as I put weight on it, but I ignore it.

“Alexa, what was that?” my sister demands, running over to me furiously. “We all thought you’d fall off. Or die!”

“But I didn’t,” I say easily, brushing off my legs. “Nope, on the contrary, I killed one of the wolves.” Kathy rolls her eyes. “Let’s just focus on the last wolf.” We look up at the other giant wolf. It’s starting to fidget nervously, ticked off by the death of its friend. Brynn and Lee are taking turns slashing its legs and tail. By now, more warriors have arrived, including the heads of the North Thundersong unit, Jack Miller and Liana Beacon. Their son, Matthew, is my age and one of my closest friends.

“Dean, what’s going on?” Jack demands. We’re actually friends outside of battle, but right now he has to call me by my last name. I quickly salute the pair of superiors, explaining the situation with tense terms. The other warriors have caught the wolf and have it tied up in a corner. Matthew, who must have joined the fight, runs up to his parents and me.

“Should we kill it, Miller?” he asks formally, running a hand through his dark brown hair.

“Don’t kill it. We’ll do some experiments on it. But we do have to have it hidden somewhere before Mr. Red comes. I don’t think he would appreciate the sight of a mutant wolf,” Liana interrupts.

“Do we maybe have a spare building we can put it in?”

“We can put it in the empty basement,” I suggest. Liana nods, calling a couple warriors over and giving them orders to drag the wolf away.

“Are we going to try to shrink it down again?” Matthew asks.

“I guess? We’ll figure it out.” Liana and Jack walk away, leaving Matthew and I alone in the middle of the battlefield.

“Hey,” he says, as I start to walk away. “Did you start working on that writing assignment?”

I nod, turning around. “Yeah. What did you write for it?”

“Eh, just some crap about how I’ve lived with the Thundersong all my life. Honestly, I don’t know what they expect from me, that I came from three different villages and six different cities and that I want to be a blacksmith?”

I laugh. “What about you?” I’m about to answer when Matthew answers himself. “Actually, let’s head up to my room.”

“Okay, let me just grab my dagger from that wolf.” I quickly run and grab the dagger from the wolf’s neck, cleaning it off with my sleeve and sticking it in my belt. We walk together up the spiral stone staircase. “So, basically I wrote about how I came to the Thundersong. It’s not that interesting.” We turn left, scouting our way through the boys dorms and coming up to the biggest one. I love Matthew’s room. It has the most amazing bed, with giant windows that open to the forest. He has a dark brown rug with the Thundersong logo on it, a golden eagle with a silver lightning bolt going across it and a silver circle around the whole thing. I have one too, but it’s just a tapestry. I flop onto Matthew’s bed, staring up at the ceiling.

“I’d love to read it sometime,” he says, grabbing my ankle and pulling me off the bed. I flinch as my foot twinges again. He tries to discreetly pull his sword out, testing my reflexes, but my dagger flies out and blocks the sword. Matthew sighs playfully, tossing the sword casually to the side. Its rubber cover makes it bounce harmlessly off the floor.

“En garde,” he says, smirking. I smile, holding my ankle close to my chest.

“I need to go to the hospital room. I banged my ankle when I fell off the wolf.”

Matthew grins.

“Say no more.” He leans over, scoops me up in his arms, and we head down to the medic center. I laugh, hanging out of his embrace. He laughs too, grabbing my dangling arms. Our relationship is so easy because we’re nothing but friends, and probably won’t be anything more.

 

John the Cow, Escape Artist

The cow was named John. He loved to play with his master named Ron. Ron was a good master because he could be playful like when he patted John on his head, but he was sometimes bossy. Ron would also whip John. John was brown with white spots. One day, John was thinking about running away. He knew his master would know that he ran away by morning, but that would give him at least five hours to run. So that night, John started to escape. He ran and ran until it became dawn. He was so far away from his home that he did not know where he was. It was still countryside, which told him that he still was not away from his master. He continued to roam around until he stopped at a small village. He was curious because he had never been to one before. He walked up and down the street until he felt tired. He went to one of the alleyways and fell asleep.

Sleeping in the alleyway was dark and cold. John was used to the warmth of the barn. When he woke up, he was in a truck. Had his master found him? Where was he going? These questions scared him, so he tried not to think about them. When the car stopped, he could make out the word Slaughterhouse. He was going to get killed. He had to find a way to escape. When John clomped out of the truck, two men grabbed him and dragged him to the slaughterhouse. He got put in a locked cell, so he could not escape. He guessed that he had 24 hours to escape before he got slaughtered for meat. He had to come up with a plan, and quickly, for his life. Just then, a person shot a tranquilizer dart in his body, and he fell to the ground.

While John was sleeping, he had a dream about a plan that would get him out of the slaughterhouse. He would break the door of his cell open with all his might, then when the security came, he would go out the back entrance where there was no security because that was where the food got loaded up and shipped to markets in the country. He would run to the nearest ranch where he could blend in and sleep for the night, and maybe even make a friend to help him in his journey of running, though he would not give help to them after they ran with him. He had the perfect plan, all he needed to do was execute it.

At midnight, John broke the chain of his cell and started for the back entrance. He was met with security at the back end to his surprise. He tried to back away, but one of the men saw him.

“Cow!” he shouted and started chasing him.

John’s only chance to escape was to go through the main entrance which was heavily guarded. At least the guards at the front did not know what was happening. He had the element of surprise. John ran at full speed toward the gate which shocked the guards. At the last possible second, he jumped the fence and ran away from the slaughterhouse.

John started to roam around, trying to find a barn to stay at. He wanted to find a cow who would help him in his travels. At 9:00 P.M., he finally found a small barn to sleep in. It was a little smaller than his original barn, but it would do fine. Quietly, John crept into the barn. After he lay down, sleep overcame him, and he dozed off. In the morning, John woke up and looked at the other cows. When he talked to some of them, nobody wanted to run away with him. Saddened by this, John skipped breakfast and headed on his way. As he walked and enjoyed himself, he started to wonder what he was going to do now that he was free. All he wanted to do was to live in peace and not get captured. Suddenly, another cow came down the road. She was white with brown spots, and she was pretty.

She asked, “What are you doing out here?”

John said, “I am on a mission to stay away from captivity.”

“I hate being stuck in a barn. Mind if I join you?”

“I don’t mind,” said John cheerfully.

“I escaped by jumping the fence because I was curious what you were doing,” said Stephanie.

John and his friend Stephanie began talking about their lives and how they got to this point in life.

“I was born on a farm that was very small. My master’s name was Shawn. He was a well-caring man because he would always give me enough food to eat. He would tend to me every time I mooed, and I liked him. One day I mooed, and he did not come. This was strange because it was nearly noon, and Shawn should have been awake. Then, an ambulance showed up. I heard the sirens like it was my master calling. I figured out that the ambulance had taken my master to the hospital. I loved Shawn, and I didn’t want him to die.”

Stephanie told John that she had been living in the barn for five years and had never seen the real world. Stephanie and John decided that they wanted to live together, so John got a job killing weeds. He saved up five hundred dollars to buy a big shack.

John was living in a big shack with his wife Stephanie in Oklahoma.

“I don’t want to live in the small room,” said John. “I am bigger than you Stephanie.”

“But I want to be in the bigger room,” replied Stephanie angrily. “I’m staying here and that’s final.”

“You are being more bossy than Ron,” replied John angrily. He just wanted to get over it. “Fine. I’ll let you have the bigger room.”

“Thank you.” Stephanie put her hoof around his head and gave him a hug.

“I remember the old days when I hated my life. Those days are over now, and I have a new future ahead of me that I am waiting for us to explore together.”

 

Sandy VS The World

It was a cold, windy day in December. Sandy was huddled into the corner of the barn. The barn was empty except for her. The owners did not keep it very tidy, as there was hay scattered all around, and her deer poop was also scattered. The roof was crumbling, and the paint was coming off the walls. It was pouring outside, with thunder and lightning that made Sandy scared. She tried to make herself comfortable, but she couldn’t. She kept shivering, her teeth chattering. She wished she wasn’t alone. She wished there was someone, anyone, to hold her close and tell her it would be okay. Sandy knew that it wasn’t. Something was off, something happened, something was wrong. The owners did not like other animals, they only liked deer. The owners were not like any other owner Sandy knew. Sure, they fed Sandy and took care of her, but they weren’t the same. For one thing, the owners did not like other animals, only deer. They also rarely went outside of their property, only to buy groceries and other things like that. On top of that, they treated Sandy like a dog, which in some ways was good. Sandy learned how to be civilized and stay calm while someone pet you. She learned how to eat dog food, much to her dismay. The only thing that wasn’t like a dog was that she lived in a barn. She figured this was because the owners did not have much space in the house. She was used to this and was not ready to leave her home and be a normal deer like everyone else.

***

When Sandy awoke, the air was clean and bright, almost like last night didn’t even happen. The sky was blue, clouds were white, Sandy was calm. She walked to the front of the barn and used her nose to push the door open. The ground was wet and when Sandy took each step, the water flew up into the air like a bird. She walked towards the house. Her head was held high, trying to keep positive. She again pushed the door open with her nose. The owners always kept the door mostly open so Sandy could get in. They didn’t fear that she would run away. She pushed it open and saw her owners. At first, Sandy thought they were sleeping but when she stepped closer, she saw the owners’ face, their eyes fully closed, not wanting to open ever again. Their fingers were cold when Sandy put her head on them. Their faces were wrinkled but looked even more wrinkled than the last time she saw them. Then, Sandy started hearing rain. Then, thunder and lightning. Sandy jumped onto the bed with her dead owners and cuddled, wishing they were still alive. She stayed there for a little while, not knowing how long. Then, she got up and walked out of the room and onto the first floor. She walked out of the house and into the barn. She cuddled in the corner just like last night.

A few hours later, Sandy saw a stick pushing at her body. She looked up and saw a man with sunglasses and a blue uniform. He stopped pushing the stick into Sandy’s body when he saw that she “woke” up. The man was moving his mouth, but Sandy didn’t understand what he was saying. Then, he pointed outside of the barn. Sandy stayed still. The man pointed again. She stayed where she was. Then, the man took the stick and slapped it onto Sandy’s back. Sandy whimpered quietly. She stood up and slowly walked out of the barn. The man growled and left too. Then, he closed the barn door and locked it. Sandy saw yellow tape around the house, her house. She started running towards the house, but another man in a blue uniform stopped her. He also pointed her away, so Sandy left. She walked into the forest and kicked the sticks off the ground. The leaves fell on her face when she walked. Sandy sat down on a rock. Soon, it started to rain. She didn’t move under the tree. She let the rain drip on her skin. The rain moved down her back and onto the floor. Sandy just stayed there, not moving. She was scared, sad, and angry. When she finally did move, she wandered around the forest looking for food, any food, so that she could survive. Soon she saw some berries hanging from the trees. She lifted her head up and ate the berries. They were a little raw, but good enough for her to eat. She ate more berries until she was full. The berries made her a little drowsy, but she powered through and looked for water. She found a lake nearby where she was. She started licking the lake rapidly, leaning more and more forward. She was becoming careless, and soon enough, she fell headfirst into the lake.

Sandy couldn’t swim. She had tried to learn in the small river near the house. It resulted in her almost drowning and a wet house. Now she tried to remember the weird motions her owners had made to tell her how to swim. There was one that made a motion like scooping ice cream. Sandy tried that one now, and realized her limbs were too short to make the motion. Then, she remembered one where you made your hands go up and down frantically. She liked that one more. But soon she was too tired to do that one, and the lake was moving too fast. Sandy worried what would be beyond the river or if it went forever. She hoped it would be a big rock that would stop Sandy from moving and would allow her to go to shore. Unfortunately, that was not the case. When she came to the end of the lake, she saw that there was a waterfall. As she got closer and closer, she frantically tried to hold onto shore or at least not fall into the waterfall. Her hand fell on a piece of grub, and she managed to pull herself mostly up from the water. As she was about to step her foot on the land, a large wave washed her back and under the water. When she finally did get up from the water, she saw the waterfall just a few feet ahead of her. She knew she was doomed, so she closed her eyes and waited.

When she fell off the waterfall, her body was a mess. Her arms were frozen from the water, and her legs were cut from a rock in the bottom of the lake. Her body was soaked, her face scratched up. When she hit the water, her whole body slapped on it, hard. She was suppressed under the weight of the water. She pulled herself up and was very relieved to see land in front of her. She walked onto the land, bruises and all. At least she wasn’t dead. She found a leaf to cover her bleeding. She took it and laid it on top of her body. She let the blood ooze out of her leg and onto the leaf. Sandy ripped some of the leaf off and with some sap from the tree next to her, she put it onto her leg. Her owners did this to her when she got hurt, which was a lot. Sandy slowly stood up and walked, or rather limped, to the edge of the forest. She didn’t care what the man in the blue uniform had done to her. She wanted to be home and safe. She sneaked around the house and into the back door. She knew that the men wouldn’t know to come in this way since it was covered in moss and grass. When Sandy walked in, she saw men all over the house. She didn’t care though. She was done with the forest. She stayed low and avoided them as much as she could. She walked up the stairs where they were all huddled around the fire. Sandy went up to the owners’ room. The owners were not there. Sandy wished they were there, sleeping in their bed with Sandy between them, just like it was when Sandy was a baby.

A sudden knock jolted Sandy awake. Sandy quickly moved under the bed. Through the blankets she saw another person with a blue uniform, this time a woman. She heard moans and things that she couldn’t make out. Then, the officer started walking around the room, almost looking like she was looking for someone or something. The officer was getting closer and closer to Sandy until she was at the bed. Sandy’s body was shaking uncontrollably, The officer’s head slowly moved downward until it saw Sandy. Sandy jumped, and her head hit the bottom of the bed. Her body felt lifeless for a second until the officer grabbed her and carried her out of the room. Sandy was strung over the officer’s shoulder and carried outside of the door. The officer laid Sandy down on the pavement. She pet Sandy’s head softly. The officer took out a first aid kit and took out a bandage. She softly put it on Sandy’s head to stop the bleeding. For a while, the officer sat there beside Sandy until she had enough strength to stand up and go back into the forest.

***

Sandy was wet, cold, hungry, but most of all, alone. She didn’t want to be in the forest, but no matter what she did, she always ended up there. It was like the forest wanted her forever. Sandy knew she wasn’t meant to be in the forest. She was meant to be in the barn or in a house! Sandy was walking around the forest, perhaps to get some exercise, or to clear her brain of the horrible things that had happened to her. Her feet scratched the dirt down below. She focused on the different footprints. Large, small, large, ahh! Sandy had bumped into something. She looked up and saw herself? No, it wasn’t herself. It was another deer? It had brown marks on its nose and blueish eyes. The deer had the same color fur as Sandy but instead of having white spots in the back, it had a fully brown coat. Its ears were much bigger than Sandy’s but had the same shape. The nose was also bigger than Sandy’s but had the same color. The other deer grunted and brushed past Sandy, but as it did, Sandy tripped on a small rock and fell on top of the other deer. The deer grunted again. Sandy sheepishly stood up and shook the leaves off of her body, but instead of the leaves falling on the ground, it fell on the other deer. The deer grunted. Sandy saw a tree nearby with berries that she could store for the winter. The deer was watching her as she opened her mouth and started to bite the berries. Just then, the other deer pushed her away from the tree and shook its head. Sandy understood, she wasn’t supposed to eat that berry. The other deer took the berry and held it in its hoof. Sandy stepped forward. The other deer pointed to some black spots on the berry. Sandy nodded. The deer signaled to follow. Sandy followed. The other deer walked to the middle of the forest. Sandy saw a hole in the ground. She assumed it was his barn. The other deer jumped into the hole and disappeared. Sandy stood still for a moment, and then she too jumped into the hole. The hole was dark and only lasted a moment until she came to the deer’s barn. The barn was dark and wasn’t especially cozy. It had some moss in the corner, probably for sleeping. Another hole was there for going up. When Sandy looked up, she saw the ground, nothing more. The other deer lay down on the moss and closed its eyes. Sandy stayed where she was and sat down. She thought of her owners, how they held her close when she was scared, how they made her feel warm and cozy inside, how they taught her everything she knew which apparently didn’t help her in the wild. Sandy decided to wake up the other deer since she was bored. Sandy lightly tapped the other deer on the shoulder. The other deer jolted awake and groaned. It looked up at Sandy who was looking down at it. It slowly stood up until it was fully standing on the floor, then it started to move across the barn and up the ladder. Sandy followed, but the other deer stopped her, almost to get rid of her. Sandy waited until it was fully up the ladder and couldn’t stop her. Then, she too went up the ladder. The other deer was drinking water on the lake. Sandy was thirsty too, so she got some water too. She was again becoming careless, just caring about water. Then, it happened again. She fell in, but she didn’t. The other deer had stopped her. It had grabbed Sandy’s leg and pulled her up to land. Phew! Sandy knew she needed a protector, but she didn’t want one, so she just left. Into the wild.

Sandy shivered in the cold. She saw a man in green and white carrying a weapon of some sort. She had seen it on the owners’ wall. Sandy tried to hide from the man but soon enough, the man saw her. He quickly pushed something that made a bullet fly past Sandy’s face. Sandy’s face went pale when she saw it make a hole in the tree behind her. She couldn’t even see it anymore, only the hole that it had made. She wondered what would happen if it had hit her instead. She didn’t want to know. Soon another bullet was shot, Sandy ran as fast as she could. She didn’t want to run, but she had to. Her legs started moving as soon as the second bullet was shot. She soon was out of breath and had to stop. More bullets kept coming. Sandy shivered again but not because she was cold. The man came closer and closer, his weapon slowing him down. Sandy whimpered when she saw the gun aimed right at her face. She waited for the moment, but it didn’t happen. She looked down and saw what had stopped it.

The other deer had sacrificed its life for Sandy. Blood oozed out of the deer’s chest. Sandy felt a tear trickle down her cheek. She took a leaf and sap even though she knew there was no hope. Sandy looked up and saw the hunter. He aimed at Sandy, and Sandy realized he wanted the other deer for himself. Sandy ran away in fear, although she would miss the other deer a lot. She ran out of the forest and still saw the yellow tape and blue uniforms. She saw the woman policeman that had taken care of her and walked over to her. The woman smiled as Sandy put her head on her neck. The woman then looked at Sandy seriously and started to carry her through the streets. Sandy didn’t feel alone anymore. She felt welcomed and loved. The officer stopped at a house labeled 491. Sandy had learned to read from her owners. Endless hours and hours of letters and words finally paid off. The street was dirty mostly. She saw some stray dog near the trash can. She saw dirt on a lot of the houses which somehow made Sandy feel more welcome. The officer obviously didn’t have a lot of money, but Sandy liked that better. The officer opened the door and stepped inside. The officer started to write something on a piece of paper. The officer held it up for Sandy to see. It read welcome home.

 

140 Miles to You (Excerpt)

     

Chapter One: The Blood Test

“This is not how I would like to spend my weekend.” That’s exactly how my best friend,

Isabel Cheston was feeling. Sitting in the doctor’s office one Saturday morning. She actually wasn’t really sitting. She was pacing the large white room while freaking out about her blood test. I could see why — she was getting four vials of blood drawn! Her hands were sweaty and clammy from her worrying. Her short brown hair tangled and knotted from her pulling.

“You’ll be fine, I promise” I said. “They just want to make sure your blood is healthy.”

“That really makes me feel better, Kosette!” Isabel snapped.

Surprised by her icy tone I paused. “At least I’m coming with you on a Saturday. Give me that much!” When Isabel didn’t respond I added, “Your mom is taking a long time parking the car.”

She glanced at me, but before she could respond the doctor opened the door. “Isabel, you may come on back.”

Isabel looked back at me and mouthed “Thank you.” She turned toward the doctor. “Can my friend come back with me?”

The doctor hesitated and looked like she was about to say yes. Then she thought better of it and said to Isabel “How about your friend stays in the waiting room, and you can see her when you come out. You’ll be done in no time and besides, your mom is coming up. See there she is!”

Isabel slowly nodded, her face crumpling up like she was about to cry.

Suddenly, Isabel’s mom hurried in. “I’m sorry I’m late Dr. Blakeman. The parking lot — it’s insanely full!”

“It always is” he agreed. “Isabel, can we come back now that your mom is here?”

Isabel nodded. The doctor took Isabel’s bony shoulders and guided her to the back rooms. Her mom following behind.

“You will do great!” I called. “I will be here when you are done!” I sat back down and sighed. I grabbed a Sports Illustrated magazine but my eyes weren’t reading the words. I couldn’t focus. Isabel’s blood was fine, wasn’t it?

 

A week later I was with Isabel in her backyard. The Florida air playing with our hair. Isabel had emerged from the back of the doctor office last Sunday acting fine. My worries had left… somewhat.

I still couldn’t shake the last few months out of my head. All the times Isabel had seemed okay, but then suddenly not okay.

One time that really worried me was when we were at Daytona Beach together. We were boogie boarding as we always did when we went to the beach. She suddenly looked up and said

“I’m tired, I need a break.”

“What about a few more waves? Then we can take a break and recharge.”

Usually Isabel was as active as me, preferring soccer and basketball to reading and writing. So I was pretty surprised when she strongly replied “No my knees are really hurting. I NEED to stop.”

“Fine” I agreed. “We can hit the ground running this afternoon. Sorry you are not feeling well.”

 

And now we were here. Sitting outside her house braiding each other’s hair. This was also a break from yet another fun activity, soccer.

And yeah, Isabel had been the one to ask for it.

Suddenly her mom ran outside and hurried over to Isabel. I expected her to yell that Isabel and I had left the ball in the street. Despite there being barely any cars on the road. She just looked at the ball without really seeing it.

“Isabel come with me.” Isabel stopped braiding my long brown hair and followed her mom back into the house. She turned around and shrugged as if saying she didn’t know what was going on.

I automatically followed Isabel. Her mom turned and said to me “It would be best if you could just stay here, alright? I need to talk to Isabel about a few things.”

I nodded but of course, being the nosy nine-year-old girl that I was. I had to know what was wrong. As soon as Isabel and her mom disappeared into the house I silently crept to the sliding glass door to listen.

“How?!” Isabel’s response was high-pitched. She always got like that when she didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t either. My heart pounded so hard I thought both of them would hear it. I wanted to stop listening. I couldn’t tear myself from the door. I heard Isabel’s mom reply. Her voice sounded muffled, as if I was underwater. I tried desperately to piece together what I was hearing and only grasped this: Isabel’s blood test from last week came out positive for some type of cancer. She needed the right blood. She needed to go to the hospital to get the wrong blood removed from her system.

 

I slid the door open a crack. I could now hear clearly.

“Isabel it’s called leukemia” Isabel’s mom said slowly.

“What’s that?” Isabel asked. “I don’t understand!”

“Imagine you put gas into a car” Isabel’s mom explained.

“The gas does not react well in the car. It’s the wrong gas. The car becomes sick. The car has to go to the automotive shop to get the right gas put into it. Then the car becomes healed. You have to do the same.”

The doctors will put the right blood into your body. And you’ll get better.”

“When do we leave?” Isabel’s voice cracked like it was on the verge of breaking. When her mom didn’t respond Isabel asked again. “When? When?!”

My heart felt like it would break out of its cage. I anxiously raked my hands down my hair. My fingers running along each strand.

“That’s the thing, Isabel, we have to start treatment quickly,” her mom responded after a long pause. “We leave for the hospital tomorrow.”

 

19 minutes

I woke up in the morning to realize that my alarm clock hadn’t even gone off yet. It was only four in the morning. Meh, who cared? I would be early for work. Plus, I was the head of the company, no one could get mad at me for being early — right?

Wrong. My assistant publisher was always screaming at me, like, “Grant! Don’t forget your meeting at ten o’clock sharp!” Blah blah blah. Now, I know that I talked about her as if she were annoying, and don’t get me wrong, she was; but she was a real lifesaver.

One time, I had planned a meeting with the president of France, and I totally forgot about it. But thanks to her screaming, I didn’t miss it. Today though, I’m not here to tell you about how dumb I could be sometimes, because today I’m going to the Amazon rainforest. I was flying to a lab where they tested on plants — or, that’s what they said. I was here to find out if that’s what they really did.

Nine hours later, I was at the Harper Labs Plant Experimentation Center. First of all, the place was huge. I don’t mean like the White House huge, I mean like if the Empire State fell over huge. I was twenty-three, and I was the most famous reporter in the world. That meant I’d seen a lot of things, but never something like this. They had hundreds of thousands of plants everywhere. If they were trying to hide something, it was one hell of a cover story. Dean — the man who scheduled all of my interviews — broke me out of my daydream.

“Grant, Grant!”

“Huh,” I replied like an idiot.

“Your interview is in a half hour, so pull yourself together!”

“Sure, dude,” I replied. Dean acted all tough, but on the inside he was a total softie. I’d actually known Dean since I was 15. He was 17 at the time, but we were — and still are — best friends. Dean told me that the name of the man who was going to give us a tour of the lab was Jaden William Smith. When he came to give us the tour, I was quite surprised to find that Jaden was actually a man in his mid-thirties, tall (about six foot one), with light blond hair and green eyes.

“Welcome to Harper Labs. My name is Jaden Smith, but you can just call me Jaden.”

“Thank you for having us,” I replied, slightly in awe.

“So, you ready for that tour?”

“Yes, sir!”

“Please, just call me Jaden.”

“Okay,” I replied.

 

After about a half day of the tour we, ended like this.

“This is the experimentation room,” Jaden said, pointing to a room on the right, “and finally, this is the testing room.”

“What are all those rooms?” I asked, wondering why he hadn’t shown us those rooms.

“Oh, just boiler rooms,” he replied.

I wasn’t convinced, so I said, “Why do you have so many?”

“It’s a big building.”

“Ah I see,” still suspicious.

“Dean,” I said, “can I have a word”

“Sure, wassup?”

“Well, you know the boiler room?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Well, I don’t think they’re boiler rooms.”

“Why?” he asked curiously.

“Well, why do they need so many boiler rooms in the Amazon?” I told him.

“Big building,” he suggested.

“I don’t think so, let’s check.” I walked up to the door and turned the knob.

“Damn, it’s locked. Dean?”

“On it,” he replied. What most people didn’t know about Dean is that he studied in the police force. Nobody knew why he became my interview assistant. If anybody asked him why, he would just say that he didn’t want to talk about it. Thanks to his experience though, he knew how to open locked doors.

We couldn’t be seen, so I told Dean to stop. I went over to Jaden and asked him where the bathroom was. “Two hallways to the left,” he said. I thanked him and called Dean to come. When we got to where he said the bathroom was, we kept walking until we got to a boiler room. Dean worked his magic, and the door clicked. The first thing I noticed was that it was freezing in there. This was no boiler room. The next thing I saw were shelves, thousands of them, lined with a purple liquid. The room was huge, as if it took up half of the lab, but how could that be? We had already seen two-thirds of it. Then, I realized that this room was far bigger than that. It stretched about four floors down. I looked at Dean to see him staring at everything through slitted eyes.

“Dean,” I whispered. “This can’t be a la –”

Beep! Beep! Beep! A loud alarm went off, and then we heard a voice over the speaker. “Evacuate the premises quickly. We have had a leak in sector 1382 C.”

“What the… ” I was confused. What was sector 1382 C? What type of leak? I checked my watch, and it was 6:22. Then, I was reminded of the evacuation. Dean and I dashed out of the place and into the hallway. It was chaotic. People were running everywhere, but as a reporter, my job was to find out what was happening. I started running against the tide, Dean on my back, until bam! I lost consciousness for a moment. When I came to my senses, Dean was standing in front of me with a woman. She resembled my sister Claire. Wait. It was my sister Claire. She helped me up and told me to follow her. She led us into a strange room with lots of strange looking animal statues.

“Claire! What are you doing here?”

“Hi, brother. I work here.”

“What! You told me you were a travel agent.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not. We need to get out of here.”

“No. Not until you tell me what’s going on.”

“Ugh. Fine. This isn’t a lab for plant experimentation.”

“Yeah, I realized that,” I interrupted.

She continued, “It’s actually an animal mutation center.”

“What do you mean? What about the purple liquid. Is it — ”

“You saw that?”

“Of course, it’s my job to see what people don’t want me to see.”

“I knew it was a bad idea bringing you here. You find things out too quickly.”

“Well, can you explain to me what’s going on please?”

“Okay. Umm, so the purple serum is called a SeurgaGene Serum, and it’s supposed to help us speak to animals. The leak that you heard about over the speakerphone is referring to the serum.”

“Okay, so what’s the problem?”

“The serum is still in the testing phase, so there is no telling what it will do to the animals in the rainforest.” Just then, a huge bang hit the other side of the wall. I checked the door window. A huge jaguar was walking down the hallway. There was blood everywhere. The large animal was carrying two humans — dead humans. A man and a woman. Horrified, I noticed that the the man was Dr. Jaden Smith. He had blood on his neck and looked like he had died terrified. The woman I did not recognize, but I could tell that she had been a very good-looking woman, no more than twenty eight.

I checked my watch. 6:41. It had been 19 minutes since the leak, and the animals had already started to react. I ran to my sister and said, “Wha — ” She covered my mouth with her hand. I looked into her eyes and saw her fear. She removed her hand from my mouth and shushed me. By now, I realized that the animal has heard us. Claire showed us a secret exit, and we ran. I heard glass shatter, and I realized that the jaguar was following us. I turned to see the jaguar leap at me, and then I screamed. I closed my eyes and wondered why I was not dead. I opened my eyes and saw that the animal was on the ground.

“Is it — dead?” I ask, horrified.

“No, it’ll just be too weak to do anything for a few minutes. Now, let’s get moving,” my sister said, like it was obvious. We followed her outside, and that’s when we saw about forty animals waiting in front of the lab. They immediately noticed us, and Claire shot darts until she ran out of ammo. Crap, we were screwed.

“Run!” Claire shouted. If the other animals hadn’t noticed us earlier, they definitely noticed us now.

We ran through the jungle until we ran into a nest of anacondas. “SSSSSSStttttooooooo pp,” I heard a voice in my head.

“What? Who said that,” I said out loud.

“You are looking at us,” replied the voice in my head. I looked at the anacondas.

“How can you talk to me?” I asked.

“Yessss, now I suggest you run before I kill you.” He didn’t even answer my question.

“Come on, let’s go,” Claire shouted.

“Okay,” I replied. We started running. I looked back to realize to my horror that the anacondas were slithering after us. My sister stopped.

“Why did you stop?” I looked at her, panicking as I realized that the snakes were closing in.

I looked at what my sister was looking at, and I realized that we were on the edge of a cliff. A huge waterfall hit the bottom into a river. Jump. It was our only option. I breathed deeply and told my sister, “Follow me.” She looked at me confused, and then I jumped. I hit the water, and then I saw nothing.

 

Change It Now

I was walking home from school on a normal Wednesday afternoon. I woke up, ate a bowl of Cheerios for breakfast, walked to school, and had a great day. I had aced my spelling test, and someone gave me a Fruit Roll-Up during lunch. My life as a second grader couldn’t be better. My mom said she would buy me ice cream after school because she was so proud of me, so we were on our way there. I thought nothing could ruin my perfect mood. But then, in front of me, I saw an evil man. He had a gray beard and a hunchback. He was wearing a long black coat that looked a size too big for him. He had just finished his milkshake, and he threw his cup on the sidewalk! I couldn’t believe it! There was a garbage can at the end of the block he was on, but he still threw it on the ground. How selfish of him! Now over my seven years of life I had seen people do this time and time again, and I always thought that I couldn’t do anything about it because I was just a little girl, but there was something about today that felt different. Maybe it was the fact that I had a little extra sugar from the Fruit Roll-Up, or a little extra confidence from acing my test, but I decided to go confront him.

I sprinted away from my mom, despite her screaming at me to stop. I stopped right behind this man and poked his back. He looked at me over his shoulder, and for the first time, I saw his full face. He had small brown eyes and chapped lips. He squinted at me, turned around, and mumbled, “What do you want.”

“Hello sir,” I said, trying to mask my fear. He squinted at me again. “Well, I saw you dropped your milkshake cup on the floor, and I was just wondering if you wouldn’t mind possibly picking it up?”

“Okay, I guess I’ll do it next time.” He rolled his eyes and began to walk away, but I knew he was lying to me. So, I walked in front of him and stopped him again.

“What do you want now,” he said.

“I don’t believe you. I don’t think you are going to do it next time.”

“So? Why do you care? It’s not my job. There’s other people who can do that. Now let me walk home.”

I knew he was a stranger, and I knew I shouldn’t have even talked to him in the first place, but I felt the anger boiling up inside of me. This happened to me a lot. I would become furious at people like this all the time. Usually, I just ignored it, but instead, I exploded.

“No! You just don’t get it.” I was almost screaming by now. “It is nobody’s job but your own! You know that polar bears and penguins and even dolphins are dying because of you!”

“Whatever,” he mumbled. “Get out of my way, you little brat.” I was mad. I was really, really mad, but this man was scary, with his wrinkled hands that looked like they could knock me out in a second and his creepy squinting eyes. I decided to let him go. I walked back to my mom.

“Mommy! That man threw his cup on the ground and didn’t pick it up, even though I reminded him to!” My mom gave me this look that I got a lot. A pitiful smile, sad eyes. She looked at me like I was some crazy kid who didn’t understand the world. I hated it.

“Honey, it’s okay. He’ll throw it out next time. Also, what did I tell you about talking to strangers! It’s not safe. You’re just a little girl.”

She said it. Those words that I had heard time and time again. They made me so mad. I knew I was smarter than every grown-up who had said this to me, but there was nothing I could do about it.

“Okay, Mommy. I understand.” Suddenly, my day wasn’t so great anymore. I didn’t want ice cream. I walked the rest of the way home with a slump in my back that was almost as big as the evil man’s was.

I got home, went straight to my room, and plopped down onto my bed.

I wish I was older, I thought. Then, people would take me seriously.

Later that night as I was laying in bed, I was unable to fall asleep because I was consumed by my thoughts. I imagined what my life would be like if I was just a little bit older. Even just today would have been different. I bet that old grouch would have listened to me if I was a grown-up or even just a teenager. Sure, I might not get to eat Fruit Roll-Ups as much, and I might not get ice cream just for acing a spelling test, but that wouldn’t matter to me if people actually listened to me. But I knew I was still stuck as a second grader.

The next morning, I woke up, ate my Cheerios, and walked to school again. It was raining, but I didn’t have an umbrella, so when I got to school, I was soaking wet. School was fine. No Fruit Roll-Ups, though. I walked home with my mom, got home, and plopped down on my bed again. I lay there for a little while and thought. Then, I did what I usually did when I felt hopeless or upset, I talked to my sister. I walked to her bedroom and knocked on her door.

“Come in,” she said. “Hi, how’s it going?”

“Not great,” I admitted. “Can I talk to you about something?”

“Of course.”

I lay down next to her on her bed and sighed.

“What’s going on?” I wanted to talk to her, I needed to talk to her, but I thought she wouldn’t understand. She was in high school, almost a grown-up. People took her seriously, people didn’t ignore her. I decided to stay quiet.

“I bet I can help. I was seven once too.”

“Fine, but you might not understand. It’s just that nobody takes me seriously! They think that since I’m a little girl, I don’t know anything.” She looked at me for a moment.

“That’s not true,” she said. “People take you seriously! I know I do and — ”

“No, you don’t get it! It happens constantly. Like yesterday, I was walking down the street, and I saw this old freaky man throw his cup on the ground, so I told him to pick it up, but he didn’t! He just called me a brat and walked away!”

“Okay, so you might be right. People don’t take you seriously ‘cause you’re a kid. But that’s okay, you can just wait until you’re older, you shouldn’t have to worry about this. You’re seven! Have fun and make it last.”

“Fine. I guess you’re right.” I began to walk out of the room, but paused mid step.

“I have one more thing to say… ”

“What is it?” My sister walked back to my bed and lay down next to me again. I took a deep breath.

“Well, it’s just that, I think actually… um, I might be afraid of growing up… ”

“What? You just told me you wanted to be an adult so people can trust you to change the world or whatever.”

“I know, and I have been telling myself that. I thought that all of my problems would go away if I grew up, but that’s kind of why I’m afraid of it.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, what if when I do grow up, people still don’t take me seriously? I try to help people do the right thing, and they still say that I don’t know anything or that I’m just being stupid.”

“I don’t think that will happen. You’re so smart. I know it, you know it, and the rest of the world will know it soon enough.”

“Yes, I know I’m smart. And I’ve always thought that it was a good thing that I am determined, but Mommy has told me that sometimes I don’t know when to stop, and I don’t think that will change with age.”

“I think it’s great that you’re so perseverant. Sure it annoys some people, like that old grouch, but not me.”

“You have to say that ‘cause you’re my sister. If even my own mommy thinks it’s annoying, then it probably is. So maybe I just use my age as an excuse, because really I am insecure.”

“Well, I don’t know if you can say that for sure, and — ”

“No, I think I can. I haven’t told anyone before. I’ve barely even admitted it to myself. But you’re my sister, you know me better than anyone in the world. So tell me, will this ever change?”

“Well, I guess it kind of doesn’t. But it’s not just for you, it’s not just because you’re so smart and determined, it’s true for everyone. Whenever someone disagrees with you, they won’t listen. Sadly, there’s nothing you can do about that.”

“I think you can always do something about any situation. I’ve always thought that I don’t have to try to make a change yet, because it will be easier when I’m older, but now that I’ve realized that it might never get easier, I might have to do something now.”

“Okay, I guess you might be right, but what can you do?” There was a moment of silence Then, my face lit up. I had an idea.

“Well, even if I can’t make other people pick up their garbage, I can just do it for them. Maybe I can go and pick up all that garbage from the streets myself! I’ve been waiting for so long to help solve this issue, and I thought I’d have to wait till I was an adult, but maybe I can start now. I know people might not listen to me, but I can still make a change. I’m going to save all the polar bears and penguins and dolphins!”

“Alright, have fun! You can do it!” I was ready to begin. I didn’t care that it was raining. In fact, that just made me want to do it more. I ran into the kitchen and grabbed a bunch of garbage bags. I went into the closet and put on a pair of stained yellow gloves that were a bit too big, because they were meant for Mommy. Then, I went back into my room and grabbed my swimming goggles just in case anything happened. I put on a rain jacket and rain boots, and sprinted out the door.

“I’ll be back soon!” I yelled. The door closed behind be with a slam. I stepped into the rain, I took a deep breath, and began.

There was hardly anyone on the street since it was pouring out, which made this much easier. I kind of got into a zone. Pick up garbage, put in bag, drag bag forwards. Over and over again. It might sound boring, but I actually had lots of fun. I imagined that each piece of garbage I picked up was a polar bear, or penguin, or dolphin that I was saving. I had no sense of time, because it was already dark out from the rain, but after a while my mom came out and told me it was time for dinner. I told my family about what I had done.

“I picked up garbage off the streets, and now all of the animals won’t die anymore.”

“That’s great, honey,” my mom said. She still gave me the look, but I didn’t care. I knew I was making a change no matter what.

That night, I fell asleep much happier than I had in a very long time.

The next morning was Friday, my favorite day of the week. Mommy always made chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast, so I had that instead of another bowl of Cheerios. It was still raining, but I was okay with that. And it was someone’s birthday at school, so we all got cupcakes!

When Mommy picked me up, she offered to get me ice cream since we never got it the day before, but I told her I wanted to go home since I was so excited! I had been looking forward to this all day. Again, I grabbed the garbage bag, the gloves, the goggles, and my rain jacket and rain boots. As I was running out the door, my sister stopped me.

“Wait! Can I come with you?”

“Of course! Yay!”

She grabbed her own pair of gloves, goggles, and rainboots. She threw on her jacket.

“We’ll be back soon!” she yelled, and we ran out the door.

We decided to go to a slightly different neighborhood today, just a few minutes from ours. We rode our bikes there, got off, and got to work.

It was great. We were soaked from head to toe, but we didn’t care. I told her about imagining each piece of garbage as an animal, and she laughed at me at first, but then realized that it was actually quite fun.

I looked around and realized how great this was. I was no longer making excuses, but instead making a change. I looked around. I saw the clean streets that almost looked like they sparkled. It was dark and gloomy, but still, I thought the neighborhood had never looked better.

 

Emery’s Revenge

Emery woke up in the morning with a yawn. Emery lived in a very small cabin near a mountain. He was the son of King Timothy, one of the strongest kings that were alive today. But he was only strong because of one stone that carried strength. He desperately wanted the stone, and he was jealous of King Timothy. King Timothy kept the stone in a mountain that had the strongest gusts of wind that would blow anyone off to their death. Emery hated his dad a lot, because he was weak.

“How can you not even lift an apple up? You should be ashamed of yourself, Emery. You’re a disgrace to our family!”

Emery was disgusted at how King Timothy insulted him every time he saw him. He wanted revenge, and he wanted to show who was stronger. But Emery first needed to know how he couldn’t lift something up that was really light, like an apple.

 

Emery trained hard so that he could reach the cave on the mountain to snatch the stone of strength. He knew hundreds of people died from climbing the mountain, so he needed to train hard and be the strongest he could be. Emery then could carry horses, and tables, with only one hand. But he knew he wasn’t as strong as his dad. The next day, Emery decided to start his journey to the stone. He knew he was strong enough for the journey. The tiring and dangerous trip to the cave was going to be two days, and Emery packed enough food and water for his trip. The journey had just begun.

 

Emery walked on a bridge over the river and saw a stranger standing on the bridge. He turned his head and saw Emery step on top of the bridge.

“Now who do we have here? Emery Farman, you really think you can climb this wall? Pffff. Loser. I heard you couldn’t even carry an apple! HAHAHAHAHA!” said the stranger.

“Who are you?” asked Emery.

“You’re as stupid as you look, Farman. I’m also here to get the stone, and nothing can stop me. Can someone weak like Emery Farman beat me in a fight? No?!”

“Then why don’t we fight here now?” challenged Emery.

Emery then took out his sword, and the stranger took out his sword too. Emery and the stranger then started to fight each other hard. The stranger then went for Emery’s legs. Emery blocked it and then kicked the stranger in the face. The stranger couldn’t keep his balance and fell to the ground. Emery then decided to kick him off the bridge.

“Bye bye!” Emery said.

The stranger then fell to his death. It was a good start for Emery Farman.

 

Emery saw the big mountain he was going to climb. There was a big amount of snow on top of the mountain. He then saw a small sparkle on top of the mountain inside the cave.

It’s the stone, Emery thought. Emery then stepped on the mountain, and he decided to take a path with a bunch of rocks and sand around it. Emery walked and walked. His legs were sore and heavy. Then, there was fog and mist everywhere. Emery then got hit by a gust of wind.

 

Emery was freaking out. His hand was on a piece of sandy rock. He was dangling off the mountain like a Christmas tree ornament. He took a few deep breaths.

“AHHHH!” Emery screamed.

Emery was tired and sore in every muscle of his body. He was back on the mountain. He then faced the same stranger right in front of him.

“Y-y-you’re not dead?!”

“What else did you think, Farman? Now I really want to kill you!”

The stranger then tried to kick Emery off the mountain. Emery then tripped the stranger, and put his arm around the stranger’s neck. This was Emery’s chance to finally kill the stranger. But then, the stranger disappeared out of sight.

 

The stranger was now making Emery furious. Surely there was another way to get rid of the stranger, Emery thought. Emery then decided to forget about what had just happened, and he just continued his journey. Emery was sure that the stranger was going to come back. He knew that the stranger wouldn’t just give up for the stone. Emery then felt drowsy. He knew he needed rest, so Emery made himself a sleeping spot and slept.

 

Emery dreamt of all the insults he heard from his father in his childhood. He also dreamt of all the misery he went through. He then dreamt of him getting kicked out of his father’s kingdom and of how he was really weak. He then woke up with sweat dripping all over his face. This dream was basically a nightmare for Emery. Not only did he wake up with sweat dripping all over his face, he was basically on the edge of the mountain.

“GAHH!” Emery screamed.

Emery took a few deep breaths and stood up and acted like nothing just happened. After that, Emery hiked and walked, and he felt the strongest glow ever in his life. He felt a loud buzz against his skin, and he also felt warmth. When he looked to his left, there it was, the stone of strength.

“Finally! Now I can show father who’s stronger.”

Emery ran up to the stone until a dark shadow appeared out of nowhere. I bet you can guess who it is. The man who annoyed Emery’s journey. The stranger.

“Hey, Farman! You should’ve seen the face you made when I disappeared. It was so funny!”

“What?! How can you not die!” Emery shouted.

The stranger then formed into the man Emery hated all his life. His father.

“Now Emery, you’re not going anywhere near my stone. You better get out now before I shred you into pieces.”

“Well, I’m not leaving until I get the stone,” Emery said.

Emery took out his sword and put it on his father’s neck.

“So, you still want to kill me?” his father asked.

“Yeah,” Emery answered.

He then used all his strength to slice his father’s head off. Instead, King Timothy stabbed Emery in the stomach. The sword stuck through Emery’s stomach. Blood dripped everywhere.

“Goodbye, Emery,” his father said.

 

His father then left Emery’s dead body and disappeared. Emery groaned and groaned. He knew he would die in just seconds. He saw the stone of strength on top of a rock. It was glowing on a piece of rock. Emery realized that he could retrieve the stone in time before he died. Emery crawled with all his strength. His shirt was already soaked with blood. Emery then knocked the piece of rock down, so then he could catch the stone of strength in the air. It seemed like everything was in slow-motion now. Emery then extended his arm out with his final amount of strength…

 

The stone twirled around and around. The stone then fell between Emery’s fingers. Boom! The cave exploded in bright yellow. After the explosion, Emery realized that he was not dead. He felt stronger and more powerful. Emery then jumped off the mountain and brought the stone with him so that no one could ever keep the stone and retrieve the strength and power he had. Emery jumped off the mountain and landed in no sweat. Emery was ready, and now all he had to do was kill his father.

 

Emery entered the kingdom. People gasped and spit at him. They shouted insults and said that Emery was not welcome to his father’s kingdom. Emery murdered the people who insulted him in one second. People backed off and ran away and were scared of the new Emery. Emery then stormed into his father’s room and saw his father reading a book. His father gasped and was surprised to see Emery alive.

“Uh, uh, I-I am sur-sur-prised to see you a-alive, E-E-Emery,” King Timothy said.

“Hello, Father. Now I have one more thing to do. Kill you,” Emery said.

Emery then struck his father in one punch. Crack! His father collapsed, and his eyes turned white.

“You made my life miserable,” Emery said.

Emery then spit at his dead father’s body.

 

If Only

Long ago, when people didn’t destroy the Earth and people were the Earth, there were two. The water belonged to the Goddess, and the land belonged to the God. The Goddess and the God were in a relationship of sorts, as they worked together and around each other. But that was all they could do, because the land and the water were separate. They longed for each other. Every morning, the Goddess would bathe in the water and greet her aquatic friends. They looked up to her. Her, in her green, grassy-skinned glory. She was different from them, and powerful. The Goddess looked across the world to the land and to the God. The God, whose long beard reached his toes and beyond, met her gaze easily. His skin was different from hers. It was smoother and rosier. His beard was different from anything she had seen in the water, too. Cherries and fruits and leaves were growing from it, and the Goddess wanted nothing more than to reach out and be able to hold it in her hands. To pick the cherries and the fruits and the leaves and eat them, adorn her meals with them, cherish them. She wanted him. His smile was shy and tentative, but it was there, and the Goddess smiled back like she would with any of her friends in the water. The God turned around to talk to one of his own friends in the land, and the Goddess looked down, content with the interaction. She continued with her day, and he continued with his, and it went on like that for years. They would meet eye contact, smile, and then look away.

One day, the Goddess decided she wanted more. More than just seeing a smile, but instead holding the smile closer to her, in her hands. She called out to the God. He looked back, shocked. They had never dared to talk to each other. Nobody would dare to talk between worlds. But he responded.

“I want to meet you,” the Goddess said.

“We’ve already met.”

“I want to feel you.”

“I’m afraid that isn’t allowed. Not in this lifetime,” the God said after a pause, and he frowned.

“But why isn’t it allowed? What are we scared of?” the Goddess said, her voice liquid hope. Everyone was staring at them now. All of the Goddess’ aquatic friends, and all of the God’s woodland creatures. They all looked at the God and the Goddess as if they were insane. No one had ever even thought to break the unspoken rules, and no one had ever even thought that the leaders would think of doing so themselves. “We could be happy together.”
“We could get banished.” His eyes were skipping around her, looking everywhere except her.

The Goddess looked at him, hurt. She couldn’t believe her ears. After all this time — she thought that the God wanted her just as much as she wanted him. She would be willing to throw everything away for him, why didn’t he feel the same. The God looked up at her again, his eyebrows furrowed and his eyes crowded by a cloud of confusion. The Goddess reached her arm out, across the world, trying to grab onto the God. There were gasps all around: that was never done before! The God didn’t move back, but he didn’t move closer either. The Goddess was getting closer to him, closer, closer, closer… Her arm was thin and cracking from the stretch, like elastic in freezing temperatures, and she knew she couldn’t go much further. But she was so close… Suddenly, the God stretched his arm out too and easily clutched onto the Goddess’s grass covered arm. Light beamed from the interlapse, and again, the crowd gasped. The God pulled at the Goddess, and the Goddess pulled at the God, bringing the two worlds closer. The light was growing in size and in power, until finally, the two worlds connected, and the God fell into the Goddess’s arms, and the Goddess fell into the God’s arms. The light between them grew and grew until it took over both of their visions, and all of the visions of the aquatic friends and woodland creatures. Abruptly, the light fizzled out, and the God and Goddess were one, as were the water and the land. The woodland creatures walked around and looked curiously at the aquatic friends, and the aquatic friends reciprocated those stares. The God and the Goddess were together from that point on, and they couldn’t be happier. The one catch was that now there wasn’t a God or Goddess to look over the aquatic friends or the woodland creatures. They were on their own, and the Goddess thought to herself that they’d be just fine. She knows them, and the God knows them, and they both know that none of their own beings could ever be cruel.

If only they could see what the world they created has become today.

 

Dave

Sharpie Dave was a very shy brown cactus who came from Colorado and was “born” in a toilet,  a.k.a thrown in the toilet to die by some random cactus farmer. Since then, Sharpie Dave had always felt unlovable and scared, but Dave had learned to accept that bad things happen in the world.

One day he was found in a local sewer in Ohio by a thrifty woman named Peach. Now in his new home, a thrift shop a few years later, Dave learned about this new interesting thing called “dating.” Maybe, he thought, if I try this, then I can understand what feeling loved is like! One day Dave gathered up all his confidence and went up to Brenda the Blender and asked her, “Will…y-y-you go on a date with me?”

“Sure, I have nothing better to do” she replied.

“Okay, I guess I’ll pick you up tomorrow at 2:00pm?”

“Whatever.”

The next day Dave woke up very chipper and thought about what they should do for their date so he asked around.

“I’m going on a date today, and I’ve never done this before. Do you have any suggestions for what I can do on my date?” he asked his friend Larry the Candle.

“Aisle 7, most romantic place of all time! That’s where I met my wife Joan Bean,” said Larry dreamily.

“Hmmm Aisle 7…okay thanks!” Dave said as he sped off. “If it is the most romantic aisle that maybe she can be my wife, too! Even though I don’t really know what that means, do you know what it means?” said Dave to his dog Bagel, who stared back at him glass eyed.

In the meantime Dave looked around his spot on the shelf to prepare himself, but could find nothing except dust bunnies, so he clumped them all together and made a dust bunny bow tie. Finally after minutes of waiting, the clock struck 2:00pm and Dave made his way towards Brenda’s aisle.

“Brenda? It’s me Dave. I’m here to take you to Aisle 7, the romantic of all the aisles!” said Dave happily.

“Okay, I’ll be down in a second!” replied Brenda.

Patiently Dave waited when suddenly Brenda appeared with her blades shining and her pitcher as clear as the windows in the store.

“You look nice,” said Dave.

“Let’s get going. I don’t have all day,” snapped Brenda.

So Dave and Brenda made their way towards Aisle 7, which contained a whole line of shelves with red satin on the interior, a Barbie play table set with a small lit candle, and romantic jazz music in the background.  “So, do you have any hobbies?” asked Dave politely as he and Brenda sat in a vacant shelf.

“I mean I love to wear makeup since you know, blending is kinda my thing. What about you?” said Brenda.

“Well I uh, I guess like to take care of my dog Bagel” smiled Dave.

“I hate dogs.” And with that Brenda left, and Dave had failed at his date.

Later that week, as Dave made his way back from Larry’s aisle, he spotted Brenda with an eggplant named Ernesto who bullied everyone. As Dave hurriedly tried to hide from them, Ernesto called out, “Hey, Sweet Cheeks! Come over here and give us some love!” Ernesto must’ve thought Dave hadn’t heard him so he made his way over to him. “Yo, I heard you tried to date my soon-to-be wife. Just so you know you’re never gonna find love, and that farmer was smart to throw you in that toilet.” Then he touched Dave’s clay pot, which made Dave very uncomfortable, plus he said more insults.

Dave felt so heartbroken and dirty that he cried himself to sleep that night and dreamt that Ernesto was wrong and he could find love.

   Meanwhile, a young, magenta-colored balloon named FloorBoard who lived in Kansas wanted to see the world and find true love but she was scared she would never find the right guy or be popped. “I want to be in a place where there is a beach and no sign of corn stalks but, alas I cannot possibly do this for I am nothing but a balloon,” she said sadly. “No, I shall leave this place and make my way to the place farthest from here!” And with that she left her Kansas home. Floorboard blew with the wind at a great height and saw the driest deserts she’d ever seen along with a very swampy bayou with murky waters and alligators trying to snap at her. As Floorboard blew through all these extravagant places she finally crossed Indiana into Ohio.

When Floorboard arrived in Ohio, Sharpie Dave was feeling very melancholy and deep in his thoughts about what Ernesto had told him. “Maybe he’s right, I am unlovable,” gulped Dave. He started to cry. Bagel who didn’t know what to do curled himself around Dave’s pot as he wept.

“Oh what a sight this is!” exclaimed Floorboard as she glided over The Great American Ball Park and saw the crowd cheering for men holding strange, wood-like objects. As the Floorboard explored more and more of Ohio she caught sight of Peach’s Thrift Shop. A small bell tinkled as she entered the shop. Looking around Floorboard was entranced by all strange objects such as a porcelain cat, a sun mirror, a lamp, and a buduaar. While going up and down the aisle, she could hear faint sobs in the distance. She came across Dave and Bagel. “Are you alright?” she said softly.

Dave, who had been crying for who knows how long, looked up with his little puffy red eyes and said, “I don’t know. Someone said that I won’t ever find love and I really want to, but now I’m afraid I never will because I am unlovable.”

“I’ll…love you,” said Floorboard comfortingly.

“Really!?” said Dave as he jumped up from his slouched position.

“Yes, I don’t want you to be sad and feel unloved so I will love you!” she said happily.

So Dave and Floorboard left Peach’s store and went to go love each other. They went from the shore and island gateways to the Toledo Museum of Art! They dined out every night and stayed up till morning talking and laughing. Dave had never felt this kind of happiness before, and everytime he looked at her he felt an amazing sensation in his heart. He nor Floorboard ever wanted this to end. Dave knew that he was once afraid of love because of the cactus farmer’s bad mistreatment towards him, but he overcame that fear because of Floorboard’s love for him.

One day, Dave got some bad news from Floorboard, “Dave, there’s something I need to tell you,” said Floorboard bleakley. “I love you Dave, I really do but, I long for my home back at Kansas so I must go now. I’m so sorry.”

     Dave knew that something bad would happen but he didn’t know that it would be this bad. As Floorboard made her way back home to the deserted barn in which she lived, she noticed something odd about it. She floated towards a weird misshapen fence and realized that it was actually barbed wire! In her final seconds she thought about the times she had with Dave and at the barn, also knowing that her fate was right before her. She closed her eyes and was popped.

Meanwhile, Dave who still longed for Floorboard to return was informed about her death. A feeling like no other in Dave’s life came over him like a black shadow of sadness, feeling heavy and alone. Now that Floorboard was gone, Dave decided to go to a local gas station to light himself on fire.

“Oh Floorboard, thank you so much for showing me what it feels like to experience love,” he sobbed and thought of the pros and cons of taking his life. “If I do this I shall be with her again and we can be happy forever, if I don’t do this then… no, I must do this, there is nothing left for me here.”

Looking up at the sky, Dave could already see her waiting for him and as final tear escaped his eye he burnt until there was nothing left but his little clay pot.

 

Losing or Letting Go?

 

Scene 1

(Open on the dining room. MOM and ALEX sit at opposite ends of the table. MOM is speaking passionately)

 

ALEX

(Slams cup on table) MOM, C’MON, PLEASE!?

 

MOM

WHAT?

 

ALEX

(he takes a deep breath) I don’t want to get into yet another fight with you, let’s just-

 

MOM

(interrupting) We’re not fighting.

 

ALEX

Then what are we doing?

 

MOM

We’re have a civil discussion.

 

ALEX

But what you’re saying is hurtful mom.

 

MOM

I’m not talking specifically about your stories, it’s CNN’s stories…you know, generally.

 

ALEX

It doesn’t matter. Everytime we talk you bring it up.

 

MOM

If you don’t want to talk with me, stop coming to our Wednesday dinners, I don’t care.

 

ALEX

Mom, (he groans) that’s not what I mean.

 

MOM

I just don’t see why you are making this such a big deal.

 

(MOM picks up the plates and walks offstage. MOM continue talking to him from the kitchen offstage)

 

ALEX
Because mom, you do this all the time.

 

MOM

It’s only because I don’t see why you need to work for that place, I thought I raised you differently.

(ALEX doesn’t respond)

 

MOM (cont.)

This would all stop if you just found another job, someplace more sensible. I really think you’d be a good lawyer.

(Silence)

I’m ashamed when I talk to my friends and tell them you work for CNN. It’s embarrassing.

 

ALEX

PLEASE JUST SHUT UP

 

MOM

(Pause. She walks out of the kitchen and stands over ALEX) If you can’t be respectful and…and civil, just leave, okay?

 

ALEX

Are you kidding? You’re gonna lecture me about respect.

 

MOM

I’m just…baffled, I mean, I would never ever tell my mother, or anyone for that matter, to shut up.

 

ALEX

You see how ironic that is, right? Because I would never tell my OWN SON THAT I’M ASHAMED OF HIS JOB.

 

MOM

I’m your mother, I’m supposed to help guide you away from bad decisions.

 

ALEX

I can make my own decisions mom, just lay off me a little.

 

MOM

Really? And what about when you wanted to marry that girl? A few years ago?

 

ALEX

That was-

 

MOM

(interrupting) You came to me for advice. So then you tell me you don’t need me.

 

ALEX

(pause) You know, I really should just go.

 

MOM

Fine, go.

 

ALEX

I’m just done fighting with you over stupid things.

 

MOM

So you agree that it’s stupid for you to get angry at me over this, because it really is.

 

ALEX

(he takes a deep breath) Okay, I’m gonna go now.

 

MOM

Do you? Answer me, do you agree that its stupid?

 

ALEX

SHUT UP, SERIOUSLY.

 

MOM

Don’t speak to me that way, not again. It’s your fathers fault you’re so disrespectful, I would never have raised you to talk that way.

 

ALEX
You don’t know where to stop mom.

 

MOM
I’m just saying, those weekends you spent at his place ruined you. I don’t understand why you had to-

 

ALEX

(interrupting) Why do you always have to bring that up?  

 

MOM

Because, I really think he had a bad effect on you, always cursing, and drinking and gambling.

 

ALEX

(pause. He smiles) You know, mom, I was actually thinking of flying out to Las Vegas to go see dad soon.

 

MOM

Don’t make empty threats.

 

ALEX
It’s not an empty threat, the flights are cheap and I’ve been wanting to see him again lately.

 

MOM
He’s reckless honey. I’m telling you as a bystander, not as your parent, thats a bad idea. Don’t you remember when dad told you to skip school that one time and come to see him, and you got suspended. He’ll…he’ll get you into gambling and you’re just-

 

ALEX

(interrupting) Again, mom, I can make my own decisions.

 

MOM
You’re not gonna do it, I know you won’t.

 

ALEX
No mom, I will do it, I’ll do it right now, right in front of you.

 

MOM

(pause. She turns around and walks to the kitchen. She continues doing dishes) Well, I honestly don’t care. I mean, you’re right it is your decision, so, if you want to go then you can go.

 

(ALEX sits back down at the table and pulls out his computer, starts looking at something)

 

MOM (cont.)

I’m just telling you, a few weeks with him out there and you’re gonna come back as a gambler and-

 

ALEX
(interrupting) I got it.

 

MOM

I’m just warning you honey, he’s changed since you were a kid. Back then he just drank, but, you know, he went to jail a few years ago.

 

ALEX

But I’m looking right now, one of the flights, leaving Saturday and returning the 18th is only 200 dollars round trip, that’s a bargain. All I would need to do is tell my boss that I’m taking my vacation days for the next two weeks.  

 

MOM

Okay, do it, go ahead.

 

ALEX

Okay, then I guess I’ll just get this one.

 

MOM

Wait! What’s the airline?

 

ALEX

Southwest.

 

MOM
Oh…well, if I were you…and again you can make your own decisions, but if I were you, I wouldn’t take southwest. It’s a little, how do I put it…downmarket?

 

ALEX

You know, I think I’m okay.

 

MOM

You sure? I have a pretty funny story about Southwest.

 

ALEX

Okay….?

 

MOM

So once, when I was about your age, I took one of the flights, and guess what?

 

ALEX

What?

 

MOM

They lost my luggage. (she chuckles fakely) Isn’t that just hilarious?

 

ALEX
Yeah, I guess.

 

MOM

I vowed I’d never take southwest again.

 

ALEX

Okay mom. I’m just gonna go ahead. I’m gonna book it, okay?

 

MOM

(she runs out of the kitchen)  WAIT! WAIT!

 

ALEX
Oh my god, what mom?

 

MOM
I just really think it’s a bad idea, please, please, please, just don’t go, I’m begging you, please, please…

(she is out of breath)

 

ALEX
Okay mom, okay, just sit down

 

MOM

(she sits down) I just…I don’t understand why you’re doing this, I just don’t understand.

 

ALEX
Mom, somethings obviously wrong, just tell me, why do you care so much?

 

MOM

I just don’t want you to go see him, I really don’t. I promise you, I won’t ever talk about the politics or your job ever again, I promise you, just don’t go.

 

ALEX

Why mom, really?

 

MOM

I don’t know, I guess I’m just jealous of him, you know that. You always came back from your weekend visits and said how fun it was…

 

ALEX

But…I deserve to see my own father.

 

MOM

No, no, of course-

 

ALEX

(interrupting) So, I’ll just go ahead

 

MOM

No, please Alex.

 

ALEX
MOM, WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?

 

MOM

You can’t go, I’m sorry, I won’t let you. (she slams his computer shut)

 

ALEX

WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU? I’M DONE HERE!

 

MOM
Wait, wait, stay, let’s just talk about something else. I heard there was a big win for the cavaliers last night.

 

ALEX

(he grabs his computer and his bag) See you in a few weeks mom, love you.

 

MOM
Wait…just…

 

(ALEX walks out the door, slamming it behind him. Blackout)

 

Scene 2

(Open on MOM sitting at the dining room table. She is on the phone, talking to her mom)

 

MOM

…and he just left. And I tried to call him later that night, and he didn’t pick up. I left four voicemails, FOUR! Right? So then yesterday, I get a text from him saying, “please stop calling.”

(pause)

No, mom, he’s being overdramatic and…and stubborn.

(pause)

Mom, I’m not at fault here. Why do you always take the other person’s side?

(pause)

I know mom… I’m just jealous of his father, he would come home from his weekend visits and talk about how fun they were. I can’t lose him.

(pause)

No, I’m not afraid of losing him.

(pause)

No mom.

(pause)

Mom, I’m not the one at fault here-

(pause)

That’s the problem mom. I know that I have to let him go, but I don’t want to.

(pause)

No, but I haven’t done anything wrong, I just love him, maybe too much.

(pause. She chuckles)

Yea, I do remember my rebellious phase.

(pause)

I guess so, but that was a different thing, you weren’t letting me live my life and…and always judging my decisions.

(pause)

I know that mom. Obviously, at some point, I will have to let him live his life…without me looking over his shoulder…oh my god, maybe you’re right mom.

(pause)

I just want to keep my eye on him…because, I don’t know, I guess I know that if I do, I won’t lose him.

(pause)

No, mom, I can’t let him go to Las Vegas, I can’t.

(pause)

Because, I don’t want to lose him to his own father. Maybe he’d start drinking and gambling, Maybe he’d never come back, I mean, he could go to jail or…I don’t know. Out there, who knows what could happen.

(pause)

I know you’re right mom, I’m afraid of losing him.

(pause)

And he’s not speaking to me. I…I’ve already lost him, on my own terms.

(pause)

What should I do mom?

(pause)

No mom, I can’t…I can’t.

(pause)

Wait, don’t go yet.

(pause)

Okay mom…love you.

(pause)

Bye.

(she hangs up the phone. She takes a deep breath. And then picks it up again and dials a number)

Hey Alex, I’ll buy you the tickets to Las Vegas…call me back when you get this.

 

The Path of the Soul

       

“Dargos and Herga. Rise. You are now one with the soul of nature.” Tapping them on the shoulder with his knarlwood cane, the cleric’s green and white robes fold as he ends the short and sweet indoctrination ceremony. Bowing to each other and the cleric, Dargos and Herga swiftly leave the auditorium of the city-tree.

“We are now servants of nature,” Dargos whispers excitedly to Herga, “and we have a place in this great city tree. The Forgag will provide us with everything we need. As one of them, we will have the chance to serve the soul of nature. I am so proud, and I can’t wait.” Entering the assignment center, Dargos and Herga rush to the desk of the old sage seated in the room.

“Welcome, Dargos and Herga. Your first assignment will be guarding against the Rogar. You must defend our enclave of nature against their advance. Their so-called progress encroaches on our land. As members of the Forgag, it is your responsibility to protect all of nature. Pick up your weapons and meet the rest of your patrol squad in an hour,” the sage softly speaks.

Bowing to the sage, Dargos rubs his hand against the soft wood of the room, feeling the pulse of the tree’s life. Turning around, Herga leans into a small knot in the tree. “Hlegor leg. Hlegor leg. Hlegor leg. Great soul of the tree, provide us with weapons,” she chants. Two swords of wood form out of the tree, and Dargos and Herga grab them both.

Rushing downstairs to the plaza where they’re going to meet their squad, Dargos looks out a window of sap. “Just look at the beauty. The perfection,” he says in awe.

Herga joins in with a, “And I can’t wait to crush Rogar scum.”

Dargos nods, but a shadow of doubt begins to creep into his mind. All he’s ever known is what the clerics have told him. “But not everything in the Forgag is perfect. You haven’t seen the prison blocks like I have. Maybe the Rogar aren’t as bad as were told,” he mumbles.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“We’ve trained all our lives for the moment. I can’t wait.”

“Herga, can I let you in on a secret?”

“Always. What is it?”

“In the prison blocks, they torture the Rogar prisoners. Everyone of them captured is encased into the tree and slowly crushed to death while being ripped apart. That’s how the tree gets nutrients. There isn’t really a point, since the tree can get nutrients from the sun. It just likes the torture.”

“Good. The Rogar have it coming.”

Dargos bites his lip as they exit into the plaza. “Attention, guards. You two will be joining the assault team. Over there. After the rogar burned down our catapults, we’re going to destroy their labs in revenge. Two wolf mounts are waiting for you,” a brightly dressed officer shouts.

Hurrying over to the rest of the assault team, Dargos whispers to Herga “We weren’t told anything about an attack. Aren’t we supposed to just be guarding?”

“I, for one, am excited to attack. Let’s go kill some Rogar scum.”

Dargos just nods, biting his lip so it bleeds. The two mount the wolves as the commander begins to address the squad. “We are about to attack the Rogar, and I need to make sure you know what to do. What do the Rogar prize most?”

“Knowledge, sir!”

“What do you do if you see a Rogar?”

“Kill or capture, sir!”

“Good. Very good. Now, none of us have ever attacked the Rogar before. But knowledge gained when the last squad died… Oops. Anyway, information gathered from several secret, hidden, nondescript, and unknown sources tells us that their buildings are armed with fire shooting cannons that can burn straight through a wolf. Be strong and decisive in your attack. The Rogar are armed with strange and unrighteous mechanical devices. In order to beat them, half of our wolf riders will go straight into their compound as bait, while the other half will dismount and destroy their labs. But those who are bait, don’t worry. The soul of nature will protect you. Does everyone understand?”

“Yes, sir!”

“Good. Then we strike at once. Onward!”

Rushing out of the gates of the tree, Dargos feels the wind blowing through his hair and the soft touch of the wolf’s fur against his skin. Tightly grasping onto the reins, Dargos confides in his wolf.

“Hey, boy. Listen up, okay? Did you hear what the commandant said about the Rogar compound? How did they get all that information? I feel like this isn’t the first attack, or there’s something they’re not telling us. Anyway, thanks for listening.”

As the squad crosses the bridge leading out of Forgag territory, they look at the horizon. The area right in front of their noses is a deserted wasteland, ruined by centuries of war. Scorched bodies of wolves, clerics and warriors in the traditional Forgag robes, Rogar creations, and Rogar agents litter the ground. The earth is scorched to a crisp. All around, houses are crushed to the ground. All that can be seen left standing are the waves of tombstones seemingly stretching endlessly. Dargos leans closer into one, reading the words on a single tombstone out of the many, bearing neither the Rogar nor Forgag emblems.

“Morie Yehar. C.E.730-C.E.738. Killed in a Forgag prison, for healing wounded Rogar soldiers. May she rest in peace for all the people she healed by such a young age. She will never be forgotten as long as we tread this land.”

Pulling away the vines covering the tombstone, a shudder goes down Dargos’ spine. He looks down at his wolf. A single tear rolls down his cheek, but it’s wiped away by the wind. Looking down at the Forgag emblem on his robe, it no longer stirs up the same pride in him.

As his squad slowly passes through the wastelands, Dargos drops to the back of the pack. He is no longer excited to be part of the Forgag. Pulling up to talk to Herga, at the front of the pack, Dargos leans over and begins to speak. “Hey, Herga! Listen up! Do you see those tombstones?”

“How could I miss them?”

“A lot of them were probably killed by the Forgag.”

“I bet a lot were killed by the Rogar too. Definitely more.”

Clenching his hand into a fist, frustrated by Herga’s blind devotion to the Forgag, Dargos falls to the back of the pack, yet again.

 

“Halt!” the commander shouts, “We are right in front of the gates to the Rogar lands. Once in there, everyone is an enemy. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir!”

“Good. The compound is about a mile into Rogar lands. There is one town along the way. We will stop there for the night and — ” The commander raises his fingers for air quotes. “ — respectfully mingle with the enemy citizenry. If you, um, acquire any objects while respectfully mingling with the enemy citizenry and/or cause immense destruction and pain to them, you will be pardoned of all of your crimes while fighting these heretic infidels who do not honor the soul of nature.”

“Yes, sir!”

“Then let us begin.”

The commander unhooks his equipment from the wolf’s saddle and puts it on. Throwing a barbed vine up to the roof of the gate house, the commander pulls it taught. Climbing up the vine, sword in hand, the commander quickly scales up to the roof and silently slices off the guard’s heads, and he wipes the blood on the dead mens’ robes. Beckoning for two more men to come up, the commander pulls a little vial out of the pouch pocket.

“Now this here is a very potent sap-based acid. Just a drop or two on anything made of nature, like our wooden swords, will make them strong enough to cut through a roof or wall,” the commander whispers.

Crouching down, he smears a little bit of the liquid all over his sword, plunges it through the roof silently in the corner, and almost cuts out a whole circle, leaving it holding onto the roof by a little bit. Pulling out his sword in one hand, the commander slams through the roof, sword in hand, and spins 360 degrees. Killing all the guards in one clean stroke, he beckons for the other men to come down and sheaths his sword. The three men pull up the gate, and the squad goes through.

Riding along the countryside, the Forgag soldiers slice up the Rogar creations tending to the fields as they go along, and sow weeds into the ground. Collecting whatever supplies the Rogar had and breaking them, they ride into the Rogar town like kings. Dismounting, they quickly kill the local Rogar garrison with the loss of only two men and begin to sack and pillage the town. Knocking down houses, destroying equipment in items, looting valuables, pillaging, shops, murdering the local inhabitants, and just generally causing destruction. Staying for the night, they begin to turn into harsher, more crueler versions of themselves. Dargos runs around, desperately trying to find Herga.

“Arrg!” Herga yells, stabbing a local family through the chest.

“One second of cruelty, four lives ended.” Dargos mentions casually, but with a serious tone in his voice.

“They deserved it.”

“But you just killed two innocent children!”

“They must pay for the crimes of their parents.”

A fire begins to burn in Herga’s eyes.

“How does that justify killing? What makes their lives worth less than ours?”

“Because they’re Rogar,” Herga replies, with more than shadow of malice and cruelty in her voice. Beginning to hollar, Herga yells, “All Rogar deserve to die! I granted them mercy with a painless death.”

“Herga, snap out of it!!”

Getting down on his knees and begging with Herga, Dargos began to plead.

“Make it stop! All this bloodshed, for nothing. We have been taught from a very young age that all of nature is valuable. What makes the Rogar any less? What?!”

“Everything.”

Herga twists her heel, kicking dust into Dargos’ face and spits on the ground.

“You deserved that for even questioning the Forgag.”

“Enough with the looting and pillaging! It’s time to make camp for the night. In the name of the soul of nature, I hereby declare this town thoroughly destroyed and pardon you all. We set off tomorrow at four in the morning, sharp.”

“Yes, sir!”

Pulling the bedroll off his wolf, Dargos quickly sets up camp. Dropping it onto the ground, he clears the bloodstained dirt. Collapsing, he looks up at the bright starry night. Scooting over to let his wolf lie down next to him, he begins to whisper to it.

“Just look at the sky. It’s probably the only place here free from the blood. Why do we have to fight? They’re not so different from us. Underneath, we are all sort of the same. While there may be some differences, it’s not worth all this fighting. Who decided to divide the world into Forgag and Rogar anyway? Just look at this massacre. The little town here isn’t that different from the ones we saw in Forgag territory. There doesn’t always have to be a them and an us, a Forgag and a Rogar. Why can’t there just be people?”

Turning over, Dargos falls soundly asleep, dreaming of a world where there isn’t so much bloodshed.

“Rise and shine! It’s time to move out. Just leave the bedrolls. You won’t need them. We leave in five minutes! Five minutes!” the commander shouts. Shaking his head and slowly standing up, Dargos sees Herga towering over him.

“It’s our first battle! I can’t wait.”

“I can. This isn’t what I trained for, you know? A cleric’s supposed to heal people, not kill them. They had us sign an oath never to take lives. Now they send me into battle?”

“So you can heal people. Duh. You should no better than to question the Forgag.”

Sneering at Dargos, Herga spits in the dirt. Stomping off, Dargos climbs onto his wolf, leaning in.

“What’s the matter with her? Can’t she see what is happening? Urrg. At least you understand, boy.”

Pulling out his sword, Dargos sticks it into the ground and snaps it under his foot.

“I won’t be needing that.”

“Let’s move out! Everybody, we’re going!” the commander shouts and then hops onto his wolf. Riding out, the squad all mount their wolves and ride out towards the Rogar compound. “The right half of the company here will go straight in as bait, and I will lead you. Left half, you’ll be commanded by our loyal and faithful Herga. Praise the soul of nature!”

“Praise the soul of nature!”

Veering off to the left, Dargos charges forward with the rest of the pack, dismounts, and rushes into the Rogar laboratory. Pulling out the same bottle the commander had earlier, one of the Forgag soldiers smears it all over his sword, cutting through the wall into a Rogar lab. Nocking an arrow, another Forgag soldier shoots the two Rogar agents in the room, and they sweep into the building. Glass flying everywhere, they smash Rogar petri dishes, break beakers, and crack vials. Charging forward, the Forgag team rushes further into the building, wrecking as the go. Dargos, however, stays behind.

Raising his staff over two dying Rogar agents, Dargos begins to utter a powerful life saving incantation. “Alhost nep. Alhost nep. Alhost nep. Save these two agents.”

“Thank you. You are a very good man. But why are you helping us, since you are Forgag?”

“I’m not Forgag. I’m not Rogar. I’m just a human, and so are you,” Dargos declares, helping them up from the ground.

“Now, this special tree grows incredibly fast. Plant this seed anywhere, and it will go straight up through anything. Plant it below this Rogar laboratory. Dargos has a special spell to blow through the floor. Where is he? You two. Over there. Go find him,” Herga orders. “We can’t get down to the basement to plant the seed until Dargos gets here, unless we cut through. You two. Start cutting. I hope they find Dargos.”

Panting, Dargos frantically searches for a Rogar officer.

“Rogar officer! Somebody! Anybody! You need to listen! The Forgag are going to destroy your labs! The other team is bait! It’s a trap!”

Hwap! A blindfold and gag are thrown over Dargos’ head. He blacks out.

 

A blinding light shines into Dargos’ eyes.

“You betrayed the Forgag!” Herga yells into Dargos’ face. “Your petty warnings were worthless. We cut through the floor and destroyed the Rogar labs. You failed. Dargos, you are a disgrace to the Forgag. I pity you.”

Herga turns around and spits on the floor.

“Where are we?”

“In a house in the wastelands. You were so interested and horrified at the wasteland graves, we decided to have you join them. Goodbye Dargos.”

Herga sneers.

“I thought you were my friend. We’ve been raised together since we were born.” Dargos cries, tears gushing like rivers and flowing down his robe, pulling out the dye. Pools of now green tears form on the floor, flooding the half-destroyed house.

“We’ve never been friends. Merely accomplices in serving the soul of nature.”

Pulling out her sword, high above his head, Herga touches the sword onto Dargos’ chest. Heartbroken, Dargos’ eyes drop. He falls onto the floor. He sinks slowly into the pool of his own tears. His arms droop. His head falls onto his chest.

“Why? Why, Herga? Why?” Dargos chokes out through the tears.

“Because the soul of nature is above all, and you are a traitor. Goodbye, Dargos.”

Herga picks up her sword, brandishing the wood. Dargos looks up to see any hint of remorse in her eyes. All he sees is cold, hard hatred. Herga raises the sword high above her head and —

 

The Bower

        

She assumes for all she’s gladdened,

her mouth sugared and her frock patched with clementine stain

That her world is ripe joy.

 

We do not talk,

for the joy is hers alone.

 

Indulged by untimely dusk, she clutches JACK KEROUAC by the spine,

pages snapping into the silence.

 

The bridal moon turns a natural eye to the wild pools of sunflowers,

the bloodshot summerhouses and discarded Cola cans

and the air strokes like heaviest satin.

 

Ambling three slim fingers through her hair, champagne and tangled,

She does not discern me any more than the low cicada hum,

 

and I must consider if she is at all

 

Envy and Murder

Sweat trickles down my neck. Why am I here? How did it come to this? I stand over the body and let the moment sink in. I look at my hand and see a gun. I drop it. It clanks against the floor, echoing for what feels like forever. I turn to the shattered mirror and see the monster I have turned into. My usually neutral face is red with fury, in stark contrast to my pale body. My neat red hair is tangled and appears as if I have blood on my head. Maybe I do. My green eyes are so small and frightened, I almost can’t see the evil that rumbles beneath. I start to hear her dog bark.

My confusion is replaced by the fear that seems to seep through every bone. I pick up the gun and put it in the pocket. I pull down my shirt to cover the handle. I look at the body. The eyes are still open from the shock of my killing. I quickly turn and stumble to the bathroom. I wash my hands and turn back. My body tenses up as I walk closer to the body. I close the eyes of the murdered. The green eyes, so similar to mine. I thought killing someone would bring justice, but it doesn’t, it just brings regret. I look at the pool of blood. Betrayal is written all over it. But I am the one to be seen as crazy and unfair. What justice was I expecting? I pick up the body and carry it to the bathtub. My muscles are tense, and I feel the bones on my hands. I let the body sink into the bathtub, and I fill it up with water. I let the body get clean, and then I refill the tub. My hands shaking as I close the door. I take the dog as I leave because I don’t want the risk of anyone knowing what I just did.

The dog whimpers as I put the collar on him. I pick him up and let him see who I am. His eyes go wide because he knows me and knows what I did. Not many people kill their sister. I get him on a leash and walk out the back door. I sprint to the neighbor’s yard, and as I do, I hear a scream. I think of it being directed toward me, and I turn to run. My heart is beating in my chest, matching the beating of my feet on the sidewalk. I run to the corner and pull out my phone.

“Hello?”

“911, what’s the emergency?” says a lighthearted woman.

“My dog owner seems to not be opening the door, and I heard a scream.”

“Where?”

“Gerland Lane, house 67.”

“Thank you. And what is your name?”

“Phoebe.”

“We are sending people over now.”

I put my phone back in my pocket, but I realize it doesn’t fit. Oh no, I still have my gun. How suspicious would that be. I shudder and feel the sidewalk start to sway. I feel myself heave as I proceed to throw up on the hard gravel beneath me. I look at the ground, astonished, and the floor continues to sway. The dog starts to run and bark in circles. I pick him up as I wobble toward the nearest trash can. Since it is quiet and dark now, most people could hear the dog bark, but everyone seems to be asleep. I throw the gun in the trash. Not in my possession, not my problem. I’ll pick it up after the police leave. I glance around to make sure no one saw me, but since it is very late at night, no one is awake. Hopefully no one heard me. A chill shoots through my spine because I realize that the shot of a gun is very audible. I shake my head because that doesn’t point the murder to me. I don’t have the gun anymore. The police arrive about five minutes after I called them, and by then it is pitch black, except for the lights from one house half a block away and a single lamppost.

A single police car pulls up. I nod and walk over to them. A cop with a gray mustache steps out of the driver seat. The red and blue lights from the car show his face. He is obviously not happy to be here. I mean, who would be? It’s like 12:30 in the morning. I see his wrinkled face. His uniform is quite sloppy, and his badge is definitely used and old. The regular shine is lost. He must really know how to do his job. I try to calm myself down while talking to him because I don’t want to seem suspicious.

“Which house is the dog owner’s?”

“Well, actually, she is also my sister. I just did not mention that to the dispatcher. Sorry, I am just really worried.”

“Okay.” His brow furrowed when I said that.

“I just really care about her.”

He interrupts me and says, “Can I ask you a few questions?”

“Sure.”

“No, in the police station.”

“Oh, okay,” is all that I am able to squeak out.

He turns away from me to walk toward the house. I am silent, just letting my mind race with fears. He turns around and motions for me to go ahead of him. I swallow my fear and let my feet take me toward the police officer. He knocks on the door. No one answers. I knock this time. Again, no answer. I put on my mask of worry and knock one more time. He takes out a single key. Unlocking the door, I feel my heart beat for what feels like a thousand beats per minute. I hope he can’t hear it. We open the door, and it creaks. I step in first.
“Hello?” I shout. My words feel dull and fake as they hit the walls and echo so softly. He takes out a flashlight and looks for the light switch. I point to the wall, and he hits the switch. He scouts the first floor and finds nothing. I follow behind him and put on the emotion of fear and worry. He keeps glancing back. Does he suspect me? He finally reaches the stairs and starts to walk up.

“Should I follow you?”

“Yes,” he replies in a gruff voice.

I nod and continue to walk with him. We get to the top of the stairs, and I glance around the room and see that I left nothing suspicious around. I start to look around the room, and I hear a gasp. He saw the body. I rush to where I hear the sound and see him in the bathtub next to my sister. I open my mouth and realize there is a way to get out of his questions. I faint. I hold my breath, and my face goes red. My legs shake, and I drop. My head hits the floor. I’m…

I wake up on a hard bed almost worse than the floor. My eyelids flutter as I slowly get up. I see the cop that wanted to interrogate me. He looks at me as I yawn. I see him start to come my way. I debate fainting again but don’t have the chance.

“You up?”

“Yeah.”

And silence falls like a wet blanket.

“What happened?” I ask.

“Your sister was shot.”

“Oh my gosh.” I decide to put on the face of horror with a hint of despair.

My mouth drops, and my eyes get big as I command my face to become pale.

“We have a few leads,” he says.

“Really, who?”

“Well, first we must ask a few questions about you and your sister’s relationship.”

“Of course.”

He takes my arm and drags me to another hallway. I see a group of teenagers arguing in a room. I feel the fluorescent lights shining on me. I feel watched as I glance around. We walk for a good amount of time. Enough to make me not know how to get back to that bed. I see a room at the end, and it’s empty, and I realize I’m about to be interrogated. I suddenly remember, where is the dog? Oh well, never liked that mutt anyway. He opens the door with ease and motions for me to go before him. For the first time, I see his badge, and well, he is Officer Crumpy. What type of name is that? I step toward the chair. I suddenly see the chair buzz and fill with sparks. The room goes black. I blink, and it’s back to normal. What the hell?? I know I am going to have to sit in that chair. As I walk, my feet feel like they are going through slime. I go slow, and I feel my knees wobble. I reach the chair and sit down, and I block the image of me dying here.

He stands in front of me and walks around me as I just paint the face of confusion. He looks at me, and his brown eyes are deep and full of mystery. I just can’t tell what he is thinking. He asks, “Were you and your sister close?”

“Yes. We used to be closer, but we still talk very often.”

“Are your parents dead?”

“Yeah.”

“For how long?”

“Like two years. It is still a fresh wound.”

“Why did you call her your dog owner on the phone?”

“Because I thought if I said sister they would think I am overreacting. I honestly thought that is better to explain.”

“You had the dog for how long before you decide to call the police.”

“Like an hour.”

“Did you call her phone?”

“Yeah!”

“Okay. Did you notice any other weird people around her?” he questions.

“Yeah, she has a boyfriend who is very sketchy.”

“Okay, well, thank you, and I am so sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you,” I say.

I walk out, and he brings me to the exit. I smile. I could smell my freedom. Maybe I can get justice for what she did and what she always had done. What my parents couldn’t see. What my friends couldn’t see. What my own lover couldn’t see. She always gets what she wants. It was time to end that vicious cycle.

***

I knocked on her door. I saw the doorknob move, and she opened the door. Her strawberry blonde hair glistened in the sun. Her teeth shined so brightly, and her skin seemed to be glowing.

“Sister! How are you? I’ve missed you so much.”

“Me too,” I said with a small smile.

“I mean, so much has happened! I got the promotion, and now I found the absolute man of my dreams. He has brown hair with little curls. His eyes are green. It is so beautiful.” She giggled while saying this. I felt my face flush, and my hands curled with envy. I pushed down the emotions and just decided to be happy for her.

***

It was a buildup. I love my sister. She just always gets lucky and takes everything, and that was my life. I wasn’t Phoebe. I was Bridget’s little sister. That wannabe. She always got the friends. Once they met her, they liked her more. Same with boyfriends. The final straw was when our parents died.

***

We were in the living room. She was dripping with tears. I was numb. Why didn’t I feel anything? What was this? I looked at her at her worst. Her face puffy, and I felt jealousy. Why didn’t I feel something? I painted my face to be as sad as possible. She looked at me and said, “It just feels so surreal. I mean, they aren’t even old, they don’t deserve death.”

“I totally agree.” I gulped down a smile. Why did I feed off her sadness?

“I’ll miss Mom’s cookies and Dad’s hugs. And how every time I was sad, they comforted me,” she said in between sobs.

“How they always believed in me even though they never said so,” I said.

“They cooked mac and cheese for us, my favorite,” she said while smiling.

“I always hated mac and cheese,” I said with fury.

“You did?”

“Yeah, they just liked you more,” I said with sadness.

“No they didn’t. I just needed more attention,” she argued.

I sighed. She just didn’t understand that I was not the favorite. I stood up from the couch and left her to cry. I went to the kitchen and got a glass of water. I flicked the water onto my eyes. Note to self, learn how to cry. I came back into the living room and hugged my sister maybe a bit too tight as we sat in silence. All I heard were the sobs of Bridget. I loved her sadness, but I also envied it. What was wrong with me?

***

I feel the wind seep into my room. The window is open. I wonder why. I pull out my phone, and I see it says 3.00 a.m.. Only a day since my interrogation. Let’s hope they already closed the case. I pull out my computer and log in. My screen’s background is still a photo of my sister and me. I freeze from the shock. My computer falls from my lap onto the floor. The screen cracks through the middle. One side has my sister, and the other side is darker. It’s me. I see myself in chains, crying. I turn away and look back, and all I see is a cracked screen. I close my computer and pull the covers to my shoulders. I let the window stay open, letting in the cold from the outside to match the my heart. I drift off to sleep. I don’t dream, only fall into a deeper darkness.

Beeeeeep. I hear the alarm while it shakes, and then I slam my hand against it. It turns off. I look outside. Birds chirp outside. I feel a warmth come from within me. I don’t know how I feel about it, but it definitely feels good. Is this happiness? I smile, and this time, it isn’t from someone else’s sadness. I stretch and hear a dog bark in the living room. I go to it, expecting kissing and love. Nothing is there. I shake the feeling of guilt off of me. I go into the kitchen and prepare toast. I put a bit of butter and jam. I bite into it and feel the warmth spread through me again. My eyes flicker through the room, and I see strawberry blonde hair appear on the corner of my eye. What is my sister doing here? I feel more guilt rise in me, and again I push it down into the pit where all my rare emotions go. I quickly throw on a red blouse and some ripped jeans. I look in the mirror. I look like a normal, happy girl. A little like my sister. I run out from my apartment as if I’m leaving behind that thought. I run down the stairs until I get outside. I take a deep breath and punch into the side of the building. Even when dead, I compete with my sister. I look at my hand, and there are bruises on my knuckles and cuts on my hand from where I slammed down my alarm. With these cuts are my own wounds… But they are more mental. I decide to go for a walk, to clear my head. I walk around and just take in my surroundings. The houses are so perfect, so neat. The blocks are the exact amount of distance apart, with a trash can at the end of each block. It hits me. The gun. I start to pick up the pace. My fingerprints are on that gun. That gun is still in the trash can.

All the blood from my face seems to leave from my face into my legs. They start to wobble, and I slowly lose my senses. My eyes focus on the floor. I see the little bits of shiny rock between the bland gray. My legs regain their balance. My eyes drift up, and I see the house of my sister. How am I here? I blink, and I look down to see I am in the same place. I still have walking to do. What are these illusions? Am I going crazy? I start to run. Letting the wind pick up my hair as it falls behind me. I let my life be carried away by the wind. I let my feet hit the sidewalk. It is not fair! I close my eyes and feel my feet hit the sidewalk harder each time. My head lifts, and I open my eyes. I’ve reached the block. I can just feel how the air seems denser. Without my sister here, it seems dead. I feel like a trespasser. I look around me. The garbage truck. It’s right behind me. I sprint to the trash can and start to rummage around it. A glint of metal shines in my eye. The gun. I grab the gun. It feels heavy in my hand. It is a harsh memory. One I wish to forget. I pick it up and wipe it on my shirt. No more fingerprints. I scream. The man comes out from the garbage truck. He rushes over to me. I feel my face take on the emotion of horror. My mouth wide open.

“What is a gun doing in the trash?” I say.

“What gun?” he says.

“Look!” I say.

He looks in the trash and sees nothing. Nothing is there.

“What?” I scream.

Right there. I grab the metal object and out comes a water bottle.

“Are you okay, miss?”

“I think. I just need to breathe.” I look past the garbage truck man and see a group of police who seem to be interviewing people. My face flushes, and I turn away so they can’t see my face. I am going crazy.

“I am sorry for your loss,” I hear behind me, as I just walk away. My feet feel like they have bricks strapped onto them. Do they already have the gun?

***

I opened the screen door to the back. The sun beat down on me. I smiled even though it seemed a bit forced. My dad was just humming a song as my sister happily walked around picking up flowers. I closed the screen and noticed the swings were still, with no one on them. I galloped to the swings and let my face create a smile. I hopped on the swing and let my legs pump me to the point of flying. A warmth flowed in me. I almost never had this feeling. The first time I remember having it was when I turned seven, and my sister was in the hospital for breaking a bone. All my friends were singing me “Happy Birthday.” My parents were there, and they were paying attention to me. It was my day. If only every day was my birthday. It had been two years, and I’d felt it about ten times. It felt like a fire was starting from within you but a good fire. Not the kind that destroys. My memory was shattered from my sister’s talking.

“How are you going so high?” she said with her little ten-year-old voice.

“I just let my legs do the work,” I said.

“I’m so jealous,” she whispered.

I smiled so hard it felt as if my face were to fall off. This was the strongest warmth ever. I felt happy.

***

My phone buzzes against my skin. I pick it up.

“Hello?” I say.

“You left your dog here,” says the the cop.

“Oh, thank you,” I say. Relief falls from within me because I was expecting them to find the gun.

“Okay bye, come pick him up — ”

“ — Are there any leads?” I quickly say.

“No, we didn’t even find a weapon near the house,” he says. I hear him sigh.

“Ugh!” I start to mutter gibberish.

“Come pick your dog up soon!”

“Of course! Thank you,” I say, even though he already hung up on me. I smile. It seems like my sister might get what she deserves.

 

A Teacher’s Aid

 

Cast:

TEACHER: Jacqueline

ANGIE: Sara

FRIEND 1 and STUDENT 1: Lane

FRIEND 2: Storm

PARENT 1 and STUDENT 2: Annabel

PARENT 2: Arlen

MOM: Anushka

ADAM: Belinda

 

SCENE 1

Lights up on students leaving room and TEACHER. Blackboard in the back with a teacher’s desk. Bell rings.

TEACHER: Angie, can you meet me at my desk before you leave?

ANGIE: Ugh, Ms. Smith is calling me again. Gimme a second, guys. I’ll meet you at lunch.

FRIEND 1: Okay, Ang.

ANGIE walks up to TEACHER’s desk reluctantly.

TEACHER: Angie, I’d like to talk to you about your essay grade.

ANGIE: I know, I know already. It sucked. I’ll work harder next time…

TEACHER: No no, that’s not it. Your essay was actually amazing. The passion you put in it made it brilliant. You got an A+.

ANGIE’s face lights up.

ANGIE: Really? It was good?

TEACHER: Yes! The way you analyzed the relationship between Anne and Helen was amazing, perfectly showing the importance of Anne’s aid.

ANGIE: Thanks! Are you messing with me though? Because that wouldn’t be funny.

TEACHER: No, I’m not messing with you, but there has been something bothering me recently, and I believe this problem can be fixed.

ANGIE: Oh god, you’re not gonna mention my studying habits are you?

TEACHER: Listen, Angie. You have so much potential. Seeing how well you wrote your essay… I can’t let your talent go to waste like that. You should choose a career path that involves writing.

ANGIE: Go to waste? You think how I’m choosing to live my life is a waste? You have no place to tell me something like that. You don’t even know me.

TEACHER: I may not know you, but I can tell what kind of person you are when you don’t have a strong mindset regarding your future.

ANGIE: No you can’t! My future is my future, not yours to worry about. I’m sick of teachers telling me what to do and what will make me happy. Living for the future is such a sham. In the present, I’m much happier, and I know things will turn out good. Adam makes me happy, I don’t need any after school assignment to mess that up.

ANGIE realizes what she’s said and runs out of the room embarrassed.

 

SCENE 2

TEACHER: Come in, come in, students. I hope you all turned in your The Miracle Worker analysis homework last night!

Students fill in, empty chair where ANGIE sits — TEACHER doesn’t notice.

TEACHER: Alright, let’s do attendance, shall we?

TEACHER grabs paper and points at each student as she reads the list.

TEACHER: Mark, Julien, Kelly, Angi — Does anyone know where Angie is today? No? No one has seen her?

FRIEND 1 whispers to FRIEND 2.

FRIEND 1: I would skip Ms. Smith’s class if she was on my tail everyday, too.

FRIEND 2: Obviously. I heard that she tried to talk to Ang about Adam yesterday!

TEACHER overhears and walks to the other side, avoiding the friends.

FRIEND 1: Are you kidding me? Next thing we know, she’ll ask her about her dad!

FRIEND 1 and 2 laughs as TEACHER continues teaching without noticing.

 

SCENE 3

Room is dimly lighted at night.

TEACHER: Thank you so much for your time. Julien is a great kid, and I’d love to see more participation in my class.

TEACHER shakes parents’ hands.

PARENT 1: Yes of course, we’ll get right on it. Thanks for the feedback!

Parents leave the room as TEACHER greets the next person outside.

TEACHER: I’d like to see Angie’s parents, please?

Young man in late 20’s gets up and walks into room.

TEACHER: Hello, and you are?

ADAM: Oh, my name’s Adam, I’m filling in for Angie’s parents today.

TEACHER: Oh, I’m sorry that they couldn’t make it. Do… you know what happened to them?

ADAM: Nah, she doesn’t really like talking about it, sorry.

TEACHER: I’m sorry, then what is your relationship to Angie? Are you a trusted adult?

ADAM: Yeah, yeah, I’m just here ‘cause someone had to be.

TEACHER is visibly thrown off and at a loss for words.

TEACHER: Alright then… well… I’d like to talk about her grades.

ADAM: Alright, can you make it quick though? I got something after this.

TEACHER: Well, I’d really prefer to see where her mother and father are, because this will take a while.

ADAM: I already told you, that won’t be happening. We don’t talk to her mom anymore, understand?

TEACHER: But surely her father could come, so we can have actual discussions about Angie’s future, and not a quick meeting before you go off back to your own world.

ADAM: No, I already told you. Her parents couldn’t come, I’m an adult, so I’m here tonight because she’s forced to send someone to listen to whatever thing you are required to “help” her with, okay?

TEACHER is silent.

ADAM: So? Is she doing well? Do you have anything to tell me, or can we go now?

TEACHER: We? Is she here? May you please just bring her in, I have serious things to discuss with her.

ADAM: You know what, whatever it takes for you to leave me alone. Angie! Can you come in, and we can get this over with?

ANGIE walks in confused.

TEACHER: Is this person your parental guardian? Where is your father? I believe he would be better suited for me to talk to today.

ADAM: Babe, don’t bother with her. We did what we were supposed to, and now the school will stop emailing us. So let’s go, already.

ANGIE doesn’t acknowledge ADAM and focuses her attention on the TEACHER.

ANGIE: My father? You think you’d have a better discussion with my father? Well, he’s not here right now. He hasn’t been since I was nine. So please, for the love of God, stop bothering me about my life and leave us alone.

TEACHER gasps.

TEACHER: My goodness, I really am so sorry.

ADAM: Alright, let’s go Ang.

ADAM grabs ahold of ANGIE and walks her out the room as the TEACHER turns to her desk with a puzzled look on her face.

TEACHER walks back and sits while showing the audience a picture of her dad on her desk.

TEACHER grabs phone and dials.

TEACHER: … Mom?

Voiceover/offstage.

MOM: Honey, what’s the issue? Why do you sound so distraught?

TEACHER: I need to talk about Dad… Something’s been on my mind lately.

MOM: I thought you and I promised we’d push him out of our thoughts… Alice, it’s been ten years. Why are you thinking about him again?

TEACHER: I’m not thinking about him. I’m thinking about me right now.

MOM: What about you? I know you did some bad things to him, but you know he deserved it. You shouldn’t feel sorry for what you did, after all the damage he left on you. Why is this on your mind so much?

TEACHER: No, I’m not talking about that either! I’m talking about my future, Mom! What I could’ve become.

MOM: Oh, you sound crazy right now. Calm down, you and I both know what you did was the best for you. Now look at you, a happy teacher who teaches a beautiful group of kids. What more did you want?

TEACHER: I wanted to write. I wanted to write whatever I wanted, when I wanted, and how I wanted. I wanted people to read my books and be inspired, I wanted to change people’s lives! Now, I can’t even help someone one-on-one. Dad leaving made my outlook on life completely change… I didn’t even graduate college.

MOM: Please, honey, don’t ever put yourself down like this. Your life right now is nothing to complain about, and I know you can touch the heart of anyone you wish to. You have me, someone to watch over you. You’re lucky to have my support.

TEACHER: You’re right. I am blessed to have you, and not everyone is lucky enough to say that. Thanks, Mom. Love you. I know what I have to do now.

TEACHER hangs up.

Knock on door.

PARENT 2: I don’t mean to interrupt, but am I in the right room? I’ve been waiting a while, but I didn’t want to bother you…

TEACHER: Oh yes! Yes! I am so sorry, come sit, come sit.

 

SCENE 4

Lights up on classroom. ANGIE walks in with friends.

TEACHER: Angie, I’m glad to see you again! Hey, can I talk to you for a second?

ANGIE: Oh my God.

ANGIE turns to friends.

ANGIE: I swear, this better be the last time she talks to me. If not, I’ll make it the last time.

TEACHER: So I’m starting a support group for people who… have some family issues. Surely you would like to join? Maybe it can help you steer in the right direction away from negative people.

ANGIE: For the last time! I don’t need your help! I’m not joining your stupid support group, and I’m not developing a stupid little “friendship” with you. I’m here to take your stupid class so my Mom doesn’t get emailed. Other than that, I’m just a regular student to you. Understand?

TEACHER’s face flushes.

TEACHER: Alright. Alright. I apologize. Please, go to your seat.

ANGIE hides her frown and heads to seat.

 

SCENE 5

Lights up on hallway with lockers.

ANGIE: Did you guys hear about Ms. Smith’s support group? Apparently she’s starting one… Weird, huh?

FRIEND 1: It’s probably because she has her own issues with her dad. My mom overheard a conversation with her and her mom… something about her dad leaving and messing up her education or something? I don’t really know.

FRIEND 2: Ew, why can’t she just let it go? She was in school like, a century ago.

Friends laugh.

ANGIE: I’m sorry, what? Her dad left her?

FRIEND 1: I don’t know, probably. She went on this sob story about how she wanted to be a writer. Kinda like you a couple years ago, Ang.

ANGIE: Yeah… well you guys go. I’m gonna head to my locker, I need to get my books.

FRIEND 2: Alright, see you.

ANGIE walks by TEACHER’s room and observes it, then walks away with a frown.

 

SCENE 6

(Time skip) Lights up on classroom with desks organized in a circle and students walking in.

TEACHER: Hello, hello, don’t be shy. This is a support group, this is your safe space.

Students get in the chairs,

TEACHER: So, third time around, are we all getting the hang of this?

Students nod in agreement.

TEACHER: Okay, who wants to start off first, today?

STUDENT 1: Well, I’m glad to say that I’m developing a way better relationship with my mom! We finally talked about the problems with my sister, and she’s also talking more with my mom about her anger issues. She’s really going on the right path right now.

TEACHER: That’s amazing, Evan! I know how much stress your sister put you through. Now you can take this time to heal together.

STUDENT 1: Yeah, I guess so!

TEACHER: Who’d like to speak next?

ANGIE shows up on side of stage and observes the classroom, but turns around doubtingly.

STUDENT 2 whispers to STUDENT 1.

STUDENT 2: Angie’s here… probably to talk about her boyfriend. Poor thing just got broken up with.

STUDENT 1: Oh, Adam? But they were so cute together.

TEACHER: Are you guys talking about Angie? Have any of you spoken to her recently? It’s been months since we’ve spoken…

STUDENT 1: Yeah, sorry to disrupt, though. We’ll be quiet now.

TEACHER looks at door and sees ANGIE walking away.

TEACHER: Would you give me a second, guys? So sorry, just one second.

TEACHER walks out of class.

TEACHER: Angie? Did you want to join our group? It’s really a safe space, trust me.

ANGIE: No, no… I don’t feel comfortable sharing…

TEACHER: Then just come and sit. You don’t have to share. Just come, and you’ll be welcomed. I want to help you, don’t you realize that?

ANGIE: Just because your dad left as well doesn’t mean you have this obligation to help me. Don’t think you’re the miracle worker or something.

TEACHER: How did you know that? And now that you do, can’t you see that I understand what you’re going through as well?

ANGIE: Yeah… but I’m not in the right place to join right now. There’s too much on my plate

TEACHER: Look, I heard about Adam. I know how much stress has been put on you. Having someone break up with you is hard. Your parents or another person in your family is your best bet to go and stay with. Trust me.

ANGIE: What? Adam didn’t breakup with me, I broke up with him. I’m done with all his crap, I’m heading in my own direction now. But… I just don’t know exactly what direction that is.

TEACHER: Did you try going back to your mother’s house? I don’t know exactly what happened, but she must be some form of help to you.

ANGIE: Not yet. To be honest, I’m scared. I don’t know if she’ll welcome me back in. I’ve been staying at my friends’ houses, and it’s been good, but I’m starting to get on their parents nerves… soon I might not have a place to stay. I really don’t know what to do.

TEACHER: Hey. Don’t speak like that. You and I, with the help of this support group, will get you on a better track with your mom. Trust me, I’ve been there. You’ll know what to do.

ANGIE: You think so? But there’s so many people. I don’t know how you could have time to help me with all of this.

TEACHER: It’s not going to be just me. It’s all of us. This support group is the best thing I’ve created, and it will be the best thing for you, too. These people are just like you. They are your peers, and they went through the same things you did. Now, they are all on a path to recovery while also helping each other on their journeys. This group would be perfect for you. Just join us. We’ll help, trust me.

ANGIE: Okay. I’ll join.

TEACHER: Hooray! Don’t be shy, just walk on in. These people are going to be your family now.

ANGIE smiles, and they walk in together.

Off stage you hear her introducing ANGIE to everyone.

 

Tunnel Vision

I was walking along the streets of Georgetown with my friends Jason and Barry, watching the filming of the new Wonder Woman movie. The busy street was filled with all sorts of 80’s cars, and there were cameras everywhere. There was even a movie theater that pretended they were playing 80’s movies like Gremlins.

All of a sudden, I saw a tunnel that looked like a secret passageway. It looked like one of those old dead-end alleyways. I immediately nudged Jason and Barry. We originally thought it was part of the filming, but then we saw it was past the end of the film crew’s roadblocks and looked deserted. There was a door at the end of the tunnel, painted all black, even down to the doorknob. The door itself blended into the tunnel, and we pulled towards it, deciding to check out what was inside. As soon as we were inside, the door slammed shut behind us.

I threw my shoulder against the door, but it wouldn’t budge. We were trapped. I pulled out my phone and dialed my brother’s number, but I didn’t have a signal. I couldn’t see a wall behind me, so I started walking away from the door. After a few steps, I found three tunnels. The first tunnel had a sign on it that said DO, the second tunnel had a sign that said NOT, and the third had a sign that said ENTER. That couldn’t be good.

“Well, this sucks,” Jason sighed loudly.

“The door didn’t move, and I can’t get signal. Why not try a tunnel?” I asked.

Despite suggesting it, I had no idea what tunnel to go through.

Barry then suggested, “How about we split up? If one of us finds the right tunnel, we can all meet up and get out that way.”

I stopped pacing, smiling in disbelief. “You’re joking, right? We can’t do that. What if one of the tunnels goes to a maze or something? We could get lost.”

Jason said, ”Sticking together is definitely the right option.”

Barry then said, “I still think we should split up. More tunnels, less time.”

Jason replied with, “Why in the world should we split up”

“You all want to go home, right?” asked Barry sarcastically.

Jason said, “Well, I am not going to split up.”

Barry said, “Fine, stay here and rot if that suits you.”

“I’m just trying to stay alive, to be honest.”

I took a deep breath. “Look. We have an equal chance of picking a wrong tunnel as we do the right one. Let’s just take the first one.”

Jason and Barry, having no better argument, agreed. When we reached the end of the DO tunnel, it was a dead end, the tunnel filled with nothing but dust.

Barry started humming a bass line.

Jason gave Barry an annoyed look. “Is that one Another One Bites the Dust? Seriously?”

I led us back to where we started and then went into the NOT tunnel. At the end of the tunnel was another door that was completely covered in dust but seemed like it had words on it.

Jason looked skeptical. “You guys willing to trust another door?”

Barry shrugged and wiped the dust off. There was something on the door in a weird language. The words, Omissa spe quae ponitur faciatis, were carved at eye-height. We spent a few minutes trying to figure it out, but seeing as none of us could speak Latin, we were stumped. As we began to walk back to the lobby, a man in a dark robe jumped out of the shadows scaring the crap out of us.

We ran around a bend in the tunnel, but when we stopped, we heard him speak, in a dry, rasping voice.

“Stop! I can translate that for you. I know you don’t trust me, but you’ll want to hear what it says.”

We inched back towards the door and saw the man waving us forward. As we walked towards him, he spoke again.

“The writing on this door says Abandon all hope ye who enters here.

When Jason heard that, he said, “Dang that’s freaky. Let’s just go back to the beginning and wait for someone to break us out.”

The man in the robe then said, “Wait! My name is Bernard. I’ve been trapped here for almost a year. Please. If you’re thinking of going through this door, don’t. When I went in, I barely made it out alive.”

Barry then said, “Well if it is our only way out, we have to try it, right?”

I replied with, “I agree, but if going in there equals death, it isn’t worth it.”

Jason said, “Equals death, seriously?”

I said, “Yeah seriously. And Bernard, what happened when you went in there?”

“They attacked me,” he said.

“Who attacked you?” I asked.

“No doubt we should go in. It is pretty much our only way out.” Barry interrupted.

Bernard looked nervous.

“Bernard, will you come with us for a little while?” I asked.

“No, never will I go back there!”

“Please just once,” I pleaded.

“Please?” asked Barry.

Bernard groaned reluctantly, but placed his hand on the old doorknob.

Barry, Jason, and I all looked at each other hopefully.

Bernard opened the door, and we all went in. It was pitch black in there for about ten seconds until a ginormous red light shined on all of us. A voice, deep and menacing, thundered from all around us.

“WHO IS THERE?”

Jason screamed and inched backwards. I shot out a hand to grab him.

“We just got in here, man!” chuckled Barry. “You can’t freak out on us yet.”

 

“Oh, but he can, and probably should” exclaimed Bernard, looking like he was regretting the decision to stay with me.

“Not helping,” I said.

“I ASKED YOU A QUESTION,” the voice boomed.

I was dying on the inside but found some scrap of my voice. “We were just leaving! Do — do you know where the exit is?”

“DON’T LIE TO ME! I CAN SEE BERNARD UNDER THAT HOOD,” the loud voice said.

“How do you know who I am?” Bernard said, his voice even more filled with nerves.

“TAKE THE HOOD OFF,” the voice snarled, sounding different now. “DO IT OR DIE.”

Bernard, faced with no other option, shook as he slowly took his hood down.

He had somewhat long dark brown hair, a small brown beard, brown eyes, was wearing a black sleeveless shirt, and had black pants. He looked rugged and intimidating, like he fit in this underground situation.

“Bernard?” asked Jason, the anger returning, “Something you wanna tell us, buddy?”

Bernard turned slowly and began to speak.

“I know this place. These are my old friends. We came here years ago, but they have been building incredible things for decades. They were made fun of as kids, and when I stuck up for them, I was made fun of. We wanted to take over the world. I realized it was pure evil, and I decided to turn on them. Using their technology, they stopped me. They brainwashed me. I’ve been under their control for almost a year and just escaped.”

“Sounds like they’re great buddies,” spat Jason.

Barry had the courage to laugh. “Hey, you know? You go out for a round of spelunking with your pals and get brainwashed and trapped trying to stop them from world domination. Sounds like a great Tuesday, am I right?”

“We can help, Bernard. Do you want us to help you kick their butts?” I asked, looking at Bernard, who looked pitiful.

“No, go now and get help. There’s a key under the mat at the end of the ENTER tunnel.”
“You just thought to tell us this now?!” Jason exclaimed in disbelief.

“I just remembered now!” Bernard shouted, pointing at his temple. “Brainwashed, remember?”

“Right.”
He slipped his arms out from his sleeves. “Here, take my robe. It’ll keep you concealed.”

I took the robe and thanked him, not wanting to think about Bernard taking on whomever “they” were by himself. We ran back to the second door, all the way back to the entrance, and sprinted down the ENTER tunnel. The key was right where Bernard had promised it would be.

When I left the tunnel, I felt like a vampire in the sun. We were going to go straight to the police, but then realized they would never believe us. I knew though we couldn’t leave Bernard behind. Barry was in on going back to help Bernard before I even said we should. Jason seemed reluctant but ready.

As soon as got to Barry’s house, we slipped into his garage and began making weapons to do whatever we could to help Bernard. I found a metal baseball bat, Barry made Jason a whip out of hot glue sticks and duct tape, Barry made a mace out of a hard foam ball, tacs, tape, the chain of many key chains, and a mini M&M’s bottle as the handle. We also got three baseballs each.

We were ready. Now the only other thing I wanted was a headband and eye black.

Once we finished, we went back to the tunnel. I thought we must have looked like idiots walking through Georgetown with our makeshift war weapons, but Bernard was in trouble. We tip-toed in and peeked at what was going on inside. We saw two strange looking people sitting at a table looking to their right. There was a third person shackled to a chair, and I could only see half of their face, enough to see a thick brown beard. After that, they pulled out some weird looking sci-fi gun type thing.

Then Jason said, “No! That must be the mind washing machine!”

“What do we do?” I asked.

Barry looked at us like we were stupid. “You idiots! We charge!”

He then let loose a scream and charged like a buffalo who had just robbed a candy store, his M&M-handled mace swinging wildly behind him. Jason and I had no choice but to follow. We ran through the door and threw a few baseballs at them. I ran up to the one in the middle and struck. He pulled up a metal pole and blocked it. Barry went and attempted to hit the one on the left with the mace, but the guy dodged it. We all continued to fight as Jason went and freed Bernard. Bernard then grabbed a hammer and was ready to get in the action. I was having an intense one-on-one battle with my guy, and Barry kept trying to hit his guy but kept missing. Right when I was starting to struggle holding mine off, Bernard came in and whacked the guy in the back of the head, making him crumple. Jason ran to help Barry, whipping the guy Barry was fighting in the back. The man saw that his friend was down. He made a break to a table that had tons of their technology on it. I knew we couldn’t let him get the table, so I ran to guard it. When the man got to the table I smacked him in the forehead and realized why Cabrera must love his job. My bat rang off his forehead and was still shaking by the time the other three got to me.

Bernard got chains that were in the room and tied his now unconscious captors up. After that, he led us out. We were covered in dirt and dust, our hair was all messy, we had rips in our clothes, and and my right shoe was ripped. We all tried to make to through the crowd without getting noticed, but everyone wanted pictures of us because they thought we were extras on set. I had completely forgotten that everyone else in Georgetown was having a normal day. We walked to the police station, and we told them they had to come to the tunnels to arrest the psychos and confiscate the weapons and technology. The police went down the tunnels, arrested them, and took the weapons and technology. They then blocked down the tunnels and returned us to our parents.

“Fun day today, right guys?” Jason laughed when we had all taken showers and were watching a movie at his place.

“Now you’ve got the spirit!” Barry laughed. “We should do this more often.”

“Heck yeah!” I exclaimed.

 

The Monster

 

There is a monster inside of me

The monster —

It scares me

It stays in me

Haunts me

Controls me

it takes what it wants

From me

 

It tells me it just wants

a game to play

A game of fun

And sharing

And happiness

And giving

But I know that

That’s not why it came

 

There is a monster inside of me

The monster —

It scares me

Its horrible hands —

they’re strong enough to

Rip the soul

Out of me

 

The monster won’t

set me free

It’s always taking

A piece of me

It tells me

It loves me

But I know

That it doesn’t

The only thing it loves is

What it wants to make me

 

Because

You see

There is a monster inside of me

And the monster —

It is me

 

Dull Blue Dresses

One Sunday morning, my mind felt like a cloud of haze and dust. I had only gotten four hours of sleep the night before, and I felt myself strapped to the covers, unable to rise out of bed. However, I was supposed to attend a dance party later that day at a dance hall, between 11:00 AM and 12:00 PM; my best friend, Renee, had sent an invite via Facebook Messenger to which I could RSVP, and told me that the cost of purchasing tickets was expensive. However, she didn’t send me a link to where I could purchase tickets. Therefore, I didn’t buy them to get into the dance. I also didn’t have an outfit picked out; should I wear a dress or a skirt? If I was going to wear a dress, should it be flowy and long or a pencil skirt dress? Oh well, I decided not to worry about that issue until an hour before I had to leave.

After thirty minutes of resting in bed and gazing up at the ceiling, I finally lifted myself up, slipped into my slippers, and walked out into the cold air of my kitchen, where a box of pancake mix enticed me and awaited for my mouth to devour it. I propped open the lid, turned on the stove to medium heat, put a seared pan on top, and gathered sugar, milk, eggs, etc. in order to make the batter. Once I finished whipping up all of the ingredients in one deep bowl, I poured the batter onto the butter-seared pan; the dripping of the batter was like a slow waterfall, dropping onto the pan and making a sizzling sound that was piercing throughout the kitchen. The sizzling sound kept ringing and ringing out until I used up all of the batter and made seven pancakes; I was ready to devour those moist cakes! However, you can’t have pancakes without the sticky and sweet goodness of maple syrup and the creaminess of butter! As I was pouring maple syrup onto the mountain of pancakes, my mouth started salivating and drooling, just like a dog. The last ingredient that I had to put on those pancakes was butter; I pulled out a stick of butter from my bare-to-the-bones fridge, cut it in half, and smeared it across the surface of the top pancake in the mountain that I had made. Now, the pancakes were ready to be devoured! I took one bite and was immediately in heaven; the sweetness of the maple syrup and the creaminess of the butter combined with the moistness of the pancakes was the perfect breakfast food for today.

I don’t really like to eat with other people because I don’t want to see them staring at me while I eat my own meals. I would rather just eat alone in the quiet space of my kitchen, mindlessly chewing and humming along to myself.

Ugh, why did I eat so many freaking pancakes? What was my reasoning behind this decision? Was I truly ravenous, or was I eating in order to bury deeply rooted negative emotions? I came to understand that I wasn’t starving after all; instead, the pancakes were filling an emotional void.

I checked my watch and realized that it was time to pick out a dress for the dance that I was going to in exactly thirty minutes. I looked through my closet, and I found three dull blue dresses, all of which were long and flowy; I felt insecure about drawing attention from strangers by wearing a shiny dress even though I desperately wanted to, so the dullness of the dresses exposed me less.

Did I really want to try on each of the blue dresses, though? The immediate thought of trying them on filled me with dread and agony. What if I didn’t like the person I saw in the mirror reflected back at me? I was afraid of confronting my own body in the mirror.

When I finally mustered up the courage to try on all three of the dull blue dresses, I realized that I didn’t like how they looked on me because of my figure. The dresses made me look like an overweight pig. To be honest, I didn’t want to go to the dance because I felt self-conscious about having random strangers stare at me; even though I was wearing a dull blue dress, people would still have noticed that I was there and would have judged how I looked in that dress. I especially didn’t want to see anyone I knew because then I would have felt more exposed and vulnerable. At the same time, I wanted to feel good in my own body and to be able to look like a goddess in a glittery dress that highlights my figure, and to have people compliment me on my looks, but I felt too insecure to show myself off.

I asked myself this question: Should I arrive late, or should I arrive on time? If I arrived late, I wouldn’t have to spend as much time at the dreadful dance. However, if one of my friends saw me, she would most likely accuse me of being late, and then I would have to deal with that internal guilt for the rest of the time. If I didn’t go to the dance, Renee would text me, asking me where I was. Ugh, I really, really just wanted to block the world out. Maybe I could just disappear from reality under my covers, in the exact same position as when I woke up.

Even though I wanted to hide under my covers, I realized that it was not healthy to isolate yourself. The real question was: Should I call Renee to tell her that I’m not going to the dance party? If I called her, she might or might not be angry at me for calling at the last minute. After a few moments, I mustered up the courage to make that phone call.

“Hey Renee, how’s it going? I’m calling you because I really, really, really don’t want to go to this dance party you’ve invited me to,” I said with my heart beating in my chest, feeling nervous about how Renee was going to respond.

“Why don’t you want to go?” Renee asked with a concerned tone.

“I’m just feeling extremely insecure about having people stare at me and judge me based off of my appearance. I know that this is a last minute call, but I sincerely hope you aren’t pissed off at me,” I replied with sweat beads forming on my forehead and my internal body heating up like an oven preheating.

“Of course I’m not mad at you. I understand that sometimes, crowds can be fear-inducing for many people. Just know that I’m here for you whenever you need someone to talk to.”

Upon hearing those magical words, I exhaled loudly, sighing with relief; the weight of the world had just been lifted off my shoulders.

“After the party ends, I would like to spend time with you. Do you want to get together with me?” I asked, with anticipation in my voice and hoping that she would accept my offer.

“Umm, I would love nothing more than to spend time with you, Annie! Do you want to go have lunch with me?” Renee asked.

“Let’s go get coffee instead. I’m still stuffed from breakfast this morning,” I said.

“Ah, okay. Let’s meet up at 12:30 PM! So excited to spend one-on-one time with you!” Renee excitedly replied.

I was excited to spend one-on-one time with her too.

 

Attack of the Potatoes

                     

Prologue

There once was a man named Bob, who was a homeless man in New York City, and he lived in a cardboard box in an alleyway. You might think he was a sad man, but he was perfectly happy with his life. Most of the time, he had two to three meals a day.

 

Story

I was walking in New York City. It was a nice and sunny day. There were lots of clouds in the sky, and it was 87 degrees with cool breezes, the perfect day. I looked around. Everything seemed normal, the buildings tall and bustling with people, and the subway stations were crowded. Everything seemed normal until I was walking close to the Empire State Building. People seemed to be frantically running away from it. I looked around, and I didn’t see anything. I went up to someone to ask if they knew what was happening.

“Excuse me, sir, but do you know why people are running away from there?”

“Yes,” he said, trying to catch his breath. “People are running away because there are tons of potatoes attacking people in the Empire State Building!”

“What?! That doesn’t even make sense!”

He must be lying, I thought. Potatoes are something you eat, not something alive! Since I didn’t believe that man one bit, I continued walking down Fifth Avenue. I was seven blocks away. Everything looked perfectly fine except for the people running away and shrieking. One person even tried to get me to turn around and run away, but I just brushed her off.

I was six blocks away.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING!” some man in a business suit holding a briefcase said. “THERE ARE GIANT POTATOES ATTACKING!”

Now I was as baffled as ever. Another person said the same thing! I wanted to confirm that it was 100 percent true, so I went up to another person.

“Excuse me, miss,” I asked. “Why are people running away fr — ”

“RUUUNNNNNNNN!!!” the woman screamed.

“But why are people running!?” I repeated.

She just ignored me and continued to run. I’m just going to go there and figure out what is wrong, I thought. I continued on my way, a half a block away, and I heard tires screeching. I turned around, and I saw big military Jeeps and FBI bulletproof trucks speeding towards the Empire State Building. I jumped out of the way and heard some man on the Jeep shout “Get out of here! This is a really dangerous area.”

“Okay, sir,” I replied.

I turned around and walked the other way for 30 seconds and then continued towards the building when I couldn’t see the army trucks anymore. There were no more people running away. They all left. The streets looked deserted like a ghost town. There were some phones on the floor, so I decided to take one. After all, it’s not like they would come back and get it. I heard my stomach grumble. I needed some food before I continued. Luckily, there was an abandoned hot dog cart with hot dogs sizzling on it. I also took a bottle of Gatorade for when I would be thirsty. I took a hot dog with a bun and spritzed some mustard and ketchup and sprinkled some relish on it. I turned off the stove so nothing would burn and continued on my way. I was two blocks away from the Empire State Building. I could hear booms and explosions and shots being fired. It sounded dangerous. But I didn’t worry that much. I’m a curious person, so I really wanted to see it.

Being curious is what got me fired from my job. I used to work for a restaurant, and the owner once asked me to drive his car back home. My boss had a Lamborghini, so I agreed right away. I got in his car. It was a green Lamborghini. I started up the car and went zooming down the road. While I was driving, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a red button. I love red buttons, so I decided to push it… and the car all of a sudden stopped. Everything went flying, including my boss’s favorite glass cups, drinks, and all sorts of food. Two cars bumped into the back of the car, and inside the airbags came out, and everything was a mess. The seats were stained with all sorts of food and drinks, the trunk was smoking, and the glass on most of the windows was cracked. I knew I was going to get scolded for hours by my boss, so I did what my instincts thought I should do. I ran out of the car and never went back to my job. As a matter of a fact, I saw a billboard on top of a building asking where I was. It read, Ten thousand dollar reward if anyone finds this man! and it showed a picture of me. I always felt really guilty for breaking the car and not owning up to my actions.

I was on the block of the Empire State Building, and I almost passed out… They were right! Potatoes were attacking the Empire State Building. Some potatoes were eating the bricks of the building, some were standing outside of it doing nothing, and some were shooting the building with some laser gun! I hid behind a trash can and watched them in horror. Then, I heard something behind me. It was like someone was panting…

“AAAHHHHHHH!” I screamed. There was a huge potato that was 15 feet tall and had branches sticking out like it was a month old.

Then, the potato said in a deep voice, “Hello, puny human, we have come from the planet আলু ভাজা. We have come to take over Earth because our planet’s resources have been depleted. We have been studying humans for 567 years, and we learned everything about you. Now it is time for your death.”

“Please don’t eat me!” I begged. “I just wanted to see why people were running away from here.”

“I don’t care, I do not have emot — ”

All of a sudden, the potato fell down, and I saw why. There was a man with a big machine gun that shot it!

“GET OUT RIGHT NOW!” screamed the man who looked like he was from the army. “IF YOU DON’T LEAVE, I WILL HAVE TO STUN YOU.”

“Okay, I’m sorry. I will leave,” I replied.

I ran as fast as I could away from the war between humans versus potatoes. I got to East 32nd street. I turned off of Fifth Avenue and went towards Sixth Avenue. I still wasn’t done exploring and figuring out exactly what was happening. I made a turn onto Sixth Avenue and went back to the commotion. I saw a Forever 21 store with nobody inside. Clothes were spewed everywhere. I should get some new clothes. I haven’t gotten a new T-shirt and pants for a few years. I went inside the store, and I took a new striped shirt and blue jeans and put them on. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a gun, like the one the man had when he shot the potato. I went over to the gun, and then I almost passed out. There was a man who looked like someone had taken a bite out of his leg. There was blood gushing everywhere. I felt his heart for a heartbeat, but sadly, there wasn’t one.

I grabbed the gun and went on my way. Then, I heard some footsteps, and I quickly ran behind a clothing shelf. I heard panting, just like the previous potato who tried to kill me. That must have been the potato who killed the man! Chills went down my spine. I heard the potato getting closer and closer, and then… I jumped out and shot it. The potato fell to the ground, and I saw what it looked like. It had small legs, like a cartoon character, and it didn’t have any arms. It must have some type of telepathic powers that allow it to carry things, I thought. It was a small potato, a few inches taller than me. Then, I thought of a genius idea. I would carve a hole for me to fit in, and I’ll sneak into the Empire State Building. I looked around, scanning my surroundings and making sure nobody was near me. I took my trusty Swiss Army knife and went to carving. The inside of the potato looked extremely unusual. It didn’t have any insides that would possibly allow it to breathe or speak. It was like magic! All the insides of the potato consisted of some whitish mush like in a normal potato. After 45 minutes of carving, I was done. I crawled inside the potato and filled the hole back up. I made sure to make it small hole, so it would be easy to fill up. I made some eye holes and a small hole near my mouth and nose, so I could breathe. I walked outside and continued my way towards the war.

After a few minutes, I saw the Empire State Building in sight. That must be their headquarters, I thought. There were approximately 20 potatoes with things that looked like guns from the movie The Fifth Element. The guns in The Fifth Element look long and tall, and they have all sorts of buttons and levers on the bottom. It also has different bullets/weapons that you could shoot. I need to think of a good excuse to get into the building… I know! I need a new gun. I think I saw some potatoes run in there without a gun and come out with one.

I walked to the Empire State Building, and a pickle walked up to me, and he asked, “Why are you coming in here? It looks like you need a gun.”

“Yes I do,” I replied in a gruff voice, trying to sound like one of them.

“Follow me.”

I followed him down the lobby, and we turned in to another hallway. I looked around. There were potatoes walking everywhere. I had sweat all over me. I was shaking, hoping that they wouldn’t find out the truth about me. If they did, I probably would die instantly. Everyone around me had a gun. After 30 seconds of walking down the hallway, we reach a room with two potatoes guarding it. The potato escorting me told the pickles something and brought me into the room. I was amazed. There were all kinds of things, like guns that had some blue substance inside a tube. There was even a rocket launcher! The weapon that caught my eye was a sword that looked exactly like a lightsaber.

Then, the potato asked me, “What weapon do you want?”

“I’ll take the rocket launcher,” I replied. I took it off the shelf and started walking out.

“Hey! Do you know how to use that weapon?”

“Ummm, yes,” I replied. “You just click the trigger.”

“Okay, you know how to use it. Now go outside and fight for our leader, মাস্টার আলু.”

“I will fight as hard as I can.” Then, I thought, Why don’t I kill him and walk out and try to kill the leader. The leader would probably be upstairs… I quickly grabbed the sword weapon and sliced the potato in half before he could say anything. I hid the two halves of the potato behind a shelf, and I walked out. I walked back to the main lobby, and I stood around, trying to look as casual as possible guarding the building. Why don’t I ask someone if they know where the leader is? I’ll say I need to tell the leader something important, and I can go find him and kill him. I once read in a book where they killed the alien leader, and all the aliens died. Maybe it will be the same in this situation.

I continued to pretend to guard, and then I saw a human. He looked like he was part of the army, and he had a small pistol like from Star Wars.

Then, the potato next to me screamed, “KILL THAT HUMAN!”

I didn’t know what to do. I could kill my own kind, and then I would die because they would think I was a human, or I could shoot him, and I wouldn’t die, but I would always regret it.

“C’mon! Shoot the dude!”

“Okay, Okay,” I replied. I decided I would shoot him. I pulled the trigger and closed my eyes.

Boom, the man turned into smithereens. I hope I don’t get arrested after the war… if we win…

“Good job. Next time, don’t wait, just shoot,” a random pickle said.

I still wasn’t sure what to use as an excuse to see the leader. I was so tired I could barely stand up, this costume was itching, and it felt like it was a million degrees in here. But I persisted. I knew that I had to continue if I wanted to help save Earth from this attack. I felt extremely regretful for killing that poor, poor man. If I ever met his family, I would give them whatever they wanted to make up for it. But it was a sacrifice for a worthy cause, saving the world. After 40 minutes of doing nothing, I thought of the perfect excuse. I needed to tell the leader, মাস্টার আলু (I remembered his name!) that I had an amazing way to defeat the humans. I would tell him that humans cannot live if they don’t have water and that the potatoes should steal it. It was a genius plan!

I walked back into the building, and then a voice behind me said, “Hey, stop! Get back here! You have to guard the tall structure.”

“I’m going to the leader, I need to tell him a genius plan I thought of to get rid of the humans,” I responded.

“Okay, you can go, just take the box cart that goes up and take it to the 42nd floor. If you do anything weird, we will kill you.”

Yes! I thought. I can finish my plan! These aliens are so dumb! I went to the elevator, and I got on with another potato. The potato looked at me suspiciously. He clicked floor 32. I wonder what’s on that floor. Then, at the worst time possible, the hand of my potato costume fell off. The potato in the elevator gasped.

“YOU’RE NOT REAL!” he shrieked.

I quickly pulled out my lightsaber, I was just kidding about putting it back. I stole it. I stabbed the potato, and I clicked the 34th floor and hoped nobody would be there. I ran out of the elevator, my whole body shaking. Phew, there wasn’t anybody there. I got out of my costume and hid the dead potato under a desk. It’s extremely weird when potatoes die. Their insides turn green almost seconds after they die, and they become lighter than a feather. I found some towels on the desk, and I dried up the inside of my potato costume. It smelled like the worst B.O. ever. After 20 minutes of cleaning, I got back inside. I was about to go to the elevator, but then I heard a bump. Oh no! Some potato probably saw me! Then, I heard a bump coming from across the room. I walked over to where I heard the noise, and I saw there was a human hiding in a closet!

“Please!” he begged. “Don’t kill me. I have a family! All I want to do is make money to feed and support my family.”

I felt so guilty, so I told him the truth.

“I’m not really a potato,” I whispered. I peeked my head out to show him that I wasn’t. The man breathed a sigh of relief.

“Just hide here. I’ll come back and get you when the potatoes are gone,” I advised and walked into the elevator… hoping that I won’t ever have to have an encounter like that again.

I was in the elevator, I clicked the 42nd floor, and it went zooming up. I took out my sword getting ready. There were probably around five to ten potatoes up there guarding their leader. I will go up to the leader and tell him the “amazing strategy” and then stab him with my sword. I tried to look as casual as possible, even though I was shaking and sweating like I just sprinted a 24 mile run. The door opened, and I saw a potato… but instead of being big like the other potatoes, it was small. It was an average size potato, like one that you would buy in the supermarket. It also floated, and it didn’t have any arms. Around the potato, there were five big potatoes, like from downstairs. They were holding a long staff that had some knife at the end. Around the knife at the end, it had lines of blue things that looked like electricity.

One potato asked me, “What do you want?”

“I know a weakness that the humans have. We can use it to defeat them,” I replied.

“Tell me, my fellow potato.”

Shaking and sweating, I walked over to the leader’s desk and told him the plan, “The humans need water to survive. If we take all of their clean water, they will all die out.”

“What a smart idea!” exclaimed the leader. “We will send our ships to steal the water.” The leader clicked some button on his desk and said, “জল ধরুন.”

“I would like to show my gratitude for helping us take over this planet by promo — ”

I grabbed the potato and ate it.

*Gulp.*

It tasted pretty good. After eating the potato, all of the other potatoes fell to ground, and their hands and feet disappeared, and they shrank to a normal size.

 

Epilogue

I heard cheering outside. I got out of my costume, and I looked out the window. There were tons of people cheering and clapping. I went back to the floor where the man was hiding and told him the good news. He started crying in happiness and hugged me. I went downstairs with the man, and everyone started pointing at the man who I found on the 34th floor.

I asked the man, “Who are you? Why is everyone pointing at you?”

Embarrassed for some reason, he replied, saying, “I’m really a senator for New York. I should have told you earlier.” Then, the senator found a couch and stood on it and started to speak, “I would like to thank this man for saving me and our whole planet.”

Everyone started clapping and cheering. I was so excited! I was going to be acknowledged for what I did! Soon, the police came and tried to control the crowd. Then, the news trucks came and started taking pictures and tried to get over to me and talk. Luckily, the police helped me from getting crushed by journalists. At the end, someone wrote a book about me, I got a job as a police officer, and I got a really special medal and five million dollars. But still, I will never be happy because I killed that man.

 

A few weeks later…

In Bob’s brand new penthouse on the top of a skyscraper in Manhattan, (which the president gave him as a gift), he was watching television, and he heard something that shocked him.

“Breaking news: one of NASA’s satellite dishes in Hawaii got an unusual radio wave that was not from a star, a planet, nor even from a black hole. It was from something that must have been intelligent. NASA turned the Hubble Space Telescope towards the radio frequency, and what they saw was astonishing. There was a ship, and it was coming straight towards Earth. While the spaceship was flying towards Earth, it went in a weird pattern that spelled the letters P, O, T, A, T, O. Scientists say it will reach Earth in approximately 666 years.”

I looked out the window and saw that the big screen in Time Square also was playing that same message. Oh no! There must be more potatoes coming to attack us!

The End (For now… )

 

Gone for a Walk

         

Gone for a walk

The sun beaming hot on my back

Trees offer their shade to passersby

The sweet smell of summer in the air

 

The sun beaming hot on my back

Soft breezes soothe me

The smell of summer in the air

The sweet aroma lingers wherever I go

 

Soft breezes soothe me

Like the pleasant chirping of the birds

The sweet aroma lingers wherever I go

I feel like a butterfly in its true habitat

 

Like the pleasant chirping of the birds

I can only hear when I’m quiet myself

I feel like a butterfly in its true habitat

I venture through nature like a bird through the skies

 

I can only hear when I’m quiet myself

Trees offer their shade to passersby

I venture through nature like a bird through the skies

Gone for a walk

 

Field Trip: An Account of the Earth Invasion (2677)

           

Roughly translated to English

 

The permission slips for this trip took forever to sign, considering that Earth had countless armies and weapons of mass destruction, and there certainly was a chance that my classmates and I would be dead by the end of this field trip. We were an advanced alien elementary school class, after all, not gods. When my dad saw the slip, he immediately began to rant. “Gorp, I remember my first invasion; we did it on the planet Vaksmeeg. Ha, I remember there was this one little girl, she was crying and crying, until she wet her pants. I shot her then — what a way to go, huh? Oh, oh, there was actually this club meeting that me and a couple of my friends stumbled upon, and they were reading one of my favorite books, Microwave Down, translated to Vaksmeegian, of course, and, so me and your uncle #$@#^*&#^^$ decided to have a bit of fun, so we lined all these people up, and we would ask them questions about the book. ‘On which page does the microwave go down?’ You know, stuff like that, and if they answered wrong, we shot them.”

I decided to leave the room at this point. There was no telling how long these things could go, so I had my mom look over the slip. “Oh, is Korg going?” she asked me before signing.

“Of course he is, Mom.” Korg had been my best friend since we were little, and we had been discussing our first invasion for as long as I could remember. He was even more excited than I was, and he wouldn’t miss it for the world.

She finished signing after about an hour, and I was all set. Later that night, just before I was to begin my evening hibernation, I looked out my window and out into the city of Bondex, the place I had grown up in. The sprawling skyscrapers of The Egley district, the low rundown building of The Booga (I’m not allowed down there, because apparently that’s where bad people sell gog). Despite its flaws, Bondex was home, and I was going to miss it during the invasion. I went back to my bed. I had a big day ahead of me after all, and at least from what I’d heard, the overthrowing of a planet required a good night’s sleep.

 

The room of teaching was buzzing the morning of the trip. How could it not be? None of us had ever done this before, and this elated confusion continued to spark between us until we got to the ship, but when it came into view, everything stopped. It seemed as though all noise had been taken from the world, because the great black mass that lay before us seemed to require all the energy that had been in us moments before just to look at it. And then the silence was broken, and we all started to run toward the ship.

I was one of the first people on board, seeing as I was one of the fastest in the class, and I was absolutely shocked when I stepped inside the craft. The space inside was cavernous, and it seemed more like a hangar than a ship itself, seats sprawled evenly, none of them within five feet of each other. It was like each of us had our own world. Korg and I quickly grabbed seats and sat down next to each other (or as close to each other as we could be) and began talking excitedly.

Once all 900 of us had sat down and we had taken to the sky, an automated voice came on. It was soothing and monotonous as it began to talk slowly. “Hello, welcome aboard the vessel. Seeing as this is your first invasion, I’ll be taking you through some safety tips. First, try to kill the scarier humans that have guns while the confusion is still setting in, then move on to the more panicked ones, as they will cause less threat.” I thought about what the voice had said for a moment. I’d never killed anyone before, so the announcement spurred a sort of unease in me, but these feelings quickly became mixed into excitement. The announcement continued, encouraging us to have fun and really “take in” our first invasion, see the sights, relish in the humans’ fear. And also that we should just relax, because Earth has one of the least advanced life in our universe, so as long as we stayed calm, the invasion should be a smooth ride. After the announcement finished, it was quiet for a bit. I supposed that everyone was taking in what we had just heard, when a new voice, that of our teacher, came on.

“All right, kiddos, right now we’re entering the Milky Way galaxy, so if you’d all please stand up walk over to the windows and check it out.” I unlatched my buckle and moved to the giant window in the wall and looked out. Many of my classmates gasped in awe at the sight of the galaxy. I thought it was fine, but I again found myself distracted by the task ahead of me, the massacre I would soon commit, and suddenly I began to feel ill. I rushed back to my seat where I curled up and tried to forget about how sick I was. Korg, who had been reading Microwave Down Pt. 2, Multiple Microwaves Down! turned and saw me.

“Gorp, are you okay?” he asked, worried.

“I’m fine, just a little nervous, I guess.”

Korg wasn’t buying it. “Gorp, an invasion has never, ever failed before, all right?”

“All right.”

“Gorp?”

“Yeah?”

“This is gonna be great, and when we get home, we can tell our parents about it all. Man, you’re gonna love it.”

My stomach pain calmed down, and I felt better right away.

 

I fell asleep eventually but was jolted awake soon after by a final announcement. The lady with the smooth voice came on. “Now that you have landed, suit up, go out there, and have fun.” I looked around to see my classmates freaking out and screaming and rushing towards the battle station. I followed suit, and so I rushed to the small cubicle with Gorp etched on its door. I went in and saw what I had seen so many times in pictures, but I had never been so close to touch: the Bondexian suit, in all its shimmering glory. It was a lightweight titanium thing with a complex helmet piece covered in designs native to my home planet. I then picked up a light rifle and walked back to the seating area where some of my fellow classmates waited. I could feel the craft descending and hear the faint screams outside. Just as Eegee, the last of us to change and the student widely considered the runt of our class, had come out of his dressing room, I felt the jolt of the craft landing.

The screams were loud now outside, and I heard a ripping screech as a car tried to avoid the crash that came moments later, giving off its own terrible noise. We were all instructed to line up horizontally, facing the front of the ship. This took little time, as we had been training for months, and after we had all lined up, there was a sharp hissing sound as the front of the ship fell away, and a ramp extended down towards the ground in its place. We began to march towards the ramp, and as we moved forward, I took in the surroundings of the outside world.

I saw that we were in a metropolistic area, and despite the fact that the sky above was dark, there were thousands of glowing screens mounted to buildings, advertising strange people and things. A man with rosy red cheeks and a flowing white beard with a bottle of brown substance that looked like gog tipped over his mouth, and a dark-skinned lady was staring out of the screen. Under her picture was a name, Be once? When we began to walk down the ramp, all of us in a line, in perfect unison, I could now see real life people standing below us either running in terror or staring at us curiously. Korg leaned over and whispered to me, “The ones that ran, those are the smart ones.” I chuckled at the thought, but all of a sudden, the feeling I had felt before, on the ship, came back, the feeling that my brain was being shredded to pieces, and it seemed as if a wave of guilt had crashed down on me, crushing my body with its power.

But then the feeling passed. I could hear my teacher telling the square of people exactly what we were doing, but not why we were doing it… Why were we doing this? For power is what I had always presumed, but is genocide the best possible way to go about it? I could feel the guilt coming on again, but I was once more jolted back to my senses, this time from the sharp report of a light rifle. Near the front of the crowd a huge human man fell down into a pile of dust.

The invasion had begun.

 

The next hours went by in a blur. We were split off into groups, Korg in mine, luckily enough, and roamed the streets of what I found to be called New York, destroying the buildings around us, watching them crumble like sandcastles, being diminished to dust, just as the man from the crowd had. Before I demolished another building, I looked inside and saw through one of the window a flickering screen mounted on some sort of box. On the screen was a man with a blue suit on and a greasy wad of hair sticking out of his scalp. He seemed to be talking fast and distractedly, and behind him there were pictures of our ship. I knew he was reporting about us, about our invasion. Then the screen abruptly succumbed to static, and so I backed up twenty feet and shot at the building twice, and it was no more.

It almost made me sad, doing all of this. I couldn’t imagine my own home being wrecked like this, everything I had disappearing with a couple shots from a light rifle. I was being too nice; empathy is not the correct invasion mindset for invasion. With that, I looked back in the direction of the ship, almost a mile away now, and I saw what looked like a hallway of flames and ashes against the dark night sky, framing the streets we had walked. I turned back, and I realized how far I was from my group. I began to run towards them, but after I had gone only five steps, I was stopped in my tracks, for I saw a dark shape in the sky, coming towards my own group far ahead of me. It was a dark flying machine, with a spinning wheel on top, and the sharp chopping noise it made jolted me back to my senses. I ran towards it trying to shoot it, and so did my groupmates far ahead, but they seemed to have no effect on the plane, or whatever it was. Then, from the machine was released a bright yellow shape, flying through the air, down towards my friends, and then it reached them.

I was thrown back by the blast, and I skidded across the street like a rag doll. And when I managed to stand up, I realized I was crying. The helicopter flew away, and I could hear similar sounding blasts from far away, the sounds of more of my friends dying. I stood in the middle of the street, petrified, for a very long time. All I could see were flames, from our destruction, and the humans’. I took my helmet off, and I felt the heat on my cheeks; it hurt, but I ignored it. I thought I could make out the mangled bodies of the others in my group, singed arms outstretched in terror, mouths stretched in frozen screams. I thought about what my dad had said the day before, which seemed like so long ago, about the girl he killed who wet her pants. “What a way to go,” he had said. Not with my group mates though, no sir. On a foreign planet, with no warning whatsoever, it was just, snap, and then you were gone.

The street I stood on seemed all of a sudden like a road straight to hell. I thought about how I could get home, if there were, by some miracle, any survivors, and about how Korg and everybody else was never going to get to tell their parents about how fun the field trip had been. How did this happen anyway? Earth isn’t even advanced, so how is it that so many of us are dead? Too many questions.

I realized the aircraft was coming back around, searchlights swooping across the ground in an arc, and unless I hid, I might join my classmates. But why shouldn’t I? What was there for me? I was never going to get home. Who cared, right? So I raised my hands, felt the light pass over me, burn my eyes, and then the plane-type thing landed. I looked towards it, confused. Men without faces, wearing yellow suits, were hustling towards me. Why hadn’t they shot me? The men grabbed my arms and started to drag me toward their ship. I kicked and screamed. Why hadn’t they shot me? I stopped struggling, and they removed the plate of armor on my arm. I suddenly felt a sharp jolt of pain in my arm, and then everything got blurry, then black.

The table I lay on was cold on my back, and the sharp objects that lay around me on racks shined in the empty white light of the room. I could feel my own blood running down my stomach, a lot of it, so I too could feel myself drifting in and out of consciousness. After the invasion had failed, after all my friends had departed, strange men had brought me here, where they proceeded to cut me open, sift through my insides. I didn’t know why I hadn’t died, but no fate was worse than this. At least if I died, I might have been able to see everyone again. At least if I died, I wouldn’t have to think about the fact that I was never going to get back home.

The blood kept on flowing, and I grew tired. I thought I’d just go to sleep.

 

He Doesn’t Even Have a Name

There was a cool spring breeze brushing up against the park trees. The branches danced with their forest-green leaves. Upon a single great oak, there was a boy. He decided that one of the tree’s limbs would be the best spot to enjoy his novel. After thirty pages, the boy looked up from Moby Dick and saw the sun was close to setting. It was time to leave. The boy stood up, and with a slip of his foot, he fell off the oak. The drop must have been at least fifteen feet. As soon as his back hit the ground, ominous darkness aroused.

The boy woke up in a hospital bed. Two doctors and a nurse were staring right at him. The child said nothing. He searched the eerie room for his foster parents, and they were nowhere to be found. His back hurt, and his head throbbed with pain. The nurse opened her mouth to speak, but was cut off by one of the doctors.

“Do you remember anything that has happened in the past twenty-four hours? What was the last thing you remember?” asked the doctor. The boy tried to remember. He tried to think of the latest events that occurred but could not. He shook his head.

“The last thing I remember is going to the park to read my book,” said the boy. The doctors frowned.

“Do you know your name?” the nurse questioned. The boy nodded.

“Dick,” he answered.

“What about a last name?” asked the second doctor. “We need to file a report for everyone that comes into the ER.” Dick scanned the area again. It didn’t seem like an emergency room at all.

“I have never had a last name. Being completely truthful, I don’t think Dick is my real name either,” Dick confessed. They all seemed shocked, except for Dick.

He doesn’t even have a name, poor boy, thought the nurse.

***

The streets of New York City were cold during September. All Dick owned were sweatshirts and jeans. The school bus pulled up to his town house. Dick’s new foster parents weren’t even awake to see him go off on his first day of high school. Dick didn’t mind, he never expected much from the Torris. They were just like every family the Foster Care system put him in, no matter if they lived in Texas, Arkansas, Virginia, or New York. They never cared for Dick, so he never cared for any them. Dick didn’t know it, but deep down inside him, he felt a longing for family. It was stronger in Texas, where he first lived. But this desire for a family connection died down after he —

“Sorry, this seat is taken.”

“Oh. Alright, sorry to bother you,” Dick replied. He must have said that five more times, before he found an empty seat. Dick gazed out the bus window. He watched as townhouses passed by, but then they turned into buildings, then into skyscrapers. The massive towers hovered over the puny school bus. Dick could feel their cool shadows brushing against his window. Screech! The bus jerked into a full stop. Everyone started to unload and enter Amsterdam High School. Dick pulled out a piece of paper from his back pocket. He checked his schedule.

First period is math with Mrs. Hether. It’s in room 2037. I have four minutes and 29 seconds until the late bell rings. I should be able to get to class on time, thought Dick. He looked up to find two boys staring across the hallway at a girl. One of them seemed to be drooling. Beauty is an abstract thing that I just don’t understand, Dick thought. He grabbed the railing as he walked up a stairwell. It was cold and rusty. Dick calculated in his head it was made of mostly copper, with a small percentage of zinc and iron. As he was walking, he passed a big clump of people. Everyone in the group seemed to be centered around one person.

“Are you excited for this season, Johnny?”

“Hey, Johnny, are you in any of my classes?”

“Yo, Johnny, do you got a date to HOCO?”

While thinking about Johnny, Dick entered room 2037. Judging by his varsity football jacket, Johnny must be on the football team. He seemed like a popular kid with lots of friends.

“I would like that many friends,” Dick whispered to himself.

“Did you say something?” Mrs. Hether questioned. Dick looked up to meet her gaze and quickly shook his head. “I am Mrs. Hether, and who might you be?”

“My name is Dick,” he answered.

“Oh yes! You are the freshman in my class. I am very impressed with you. This is an honors class for juniors, and you’re taking it as a freshman. You must be a very smart, young man.” Dick forced a smile, but truth be told, he didn’t feel much happiness. Emotion wasn’t very strong in Dick. “Take a seat, class will start soon.” Dick immediately thought she wanted him to take ownership of one of her chairs. After a second of recognition, he normally sat down in the front of the room.

The school day went on, and it didn’t occur to Dick that he was excelling in all his classes. Then, the lunch bell rang, and in the hallway Dick noticed a commotion behind him. He looked back to see Johnny helping a girl pick up her books. At that moment, Dick wanted to be friends with Johnny. Johnny appeared to be a great guy. Dick thought Johnny would be nice enough to not reject him as a friend (like everyone else has). During lunch, Dick found Johnny and all his friends sitting at a table.

Dick approached them and asked, “May I sit here?” The girls looked at each other with disgusted faces. The guys were rolling their eyes and ignoring Dick. Johnny finally broke the silence.

“Get lost, freshman,” Johnny demanded. Dick turned around and walked the other way. He kept his head down and accepted the truth. Nobody wanted to be his friend. Splat! His blue hoodie was ruined by a mash potato cannon ball. Dick kept walking while Johnny and his friends laughed at him. Dick didn’t understand humor or how that was funny. He believed the correct emotion, at the time, was misery. Dick found a quiet corner near room 2037. He ate his lunch there, without any company. He sat in that corner alone during lunch, for the rest of his school year. He never cried though, most likely because he was incapable of such actions.

***

Dick didn’t realize he was excelling in his classes with ease. He has never experienced academic difficulty before. Dick would answer questions the teacher asked and get his papers back with 100 percents. He never tried to show off his intellect. He didn’t think it was a big deal. But in the third week of school, other kids really started to notice.

Mrs. Hether asked the class, “What is the answer to question three?” Naturally, a few kids raised their hands, including Dick. Dick didn’t want to give the answer, but he felt obligated to raise his hand because he had the answer. He already gave Ms. Hether the correct answer to question two. Yet, Ms. Hether chose Dick.

“The answer is 4.39 over pi,” said Dick. Ms. Hether was pleased with his answer. She smiled and wrote 4.39 over pi on the chalkboard. Johnny, on the other hand, was not pleased. After class, Johnny stopped Dick in the hallway. Neither one of them moved. They locked eyes, their toes were a foot apart from each other. Some students stopped walking to see what would happen.

“You’re a freshman taking AP Calculus. We get it, you’re smart. You don’t have to show it off to everybody though!” Johnny growled.

Dick responded, “I only answered three questions.”

“Liar! I’m sick of your $%@&, don’t you ever talk back to me!” Johnny snarled. He pushed Dick onto the floor and walked off. Dick was startled and confused. He didn’t understand what happened. Ms. Hether saw Dick getting up from the floor. She didn’t bother to go near him.

When going home that day, Dick tried to reflect. He knew he was intelligent, but he also knew he still didn’t fully comprehend the world he lived in. He grasped the railing along a staircase. He understood its purpose but didn’t know why some people slide down the railing. It seemed impractical and dangerous. The only reasoning Dick could think of was that it’s “fun.” Dick didn’t know how to define “fun.” He didn’t have much fun in his life either.

“I want to have fun,” Dick said to himself. Hesitantly, he sat on the railing. He scooched along the railing, then began to slide. Bam! Dick fell off the railing and onto the stairs. While he tried to stand up, he tripped and fell down the rest of the stairs.

Dick returned to his foster home that day, with more bruises than intended. His foster parents didn’t pay him much attention. The Torris couldn’t care less if Dick was hurt. They only cared if he needed them to pay for a hospital bill. Dick went into his room and quickly shut the door. He went under his covers and tried to fall asleep. He failed to do so.

***

The bell rang after fourth period. Dick began to make his way to his lunch corner. He scanned the hallway for any potential threats. He saw one. Dick turned and walked in the opposite direction. All of a sudden, Dick was slammed into the wall. He didn’t see Gavin coming. Johnny and Henry walked over to Gavin. They looked down on Dick, as if he were a dead mouse soon to be preyed on by vultures. Johnny cracked his knuckles. Dick looked around, the hallway was empty except for them. This was the last thing Dick wanted.

“Take this smart@$#.” Johnny sent a right jab into Dick’s nose.

“Nerd!” Gavin kicked Dick into the wall.

“Loser!” Henry pushed Dick onto the floor. The three juniors started to kick at Dick’s half-dead body. All Dick could do was lay there. His arms covered his face and his body curled up, in order to protect himself. But it was no good.

“Please stop!” Dick cried. “Leave me alone! I’ve done nothing wrong! PLEASE!” he shouted.

“Shut up, Dick-head!” Johnny ordered. He kicked Dick with enough force to push his back into the wall. Suddenly, Dick’s arms felt immense pain, as if they were sore from over usage.

“C’mon, let’s get out of here. I’m hungry,” Henry said. The boys left Dick alone in the hallway. Then, Dick’s arms felt normal again. He struggled but managed to stand up. Dick went to the nurse’s office for some ice. Dick told the nurse he fell down the stairs. Nobody in Amsterdam High School would believe their beloved quarterback was a school bully. So Dick didn’t bother telling the truth.

Dick was regularly getting bullied now. It seemed almost weekly. Johnny, and maybe a friend or two, would find Dick and verbally and physically harass him. Originally, it was because Johnny was upset about Dick being so smart. Except, after a few times, bullying Dick was just a fun thing for Johnny and his friends. Dick never understood why being smarter was why he was bullied. Dick didn’t want to believe Johnny did it for enjoyment.

The worst part about Dick’s bullies, was that he couldn’t do anything about it. He had no friends to talk to. He didn’t have any trusted adults or anyone that cared about Dick. And it was never a fair fight. He was helpless and, in a way, internally dying.

***

Gym class was also a problem for Dick. He wasn’t very athletic or good at sports. Dick got embarrassed every time he tried to play a sport in PE. The jocks would laugh at him and the other kids would smirk. Dick was always the last pick in team sports. Nobody ever passed him the ball. Dick still tried his best, but he still never played well.

One time after Physical Education, Dick was the last one to leave the locker room. He didn’t mind because it was the last period of the day. When Dick tried to leave, the exit door swung open. Johnny and Gavin barged into the boy’s locker room. Dick tried to run. He just suffered a beating two days ago, so he couldn’t take another. Dick ran into the bathroom. They followed him in and jumped into his stall. Johnny grabbed Dick by his oak-brown hair and thrashed his head into the stall wall. Dick could only see blue for a few seconds, then his vision returned. Gavin slapped Dick across the face, leaving Dick’s cheek bright red. Johnny plunged Dick’s head into the toilet. Dick closed his eyes to avoid (what he thought was) blue liquid, in the toilet. After a few seconds, Johnny yanked Dick out of the toilet water. Dick gasped for air.

“This is why you don’t make me look stupid in class!” Johnny grunted. Dick thought for a second. He recalled correcting Johnny’s answer during science class. The teacher asked for the correct answer, and after Johnny gave his, the teacher asked again. Then, Dick provided the right one.

Gavin dragged Dick back out into the locker room. He held Dick’s arms back in an uncomfortable position, twisting his weak muscles. Johnny sucker-punched Dick in the gut. Dick coughed up a little blood. He was mortified. Johnny hit him with an uppercut, straight up the jaw. An image of a syringe flashed in Dick’s mind. Johnny grabbed Dick’s shoulders. Gavin loosened his grip on Dick. Johnny pulled down Dick’s torso in order to knee Dick in the stomach. More blood. Gavin and Johnny both let go of Dick. He fell to the ground. Dick couldn’t get up. Johnny grinned while Gavin handed him Dick’s backpack. Johnny hurled the book bag at Dick’s motionless body. The impact was painful. He hit Dick in the face, pushing his head back into a locker. This woke Dick up.

“I broke my spine from the fall!” Dick exclaimed. He finally remembered what happened when he fell out of that tree. Johnny looked puzzled. He walked over to Dick and began to swing his foot backwards. Before Johnny could kick Dick, Dick was already off the ground. Pow! Dick landed a punch right in Johnny’s chest. Johnny went flying. He flew all the way into the back wall of the locker room. That wall was ten yards away from Dick. Gavin’s jaw virtually dropped to the floor. Gavin bolted out of the locker room, and so did Johnny. Dick was amazed with this new found strength of his. “Where did this come from?” Dick asked himself. He turned to the wall of lockers behind him. Dick stepped forward with his left foot. He then pushed off his right foot, pivoted on his left foot, and punched a locker. His fist went through the locker door. When Dick pulled back his hand, the door came with it. Dick almost screamed with excitement.

***

The next day, Dick didn’t run into Johnny or any of his friends. In PE, the class had to play basketball. The teacher picked team captains, and customarily Dick was drafted last. Dick’s team was playing Henry’s team. Henry knew about what Dick did to Johnny and didn’t believe it. Johnny did look hurt, and that was what drove Henry in the game. Henry would purposefully dribble near Dick and try to embarrass Dick by exposing his awful defense skills. Eventually, Dick was given the ball. Henry ran across the court to personally guard Dick. That was a mistake. Dick dribbled up to the basket, and using all the strength in his legs, he sprung up five feet to slam dunk the basketball. Dick hung onto the rim for a few seconds then dropped back down. The entire gym was silent. Everyone was in shock. Dick didn’t know what to do, so he too stood there motionless and speechless. Suddenly, the bell rang, and everyone went into the locker rooms. Nobody could speak, but their mouths were still wide open.

The next morning, Dick couldn’t get into room 2037. Johnny, Gavin, Henry, and two other upperclassmen blocked Dick’s way. As usual, there weren’t any people in the hallway. Johnny appeared madder than ever.

“Don’t you dare think you’re better than any of us, you freshman %&#@!” Johnny threatened. The two unknown students stepped forward. Dick knew there was going to be a fight, and he was ready for it. Before they could even swing their arms, Dick sent two right hooks their way. The boys flew back, unconscious. Gavin couldn’t move. He was in shock. He just stared at the unconscious bodies. Henry charged at Dick and tried to tackle him. Dick parried with a body throw. Henry was then also unconscious, but thirty feet down the hallway.

It was just Johnny left. Johnny cracked his knuckles. Dick wasn’t afraid. Dick took a step forward. Johnny threw a punch at Dick, but Dick dodged it. Dick performed a roundhouse kick, but Johnny ducked. While Johnny bounced back up, Dick kicked him in the side. Johnny fell, crying in pain. Dick most likely broke one of Johnny’s ribs.

The hallway quickly became quiet and ominous. Dick felt as if the fight wasn’t over. Except, he didn’t know of any other enemies. He looked around the hallway and found it odd that he didn’t see anyone.

Maybe everyone is in class. I should probably go to first period then, thought Dick. Dick walked by the unconscious bodies of his bullies, his conquered fears. He opened the door to Mrs. Hether’s room. A bright light turned on, blinding Dick. He heard SWAT soldiers surrounding him, yelling formation orders. Three red dots appeared on Dick’s chest. “What’s going on?” Dick yelled. He began to regain his vision.

“GOV test subject 02SHS-A is active! Confirmed bodies outside the room. Causation from 02SHS-A!” shouted a SWAT soldier. Dick was very confused and started to get scared. Then, a radio signal came in.

“Go green, neutralize target over!” The red dots on Dick’s chest turned green. Before he could flinch, Dick was shot dead.

 

Everything Perfect

                

Name: Meira O’Kane

Biological parents: Ellen O’Kane and Jared O’Kane

Place of birth: Damariscotta, Maine, USA

Date of birth: August 8, 2555 (6:35 AM)

Date of euthanization: February 3, 2655

Biological sex: Female

Gender: Female

Blood type: A-

Handedness: Right

College: NYU

Profession: Criminal defense lawyer

Soulmate: Anna Vargha

 

Meira woke up. It was Saturday, September 29, 2570. She opened the LifeGuide app. In the home page sat her life’s basic information. Some of it hadn’t happened yet — she hadn’t been euthanized (duh, she wasn’t 100 yet), she hadn’t gone to college and become a criminal defense lawyer (she was only 15), and she hadn’t met Anna Vargha. Whatever. The Algorithm had it all figured out. This was her life.

The app told her she should go to Target at 10:07 AM to buy a gift for Jessa’s birthday. She could rest at home before then. She would meet a new friend there. That was exciting.

She hopped out of bed and went downstairs. Her mother had already taken this morning’s food out of the Murchiest.

“I want candy for breakfast,” Meira’s little sister, Mia, was complaining.

Meira rolled her eyes, sitting down at the table. “Stop whining. You’re such a baby. This parfait tastes great.” Meira shoved some in her mouth.

It was strawberry flavored. Meira liked blueberry better, but this was fine.

Mia stuck out her tongue at Meira. “You’re a baby! I want candy! And play with me after breakfast!”

Meira groaned.

“Now, now, Mia,” Mother chided. “You know this is the way things are. The Algorithm — ”

“I want candy!”

“If you eat candy, things won’t turn out well.”

“But I want it!”

Father poked Mia. “C’mon, my little warrior princess, eat the parfait. Didn’t you pay attention to your teacher?”

“‘The Algorithm knows best,’” Mia grumbled.

“Yep.” Father nodded gravely. “457 years ago, the Algorithm was created so that everyone would be safe and happy.”

Mia and Meira rolled their eyes in unison.

Good going, Mia, Meira thought, Now we’re going to get a lecture.

“The Algorithm has predicted the way to make everything turn out well. All we need to do is follow it. None of those big, scary choices. If you don’t follow the Algorithm, then life will get messed up. Understand?”

“I don’t care!” Mia shrieked. “Ugh, I wish the Murchiest didn’t exist!”

Father opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, the wallpaper rippled with blue light. The soft, warm female voice of the Algorithm’s warning system, which was contained within the wallpaper, began to speak.

Mia O’Kane, you are to report to the Damariscotta Center at 9:30 AM for reprogramming. A transport will be sent for you shortly.

“Wow,” Father said, raising his eyebrows. “First time!”

Mother sighed. “Oh, Mia. After you finish your parfait, you can go play with your iPad while you wait for the transport to come.”

She kissed Mia on the forehead. Mia whined, sitting down at the table.

“Children,” Father remarked drily. “Though, I’m surprised that her first time is this late. Meira’s first reprogramming was when she was five. Mine was when I was four.”

Mia, sitting sullen at the table, gave Father side-eye.

“I was such a trouble child,” Father continued. “But I’m better now.”

Mother covered her mouth in an attempt to hide her snort.

“I am!” Father protested. “I haven’t gotten reprogrammed since I was 17. Teenagers are pretty troublesome.” He poked Meira. “You were reprogrammed 13 times. I remember I was reprogrammed 12 times. Almost set a world record.”

Mother rolled her eyes. “Please, David. The world record’s 64.”

“Well, I’m above average.” He winked at Mother.

“You’re one reprogram above average.”

“Still above average.”

Mother laughed, shaking her head.

“Mother, Father, I’m going to Target today at 10:07,” Meira said, finishing up her parfait.

“Okay,” Father said.

There was a knock on the door. The robot had come to fetch Mia. Mother stood up and walked Mia over to the door. Meira finished up the last of her parfait, before walking over to the couch and going on her phone. She opened up Temple Run 10.

“Come and talk to me,” Father said, faking a pout. “I’m lonely.”

Meira rolled her eyes. “The Algorithm said I have free time before I go to Target, not torture.”

“Ouch,” Father muttered. “Gemma! Your daughter’s hurting my feelings!”

Mother laughed as she walked back. “Come on, honey, we’re going shopping.”

Meira frowned. “Shouldn’t you be here when Mia gets back? What if you don’t finish shopping in time?”

Father raised his eyebrows.

“Nevermind,” Meira said quickly.

“Reprogramming isn’t that frightening at all,” Father pointed out.

Mother nodded, her eyes flashing for a moment. Then she was all smiles.

“Have fun, my little sugar glider.” Mother said, hugging Meira tightly.

“Mom!” Meira protested. “I’m too old for that! And you made me lose that round!”

“You’re never too old for me to smother you with affection.”

Meira shook her off, but she was unable to resist a smile as she went back to the game. A few seconds later, she heard the sound of the door shutting.

She had beaten her high score in Temple Run 10 when their doorbell rang. Meira ran over to the door. Mia had been escorted back by a robot. Meira waved goodbye to the robot. She nudged Mia.

“Wave goodbye to the robot.”

Mia stared at Meira blankly. “Why?”

Meira frowned. “Mother said it was polite.”

“Okay,” Mia said flatly, walking inside the house.

She got out her iPad and started to placidly play by herself. Meira stared at her.

Who are you and what have you done with my whiny little sister?

“Umm… didn’t you want me to play with you?”

“The Algorithm said I should play by myself.”

Meira swallowed. “Yeah… but… what do you want?”

“The Algorithm said — ”

“Okay, okay, nevermind,” Meira said quickly.

Meira backtracked out of the room and onto the couch. Glancing at the clock, she saw that it was 10:03 AM. Meira had four minutes left. Meira played several more rounds of Temple Run 10, before getting up. Time to go buy a gift for Jessa. She should definitely buy Jessa one of those antique Barbies.

After putting on her neon yellow sneakers, she walked out the door. Meira glanced at the garden as she walked outside their fenced peach-colored house. The organic flowers had died. Mother had decided not to get synthetic flowers, claiming that this way it was more “authentic.” It was for the same reason Meira had agreed not to get the date she would meet her soulmate. Father said it added a sense of excitement to life. Meira supposed not knowing was pretty fun.

She hopped onto a transport and sat down next to an old lady. As the transport began to move, the streets blurred slightly. Finally, when they got to Target, Meira got off. A digital clock on the wall said 10:31. She walked inside the Target.

What was Mia’s mind like right now?

Meira had gotten reprogrammed 13 times, and she didn’t remember how reprogramming happened. She’d tried to hold onto the memories, but she just couldn’t. All she could remember was walking into the reprogramming center, its sterile white walls decorated with beautiful pictures.

Every time after any of her friends got reprogrammed, there was always something off about them. And now… something was off about Mia. Which wasn’t okay. Meira felt a sudden jolt of anger at the Algorithm. Let Mia make choices! Let her be Mia! If she messed up, Mother and Father could help her out. Meira wanted her little sister, not some blank doll.

Her mind was still storming over those thoughts when her body collided with something solid.

“OW!”

Meira stumbled backwards, blinking. She grabbed onto a shelf for support. There was a girl in front of her, looking slightly miffed. There were crimson and purple streaks in her long dark hair. The contents of the girl’s shopping basket were on the floor, but a robot was already cleaning them up.

“I’m so sorry,” Meira gushed.

The girl quickly smiled. “Oh, don’t worry about it. See, the robot’s already got it.” She took her basket from the robot.

“Thank you,” Meira muttered to the robot, feeling slightly guilty it cleaned up a mess she helped cause.

“Why are you thanking it?” the girl asked, tilting her head so that her hair fell to the side, like a curtain.

Meira blushed. “My mother always taught me to thank the robots. She said we should be grateful for them, since they weren’t always around.”

“That’s cute,” the girl said softly. She held out her hand. “I’m Nikitha. You can call me Niki.”

“I’m Meira,” Meira said. “You can call me Meira.”

Niki giggled. “The LifeGuide app said I would meet a friend at Target today. I don’t suppose that’s you?

“I guess so,” Meira said. “I hope I’m up to your expectations.”

“Oh, of course you are,” Niki said, swatting Meira’s arm. “Why are you at Target?”

“To buy a gift for my friend Jessa’s birthday. I’m buying one of those antique Barbie sets that they have for the special back-to-school event. Jessa loves collecting antiques like that. She’s almost got the entire Littlest Pet Shop collection.What about you?”

“Buying a gift and some cards for my grand aunt’s euthanization.”

“Oh. Tell her I said congratulations. It must be exciting.”

“Yeah… ” Niki bit her lip. “Part of me wishes she didn’t have to go, though. She can make the cutest crochet animals. It’s silly, I know. Euthanizations are supposed to be happy.”

Meira shrugged. She walked over to the event stand, Niki trailing behind her.

“Which one should I get?” Meira asked.

“Maybe the Christmas one.” Niki giggled. “Christmas sounds like such a weird thing, huh?”

“Yeah,” Meira agreed. “I mean, isn’t it so much more convenient to have one holiday for the entire world?”

Niki nodded. “Right? My parents came from India, and the transition was totally easy for them. Imagine if Christmas was still around! Then they would have had to adjust to the new holiday customs.”

“It’s insane,” Meira said. She picked up the Christmas Barbie doll box and gave it to a nearby robot to scan, before paying with her credit card. “Life before the Algorithm in general must have been insane.”

“You might have procrastinated on getting Jessa her weird Barbie,” Niki offered.

Meira nodded gravely. “And then we might have never met.”

Niki grinned. “That would be awful. Anyways, where are you going after this? I’m supposed to go to my grandma’s house after resting at home.

“Hey, me too!”

“Looks like we were meant to meet. Do you want to go somewhere else instead of staying at home, though? I’m sure it would be fine by the Algorithm.”

Meira didn’t know if it was such a good idea, going against the Algorithm. Then she thought of Mia, who was off now. She felt another jolt of anger at the Algorithm. Screw it.

“Sure. Where to?”

“I dunno. Do you have any suggestions?”

Meira barely had to think before a location popped up in her head. “The forest.”

“The forest?” Niki asked, scrunching up her nose. It looked kinda cute. “No one I know goes to the forest. Except for you, of course.”

Meira shrugged, turning away and flushing. “I… yeah. I’m kinda weird. I don’t even know when I’m going to meet my soulmate. See, my parents… we talked and decided that it would be more… exciting, I guess?”

Niki smiled gently, tilting her head and looking at Meira, as if to examine her from a new perspective. “It’s interesting. You’re interesting.”

“There are probably other people like me. Umm, you know. Who thank robots and stuff.”

“Yeah… but… ” Niki shrugged. “Nevermind. Let’s go.”

“Okay,” Meira said. “You want to walk over or take a transport?”

“Walk.” Niki’s soft cocoa powder eyes sparkled. “Today’s a day for trying new things.”

The two left the store. Meira moved to drop her bag onto a floating pod so that it could be delivered home. Niki nudged her.

“Why don’t we do this the old-fashioned way and carry them?” Niki suggested, her eyes glinting.

“Wow, we’re really getting rebellious today, huh?” Meira teased.

Niki grinned. The two began to walk towards the forest. When they got there, Meira felt a familiar grin creep across her face. This was her safe place. She led Niki through the woods, until they got to Meira’s kinda-secret grove. Before Niki, the only person other than Meira to come here (that she knew of) was Mother.

Niki glanced around, her eyebrows raised. “The walls in my room can change to look like a more perfect version of this.”

Meira sat down on a thick tree root. Niki dusted off a spot next to Meira, before sitting down next to her.

“Yeah… but… ” Meira shrugged. “It’s kinda like… well, you see, Mother doesn’t use synthetic flowers because she says organic flowers are… alive. She can actually nurture them. It’s authentic. Slightly unpredictable. They… I dunno how to explain it. It’s the same concept with the trees.” Meira blushed, waving her hand. “Oh, nevermind. It doesn’t make sense.”

“No… ” Niki frowned. “It kinda does.” She grinned, looking directly at Meira. “Hey, have you ever been kissed before?”

Meira blushed. “Doesn’t everyone wait for their soulmate?”

Niki shrugged. “Today seems to be a day for going over the boundaries. Besides, I do like-like you. I dunno if I love you, but you’re cute and interesting, so yeah, I like-like you.”

Blushing even redder, Meira leaned back against the tree.

“That’s… wow… ” Meira muttered.

“Am I coming on too strong?”

“No… ” Meira swallowed, unable to say that it was part of what made Niki so charming.

Did she like-like Niki? Niki was… she was vivacious. Alive. She glanced over at the other girl. Despite the confidence, Meira could see a hint of hesitation in her bambi eyes. Meira didn’t know either, but what if they tried? Why not? Besides, it might be better than falling in line with the Algorithm. More real. The Algorithm took the realness out of things. Mia had been annoying before the reprogramming, but she had been Meira’s little ball of annoying.

“Yeah,” Meira muttered, leaning forwards. “I think… that might be nice.”

Niki smiled, cupping Meira’s neck with her hand and going forwards to meet Meira.

Her lips were soft and tasted like strawberry lip gloss. She smelled like the November Rain candles Father would burn when he ran out of Vanilla Cupcake candles. The angle was awkward. Meira shifted, trying to make it better, but the angle was even more awkward. But it could be worse. At least braces didn’t exist anymore — they sounded absolutely horrible. How did people back then who needed braces even kiss people? Then Niki let out a little giggle against Meira’s lips, and Meira melted a little.

The two broke apart, falling against the tree.

“Hey,” Niki said softly.

“Hey,” Meira said back, grinning.

“You wanna come here later?” Niki asked, her eyebrows lifted, a fox-like grin decorating her lips.

Meira suddenly jerked upwards, a horrible realization occuring to her. “W-what about the Algorithm?”

Her heart began to race. People were supposed to be with their soulmates. That was just how things were. The Algorithm had predicted things so that everything would be perfect. Things with her and Niki would get messed up eventually. The kiss wasn’t even that good. Niki’s lips were soft, and she smelled good, but the angle was kind of awkward. It was imperfect, which meant it wasn’t okay. Kissing Anna, who Meira was actually supposed to be with, probably would be better. Yeah.

Niki turned pale. “Oh, gosh… ” She grabbed her hair with her hands.

“Wait!” Something came over Meira, bring along with it a wave of relief. “I remember that Mother said the Algorithm’s warning system is only in the wallpaper because of budget or whatever.”

“Oh, thank God.” Niki let out a nervous laugh. “That’s — yeah.”

“People barely ever come to the forest anyways,” Meira commented.

Niki snorted. “Yeah. Lazy weaklings.”

Meira snorted. She lay back against the tree root, glancing at Niki. Her sleek hair was ruffled.

“Maybe we can even bring my grand aunt here,” Niki remarked.

Meira frowned. “Yeah… but… everyone gets euthanized at 100.”

Niki sighed. “I know. Anyways… ” She paused, glancing at Meira mischievously.

“I… ” Meira chewed her lip anxiously. She could still taste traces of Niki. “Yeah.”

“This was fun, eh?”

“Mhmm. Umm… ”

Meira felt her stomach twist. The kiss was starting to feel like a huge mistake. But she couldn’t just say that, right? That would be totally rude.

“Is… something wrong?” Niki asked, starting to look concerned.

“Huh?” Meira couldn’t help but feel bad.

“Well, your brow was all wrinkled, so… ”

“Oh… umm… it’s just that this Anna Vargha is supposed to be my soulmate.”

“And Dave Greenblum’s supposed to be mine.” Niki’s voice was growing tense.

“Also… we’re supposed to listen to the Algorithm because it knows best.”

Niki narrowed her eyes. “What are you saying?”

Meira stayed silent, looking away. She clenched her fists. Meira swallowed, squeezed her eyes shut, and quickly blurted it out.

“We shouldn’t do this again!”

“What?” Niki’s voice grew harsher, like a vulture. “But… that… ugh, Meira! You make no sense!”

“Wha — why?”

Why?” Niki snorted, her voice wavering. “Are you screwing with me right now? You were the one who was all like… like… ”

“Like what?”

“You wanted to come to the forest! You thanked the robot! You and your organic flowers and… ” Niki swallowed. There was a wetness in her pretty eyes. “You just felt… refreshing. But looks like you’re just like everyone else!”

“Isn’t that supposed to be good?” Meira demanded, the words of her kindergarten and preschool teachers washing over her.

Maybe not, Mother whispered in her head.

“I don’t know!” Niki shrieked, roughly wiping off her tears. “You were the one who gave me the tiny feeling that this could work out! Everyone else was just going along with the Algorithm and I was too! Why are you being so dull now, huh?”

“Because this is too much!” Meira wrung her hands, frustrated. “Those are small things!”

“But… don’t you want big things to be authentic too?” Niki was starting to look betrayed, which made Meira feel like a bad person.

“I — ”

“Just — fine! Whatever!” Niki jumped up. “You’re terrible at kissing anyways!”

Meira looked away, feeling tears creep into her own eyes. Niki marched off, her spine straight and stiff. Sighing, Meira tried to relax. She realized that her nails had dug crescents into her palms. Everything was going to be okay now. Meira just needed to get up, go to her grandma’s, and then go home, where she could go to Mother.

What would Mother say to all of this? Meira wondered if she had been rude to Niki. But the Algorithm was the most important thing, right? That’s what everyone said. It was just… common sense. Or was it?

Sighing, Meira got up and dusted off her pants. She began to walk towards the road. The forest was calming, but the calm made her feel uneasy. She wasn’t supposed to like the organic forest so much, but she still did. Would it be the same thing with Niki? Meira finally reached a small road in the forest that rarely had transports. Meira began to move towards the mini skywalk to cross the road. Suddenly, she noticed a familiar dark head with crimson and purple streaks sitting down next to the skywalk.

Meira ducked her head as she walked, praying that Niki wouldn’t notice her. It would be so freaking awkward. Risking a glance at the other girl, Meira saw that Niki was still wiping tears off her eyes. A feeling of guilt crept over her. She began to walk onto the skywalk.

Niki turned over to her with a grin, probably thinking Meira was a stranger and intending to say hi. Then she saw Meira’s face.

“Ni — ” Meira began, but Niki turned and ran.

“Wait!” Meira yelled, stepping forwards.

She had no clue why she wanted to go after Niki. It was a stupid impulse, gained from watching those rare permitted pre-Algorithm movies too many times. Niki glanced around, giving Meira a pained look, before turning and going onto the road.

Meira stopped, stunned. What was she doing? The skywalk existed for a reason! Niki was running across the road, and then everything happened in a horrible flash.

As she ran, a motorcycle sped up behind Niki. Time stiffened for a moment, and then it felt like everything collided. Niki screamed as she was thrown back from the force of the collision, her voice raw, an unfamiliar voice scream, and Meira screamed, because something was definitely wrong. She had no idea what had just happened, but it was something horrible and dreadful that never would have happened if they’d listen to the Algorithm.

Meira ran over to her, too, collapsing on her knees in front of Niki.

“It hurts… ” Niki whimpered, her eyes glazed.

Meira stared at gasping girl, unsure of what to do. What could she possibly do?

“I’m sorry,” Meira pleaded.

A robot that was probably stored a bit down the road came over and injected something in Niki’s arm. Immediately, Niki’s pained gasps stopped, and her eyes grew soft. He then went off to tend to the motorcycle rider. Meira hadn’t even noticed him in her panic.

“It’s alright,” Niki whispered.

Meira hesitantly reached out to touch Niki’s hair. The robot beeped.

Meira O’Kane, you are to report to the Damariscotta Center at 12:15 PM for reprogramming. A transport will be sent for you shortly.

Nikitha Tamboli, you are to report to the Damariscotta Center at 12:15 PM for healing reprogramming. A transport will be sent for you shortly.

“What does reprogramming mean, anyways?” Niki wondered.

Meira shrugged. “I think it changes you somehow. I never remember what happens during reprogramming.”

“Me neither,” Niki said. She frowned. “Does that mean you’re going to forget this?”

“I hope not,” Meira blurted out.

Niki giggled, her joking voice growing weak. “Well… I hope not. Let’s run away.”

Meira cracked a forced smile. She thought about the tales of how people would die before the Algorithm. Was that going to happen to Niki? She felt fear grow in her stomach. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Meira would never see Niki again. It… it was almost like euthanization, except euthanization was… good? Everything was so horribly confusing now… Meira’s head hurt…

“This never would have happened if we’d never kissed,” Meira said shakily.

Niki looked away. “Meh. But choosing to do that… it was interesting. Y’know, I lied when I said the kiss wasn’t good. The kiss felt… real. The angle was awkward, but… that doesn’t mean it wasn’t… ”

“Yeah,” Meira said, smiling. “It was nice.”

“If we had more time… ” Niki said wistfully.

“We might have messed up eventually,” Meira said. She hesitated. “But… trying… I liked choosing. It felt… authentic. Like the organic flowers.”

Niki grinned. The two sat in silence. Meira could see the transport coming closer.

“I don’t want to get reprogrammed,” Meira blurted out. “I’m scared.”

“Nothing bad ever happens.”

“But what if I come back a different person?” Meira asked. “My little sister — Mia — she came back from the reprogramming and she was… she wasn’t annoying.”

Niki laughed. “Isn’t that good?”

Meira shrugged. “But the annoying… that was part of Mia. She always wanted something before — candy, for me to play with her… the reprogramming made her not do that anymore and I — ” Meira swallowed. “I want to be able to want things. To make choices.

“Then… ” Niki squeezed her eyes shut, looking pained. “Then you should go.”

“Huh?” Meira’s eyes widened. “I… but — what about you?”

“Just go. Don’t… don’t give me time to worry and overanalyze and be scared.”

“O-okay,” Meira stammered, a part of her feeling slightly bad for leaving Niki so easily.

She got up and stumbled backwards, before turning and running into the forest. A part of her was yelling at her to stop, that this was rash and useless, but she wanted to escape the Algorithm. She didn’t want to become off-Meira, like Mia who used to smile more and be more annoying.

A terrified tear slid down her cheek. Meira ran and ran. The tree branches smacked her in the face like some sort of punishment. Her lungs started to burn but she went on. And then she hit a road. Meira backed away into the trees, swallowing. A transport passed by, but she went unnoticed.

“Oh gosh.” Meira tried to bit down a sob, her lungs aching as she gulped in air. “I don’t wanna get reprogrammed.”

Turning back to the forest, she ran back into the safety of the trees. She had to run faster. She had to get away from the road. As she bumbled through the forest, she started to feel like Mia, wailing that she didn’t want to be reprogrammed. She ran blindly, her mind swimming with panic. Everything was such a mess. How was Mia? Would there be any differences after reprogramming? What had the Algorithm done to her little sister’s mind? What had the done to Meira’s mind, all those 13 times before? And what would they do if they caught her?

Her foot connected with a tree root, and she fell to the ground. Meira caught herself with the palms of her hands, hissing at the pricking sting. She sat against a tree. Her face was wet. Meira reached up and wiped away the tears. Looking around, Meira realized she was near the grove. She pushed herself up, instinctively going to the place that had always been safe.

Someone was standing in the grove.

“Mother?” Meira asked.

Mother beamed, opening her arms. Meira immediately darted towards Mother, embracing her tightly. She felt solid and warm and safe, her scent like Meira’s favorite banana bread. The two pulled apart. Meira realized she had gotten Niki’s blood on Mother, but Mother didn’t seem to mind.

“Mother,” Meira gasping, shaking. Mother’s hands stayed on Meira’s arms, steadying her. “Mother… oh gosh, Mother… I’m… I’m scared. A-and… something happened — ”

“I know about Niki,” Mother said, delicately brushing Meira’s face.

Meira let out a feeble laugh. “Wow, mothers really do know everyth — ” Meira broke off, frowning. “Wait, how do you know?”

Mother’s hand reached out to grab Meira. Meira stumbled backwards, but Mother pulled Meira close to her chest, holding Meira tightly to her.

“The transport is coming shortly,” Mother said, not looking at Meira.

“Huh?” Meira choked out. Suddenly, Mother’s arms felt restraining. They had never felt this way before. “Mother! No, don’t — ”

“Please, sweetie. The Algorithm told me they were serving shrimp gumbo tonight. You like that, right? I checked the LifeGuide app. We’re going to the mall tomorrow.”

“But… what if… what if they mess up my mind and I forget about the grove and Niki? And I stop smelling the organic flowers like you told me to? I don’t want to! ? Mother! Just listen! I don’t want… Niki… it was authentic! Weren’t you always talking about how things were best when they were authentic?”

Mother looked at Meira, tears glinting in her soft olive eyes. “They are, darling, they are.”

“Then why — ” Meira broke off.

A transport had settled down outside the grove, pushing aside a few small trees. Two robots got out of the transport and moved towards Meira.

“Because I want to keep safe, darling,” Mother said. “If we listen to the Algorithm, we’ll be safe. It’s got everything all planned out so that you’ll have a nice, perfect life. I heard from the Algorithm that Niki got hurt. If you two had listened to the Algorithm, this never would have happened.”

“But — but — ” Meira floundered as the robots took her away from Mother. “But… ”

“I want to keep you safe, my little sugar glider.”

Meira let out a dry sob. “But what about being happy?”

“You are happy. The Algorithm ensures it.”

“Am I, though?”

“Yes.”

“See? This is the thing!” Meira’s voice was getting more frantic as she was hauled into the transport. “Y’know, maybe I wanna have blueberry parfait instead of strawberry, okay!”

Mother looked at Meira sadly as she rampaged on.

“We’re being told how we’re supposed to be happy, but never once, absolutely never, do we get to choose how to be happy! And that just takes so much out of lif — ”

The robot, its mind controlled by the Algorithm, injected her with its slim, silver needle.

Meira fell silent.

***

Major Glitch #79

Directly involved: Meira O’Kane; Nikitha Tamboli

Indirectly involved: Gemma O’Kane; Alex Burman

All four reprogrammed

Motorcycles and forests to be banned to avoid further incident

Everything perfect.

 

Second Chances

               

Angie

We moved to a smaller town in New Mexico on July first. It was a smaller house, with more land to get lost in. By the time Bill and I had finished unpacking, I was ready to take a walk. “I’ll be back soon, Bill. I’m going to explore the neighborhood, okay?” I called, hoping that he would come with me.

“No problem, honey. See you then.” I heard the TV turn on before I stepped out onto the front step into a new life.

The houses were lined along the street next to each other. Each home had a similar structure, but each was unique. I passed a blue house, then a yellow one, then green, then red. But I had only been walking for ten minutes when I came to a dead end. Just past the road was a forest. I thought it might have been nice to journey into the woods on the path, so that’s what I did. I forgot sometimes — well, that was exactly the problem, I forgot. I was not as young as I used to be, so I may have wandered a little far into the forest, forgetting to turn around before my old body got too tired.

Winded, I ended up having to sit down. I chose a large rock next to a tree to rest on. I heard a noise — at first, I thought it was a bird or deer or some other animal, but then it came again.

Bam!

Curious, I stood up and strolled over to where the sound came from. “Huh?” It wasn’t an animal, for sure. Glinting in the sunlight was a strange kind of sword. I noticed a symbol on the handle. It looked like an anchor inside of a space helmet. I recognized it…

I started to get nervous, because who or whatever had this sword could still be out there.

After a few minutes of waiting on the rock to make sure no one came to claim it, I decided to take the sword and hide it under my clothing until I got home. “Bill?” I yelled.

“In here.”

I entered the living room to find my husband on the couch catching up on the news. “I have something to show you,” I told him.

“What is it?” he asked, not taking his eyes off the screen.

“Bill,” I said, “it’s important.”

He looked up at me, concerned, reached for the remote, and turned off the TV.

“Okay, so I walked into the forest — ”

“You what? We just moved here, Angie, you don’t know what could be in there. Why didn’t you just walk around the neighborhood?”

“Relax, Bill, I’m fine. I followed a path,” I continued. “Anyway, I found something.” I pulled out the sword.

His eyes widened. “What — ” he started.

“Bill, before you say anything, I found it after hearing a crashing noise and waited a few minutes to make sure nothing was out there,” I told him.

“That doesn’t help!” he cried. “You don’t just go picking up weird swords in weird places with weird sounds! What were you thinking?”

“It doesn’t matter! Look closer!” I said. I watched his reaction as he leaned in to see the symbol on the sword’s handle.

Bill’s expression was blank, speechless. He slowly leaned back into the couch, staring straight ahead. “The metal… ”

“I know,” I said.

The month before, we had visited the house for the second time before deciding to buy it. This time in the garage, there was a large metal plate of sorts with the same anchor/helmet symbol on it. I had asked about it, but the realtor dismissed my curiosity, saying, “It’s just old junk that we found right outside. Don’t worry, it’ll be cleaned out by the time you move in, if you like the house, of course.”

“What does it mean?” Bill asked, lying down on the couch.

“I don’t know, but I want to find out.”

Throughout the month, I researched anything I could find that might have been linked to the symbol. Bill helped me every so often, and together we thought we could solve our mystery.

We couldn’t.

That is, until Izzy showed up. It was early August, and the pale, blue-haired teen knocked on our door rapidly. “I’ll get it,” Bill said. We had just finished breakfast and were cleaning up the dishes.

“Hello,” I heard Bill say. “How can I help you?”

“Hi,” said the girl. “I know this seems strange, but may I come in? It’s kind of urgent.”

“I don’t know, miss. Why don’t you tell me why you’re here first?” Bill said. At that point, I began to get worried. I went to stand in the doorway.

“I don’t expect you to understand, but maybe this will change your mind,” the girl said. She took her jacket off and pointed to the symbol on her T- shirt. Bill and I exchanged a glance.

“Come in,” I said.

“Thank you,” said the girl once we were inside. “I’m Izzy.”

 

***

 

“So, let me get this straight. You’re a space pirate?” I exclaimed.

“Yes,” said Izzy calmly. Her yellow green cat-like eyes were enormous.

“And you want us to pretend to be your grandparents?” Bill said, shocked.

“Yes.”

“But why? And where are your parents?” I asked.

“They died. I tried to save them, but my enemies in space killed them. I was too late,” said Izzy, looking down.

“Oh.” Bill and I looked at each other, and I was hoping that we were both thinking the same thing: I knew she was a stranger, but she was an orphan. We had to take her in. Plus, she could help us figure out why that scrap of metal was in the garage and why the sword was in the woods. Bill asked the question before I could.

“Why us?”

Izzy looked at him. “I know you’ve seen the symbol. Why else would I show it to you before I came in?”

“But why were the objects with the symbol on them near our house? How did they get there?” Bill asked.

She took a deep breath before beginning. “After my parents escaped, the ones who killed them tried to kidnap me in their spaceship. They were flying back to their headquarters, but the ship hit a comet near Earth. It crashed, but I jumped off before it hit the ground.”

“Wow,” I said. “That’s, um… ”

“A lot,” Bill finished. I shot a glance at him. He continued anyway. “A lot, not just to take in, but a lot for a teenage girl to go through.”

“Oh, it’s okay, I’m actually in my 500s,” Izzy responded quickly.

“What? 500s?” I said.

“Yes, aliens age much slower than human beings,” she explained. “I think in earth years I’m… sixteen?”

“Huh,” Bill said, taking in the information. He seemed a bit skeptical. So was I, but I wanted to find out more.

“Wait, so you escaped, we know that, but you didn’t tell us how the metal and sword got here,” I said, craving answers.

“Right,” said Izzy. “When the ship hit Earth’s atmosphere, it started slowly falling apart. The metal was a piece of the ship that fell off, and the sword was mine. It fell out of the opening in the ship that the fallen metal created. I made a mental note — which is an actual note in my mind, I think that’s different for you humans — about the location the objects fell in. These things are harder to explain, because our brains work differently from yours. Mental notes, locations, and some other minor things.” She must have seen the shock on our faces, because she said, “Don’t worry about it.” Izzy’s face was impassive, untroubled, calm. “Anyway, I figured you two would either believe me because you had seen the objects, or you know too much, disagree with me, and I need to erase your memory.” We were speechless and transfixed listening to her. “So which will it be? Please don’t let that comment about erasing your memories influence your decision.”

There were a few moments of silence before Bill or I gathered the courage to speak. Finally, I spoke up.

“Bill, can I talk to you for a minute?”

“Yeah,” he said, staring at Izzy with a blank look before standing up.

We walked into the kitchen.

“What do you think we should do?” I asked.

“I have no idea. It’s just, it was a lot of stuff — ” he said.

“I know. But we have to make a decision,” I said, then paused. “I think we should do it.”

“You mean, let her stay with us? Be her fake grandparents? Embrace all that crazy stuff we just heard about?”

“Yes. I know it’s crazy, but she’s a child,” I pleaded. “She needs a home.”

“She’s not a child, she’s flipping 500 and who knows how many more years old!”

“Still,” I said. “Isn’t there a part of you that wants to help her? A part that wants someone to take care of, even if it’s not our biological grandchild?”

He sighed. “Of course there is, but we don’t know her.”

“You’re right, we don’t. But we’ve just retired, we don’t have any grandchildren — ”

Bill put his arm around me. “We don’t know how much taking care of she needs. But… ”

“But?”

“Let’s do it.”

“Really?”

“Yes, of course. She needs help,” he said. “And we can help her.”

We walked back into the living room.

“Izzy,” I started.

“We’ll be your fake grandparents,” Bill announced. “That’s a sentence I never thought I‘d say,” he muttered.

“Oh, that’s great! I was starting to get worried, especially since I can’t actually erase your memories. I just wanted you to say yes — but thank you,” said Izzy.

I smiled. This should be fun.

 

The next morning, I woke up at 7:45. I got up, trying not to wake Bill, and headed downstairs to find Izzy.

“Good morning,” she said.

“Wha — oh.”

I almost forgot what happened yesterday. But here she was, a girl I had to somehow learn to take care of.

“Bye!” said Izzy as she walked toward the front door.

“Now, wait a minute. Where are you off to this early?”

“School,” she responded. “It’d raise too many questions if the new girl in town didn’t go to school.”

“I didn’t think about that,” I said, sitting down for breakfast as Izzy left.

What did I get myself into? Raising a 500-year-old alien/girl? She seemed pretty normal, I guess, minus the blue hair and space pirate thing. I would just have to wait and see. It could be hard, but it might be easier than I thought. It could be the worst thing I’d ever have to do; or it could be the best thing to happen to me.

I went outside to work on my new garden. Bill and I loved our new house, but gardening was one of my hobbies, so I decided to put in a garden in our backyard. It took a lot of work, but I was doing it a little bit at a time. Just as I started to rake the dirt, I heard a voice.

“Good morning,” said Bill. “I thought I’d find you at here.”

I laughed. “Good morning.”

“Where’s the girl?” he asked. “I thought we should talk about her. I know it’s been hard to be around kids since — ”

“Ray wasn’t a kid, Bill,” I said. “He was 22 and finishing college.”

“I know, I know.”

I took a moment to think about our son before speaking again.

“Izzy will be different,” I said unconvincingly. “We’ll keep her safe.”

“Of course we will, Angie. I just wanted to make sure you’re feeling okay about all this.”

“I am,” I snapped. I took a deep breath. “I’m okay,” I assured him.

Bill walked back inside, and I finished my garden work for the day.

It was 4:00. Izzy wasn’t home, and I realized that she should have been by now. I was pretty sure high school got out at 3:30ish. I started to worry. What if she was taken? What if her space enemies found her? Anything could have happened to her!

She was a girl in high school; sure, anything could have happened, but maybe she was just exploring town or hanging out at the pizza place or something. I could call her and ask her where she is, but she didn’t have a phone. I should have gotten her a phone! I had to know she was okay.

“Bill, I’m going into town!” I called.

“Okay, don’t be too long,” he yelled from the kitchen.

I rushed out the door and walked toward the pizza place first. I saw the two teenagers who help their parents run the place, Mario and Luisa. When you’re a local in the town of Arcaea, you know almost everyone’s name, whether you know the person well or not.

“Have either of you seen a teenage girl in here? Pale? Blue hair?” I asked them.

“Nah, sorry,” said Mario.

I exited the store without replying. Next stop was the arcade. I didn’t love it in there because of the lights and teenagers gaming and the noise, but it was the kind of place an alien might find interesting.

I walked into the building, noticing the Arcaea Arcade sign in neon lights. I saw Izzy standing next to one of the goth kids in the back next to the game Space Invaders. Of course she would like that game.

Watching her, I realized I shouldn’t take her home. No one wanted their “grandma” embarrassing them in front of their new friends. Instead, I went back home. I’d order Izzy a phone later.

 

***

 

On Saturday mornings, I always went grocery shopping.

“Okay, I’ll be back later,” I said to Bill.

“Where are you going?” said a voice from the stairs. I turned around to see Izzy.

“Shopping,” I said slowly. “Do you need anything? Hold on,” I turned back to Bill. “Before I forget, remind me later to look up why my tulips aren’t growing.”

Izzy looks at me peculiarly, tilting her head to the side.

“I don’t need anything,” she said, but stayed put on the stairs.

“Okay.”

When I got back home, the first thing I did was check the garden. I knew flowers didn’t grow over an hour, but a small part of me wished the tulips had sprouted while I was gone.

I was astonished to see that my wish came true! The flowers had not only sprouted but were in full bloom.

“Aren’t they pretty?” said Izzy, walking toward me.

“Did you do this?” I asked. She smiled and nodded.

“How — ” I started.

“I’m part alien, part pirate. I can do a lot of thing that’d surprise you,” she answered.

I started to tear up, remembering the times I needed help with my old garden.

“Oh no, don’t cry,” Izzy said worriedly.

“I’m sorry, it’s just,” I tried not to burst. “This was so nice of you, and I can remember the last time someone helped me garden… ” I stopped to calm myself down.

“Who?” Izzy asked curiously.

I decided I should tell her. She deserved to know a little about my past since I knew a little about hers. I looked her in the eye.

“Ray,” I paused. “My son.”

“What happened to him?”

“He died about 20 years ago. Car crash.” I fought back tears. I’d gotten past the event, but it was still hard to talk about.

“Oh.” There was a moment of silence before either of us said or did anything.

“I know what it’s like to lose someone,” Izzy said.

“Right, your parents. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it.” She looked at me with a small, sad smile on her face. “It’s okay.” I smiled back.

“Come on,” I said, and we walked into our house, side by side.

 

Days passed, then weeks. Izzy helped Bill and I around the house with her various powers. She could pick up objects with her mind and clean anything up without using her hands at all! She still went to school and hung out with her friends, but she had a phone now to text us if she had plans. By October, she felt like a real granddaughter.

It was a Monday, so Izzy was at school. I got a text from her asking me to pick her up after school. Bill offered to drive.

We were on our way to pick her up when I heard a distant, high-pitched scream ahead. Several more cries followed. They sounded like kids.

“What was that?” I said, frightened.

“It might not be anything serious, don’t worry. And if it is, well, we’ll probably find out soon,” Bill replied.

He kept his eyes on the road. The further we drove, the louder the yells became, until they stopped completely.

As we pulled up to the school, I was shocked at what I saw. A huge UFO as tall as the school and as wide as a sixteen wheeler hovered over the parking lot. A couple hundred teenagers crowded the front of the school, some clinging to their friends, some frozen still, afraid, all terrified for their lives. I got out of the car, followed by Bill, and tried to spot Izzy in the crowd, but I didn’t see her.

“Bill? Do you think — ”

“Izzy’s — ” he was cut off by the loud, painful sound of a microphone screeching. Then, a low, robotic voice came out of the spaceship. It was unclear if the voice was human, alien, or robot.

“Where. Is. The. Girl?” it said. “We. Need. The. Girl.”

“No,” I whispered. But Izzy appeared, now standing in front of the ship. Bill looked at me.

“What are we supposed to do?” he said, not really asking, but stating that there was nothing we could do.

“There has to be something,” I said, but the voice in the spaceship spoke before I could say anything else.

“YOU. Our leader. Must have. A sacrifice. You have deceived. Our kind. You. Must. Come.”

“No!” I screamed. “Please, no!”

Many confused, scared students turned their heads. So did Izzy. There was a murmuring among the students.

“Who are you. To speak to us?” said the voice.

“Angie — ” said Bill, a hint of fear in his voice.

“It’s okay,” I told him. I was afraid, but confident. I knew what I had to do.

I walked toward Izzy. Bill followed. “Angie!” he pleaded. I ignored it. I didn’t know where to look when talking, so I just stared up at the spacecraft.

“I’m Angie,” I yelled. “Her grandmother!” I put my hand on Izzy’s shoulder.

“You don’t have to do this,” she tried to say. “They want me, it’s okay, don’t do this!”

Izzy and Bill both looked at me with fear in their eyes and pleading looks on their faces. I turned to look at both of them.

“Listen. Izzy, you have so much life left to live,” I started. A tear ran down her cheek. “It’s okay,” I continued. “I’m not young like you. I can do this, it’s okay. Bill, take care of her.”

“No, Angie, I’ll go, you stay,” Bill said, tearing up. But I knew he wasn’t prepared to do what I was about to do. He wasn’t prepared to let go.

“I love you,” I said. I turned back to the spaceship.

The voice said, “I suppose. Any sacrifice. Will suffice.”

And with that, a long ramp was released from the ship.

“Come. Our master. Will. Kill you. Himself.”

I took one last look around. The trees, the sky, the grass — it was all so beautiful. Sometimes you forgot to notice the little things in life. I smiled at Bill and Izzy.

“Goodbye,” I said, and I walked up the ramp.

The End

 

A Love Letter to Myself

As my being develops and evolves in the world, so does my sense of self. The different layers that shape my identity each tell a different story, and looking back at my past experiences, I am not ashamed of who I have become despite the ever so present obstacles that face me and the countless other people that look like me.

My parents gave me the name Eliwa, having a strong significance in their native Gabonese language: Pongwe. This name signifying two elements, firstly the kingdom of God and secondly, lake. It is not a name that I cherished or valued at first. I thought best to keep my name Mirya-Anne, best to say I was Austrian if people asked me where I was from. I did not want to be reminded that I was black, that my roots were neither from Europe nor from the U.S but the motherland itself. Soon enough, I was correcting people as nicely as I could on how to say it or spell it. My anger towards this was masked by politeness.

At a young age, European ideals invaded my mind, and therefore unconsciously, my anti-blackness began to show. At night, I would dream for lighter skin and straighter hair. It seemed I was too dark for everything, that the hue of my skin was still not deemed acceptable in the 21st century. My ten-year-old self could not comprehend this, and I asked myself continuously if there was truly something wrong with me. Looking back at my younger self, a feeling of sadness floods my whole being, simply knowing the unhappiness that I felt towards being black. This is not something that I particularly mentioned to my parents or even my older siblings. It stayed hidden. This obsession with eurocentric beauty standards never surfaced or became apparent either. There was nothing I could really do or say to change it. This name, this history, this culture was ingrained in me permanently.

 

I remember being a small child in my predominantly white school, having been asked why my skin looked the way it was. Children shouted at my skin in the playground, deeming it ugly. I could not answer. My skin was seen as an anomaly for along time. Because somehow I was just so different from everyone else. I remember being the only black girl in my nursery room calling for my mom, hoping she wasn’t too far away. I think it was the feeling of being such an outsider that my younger self could not cope with. I didn’t speak. I didn’t play. My siblings who attended the same school tried to comfort me, but I was hopeless. Nothing could soothe me.

 

The first time I saw a black person die on my TV screen, I was 11 going on 12. His name was Trayvon Martin, and he was the same age I was right now, seventeen years old, ready to enter an unknown future, not knowing the tragic ending that would follow. Trayvon had a bright future. He was passionate about aviation and was loved deeply by his family and friends. My mother and I turned on CNN everyday waiting for the verdict that would determine everything. The day the verdict was released, I turned on the TV and saw in big bold letters, Not guilty. My head spun, and I thought to myself, This isn’t normal. He should be in jail. He killed an unarmed young man. I started to fear for my older brother and father. I thought to myself what if something happened to them eventually. Morbid thoughts entered my head once again, and it was a difficult task to try to block them out once more. The future seemed bleak for Black America. Trayvon wasn’t the only one. Hundreds of names followed: Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland etc. My naivety led me to believe that black women weren’t facing the same problems as black men, police men and women wouldn’t hunt us down, except they did. Sandra Bland wasn’t the first nor will she be the last.

 

Somewhere in my early teens, I had an awakening which I can largely accredit to social media and the manner in which they uplifted people like me as well as my older brother, the intellectual 22-year-old at the time who pushed me to read more about my history. Not only that, but after having visited the continent of Africa more frequently, I found a new appreciation for the country and its culture and most importantly the people. My parents made it known that we should always be proud of our black skin and our native country. The hole in me that I could not fill seemed to be filling by itself. My real roots were in Gabon (Ga-bon): the small country of one million people located on the western coast of Central Africa. Having attended the SDLC conference or the student diversity leadership conference, in December of 2015 I had been overcome with emotion. I had discovered my inner voice as well as a deeper connection to my community. I felt strongly about racism, and I felt strongly about white privilege as well as acknowledging my own privileges, such as my parents being able to afford my private school tuition. This was something I was thankful and grateful for.

 

Due to my passion for social change and social activism, I decided to pursue a career in law. This self-rejuvenation that had occurred had changed me for the better. Although I believe the process of the decolonization of these beliefs does not happen immediately, I felt this pride and peace in my own skin that I had never felt before. These recent events as well as my past experiences have sparked something in me, that I have never felt before, a want and a desire to involve myself, as a public servant. I have been described as someone with a heart of gold and an insurmountable amount of patience. I only hope I can put these qualities to good use.

 

Recently, I was sitting in the train on my way to school, when a young man approached me wanting to sit next to me. At first, I was apprehensive and felt uneasy. He asked if he could sit next to me and as soon as he sat down, he started talking to me about everything and anything, mostly about Africa and black people. He asked me where I was from, and I told him Gabon. He told me that he thought Africa was wonderful and I was lucky to be from there.

He then proceeded to compliment my skin color. He even delivered an interesting fact on the resistance of darker skin hues in today’s environment. I listened patiently to his words. This man that I had first judged as probably homeless. I soon started to regret my words.

He told me his name was Unique. I smiled. He said he was from Harlem, and as he left, I shook his hand, and he told me I was very beautiful. Hearing someone who had the same features call me beautiful, was unequivocally reassuring. Vanity was not something I necessarily prescribed myself with, but compliments about the physical appearance have a way of uplifting certain people, especially the downtrodden ones. As I sat back down to continue my journey, I thought how odd that this happened to me on this particular day. A man by the name of Unique had enormously contributed to my new state of mind. He represented for me this sort of guardian angel that you meet only once in a lifetime, having no relevant information on them except their name and destination. As he left to descend on Harlem, a smile crept upon my face once more reminding myself that I was enough.

 

The Warehouse (Excerpt)

          

Chapter One

 

The water was red. That wasn’t good… at all.

 

I tried to crawl faster, my limbs sinking into the muck on the side of the now strawberry-colored creek and coming up with loud sucking sounds that would definitely alert any guards to my presence. Lucky for me, there probably weren’t any guards in the area. In fact, there was probably no one at all.

 

The bog, a wide, flat plain full of deep mud pits and criss crossing creeks, was the last place anyone would consider using to get into the Warehouse. It was so open that it was assumed that anyone who approached would be spotted from a mile away, and it was considered suicidal to set foot anywhere near where I was now crawling.

 

And that was where they had been wrong. Or at least I hoped so, since my life depended on it. Covered in mud and crouched low against the marshy ground, I looked just like any other bump on the large, flat expanse. The sun beat down on the bog, drying and cracking the mud on my limbs and face as I scanned the landscape yet again. I couldn’t see or hear anyone around me, and the behemoth Warehouse was slowly coming into detail before my eyes. There was nowhere to run, nowhere I could hide if they spotted me. I certainly hoped they were wrong.

 

Aptly nicknamed “the Warehouse” by the citizens of Hilliche, the structure in front of me was a massive, flat-roofed building with a broad, brick chimney rising sky-high from its center. The Warehouse was an infamous prison dedicated to holding rebels and thieves prior to execution. And while it had never been mentioned directly by the King or any of his advisors, it was commonly assumed that it was also used for the executions themselves.

 

I knew this to be true of course; this was far from my first time coming this way to rescue someone or another. This time, my mission was to walk in and then walk back out a few hours later with a certain Master Matthew Dowell, for whose return I was being paid more than I normally made in a year.

 

Was that fishy? Sure. But for an orphaned 17-year-old girl living alone in the slums of Hilliche, the capital city of this god-forsaken country, money is money, no matter how it comes about.

 

Of course, that wasn’t why I started risking my life like this. In the beginning, it was more about a personal vendetta, about how my father was brought to the Warehouse and killed for a crime I knew he didn’t commit. That time, at age 14, I had been too late to save him. I had never disappointed since.

 

Although, I might lose my streak if I didn’t hurry. Darkness fell across my face as I entered the shadow of the factory, and I glanced worriedly at the creek on my left, the one that passed under the Warehouse. The light strawberry pink of the water had already turned to a brighter red. Executions were well under way.

 

I crawled a few meters further into shadow and then glanced at the creek again. It was here that it turned muddy — and bloody — enough that it was impossible to see all the way to the bottom. And it was here that I had found my way in. I edged towards the creek, my arms sinking ever further into the mud as I got closer until I could move no more. Then, I threw as much of my body as wasn’t stuck in the ground towards the rushing water.

 

The mud slowly gave way, tilting me closer to the creek. I tilted faster and faster until it let go entirely with a grotesque squelching noise, and I landed with a splash. A hidden current quickly dragged me under the surface of the murky water, pushing me back the way I had come as it ripped at my hair and clothing with icy fingers. I didn’t try to fight it like I did the first time this happened to me, when on the way to rescue my father I had fallen in by accident and panicked as I was dragged down into the murky depths.

 

It all happened much faster if I didn’t move. Tumbling head over heel, the current dropped me into the mouth of an underground passageway which was a little ways back from where I had jumped into the creek. While it did mean that I had to make some ground back up, I knew of no other place where I could find the same current and really wasn’t all that keen on experimenting, with my life at stake.

 

Looking around for a second, I regained my bearings. Lit by faint blue light from curiously mushroomy fungi which crowded the walls, this was an abandoned and partially collapsed tunnel which remained from the building of the Warehouse. It was so remote that I very rarely found a guard down here. If I did, the wet mud and blood from the water which coated me would make me look like a rock if I dropped to the ground in the shadows and no one looked too hard.

 

Muscle memory led me into familiar passages and around piles of rubble until I reached the neat X that I had scraped into the wall years ago. Reaching for the narrow, mud covered opening between two large rocks, I began to slide my way across.

 

I was a thin girl, but I still had trouble making it through that tight space, and little scars on my legs and arms showed the evidence of what usually happened when I squeezed through. The inhabitants of the Warehouse were usually starving by the time they were rescued, having been kept here for weeks. That’s how they fit through the gap on the way back and the only reason that I could get anyone out at all.

 

“ — disappearing. They don’t know how… investigate… ” Voices drifted down the rocky corridor on the other side with me halfway through the gap. I froze and went limp, muddy hair tumbling over my head and away from the nape of my neck.

 

Footsteps approached as the voices got clearer. “Well, I dunno. There ain’t any way in here, not from so deep underground.”

 

“We should check the upper levels, don’t know why anyone would think there was a way in so far down.”

 

“Busy work, that’s all this is. I don’t know why they… ” The voices trailed off down the corridor, and I waited a minute before lifting my head. It seemed from their conversation that the absences of the people I rescued hadn’t gone unnoticed.

 

In the beginning, I had come after less important prisoners who had been taken from families around the slums where I lived and had charged only small, affordable fees. Stuff that could be paid for by the poor such as myself. About a year ago, my services came to the attention of some more… wealthy figures. For the higher rates, I rescued more important prisoners.

 

My problem was this: if a minor prisoner disappears in a large prison, it causes a little ripple, soon forgotten. A major prisoner though, one who is kept under careful lock and key… that usually causes a bit more of a splash. And splashes are noisy enough to attract unwanted attention. After this, maybe I should lay low for a while, let things settle.

 

Goodness knew, I was certainly being paid enough money from this job to afford it. Hell, I could buy a new house on the edge of the slums, maybe try to find a respectable job as a store clerk or something. Whatever worked; it was best not to think too much about the future. First things first, I had to get out of here alive with my human package.

 

By now I had managed to extricate myself from the crack in the wall and was crouched in one of the shadows left by the torchlight. This hallway was part of the actual Warehouse complex itself, with walls of stone brick and a sandy floor. The sputtering flame from the torches created leaping shadows across the walls, such as the one which I was now crouched in.

 

I straightened up and winced. Tiny cuts from squeezing through the rock twanged their protest all over my body. For the hundredth time, I wondered if it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to take a battering ram to that crack and knock a hole straight through. It would certainly be the end of these annoying cuts and scars. It would also certainly be the end of my life.

 

I smiled to myself and began working my way down the hallway, drifting from flickering shadow to flickering shadow. The metallic scent of blood and a nauseating smell of burning that permeated the air as I got closer reminded me to hurry. The guards had certainly taken their own sweet time passing by.

 

Luckily, I passed the rest of the way unhindered and emerged on one of many large, unoccupied ledges which overlooked the cavernous room which held the executions. Rough stone walls bounced echoes and a large fire burned in a pit in one corner of the room, making the place a chaos of light and sound. Screaming, pleading, shouted orders, the cracking of whips… all these sounds drifted around me as I stood in the shadows of the ledge. The ledges were originally built for observers, but the Warehouse had long been closed to any of the sick people who enjoyed watching mass murder, and the ledges remained untouched.

 

I glanced at the line of prisoners who shuffled towards the execution blocks below. I was looking for a man in his 20s with brown hair and slumped shoulders. Reaching into my shoe, I pulled out a small, sealed leather case. I opened it and pulled out a scrap of paper which depicted a black and white illustration of his face. I glanced at it one last time, making sure I had his features memorized, then stowed it back in my shoe.

 

He apparently used to be quite overweight, but a month in prison should have fixed that problem nicely. I would probably have to wait for a while; the most important prisoners usually came at the end of the line. I stepped back into a shadowy corner, leaning against the rough stone. I had long realized it was was better to be safe than sorry, so I always arrived with plenty of time to spare.

 

I wondered what Master Dowell had done to end up like this. It wasn’t my job to ask, just to rescue, get paid, and move on. I had been clearly reminded of that by the wealthily clothed man who had met me by a dead-end alleyway to give me this assignment. I was instructed to get Master Dowell out, leave him in the alley, and never breathe a word about it. If I did that, I would get paid. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t. It was that simple. But again, this man who I was rescuing was most certainly someone of importance if he was worth so much money. So I couldn’t help but wonder…

 

My eyes drifted to the three execution blocks, to the methodical chopping of the axe as it swung up and down, each starving prisoner being forced to their knees by armed guards. I watched as the next prisoner was pushed from the line, sulking silently. She ascended the block and was pushed to her knees so hard that she cried out. Her head was locked into place by a lone guard, and the axe reached a shining apex. Then, her head rolled forward across the platform with a nearly inaudible thud, dead eyes still staring defiantly at the ceiling up above.

 

Blood spilled across a sandy floor which was already red and sticky with it. The creek which I had followed on the way in ran somewhere under this room, and I knew that the blood would eventually soak through the sand on the floor to mix with the water, emerging under the late afternoon sky.

 

Three guards came forward, hefting the severed head and body into the fire in the corner and releasing another wave of the nauseating scent of burnt skin. I heard a whip crack as the next prisoner in line was forced forward.

 

I had witnessed this same process at least once a month for the last two years, so I knew all of the different reactions that people expressed before death. Some kept their heads held high like the last woman, some gave speeches that would never be heard, others just cried for mercy such as the old man currently on the block.

 

My father hadn’t cried, hadn’t spoken, hadn’t acted defiant before he died as I stood watching, helpless, from this same ledge. He had smiled. Smiled with some sort of private victory of which I would never know, as if he had won somehow, even in death.

 

Tears sprung to my eyes, and I blinked them back angrily, forcing my mind away from him and back toward the situation below me. The next round of prisoners was entering, and it was nearing the end of executions for the day. I recalled the precise descriptions given to me by the wealthy man in the alley and looked over the prisoners below. There were only about thirty of them, none matching the description I had been given. How important was this man? Had I somehow missed him?

 

The next round was the second to last, then the last, then the final execution. If he was the final execution, there was no way I could get him out. It would be hard enough already with this few prisoners. I really should have asked for more money. Sighing, I re-tied my matted hair and hoped for the best, glancing back at the ground below.

 

My heart nearly stopped, and I mouthed every curse word I knew — which was quite a few of them — in violent succession as I spied the prisoner who was being forced up to the middle block. What. The. Hell. Why the hell was there a child here?

 

A small, brown-haired boy was being escorted up the steps with the help of a metal rod shoved into his back. He was very young, seemingly under ten years old and thin-faced with hunger and sadness. He stared at the scene around him with wide, terrified eyes. The guard poked him harder as he stalled on his way up. He took another step and tripped on the stair, scraping his knee with a wail loud enough that I could hear it clearly from up on the ledge.

 

I stood there, feeling vaguely sick as I realized that no matter what I cursed, he was going to die, and I was going to have to stand here watching. I knew that as soon as I spotted him, knew it as I watched his head be forced onto the block, and knew it as I watched the last spark of life leave his eyes.

 

Feeling something run down my chin, I realized that I was biting my lip hard enough to draw blood. I wiped my hand absentmindedly across my face, still watching the scene below until the boy’s body vanished into the fire and the next person stepped up to the platform, babbling something I couldn’t hear. I took a step back towards the shadows, trying to shake off the shock. I would wonder what a boy was doing here later. Right now I would just have to wait.

 

As the last of the prisoners in this round were walked up to the blocks, I focused on my plan. When I saw Master Dowell, I would climb down from the ledge onto the ground fifteen feet below, keeping to the shadows. Hiding in the small crevasse at the base of the ledge, I would catch his eye and beckon him silently.

 

Upon him coming close enough, I could knock him out with a rock which I kept in my pocket, and we would look like no more than an outcropping in the shadows until executions finished and all that remained were night guards. By that time, he should be awake, and we could climb back the way I had come, dodging guards until we reached the surface of the creek where we had a three kilometer trek back to civilization. However painfully slow it could be to return with a starving prisoner, it was worth the feeling of counting bills when I got back. The plan was flawless. I had it down to a science.

 

The next batch of prisoners was being herded out, only about fifteen of them this time. Fourteen heads of greasy blond hair and one of greasy brown. Hidden somewhat behind the rest. I could only see the top of his head, but as he glanced towards the execution blocks for a second, I got a quick glimpse of his face, enough for me to be sure it was him.

 

I pulled off my thin leather shoes and hopped over the rusty railing, climbing down the shadowy face of the rock. I moved with a practiced ease, fingers and toes automatically reaching for the same bumps and cracks in the rock until I was close enough to jump down into the shadowy dip at the bottom of the wall.

 

Matthew Dowell was still behind the others as the guards had not yet succeeded at herding them into a line, so I couldn’t see him clearly. His face swung in my direction nonetheless, and I shifted slightly, catching his attention. Beckoning, I smiled at him sweetly. While not necessary, I found that the smile sped things up, made the person more likely to trust and come towards me.

 

The will to survive always came out in the end, and not one person who I had beckoned before hadn’t taken the chance. I had watched starving prisoners go to incredible lengths with strength they shouldn’t have even had, just to save their own skins. Dowell was no exception. He came forward slightly as the prisoners were finally whipped into line, and my heart skipped a beat as I noticed a small detail that was revealed as the rest of him emerged into my line of sight. He was fat.

 

How… ? That first word shaped itself in my brain, and the thought stalled there. He should’ve been starved before he came out here, they all were. And he wasn’t just fat, he was massive, sporting rolls of blubber that stuck out from under his clothing and rippled when he moved. There were a lot of problems with that. He wouldn’t be able to climb up the wall, dodge guards, fit through the stone crack, or swim up the creek. Even a will to survive didn’t go quite that far. The entire rescue operation depended on being thin, and he, as an understatement, was not.

 

I realized that I had been staring absently at the bloody sand by the side of the execution blocks. I looked back up, wondering how to get out of this, but it seemed that Dowell had already lost interest. His blubbery face was turned in the other direction, watching something that I couldn’t make out. That was odd, but good: I was getting out of here. If I tried to rescue him, I was good as dead and wouldn’t get paid, and if I left now, I still wouldn’t get paid. Best to at least escape with my life.

 

I was about to turn and climb back up the wall when a movement caught my eye. A guard was cautiously advancing toward me from the left, a knife that dripped with something black — probably poison — held in his hand. And another one came from the right bearing the same weapon. I froze, still crouched enough to look like a rock. It was then that I noticed Dowell’s hand, a fat finger pointed towards me.

 

Damn. For two reasons. Damn because it was a trap, and a good one too. And more importantly, damn because I was dead. Running was useless, and I couldn’t climb fast enough. My head shot to the right just in time to see the guard throw his knife. I watched it flash as it arched through the air for just a second and swayed left in a futile attempt to avoid it. I felt a sting as it cut a shallow line on my upper arm, black poison dripping down the cut. That was the last thing I felt before I blacked out.

 

Mercy

It was dark outside. Her blood and bones ceaselessly begged her to go back to sleep, but that’s about the only thing they seemed willing to do. She felt as though she needed a cup of coffee to give herself the will to get up and make coffee.

Iris Adley woke up.

 

“It is our collective goal to send our students into the world on a foundation of knowledge and character.”

 

She took a pod of coffee out of the box. Her grandmother taught her how to make a pot of coffee when she was five years old. Her grandmother had a bright pink drip coffee maker, and her coffee was strong and highly caffeinated and never watered down.

Iris started drinking coffee on her seventh birthday.

She had a coffee maker that produced a single cup of coffee, because she lived alone, and she made a single cup of coffee roughly twenty times a day. Her coffee was black and strong and forced her to stay awake.

 

“For it is my belief that the most important gift provided by this institution is not the education you are given, but the strength of character that you earn through your diligence.”

 

She slammed down the top of the coffee maker. The last time Iris saw her grandmother, neither could remember the other’s name, and they smoked cigarettes together and talked about God.

The next day, one of them died and the other disappeared.

 

Iris Adley was exceptionally good at disappearing. On the night of her high school graduation, she vanished, leaving her cap and gown in a pile in the parking lot. It seemed as though she had turned to dust and floated away. On the night her grandmother died, she disappeared again. She ran out of a hospital, grasping onto a glass vial and thinking about ghosts.

Both disappearances felt like escape acts.

 

She went back to bed and finished her coffee while staring at the single streetlight at the end of the road. Her house was at the end of a long winding road. There were two windows in Iris’ house, and you could see the streetlight from both of them.

It was much too early to be awake. Iris’s mug was emptied, and she continued to stare out the window.

 

“We are proud to send out students who do not run to keep up with the world, but instead inspire the world to follow them.”

 

Iris Adley never managed to eat breakfast. There was always the intention, often the desire, but never the will. She drank her coffee and watched her streetlight turn off and awaited the sun.

 

Back before Iris’ first disappearance, when they were apt to remember each other’s names, Iris Adley and her grandmother would sit on the back porch of an old house and talk about the sunrise.

They could never see the sunrise, but they talked about it as if it were there.

 

“Our students will not be passive in their view of the world.”

 

Iris was seventeen years old on the night of her graduation. Her birthday determined that she was always nearly a year younger than her peers. She was good at math and science and following rules. Her teachers liked to talk of potential. Iris held all of her potential in her hands, like it was tangible before disappearing.

She chose to disappear.

 

Another cup of coffee was filled and emptied in an inevitable way, and the sun began to rise. Iris closed the curtains over her two windows.

 

After her first disappearance, Iris became well-versed in the art of being forgotten. Her siblings and parents grew too far apart and away to be expected to remember anything. Her friends had become convinced of her turning to dust before becoming different people all together.

Her grandmother was the last to forget her; she was forgetting everything by then.

Iris was also trying to forget everything, but that was never one of her skills.

 

“It is our goal not to provide you a list of things you once learned, but to leave you with the education that you will carry throughout your life.”

 

Iris opened her heavy wooden door and walked outside. The air was crisp and light and cool, and it felt like the morning. The long winding road was painted with the golden glow of the sunrise. Iris could not see the sunrise from her house, but she thought about it as though it was there. The morning was bitterly cold and pleasantly warm at the same time, like the day hadn’t yet decided what it wanted to make of itself.

 

She was well-acquainted with cold days. She could remember the night of her grandmother’s death, running from a hospital. She remembered the sound of her feet on the frozen pavement, like ghosts tapping on window panes, and her labored breaths showing white in the frigid air like wraiths and cigarette smoke before they dispersed and vanished. She grasped onto her empty vial and thought that if she crushed it to dust, it would be inclined to disperse and disappear as well.

The vial, like most things, was never as good at disappearing as Iris Adley was.

 

“Because leading is not a matter of being the easiest and loudest voice to hear but instead being the truest and sometimes most difficult voice to listen to.”

 

Iris walked away from her house, mindlessly and deliberately wandering. Her destination was as clear as it was ambiguous. It was as real as running away from hospitals and as real as turning to dust, but really she wasn’t going anywhere.

 

On the night of her graduation, Iris Adley ran away because she wanted to be anyone. She wanted to be pulled away to dance and disperse like dust in streetlights. She wanted to be ambiguous and enigmatic, both real and pretend. She ran away because she loved escape acts. She ran away because she was young, and she was careless, and it seemed exciting. She was called a free spirit. She was called full of potential. She drank coffee. She got a job. She didn’t know what she was going to be. She wasn’t going anywhere.

 

Iris Adley walked toward a lone streetlight at the end of the road.

The last time Iris saw her grandmother, they sat outside of a hospital smoking cigarettes and talking about God. Iris did not smoke cigarettes. There were long summer days of sitting on her grandmother’s back porch while packs of Marlboros appeared and disappeared in inevitable ways scattered throughout her childhood. She remembered her grandmother warning through lungfuls of smoke that her habit would kill her.

Iris did not smoke.

The last time Iris saw her grandmother, she smoked a cigarette because her grandmother didn’t know who she was, so it was like she could be anyone.

They were talking about God, but really they were talking about mercy.

 

It was the first time she had seen a family member since vanishing from high school, and she didn’t know how to act around people who once knew her but didn’t anymore. All she had done in her life was disappear, and that’s what she knew how to do.

The last time Iris saw her grandmother, she held a vial of something clear and deadly. Iris was good at disappearing, and it felt like mercy, like making the tough choice for someone who was weak.

The last time Iris saw her grandmother, she was thinking it was better to be gone than to be a ghost. The last time Iris saw her grandmother, she was smoking a cigarette even though it might have killed her.

 

She was thinking of a mercy kill, but really she wasn’t thinking.

 

“And a leader must take actions, even when they seem difficult, and a leader must make choices, even when choosing seems impossible. And a leader must be strong, even when they are weak.”

 

She ran down the street holding a glass vial. She had disappeared and reappeared, and she was a ghost. She was guilty, but she was a ghost. It was a terrible act of mercy, and there was no mercy left.

So, she disappeared.

 

Iris Adley walked toward a lone streetlight at the end of the road. She was thinking about making the unchoosable choices in life, and she was thinking about being a leader. She was thinking about running and forcing the world to catch up with her.

 

When she was young, she would sit on her grandmother’s porch for endless summer days. Potential was squandered. Desires were abandoned. Peace was not sought out, it was inevitable. Cigarettes were burned. Coffee was made. Months would pass. There was nothing to do, but there was nothing that needed doing. It was perfect.

Summers would end, and Iris would go home to her parents.

 

Her parents liked to talk of the future: caps and gowns and colleges. They always seemed to know what was happening and what to do.

Iris was never interested in such things.

But still, the summers would end.

 

She walked toward a streetlight.

 

When she graduated high school, she was walking away from everything. She was convinced that she could outrun death and despair and graduation speeches by performing escape acts in the parking lot. She was convinced that she could outrun the ending of summer by never acknowledging that it had started.

She didn’t want to make a choice. She chose to run away.

She chose to make a ghost.

She chose to walk toward a streetlight as the sun rose around her.

 

It felt as thought the world was catching up.

She was thinking. She was thinking about ghosts and cigarette smoke and light and dust. Dispersing, becoming nothing, running away. She was thinking about light.

 

The streetlight wasn’t on, but it felt like it was. She was drawn toward it. It pulled her toward the end of the long winding road. She was thinking about dust swirling around in the halo of the streetlight like it was being pulled to a single source.

 

She was thinking about mercy. The light drew her further from her house. She was thinking of endless summer days, but summers have to end.

It was impossible to outrun.

 

On the night of her grandmother’s death, Iris Adley became a ghost, but she was not the one who died. It was a terrible act of mercy, but it was a choice that she made.

She chose mercy, and she was forgiven.

 

“So march fearlessly into the word, today is the beginning of your future.”

 

The sun had fully risen, and the air became warm.

Iris Adley woke up.

 

The Art of Kidnapping

     

Before

Why do rainy days always bring trouble? Keira Keegan certainly didn’t know. She was just five. And reading War and Peace, of course, as beads of water dripped down the window of her room, splattering on the moist grass below. Her green eyes scanned the page as her short black hair fell across her face. Suddenly, she heard a piercing scream. Keira’s book dropped to the floor, and she pressed her face on the glass. A woman ran on the other side of the street, clutching a briefcase to her chest. A man chased after her, clearly trying to catch up to the fleet-footed lady. Keira realized that the man had produced the scream. Talk about an interruption, she thought and went back to her novel. But she still memorized her brief image of the speedy thief in her photographic memory, just in case. Keira was that type of person.

 

Quite a few years later…

Keira woke up on a certain Sunday in April to rain panging on the roof of 765 Haren Road at seven o’clock in the morning. “Darn you, sleep cycle,” she grumbled. But she resisted the urge to nap until noon and did her morning routine. As the droplets poured down, she remembered that day many years ago, with the woman and the man and the briefcase. Keira went downstairs and switched on the TV.

“We have breaking news,” Chuck Chuckerly, lead reporter on Channel 8 News said. “The famous artist Willam Magrotte has gone missing.”

Keira stood there, frozen in shock. “Welp,” she said, throwing up her hands suddenly. “Another thing that no one will be able to solve, just like all the robberies and murders before.”

An idea formed in her mind, though. Then I’ll solve this myself.

 

A Day Just a While Before

Willam Magrotte was working in his quarters. His apron was splattered with paint, and his immaculate mustache had a couple of specks of white on it. Another masterpiece was being born. He was just finishing up the tail of the animal on his new painting, La Vie du Chat, The Cat’s Life, when something fell in the workshop. Willam turned. The door was ajar. He saw a figure in the corner. In an instant, the artist had fallen and was bound to a chair, blindfolded and gagged.

 

Mondays

Mrs. Jane Ellison was a stickler for rules. Obviously, she resented the reckless Keira Keegan. Keira was always getting into trouble, with her tendency to talk back. Mondays were always the worst. All of Mrs. Ellison’s seventh grade students were snippy from the early times they had to wake up, a change from the lazy weekends when they didn’t have to hit the snooze button until noon. But especially Keira.

The 8 a.m. school bell rang, and Mrs. Ellison began to take attendance. “Aaronson, Addie. Abrams, Genevieve. Barnhart, Hunter… ” all the way up to “Kaye, Theodore” and “Keegan, Kei — oh, it seems that Miss Keegan is not here with us today,” the teacher said with a smile. But at that moment, Keira walked in.

“Ah, Miss Keegan. You’re here,” Mrs. Ellison said slowly. “I was just about to print an absentee report for you. However, I guess we’ll just have to settle for a tardy slip.”

“Well, you didn’t finish saying my name, therefore I didn’t have to say ‘here,’” Keira quipped, provoking laughter from her classmates. Mrs. Ellison turned red.

“Keira Keegan,” Mrs. Ellison snapped. “Take that back this instant!”

Keira didn’t though, because the PA system crackled. “Keira Keegan, please report to the janitor’s closet. Keira Keegan, please report to the janitor’s closet. Thank you.”

 

Trapped

“Well then, Miss Keegan. Take the hall pass. I trust you won’t be straying off anywhere?” Mrs. Ellison said.

Keira obeyed and set off to the closet, wondering why she was needed there.

The closet door was painted a drab gray shade. There was a grate on the bottom, with metal slats that provided ventilation. “That’s weird,” she mumbled to herself. “These weren’t here on Friday.” She noticed the jagged edges of the vent. A hasty job, she thought. She opened the door and stepped inside.

“Hello?” Keira called. Her voice echoed off the dirty walls. She heard a click and turned around. The door. She shook the knob. It didn’t budge. She was trapped.

 

A Sound

Willam Magrotte heard a sound. It was more than one, really. First, the opening of the door. It startled him. The only sounds he had heard since he woke up here were the noises of a school. It was definitely a school he was in, for the loud chatters and stomping of feet and creak of lockers opening and closing and the occasional shout from a teacher were unmistakable. But back to the sounds. Willam’s enhanced hearing allowed him to detect the slightest sounds, all the way down here in what he believed was a basement. He heard a small voice ask who was there. Then, a sudden shaking noise was heard. The artist knew there was someone there, someone that wasn’t his captor. He shouted out, desperate for help.

 

Got to Go

Mrs. Ellison was in the middle of teaching social studies when she seemed to receive a message on her smartwatch. The students stared, wide-eyed, at their teacher when the tinging beep blared around the classroom. Mrs. Ellison checked it quickly and put her assistant in charge of the class. “Urgent business,” she explained. “I’ll be back soon.” She left in a hurry.

 

The Captor

Keira leaned against the door, scratching herself on the jagged outline of the metal grate. What am I going to do? Mrs. Ellison is going to be reeeaaaalllyyy mad if I don’t get back soon, she thought. A shout interrupted her musings. “Aidez-moi! Je suis pris au piège dans ce sous-sol sale. Ce n’est pas un endroit pour un artiste!”

“What?” Keira asked, confused. But then she remembered the contents of a French dictionary she’d read in first grade. “Help. I am trapped in this dirty basement. This is no place for an artist,” she translated. An artist. Wait, so — the artist Magrotte went missing a few days ago. This person says he’s an artist. Magrotte is French. This guy is French. Yep. It has to be him.

“Are you Willam Magrotte?” she called to the direction of the plea. When she didn’t get a response, she resaid it in French. “Êtes-vous Willam Magrotte?”

“Oui!”

“Je vais vous sortir de là!” I’ll get you out of there.

Keira rushed to find where the voice had come from. Eventually, she found a door. It was rusty but looked strong. She tried the knob. No luck. But she felt a small rectangle above it. It seemed to be a small box that was painted to blend in with the door. She undid the lock and lifted the lid. It had a keypad inside. “One plus two plus three plus four. Multiply and wait for more,” Keira read out loud.

“Not so fast,” someone said behind her.

 

Revelations

“Little Miss Keegan. Did you really think you could free my captive?” a figure shrouded in black said. The voice was quite familiar — Keira was certain she knew the kidnapper. But she couldn’t put her finger on it.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“Well, I wouldn’t say it here, you know.”

“Well, I know your code. I’ll free Magrotte.”

“Ugh, I forgot about that photographic memory. But my codes are unbreakable, you should know that. So I’ll let you go on your way. I have to be somewhere too.”

“Oh-kay?” Keira walked back to class, looking unnaturally calm. But on the inside, she was severely shaken by her encounter.

When she arrived back to class, Mrs. Ellison was waiting. But she seemed rushed. Her elaborate hair was disheveled, and her clothes were rumpled, a change from the neat creases that were the result of excessive ironing. “Nice of you to join us,” Mrs. Ellison said. Her glasses were lopsided.

“Well, considering that I was trapped inside a closet with a kidnapper… I think I made pretty good time,” Keira retorted. The class laughed uneasily. She slipped into her seat without waiting for a response.

 

Figure it Out

“Y’know,” Keira’s best friend, Raina, whispered to her. “Mrs. Ellison left the classroom just a few minutes after you did.”

“Really? That’s weird,” Keira said. She could always count on Raina to give her the truth, though.

All through her classes, Keira tried to make sense of the riddle she’d seen in the closet. One plus two plus three plus four. Multiply and wait for more. One plus two plus three plus four. Multiply and wait for more. One plus two plus three plus four… she repeated in her head. It definitely had something to do with math. That wasn’t a problem. She knew how to do calculus. She’d learned it when she was seven. But the math in this problem was easy. Too easy. One plus two plus three plus four was ten. But… what about the next line? Multiply by what? She had to find out.

“Hey, Raina, I need your help,” Keira requested at lunch as they sat down together to eat. “I have a riddle, and I think you can figure it out.”

“Sure, what is it?” Raina asked. She was a petite girl, with long blond hair.

“‘One plus two plus three plus four. Multiply and wait for more.’”

“Well, one, two, three, and four add up to ten… Wait, in the second line, is it the number ‘four?’”

“No, it’s f-o-r,” Keira explained, spelling the word out.

“Hmmm… oh, I think I got it!” Raina jumped in excitement. “What if the ‘for’ in the second line is actually a number? So you have to multiply by the number four. That’s forty!”

Keira’s eyes widened. That’s it! I have the answer! she thought. She hugged Raina hard. “Thank you so so so so so so so much!”

“You’re welcome. But sheesh, you don’t have to be this excited, Keira, it’s only a riddle… ”

 

After School

As soon as the clock struck three, Keira rushed back to the janitor’s closet with her keys for a just-in-case weapon and a hairpin to unlock a door, if needed. She also included a small pen. Always be prepared. That was her mantra. Her parents wouldn’t mind if she came home late. They arrived back even later. As suspected, the room was locked. She stuck the pin in and jimmied it. It opened silently, and she stepped inside, immediately going over to the keypad. She entered the code four-zero in, and the door swung open with a hiss.

 

Another Sound

Willam made like an ice cube and froze when he heard the basement door open. Another sound had been heard. But was it his captor, or the French-speaker from this morning? He didn’t know, but he stayed silent just in case.

 

Lost and Then Found

Keira walked down the stairs to find an expansive room with nothing in it. Nothing but a person. A person that was strapped to a chair. A chair that was bound to the person with thick ropes. Ropes that were accompanied by a blindfold and a gag that had fallen onto the floor. Willam Magrotte.

She stepped towards him. “Monsieur Magrotte?”

“Oui?”

“I’ve come to save you,” she said in French. “Stay calm.”

“Je vais.” I will.

She untied the knots holding the artist to the chair and took off his blindfold. “How are you feeling?”

“Pas trés bien.” Not very well.

“Come with me. We have to go upstairs.”

“Wha-what happened to me?” he asked in broken English.

“It’s a long story. Just know that you have been saved.”

“Are you sure about that, Miss Keegan?” a new voice broke in.

 

Whodunit?

Miss Keegan. Miss Keegan. Miss Keegan. It echoed through her head. Only one person ever called her “Miss Keegan.”

“Mrs. Ellison? Is that you?” Keira said as she stepped back. She whispered a command to Willam. “Montez à l’étage du bureau du directeur. Dites-lui d’alerter la police de venir dans le placard du concierge.” Go upstairs to the principal’s office. Tell him to alert the police to come into the janitor’s closet.

“Why, yes. I’m not surprised that you figured out my identity. But it would provide me a great convenience to tell me how,” her teacher replied. Keira noticed that Willam had managed to sneak past the distracted kidnapper.

“Well, someone called me ‘Miss Keegan’ this morning in the closet. And then Raina told me that you left the classroom after I did. And you called me ‘Miss Keegan’ again just now. So that’s how I know whodunit. But I do have one question: Who called me to this closet in the first place?”

“Very good, Miss Keegan,” Mrs. Ellison nodded. “Very good. That idiot the janitor must have done it. He was supposed to be my accomplice. I guess he’s gone rogue. He’ll be my next victim, after you, of course.”

 

Taped

Click. Keira pressed the top of her pen. A red light stopped blinking.

“Congratulations, Mrs. Ellison, you’ve been taped. I have your whole villainous monologue on this pen.”

“Give that to me this instant!” Mrs. Ellison reached for the writing utensil in Keira’s hand. Keira dodged and ran up the stairs past the teacher to ground level, Mrs. Ellison close behind, just as the cavalry arrived.

“Put your hands up!” the chief yelled. Mrs. Ellison didn’t obey.

“You really think you can best me? You have no evidence, other than that dratted pen this little girl has in her hand… ” Her voice faltered, for Keira was replaying Mrs. Ellison’s explanation.

“‘He’ll be my next victim, after you, of course.’” the crackly recording wrapped up.

The police arrested Mrs. Ellison immediately, reading her rights. “You have the right to remain silent. If you do say anything, what you say can be used against you… ”

 

A Good Job

“Kid, you did a good job today,” one of the officers said to Keira. “Mr. Magrotte told us everything that happened. You’ll provide some more evidence too, right?”

“Yes sir, I’ve got a photographic memory, and I’m not afraid to use it,” she replied.

“Good.” He clapped her on the back.

“Keira?” someone else said. It was the janitor, Steven, who had worked at her school for years. As the former accomplice of Mrs. Ellison, he was there to give some insight into what caused her to kidnap Magrotte. Of course, it was for the ransom money.

Steven seemed changed, though, as he led Keira to a corner. He’d lost his mustache. Well, he could’ve shaved, Keira thought. His voice was different. Well, people’s voices can change. The color of his eyes were brown instead of green. Well — she couldn’t think of an explanation for that.

“Keira, I’m not actually Steven, you know. The name’s Kingston, Ricky Kingston. How would you like a job in the spy business?”

“Well, sure. Just leave me a day or so to get prepared,” Keira said. She smiled.

 

The End

 

Twinkles

Once upon a time, there was a Mom. The Mom saw beauty in the tiny moments of life. Little glimmers of hope, of humanity. She called these moments twinkles. She said they were like tiny Christmas lights, each one beautiful on its own, but dazzling when on a string. She said they covered the evergreen of life with sensational, stunning sparkles. There was also a Dad. He called these same moments everyday miracles, or the small things of beauty. But he didn’t really care for the twinkles, and only followed them because of his adoration for the Mom. The Mom would point out every twinkle she saw to the little Girl, and they would light up haer chubby toddler face with joy. When the older gentleman on the subway helped a complete stranger, a teen, struggling with his tie, that would be a twinkle. When the local coffee shop gave all their leftover pastries to the homeless, that was a twinkle. The Mom said that when the little Girl saw a twinkle, her scattering of freckles would light up, like the Christmas lights, but tiny and random.

When the little Girl turned six, she decided that she wanted to create her own twinkles. She remembered how proud the Mom looked when the little Girl boldly walked up to her, Mr. Snuffles in hand and a glittery tutu around her waist, and stated her decision. The family made their first twinkle the next day. After buying practically every lemon in the supermarket and making a fool of themselves as they talked in high, foofy voices, they made lemonade. The little Girl was truly happy, smearing sugar and lemon zest on their faces and drinking half of what they made. Then the Dad came out and set up the old table from their closet while the little Girl made a sign: Lemonade! One cup for only a smile. The sight of people on their way to work using the smile that the little Girl could tell they rarely used was priceless.

I pulled the hood of my navy parka over my thick brown hair, shivering from the early March chill. Staring at my feet, I tried to shut out the dirty New York City streets around me as I made my way home from school. It was one of those days that could be called drab, dreary, dull or another derogatory adjective starting in a “d.” The winter lingered like a wet blanket, getting pulled away and then flung back on your head with sudden icy rain. School was okay, I guess. I used to like challenging myself, being an overachiever. Now it was just a boring routine that, no matter how many times I whined about, wouldn’t go away.

I tried to shut out the mundane world. I stared at my shoes. Black Vans with a white stripe. Used-to-be-white shoelaces, now grayed and fraying. A worn patch on the right side of the left foot, where a toe ring I used to wear rubbed it thin. I stepped hard into the sidewalk. Each footstep thumped. Just then, I heard my phone buzz. I pulled it out, rubbing the marble-patterned plastic case out of habit. It was my dad. His awkward, trying-too-hard-to-look-cool, selfie flashed on my screen. I picked up.

“Why can’t you text like any other person in the 21st century?”

“Hello there to you too, honey,” he responded, a hint of laughter in his voice.

“What is it,” I replied, not willing to submit to his perpetual cheeriness.

“Well, honey, I’ll have to work late again tonight. I took on another client,” he said slowly, articulating each word like he always does.

“Did you have to take on this person when you already work seven days a week?”

“I’m sorry, Ayah. I’m doing my best.” He says that a lot. I’m doing my best. “You are going to have to make your own dinner again. I’m sorry, honey. Ayah, please forgive me.”

“Fine. Fine. Fine. It’s not like I made my own dinner every day this week. But of course I’ll do it.”

“I knew you would understand,” he responded, completely missing the sarcasm. I hung up.

Once upon a time, three years ago to be exact, the Mom died. The Girl was ten years old. The Dad didn’t fall into a state of insanity, like in movies. He didn’t wear a bathrobe or bunny slippers, and he didn’t go through five boxes of tissues a day. In fact, once upon a time, the Dad didn’t fall into grief at all. He fell into work. Every day, he would be in the office until even after the janitor had left. He would work extra shifts, and every second of his time at home was spent doing paperwork. Once upon a time, one might have thought that the family was short on money. But although the Mom liked living a simple life, the family was always very comfortable.

I kept walking, wanting to get home and away from this cold Monday, yet dreading the pile of homework our teachers had dumped on us. “Happy is the heart that still feels pain. Darkness drains and light will come again. Swing open up your chest and let it in, just let the love love love begin.” I sang silently, playing the Ingrid Michaelson song “Everybody” that was stuck in my head.

Once upon a time, when the Mom died, the Dad turned to work. The Girl, not so little anymore, turned to music. Once upon a time the Girl used to sing for the Mom. She let her voice carry, and then made it soft and delicate. The Mom would listen, swaying subtly. To her own beat, not the rhythm of the music. She would wait a few seconds after the Girl had finished her song to open her eyes. But when she did, they would glisten with tears, bringing out the crystalline blue color everyone envied.

Once upon a time, the Girl, not so little, couldn’t find her voice. She did, however, find the clarinet. The Girl loved everything she could do with it, from soft jazzy tunes to quick, dancing melodies, like pixies in a field of flowers.

As I continued my walk home, I passed Sparrow Cafe. It was a beautiful, small business that was cherished by everyone in our neighborhood. The owners, a pair of seventy-year-old identical twins named Mary and Darla Sparrow, knew me well. Suddenly, I felt someone brush against my shoulder, forcefully. It was Lily.

“Hi, Ayah,” she said, her voice dripping with fake friendliness.

“Hi, Lily,” I replied, staring at her shoes. Pristine gold and white Adidas, the laces tied in a tight bow.

“Uh, did you, like, forget? It’s Lilyah,” she responded, a condescending smile stretching from ear to ear. Oh, that’s right. I almost forgot the stuck up girl named Lily forced everyone to call her ‘Lilyah.’ She said the name had more class, just like her. “Well, I guess I’ll, like, see you around,” she said. No way.

Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Lily. Lily was best-friends-till-death-we-shall-never-part with the little Girl. They spent every waking hour together. The year the Mom died, a few more girls joined ‘the group.’ But Lily and the Girl still remained best friends, although they began to broaden their horizons to other people. Or so the Girl thought. Once upon a time, the Girl had to call Lily. That night, that fatal night. The Girl could barely get a word out, barely explain that she had lost her soulmate. She could barely explain how much love and help she needed, now that her mother was gone. But instead of finishing the Girl’s sentences, rushing over to her house, Lily was polite and formal: “I’m sorry for your loss. It’s such a shame,” she said. All of a sudden, Lily had transformed into a stranger. The Girl would never know exactly what had happened. Maybe Lily felt uncomfortable with someone who lost their parent? Maybe Lily couldn’t handle dealing with someone who was going through such intense grief? Although the Girl could never truly know, she did know one thing for sure: once upon a time, Lily was no longer a best friend. Lily was now a jerk.

I stood outside the Sparrow Cafe for a moment, staring at the shoes of the people who passed. My phone buzzed again. I lifted the screen to see another call from Dad. I picked up.

“What is it this time?”

“Sweetie, I would really appreciate if you could be more kind when answering — ” I cut him off.

“Come on, Dad. Seriously?”

“Where is my blue-eyed princess, the one who would find the everyday miracles? Where did she go?”

“There are no more miracles,” I said, not even trying to deny that the glitter in my blue eyes disappeared.

“Yes there are.” Hearing the silence, he continued. “Well anyways, the reason why I called you is because of your grandma.”

“My grandma?” I was genuinely confused. Dad’s mom died before I was born, and Mom’s mom… she didn’t have the best relationship with our family. Mom had some huge fight with her, something Mom said she would tell me when I was older. I never met my grandma, except for a brief sighting of a woman in black at Mom’s funeral. Dad always said it was for the best. So what now?

“Well,” Dad paused and cleared his throat. I could almost see his Adam’s apple bobbing, “I thought it’s time for you to get to know your grandma. So I got in touch with her — ”

“You spoke to her? How? What?” He ignored me.

“She said she would like to meet. I was thinking we could go to a nice dinner sometime next week, and meet her there.”

“I can’t do that. No way. I’m sorry, but no.”

“I don’t understand? Don’t you want to know your grandma?”
“It’s betraying Mom. And it’s terrible. It seems like this grandma lady is suddenly swooping in. Maybe she’s glad that Mom is dead.”

“Come on, Miracle.” He had crossed a line. Only Mom was allowed to call me that. Only Mom. I hung up, angrily pressing the screen, missing the red button the first few times, as I wiped away a tear.

Once upon a time, there was a man and a woman who were deeply in love. They desperately wanted a baby, especially a baby girl. But everytime they tried, it didn’t work. The doctors brought them the terrible news that they could never have a baby. Then, one day, the woman got pregnant. The doctors said it was a miracle the baby was in the Mom’s stomach, and an even bigger miracle it survived. So naturally, the Mom and the Dad named the baby Miracle in Arabic. To the Mom and Dad’s delight, they got pregnant again. Then something went wrong. The little Girl never knew what happened. They said she was too young, too fragile, too sad. All she remembers were the sirens, then flashing lights, red like the blood on the cold bathroom floor. All she remembers were the deep wrinkles in the doctor’s face, almost as deep as the pools of sadness that sank her. The little Girl was no longer so little.

I decided to enter into the Sparrow Cafe. I sometimes treated myself to their rich hot chocolate and light buttery chocolate croissant. Mom would say that the Sparrow Cafe’s hot chocolate was angel’s nectar. She always took me there when I had had a bad day at school, or was just feeling lousy. I added the croissant to the tradition after she died. The day of her death, I was sitting in the Sparrow Cafe. When I left, Darla handed me a croissant. “Give it to your Mom for me. From Mary and Darla.” Of course, Mom never got it.

As I opened the door, the warm air invited me inside. My ears were filled with the gentle hum of people conversing. I breathed in deeply, inhaling the delicate smells wafting from the kitchen. I could almost taste the flakes of sweet pastry, melting on my tongue.

“Hi, Mary,” I said, walking up to the counter.

“The usual, dear?” she responded, already getting out the little brown bag with which to package the croissant and setting it on the counter.

“Yes, please,” I responded

“Anything else, dear?”

“That will be all. Besides the hot chocolate, of course.” She started to prepare the hot chocolate, pouring the rich liquid in a paper cup decorated with drawings of sparrows. “Darla will ring you up, dearie.” I stepped down the counter to the vintage, blue cash register.

“Well, hello there, Ayah! Are you feeling alright today?” Darla said, peering at the wet streak on my cheek through her round, gold spectacles.

“Yeah. Thanks for asking.” I stared at the feet of the next person in line. A young woman, wearing slightly worn but still clean running shoes. Pink and blue Skechers with black laces. I took out my wallet to pay. Just as I handed her the bills, I noticed a tattered pink Post-it fall to the ground. Stooping down to pick it up, I could already tell it was Mom’s handwriting. Probably something stupid, like a shopping list. I stuffed it in my pocket as I went to a nearby table to wait for my order. I started thinking. How could Dad just betray Mom like that? Why are there no more miracles? Why are there no more twinkles? It’s not fair. I can’t do it anymore. No NO NO! By now, I was screaming in my head, clenching my fists with anger. I could see the bubblegum-sneakers lady looking at me. I’m done. I don’t care anymore. The twinkle lights went out. The tree is black.

My thoughts were interrupted by a tap on my shoulder.

“Oh, hi. Ms. Woodworth.” I stared at her shoes. Olive-green-gray heels, but not too high. Her foot, encased in tan pantyhose, was held down with an olive green strap and a gold buckle.

“Ayah! Fancy seeing you here!” Her gray ringlets shook as she patted my shoulder, and her soft pink sweater rubbed against my arm.

“Yeah, sure,” I groaned.

“What was that, Ayah?” She took a sip of the cup in her hand, wrapping the string of the chamomile tea bag around her finger.

“Uhh, I said ‘great coincidence!’” It was so easy for me to lie now. Mom used to say I was the most honest person she knew, but now, lying was part of my everyday life. Anyway, I didn’t care if she actually heard what Dad would call ‘my snarky remark.’

Once upon a time, the Girl’s Mom died. The school knew it would be hard on the Girl. They had their guidance counselor, Ms. Woodworth, help the Girl. She said, “You can talk to me whenever you need to. I’m always here.” She meant her office, a cozy nook in the otherwise chaotic public school building, filled with her snowglobe collection and a pot of tea always on the tiny stove. So the Girl went to her every day. But they never talked about that night with the sirens, or the hollow hole in the Girl’s heart. They just talked about everyday life. Like new shoes, or books. The Girl used to talk about this with the Mom. But now she wasn’t there. So Ms. Woodworth was the replacement. Once upon a time, the Girl went to Ms.Woodworth. It was a normal visit. The Girl wanted to talk about Lily, why she was being a jerk. But Ms. Woodworth didn’t let her stay. “Come back when you have a real issue. When you are actually dealing with the grief,” she said. “Other kids have more important things, rather than chit chatting about daily life.”

Thankfully, Ms. Woodworth now walked away, chuckling to herself as she went. I craned my neck to look at the counter. Where was my order? How hard is it to warm a croissant? Well, I might as well read the Post-it while I’m waiting. I pulled the now even more crumpled paper out of my pocket and carefully laid it on the blue mosaic table. I smoothed it out, running my thin fingers on the creases. It was a hastily scribbled haiku, definitely written by Mom.

Don’t drag yourself down,

With self-pity and anger

Remember twinkles

Darla called my name. “Ayah, your order is ready! Have a nice day, dear!” Rushing outside, I stuffed the Post-it in my pocket and grabbed the delicate paper bag and hot chocolate cup. I ran out of the cafe, shutting the door as I went with a slam that surprised even me, and was met by the rush of cold air. I started walking fast. Faster. Now I was almost running. Tears welled up in my eyes, but didn’t run down my face because of how fast I was going. I stared at the floor, shoes blurring past me. Teal Converse, white laces. Black loafers with a tangled thread. Gray sneakers with a lime green sole. Black high heels with arctic blue soles. Candy-apple-red wedges with a gold button. Ripped, unrecognizable shoes, one with only a sole. Panting, I stopped. I looked at the person in those shoes.

He was sitting on a greasy, old pizza carton, a threadbare, gray blanket on his lap. Why doesn’t he use the blanket? It’s freezing outside, I thought. Then, I saw it move. The homeless man carefully lifted the blanket to comfort a wailing baby, her small, red face streaked with soot. He held her up to his chest and gently patted the scrap of grimey bubblegum-pink swaddle that was wrapped around her, almost as if he were afraid to touch her, for she might break. “It’s alright. It’s alright.” He comforted her softly. His scratchy, hoarse voice barely made a sound. The baby’s wails only intensified. The homeless man looked up at me, making eye contact. His glassy green eyes were helpless, filling with tears that spilled over, dripping down his face. They drew a line of clean, exposing his weathered skin, washing away a stripe of dirt. Instead of looking away, like my parents always told me to, I stared straight at him. Suddenly, I knew why that haiku was in my pocket. It was fate. It was time, finally time, for me to create my own twinkle. I bent down, and carefully placed the steaming cup of hot chocolate on the ground in front of him. I held out the butter-stained brown bag with the croissant. He shook his head.

“Take it. Please,” I said, staring clearly, steadily at him, looking into his glassy eyes. He slowly reached up his hand, a filthy, torn glove almost falling off, and I closed the distance. Once the bag was in his hands, I started to run away, only stopping for a moment at the streetlight. I turned my head back and looked at him. His eyes were filled with a gratitude I had never seen before. He ripped a small piece of the still-warm croissant from the bag. A string of melted chocolate dripped from the pastry. He handed it to his baby. The cries dwindled. I called to him.

“Enjoy.”

 

An Attempted Rescue

The rocket stood there on the purple soil, black steam spiraling out from the top. It was night on the planet. It was always night there. Hundreds of stars hovered in the dark sky. They shined in Captain Powell’s eyes. Captain Powell and his men stepped out onto the mysterious territory.

“Where have we landed, Navigator Edwards?” Powell asked.

“Some planet,” said Edwards, looking around. “I think it’s uncharted.”

“Did we go to another solar system?” Powell said, confused.

“No, same one, it’s just we’re so far away from the Sun,” Edwards stated.

The planet looked isolated, with neglected mountains and a silent, purple lake that looked like grape soda. The only thing you could hear was the soft wind that would whisper to you and your very own echoes.

“I see something!” a crew member cried.

He was standing on a hill. He had a circular, large glass dome around his head. He also wore a big, white suit and boots. One of his legs was bruised and beaten. It was bleeding. What once was a pink, plump man was now pale and withered. However, his face was colored with excitement. He limped from the hill to them.

“Oh, thank you so much!” he cried. He then looked towards the shadows in the area. He called them. “Crew, people have come to rescue us!”

Four other men stepped out of the shadows, all in the same condition as the man.

“Who are you, and why are you here?” Powell questioned.

“I,” he explained, “am Douglas Williams of Earth, and this is my crew. We were supposed to land on Mars, but we crashed here back in 2050. We’ve been stranded here for years, and you have come to rescue us!”

Even time is different here, thought Powell. 2050 was a long time ago. These men are supposed to be dead. Maybe the planet freezes time for these people. Powell had a lot of questions.

“Well,” Edwards began, “our rocket crashed here, but we still have some fuel to take you back home! Tomorrow, it’ll be ready.”

“Thank you, thank you!” Williams turned to his crew. “We’re going home!”

They all cheered and clapped and laughed and joked. They felt alive for the first time in years. Now, they will finally be seeing their families and friends who thought they were dead.

“Is anyone else here?” Powell said.

Williams shot a frightened glance at his crew.

“Nope! No one here at all! Just us, ha, ha!”

“Okay.” Powell looked around the area.

 

***

 

Edwards went hiking through the planet, searching for new rocks and minerals while everyone was asleep. He went to a cave, and that’s when something happened. He felt someone touch his hand and say.

“Hello.”

He quickly turned around and was ready to fight, only to find a weak, injured astronaut.

“You must be new here,” the astronaut chuckled. “What planet did you try to go on. I’m Samuel Brooks and — ”

“We’re leaving tomorrow,” interjected Edwards, “and you should know, you’re part of Williams’ crew who we’re bringing with us.”

Brooks turned red. “You bring Williams with you as you escape?!”

“Yeah, I — ”

“Don’t bring him. He’s an idiot, and he’ll do you no good!”

“But — ”

“He’s insane,” Brooks blurted out.

Edwards quickly turned his opinion. “Really?”

“Yes, isolation made him start to become aggressive with my crew. Bring my expedition, we tried to go to Jupiter in 2080, but we failed,” Brooks stated.

“Okay, meet us tomorrow morning at our rocket, I’ll tell the captain. We can only have one other crew on the trip, so it’ll be you.”

“Wonderful.”

 

***

 

The day finally came, the day to go back home. Brooks saw the rocket, and he and his men started to walk along the silver ramp.

“Hey!” a voice shouted. It was Williams, and he was angry. “Get off, Brooks. This rocket isn’t for you!”

“Yes, it is, we deserve it more!” Brooks said.

Williams tackled Brooks. “That escape is ours.” He gritted his teeth.

The men on Brooks’ and Williams’ teams started to fight each other.

But word spread around quickly. Waves of failed crews and expeditions of Venus, Mars, and Jupiter came and saw the rocket. They hit, kicked, scratched, and bit each other for it.

Edwards, Powell, and the workers were in the rocket.

“Which one should we pick?”

“I don’t know!”

A man entered the crowd. He held a grenade.

“Hey, Williams! Hey, Brooks!” He threw it.

It spun in the air, but accidentally headed towards the rocket.

“Don’t,” Powell cried.

Boom.

Powell, Edwards, their workers, and the rocket were gone. Their dead bodies were in the rubble. The planet’s residents stood there, stunned. They didn’t speak for five minutes.

They had trouble sleeping that night.

Robot Battle League

       

OOH, and Silo goes in the air as Wrecking Ball slams him again. Silo has difficulty getting back up, and Wrecking Ball smashes him down. Silo isn’t moving. It’s time for the five second countdown!

Five…

Four…

Three…

Two…

One…

AND Wrecking Ball WINS THE ROUND! Good game, Silo, but it looks like you and your creator will have to wait until the next round!” the commentator boomed. Dianna and her best friend Luke walked towards the arena of the Robot Battle League, a fighting sport for robots, to pick up Dianna’s now broken robot.

“Don’t feel bad. It was a good design. You just need… tweaks,” Luke said, trying to cheer

her up.

“You say that every round, Luke. I’ve never won a round of the RBL, and with the championships coming up, there’s going to be thousands of people competing. Silo and I won’t stand a chance!” Dianna told him. They walked back towards the workshop. A Retina scan indicated that Dianna and Luke had returned. The gate opened, revealing small helper bots that were carrying around spare pieces of metal. Dianna placed Silo on the robot hand truck, where she started replacing his broken parts with fresh, new pieces of metal.

 

Dianna had always wanted to win an RBL tournament. It was the most popular sport, and from her window she could see giant, neon bulletin boards displaying the champions. She dreamt of being up there, representing her city in even bigger tournaments. Being the champion of —

 

“DIANNA!” Luke yelled. She opened her eyes. Silo was all powered up, and his light blue eyes flickered as they turned on.

“Hello, creator. Hello, best friend Luke,” Silo said in a calm, echoing voice.

“Silo, you can just call me Dianna. I told you a million times,” she said, chuckling.

“My apologies. Every robot’s programming requires them to call their makers ‘master’ or ‘creator,’” Silo said. He slowly walked out of the hand truck and rummaged through the boxes.

“What are you doing?” Dianna asked.

“Upgrade. Upgrade. Requiring USB database,” Silo beeped repetitively.

“Oh right,” Dianna said. She went into her pockets and plugged in a blue USB drive with

gray writing saying, Silo database. Every once in a while, robots required updates to refresh their memories. Dianna turned to Luke, who was asking a helper bot for a lemonade.

“Hey Luke, why don’t you enter the RBL too? It could be fun!” Dianna asked.

“No thanks. I’m not an engineer. Besides, I wouldn’t want to go against you,” Luke answered. Dianna nodded. Suddenly, a hovering, lime green oval shaped bot floated into the room. A recording of Dianna’s mom came out of the robot.

“Dianna! Time for dinner!” it said.

“Gotta go. Cya Luke!” she said, powering Silo down and placing him on the hand truck, before running up the stairs. Luke waved and walked towards his house.

 

When 10:00 hit, the arena opened for its late night battles. It was only one or two, just to test out the strength of your robot. Wrecking Ball was walking behind his creator, a snarky, arrogant kid named Sam. Sam spotted a masked cyberpunk leaning against the wall. Aside from his mask, he was only wearing black. His mask was metal and had two yellow pixelated eyes. Beside him was a small robot. It was smaller than any other robot in the RBL. Sam couldn’t resist the opportunity to crack an insult against him.

“Hey, robot face! Too scared to show yourself? Bet you’re real ugly. Hey, where did your robot come from, preschool?” he said, laughing. The cyberpunk lifted his head and looked straight at Sam.

The commentator started yelling out. “Sam and Wrecking Ball vs Korben and the Exterminator!” he yelled out. Sam laughed.

“The exterminator? Bet the only thing you ever fought was a bug, and you still lost!” Sam yelled, laughing. They both sat down and grabbed their controllers. Korben’s yellow eyes turned red.

“Exterminate,” he muttered. The Exterminator grew much higher. His right hand was

replaced by a gun, and his left hand became a sword. Sam stopped laughing. Within seconds, Wrecking Ball was destroyed. Or rather, Exterminated.

THE EXTERMINATOR WINS! Better luck next time, Wrecking Ball!” the commentator

yelled. Sam grabbed Wrecking Ball and looked at Korben, who was already walking away. Exterminator turned back towards Wrecking Ball.

“Target exterminated,” he said and went back to walking.

 

Beep! Beep! Beep! Slam!

 

Dianna hit her alarm and got out of bed in a flash. Today was the sign-up for the championships! She had to get there nice and early. Downstairs, she was greeted by a warm hello from Silo and a bowl of cereal, which she devoured in seconds. She grabbed Silo, and they ran out of the house towards Luke’s. She knocked on the door, and in a few minutes, Luke was there. It looked like he had changed from his pajamas recently, but he was still looking sleepy.

“Dianna, what time is it?” he asked, yawning.

“5:00. The sign-ups start at 6:00. Come on!” she replied, grabbing his arm and dragging

him outside, as he moaned for his bed.

 

They quickly arrived at the front of the arena. Thousands of people were already lining up.

“Dang it. I’ll never sign up!” Dianna complained. Luke grabbed her and Silo.

“Okay Silo, play along,” he whispered. He started yelling.

“Excuse me! This robot has a virus! The only way to cure it is to sign up for the championships!” Luke yelled.

“Yes. I have a virus. I am very sick and need to sign up,” Silo said. Dianna wrote her name in the paper. Everyone cheered. Dianna smiled. She was in!

Suddenly, Korben shoved Silo out of the way. Everyone moved, whispering and pointing.

“Silo, scan the man and the bot,” Dianna whispered. Silo’s eyes turned green, then back

to blue.

“Name: Korben. Age: 37. Bio: Never lost a round,” Silo said. His eyes became green again, then returned to normal. “Bot name: Exterminator. Bio: Destroyed every robot in his way,” Silo read out. Korben wrote his name on the paper. As Korben and the Exterminator walked back, everyone backed away in fear of being the next target.

“Okay. It’s okay. All we have is a… RBL champion with the most dangerous robot in the tournaments. Think of winning. Think of winning,” Dianna said. Suddenly, a helper bot put

up the list of who was fighting who. Dianna saw she was against Jonathan and his robot “Red Zone.” She felt confident. Everyone took their copies of the paper and walked back to their homes.

 

In the workshop, Dianna was still staring at the paper.

“Hey. Dianna! You’ve been staring at the paper for an hour. Let’s go play gravity throw or something,” Luke said.

“I can’t. This is the biggest tournament I’ve ever been in! I’ve got to upgrade Silo as much as possible. I’m thinking rocket boosters, laser cannons, plasma bombs, virus gas, anything!” she said. She grabbed some boxes and started rummaging through them.

“Do not worry, creator Dianna. I will download all the features myself. Go play gravity throw with best friend Luke,” Silo said. Dianna sighed and walked outside with Luke.

 

The next day, Dianna, Luke, and Silo were rushing towards the arena. People were already starting to sit down, and the fighters were preparing their remotes and their bots. Luke went to find a seat, and Dianna grabbed her remote control.

 

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, PLEASE WELCOME… THE CITY’S CREATOR AND HOST OF THE RBL… THE OVERLORD!” the commentator said. A giant screen with a face appeared. It smiled.

“Let the RBL begin!” it said. After a few rounds, Dianna’s turn came up. She sat down

and activated Silo’s “fight mode.” Red Zone jumped and landed on Silo. Silo got thrown backwards and hit the wall.

“Come on, Silo, where are your upgrades?” Dianna muttered. Silo got back up and

attempted to punch Red Zone, but Red Zone grabbed his arm and threw him against the floor. Silo got back up again. Red Zone punched, but Silo ducked. Red Zone tried punching again, but Silo still dodged it. When Red Zone attempted a third punch, Silo punched him in the face. Red Zone slammed against the wall. Suddenly, Silo’s eyes became dark.

“Upgrade. Upgrade. Requiring USB database,” he said.

“Nonononono!” Dianna yelled. Red Zone saw his opportunity and knocked Silo off his

feet.

Dianna looked at Luke, who had the USB drive in his hand. Luke tossed it to her. Suddenly, Silo was thrown up in the air, and Red Zone kicked him above Dianna. Everything moved in slow motion. Dianna’s hand went up and plugged the USB drive onto Silo’s back. Just before Silo hit the stands, his eyes opened, and he jumped back into the arena. A few people cheered. Red Zone ran towards Silo, but Silo grabbed him and slammed him on the ground.

“Let the countdown begin!

Five…

Four…

Three…

Two…

One…

AND SILO WINS! Red Zone IS ELIMINATED FROM THE COMPETITION! SILO MOVES ON TO THE NEXT ROUND!

Dianna stood there with her mouth wide open. She… had… won! She won for the first time in the RBL! She ran towards the arena where Silo was standing. She quickly deactivated “fight mode” and hugged him.

“WE WON SILO! WE WON!” she yelled.

 

After a relaxing period of watching the rest of the competitors fight, (Dianna’s favorite besides her win was Mega Mech vs Pyro, but Luke’s was definitely Rocket vs Blast-a-tron) Dianna, Luke, and Silo walked back towards Dianna’s workshop. Dianna powered Silo down, plugged him in, and put him on the hand truck. Luke went back home, and Dianna went to bed.

 

In the city’s central building, the Overlord was connected to millions of wires that were connected to millions of plugs. The Overlord controlled every part of the city. His pixelated face appeared on the giant screen. He watched the replays of the RBL rounds. He stopped as the beginning of Silo vs Red Zone. He watched as Dianna plugged the USB drive. He watched as Silo beat Red Zone.

“Interesting,” he said. A smaller screen went in front of him, and a camera view of

Dianna’s workshop shot into view. He looked at Silo’s powered down body.

“Nobody knows the true nature of the RBL. I believe that young fighter will soon find out my secret,” he muttered. The screen lifted, and a door opened revealing a smooth titanium robot. “Soon. Very soon,” he said. He laughed, and his face disappeared from the screen.

 

Saturday was Dianna’s favorite day of the week. She had all day to work on Silo, and not to mention, her parents always went out all day, so she had the whole house to herself. Luke couldn’t come, as he and his parents were going shopping. Dianna was disappointed, but she just went down to her workshop. She powered Silo up, and his light blue eyes flickered open.

“Hello,” he said. Dianna smiled. Silo’s warm welcomes always made her feel better.

“Hey, Silo. What do you wanna do today?” she asked.

“Well I — ” Silo started, then he crashed. Dianna looked confused. She always

plugged Silo’s USB in every time before she shut him down, so he shouldn’t be able to crash. She shrugged and opened his code and refreshed it. Silo’s eyes opened again, but they weren’t blue this time, they were red.

“Uhh, Silo?” Dianna asked. Silo turned towards her.

“Virus detected. Security down. Prepare for mode 75,” Silo said in a dark voice.

“S-Silo?” Dianna asked again. Silo’s eyes kept changing to Blue, then Red, as if he was

trying to fight it off.

“Creator! Leave… YOU WILL ALL BE DESTROYED… Go before you get hurt… OPERATION STORM!” Silo and the virus were saying. Dianna opened the hatch at the

back of Silo’s head and shut him down. She deleted all his memories to get rid of the virus, then she plugged in his USB drive to bring the memories back. Silo’s blue eyes opened.

“What happened?” he asked.

“A virus infected you. It seems your built-in security doesn’t hold off that well,” Dianna

explained. Silo looked worried.

“It’s okay, it’s just a small virus. It’s deleted,” Dianna reassured him. Silo nodded.

“Hey Silo, do you know anything about operation Storm?” Dianna asked. Silo got visions.

Flames. Robots attacking humans. But the one in the middle of it was —

“Silo?!” Dianna yelled. Silo shook the vision off.

“No. I do not know anything,” Silo replied. Dianna nodded and looked at the fighting list.

“We’re against… Korben and the Exterminator,” Dianna said. Silo wasn’t paying attention.

Suddenly, the green oval bot floated in and called Dianna up for dinner. She powered Silo down and ran upstairs.

The next morning, Dianna woke up to the sound of the TV. She went downstairs. She saw her mom and dad watching the news. They saw a robot breaking out of a house with a chip in his hand. A policeman was pointing his gun at him.

“Put your hands in the air before I shoot!” the policeman yelled.

“Put your water gun down fatty before I slap that imaginary life out of your body,” the  robot replied.

“I’m warning you, put your hands in the air!” the policeman said.

“You really think I’m going to listen to an old fat guy? Move,” the robot said.

“I didn’t want to do this, but I’ll have to electrocute you,” the policeman said. The robot’s arm turned into a laser cannon, and it shot the policeman. The screen turned to a reporter.

“Robots have been seen attacking civilians, going… rogue. We haven’t had this incident in about 30 years, but if the robots keep going on like this, we’ll have to evacuate. Start off fresh. Get new robots. Restart our whole civilization,” the reporter said.

 

Dianna looked away from the TV. If they thought all robots were becoming dangerous, what would happen to Silo? She walked up to her room where she looked at pictures she had taken together with Silo. Suddenly, her phone buzzed. It was Luke. She stared at the text message he sent.

 

Dianna! Come now! Silo’s here, and he’s going crazy!

 

Luke and his family were huddled in a circle Silo was walking around the room, shooting lasers and breaking objects. Dianna opened the door with the chip in her hand. She saw Silo, and she ran towards him. Silo turned around and grabbed her by the shirt. He had the red eyes.

“OPERATION STORM!” he yelled out. His face screen started glitching. He was still

trying to fight it off. Silo dropped Dianna and staggered to the living room. Dianna ran towards Silo again and jumped on his back. She opened the hatch, and was about to delete his memories, when red lightning shocked her.

“I’M SORRY, BUT I’M AFRAID I CANNOT LET YOU DO THAT,” Silo’s voice echoed. His laser cannon pointed at her then… he powered down. Dianna got up to see Luke pressing the button. Dianna grabbed the chip and plugged it back in.

 

Meanwhile, the Overlord was watching from one of his screens. He yelled out in fury. Dianna didn’t know it yet, but Silo was one of the most powerful, dangerous robots ever made, and he had to get control of him. He had to launch Operation Storm. His screen turned to a view of Korben.

“He cannot beat Silo in the next round. Looks like Silo’s going to have to get… angrier,” he said, as a red chip inserted into one of his wires. He started laughing.

 

Dianna was back in her workshop, trying to see what went wrong with Silo.

“This is the second time this has happened. If it happens again… we’ll have to shut you down for good and make a new chip,” Dianna said. A tear started forming in her eye, but she wiped it off. She looked at her watch.

“Fifteen minutes until my round starts. Let’s go, Silo,” Dianna said.

 

Wham! Crash!

 

Those were sounds of the Exterminator throwing Silo across the walls. The Overlord was planning his timing. Silo got up, but the Exterminator punched him in the face. As Silo got up again, when nobody was watching, the Overlord inserted the chip. Silo’s eyes turned red.

“No,” Dianna muttered. Silo grabbed the Exterminator and started throwing him against the ground. Silo jumped up and body slammed him. As the Exterminator got back up, Silo kicked him towards the wall. Then, Silo grabbed him and threw him in the air. Silo’s laser cannon emerged, and he started rapidly shooting the Exterminator. The Exterminator fell back down, limp. The five second countdown began.

Five…

Four…

Three…

Two…

One…

AND SILO WINS THE ROUND!

 

Silo’s eyes flickered back to blue. He looked confused, then sad when he realized what happened. Silo’s three strikes had gone. His memories had to be erased permanently and replaced by a whole new chip.

 

Back at Dianna’s home, her parents, Luke, his family, and all the bots in the house came to say goodbye to Silo. Dianna walked towards him, crying.

“You’re the best robot I’m going to ever have, Silo. You’ll never be replaced. I promise. G-goodbye,” Dianna said, crying. Luke walked towards Silo.

“You were an amazing robot, Silo. We’ll never forget you,” he said. Everyone went to hug him. Dianna flipped his hatch open and erased everything. Silo’s light blue eyes started fading away.

“Don’t go. Please,” she muttered. Silo’s eyes disappeared. All his lights in his body faded away. Dianna placed his chip into his stomach, so it could be transported to the Overlord.

 

In a room with a lot of wires and machinery with red lights, a small figure made entirely out of code appeared. He wasn’t just small, he was very small. His body was all green with binary code rushing through it. His eyes were still blue, but he even had a proper mouth. On his body, there was writing saying, Silo. He looked confused. Suddenly, the Overlord’s face projected on a screen.

“Welcome, Silo. Welcome,” the Overlord said.

“W-what is this place? Where am I?” Silo asked.

“You’re in the machine room. Only I can access it. This is where all deleted bots go,” the Overlord explained.

“What happened to me? Why was I always going insane?” Silo asked. The Overlord’s

eyes turned redder than usual.

“You’re not like any other bot, Silo. You’re special. Let me explain why. When I first founded this city, I built a robot, so I could use it as a body. You were the bot I built. I could move in and out of your mind as I pleased. Although, seeing on TV how robots can have armies, I designed the RBL so that the most powerful robots could work for me. You didn’t think that was fair. You fought against me. You deleted your own memories, and you were found by that girl. She made your body better and named you Silo. Now that you’re here, I can finally launch my plan. I named it Operation Storm, after your real name,” he explained. The words on Silo’s chest turned into, Storm.

“Now you work for me,” the Overlord said. Silo’s body got surrounded by chains, and the

floor lifted up to a view of the whole city. “Now you have a front row seat to the destruction of the city and the rise of my robot army!” the Overlord yelled out. Silo tried to break free, but the chains were too tight. “Now, if you excuse me, I’ve got a city to destroy,” the Overlord said. Red lightning went from his screen to the titanium robot. His red eyes opened.

“It feels so good to be in a proper body again,” the robot — or rather the Overlord — said. He left the building and walked towards the city.

“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN. IT IS I, THE OVERLORD. I JUST WANTED TO WARN YOU THAT MY PLAN IS COMPLETE. OPERATION STORM CAN BEGIN!” the Overlord spoke. Every robot’s eyes turned red. Everyone started yelling and screaming as the robots started firing lasers at them. Dianna and Luke ran out.

“What the heck is happening?!” Luke yelled.

“I don’t know, but we have to get out of here!” Dianna yelled. As they ran, they ran into Korben, who had a massive gun out and was shooting the robots.

“STAY BEHIND ME!” Korben yelled. His gun wasn’t doing any damage to the robots, but it was pushing them back. Suddenly, the Exterminator came into view.

“Targets located. Exterminate,” Exterminator said.

“Leave! I’ll keep him distracted!” Korben yelled. He started shooting at the Exterminator as Dianna and Luke ran. As they turned towards the exit of the town, the Overlord flew in their way.

“WELCOME TO THE FINAL ROUND OF THE RBL!” the Overlord yelled. Luke stepped in front of Dianna.

 

Meanwhile, Silo was still trying to break free. He spotted the Overlord advancing towards Luke and Dianna. Silo yelled, and his body glitched out of the chains. He ran down the building and towards Dianna’s home, where his body was still standing in the living room. Silo climbed inside.

“Okay, I’ve got to control this without the chip,” Silo said. He started moving the joystick around, and Silo staggered around towards the door.

 

The Overlord shoved Luke aside, where Red Zone and Wrecking Ball caught him and held his arms. The Overlord grabbed Dianna and flew up in the air.

“Where’s your precious robot now, Dianna?” he asked.

“You won’t win,” she muttered.

“I already have! Now, let’s watch this city die together, shall we… update update requiring USB database,” the Overlord started. The robot powered down, and Dianna and the Overlord started falling to the ground. Red lightning shot out of the suit and possesed Wrecking Ball’s body. Dianna kept falling until Silo caught her in mid-air.

“Wait… Silo?” she asked. Silo’s code body appeared from the face.

“Hello!” he yelled. Dianna screamed.

“Who are you? Why are you in Silo’s body?” she asked.

“I am Silo. Just in my deleted form. I can feel emotions and all the stuff I wanted to feel as a robot,” Silo explained.

“Then why is ‘Storm’ written on your chest?” she asked.

“Long story short, my real name is Storm, I was the Overlord’s body, and the RBL was just a trick to make an army,” Silo explained.

“This whole thing was a trick?” she asked.

“Yeah, and I need the chip, so I can transfer my code into this body,” Silo said.

“The chip is in the Overlord’s building,” Dianna muttered. “Silo, fly your body up to the highest floor!” she said. Silo turned the joystick, and Silo’s robot body flew towards the building.

 

The Overlord finished plugging his chip in his robot. The red lightning flew towards the robot’s body, and its eyes turned on.

“Where is the girl?” the Overlord asked. Red Zone pointed at the tower.

“Tell all robots to get them!” the Overlord yelled. Every single robot flew towards the

Building.

“They can delete me up there. I need to stop them before they delete me and get Silo’s

body back!” he yelled. He used his rocket feet and joined the other robots.

 

“Dianna! We’ve got robots coming!” Silo yelled.

“Hold on, there are so many chips here that I’ve got to find the correct one. Aha! Here we go!” she said. As she turned around, she saw Silo fighting off millions of robots that were cracking the windows and crawling through. Dianna saw a large red chip surrounded by lasers.

This must be the Overlord’s chip, she thought. She turned to Silo, who was getting

swarmed by bots. She saw a weird blob swimming around in a test cell.

A virus, she thought. She sighed, and she smashed the test tube on the ground. The

virus floated in the air, and it went to the closest body it could find… Silo’s. Silo’s eyes turned red, and he went full rage on the robots. In about five minutes, all the robots were broken on the ground. The virus came out of Silo’s body and disappeared. Dianna grabbed the chip and was about to plug it in when the Overlord grabbed her hand.

“You won’t win that easily,” the Overlord told her. His eyes glowed more red as he started making a laser. Suddenly, someone jumped in the way…

 

TO BE CONTINUED…

 

Prologue to Hectorbla

            

Prologue

The winter snow brings freezing and death. In the land of Itha, freezing and death were the only things that the 4th grand army of the Glass Imperium knew. You see, Itha is a land divided by war and conquest. A supercontinent in the center of the Crimson Sea, Itha had been home to technological advancements and cultural exchange unparalleled in the entire world. However, things soon turned bad.

In the year 1813, a man named Hector Blighting completed work on his airship, the Hectorbla. Hector was an inventor, but one who had discovered too much. Hector delved into knowledge perhaps meant for man to stay ignorant of, knowledge of terrifying implication. Wielding this knowledge, Hector formed a cult, known as the Cult of Hector. With ingenuity and scientific competence, the Cult of Hector synthesized new gases and metals perfect for the creation of airships. With this, Hector created a navy of the air, which swiftly blitzed every major city in Itha, taking countries by surprise. Massive behemoths of metal and gas rumbled across the skies. Massive guns thundered throughout the night. However, Hector’s villainous campaign was not without challenge.

Every country in Itha banded together and struck deep in the heart of Hector’s ever expanding empire of iron and steam. The headquarters of Hector’s campaign were surrounded, and heavy fighting ensued, resulting in the death of Hector. With the knowledge of airships, steam tanks, trains without rails, bioengineering, energy weapons, and massive tanks now in the hands of every nation in Itha, bickering was bound to occur.

This brings us to the 4th grand army of the Glass Imperium. The Glass Imperium is a moderately sized country (though the rulers and inhabitants would prefer the term empire), hellbent on the conquest of Slavingcordia, a country to the north. Slavingcordia, though smaller in men and weapons, was not undefended. A massive mountain range, named Blackheart Ridge, separates the two countries, one that must be passed if any country was to attack the other with speed.

The Glass Imperium had finally decided to bite the bullet and invade. Seventy-five thousand man, all dressed in the traditional blue on green Imperium uniform, marched across Blackheart ridge with the intent of capturing the Slavcordian city of Deizenburgen. But luck was not on the side of the Glass Imperium. Marching upwards in the bitter cold snow, air getting thinner with every step taken. This was the hell that faced the 4th Army. Ten thousand soldiers met their end in the cold, alone and unable to move. Dreadnaughts of the sky flew overhead, but where there was no comfort to the soldiers, they huddled together for warmth. But the situation was about to get worse.

It was on the 6th of November, 1867, that Col. Williams spotted the first Slavcordian soldier. This was only the beginning of a bloody campaign that would leave millions dead, and release secrets and evils forever to haunt the human heart.

Josef awoke to the sound of shouting. His eyes still adjusting to the light, Josef squinted as he forced on his boots. Inside of his small green tent, he could not see anything but the blinding sun being reflected into the his tent. Using his left hand to wipe off his uniform, Josef slowly began to wake up. His stubble had grown worse, and his body odor unbearable. Lamenting these facts, Josef began to open the tent, when suddenly he heard gunfire. Grabbing his rifle, Josef bolted out of his tent, adrenaline pumping. Dead men lay in the snow, blood staining the ice. The gunfire continued, men shouting orders, soldiers scrambling to get out of bed and to grab their guns. A bullet whizzed by. Josef hit the floor. Lying beside one of his fallen comrades, Josef saw the Slavcordian men firing upon his division. Rolling behind the fresh corpse, Josef propped up his rifle and began to fire.

The smell of gunpowder spread through the air, muzzle flash appearing from places unexpected. An unfortunate Slavcordian soldier engaged Josef at point blank range, hitting Josef’s cover, but being hit by a lead riparte, fired from Josef’s rifle. Josef pulled the trigger and aimed his gun again at the ghastly silhouettes of enemy soldiers running to and from cover, sometimes revealing their true selves by illuminating the area with the flash of gunpowder. However, when Josef pulled the trigger for another time, his gun did not fire.

Desperately searching every pocket and crevice for bullets proved useless. Josef knew what he had to do. Throwing his rifle aside, Josef gripped the cold body of the bloodstained soldier and took the dead man’s rifle from his cold hands. A bullet hit the soldier. An eruption of blood blinded Josef. Wiping it off, Josef continued. Emptying the remaining bullets with futility into the seemingly impervious cover of the Slavcordian soldier harassing Josef, seemed a laughable waste of ammunition, but a cost that Josef knew must be paid in order to pin his adversary. Now out of ammunition again, Josef ran with the corpse down a small ledge. This time he found ammunition, but looked more. The massive shadow of a sky dreadnaught passed over, launching shells into enemy positions. Though not a decisive attack, it was satisfying to see the bloodstained brown uniforms of the Slavcordians fly into the air.

A fellow soldier passed by Josef, hurrying to defensive positions. “Ai! Dirty gravedigging sonofabitch!” Josef wanted badly to respond and tell the soldier that he wasn’t looting the body of a fallen comrade, but there were more important things at hand. A small mecha ran by, its metallic legs galloping across the snow, firing small shells, until it vanished behind the snow. The smoke of battle machines began to rise. Josef decided his best most move would be to continue behind the mecha. Following the tracks, Josef ran, and ran. Being shot at by what felt like five people, powder exploding at his feet. A bullet ripped across Josef’s back, though not injuring too much flesh, it hurt like hell. The warm blood perhaps was a blessing in disguise. Josef was beginning to go numb. Though his body heat was up, it was barely holding him together. The warm blood soothed his back.

Finally, Josef caught up with the mecha, the pilot obviously struggling with a dug in machine gun. Stuck between a machine gun and infantry, Josef knew that the mecha needed help. Josef attacked the flank of the infantry. The shouting in foreign languages disturbed Josef. He did not know the orders of the commander. Josef fired everything and got into a rhythm. Fire. Cock. Fire. Cock. Fire. Cock. Fire. Cock. Fire. Cock. The sputtering riposte of the infernal Slavcordian rounds dissuaded Josef from continuing his assault and forced him to fall back. Running blindly in a direction were he would be temporarily safe from enemy fire, Josef found himself far to the left flank of the Slavcordian rear.

Boots getting wet, limbs stiffening. Josef began to pant as he slowly trudged back to where he believed his company was. Some Slavcordian men noticed him in the distance. They fired off several rounds at Josef, but at the distance between them, they would have been lucky if the explosion of powdery snow came within a foot of Josef.

Josef stopped. He saw a tower of smoke rising from the ridge ahead. The roar of treads. The Glass Imperium had no tanks in the mountains. They deemed them too visible. The mechas used by the Glass Imperium had a much smaller profile (or at least the smaller ones). That strategy had proven useful until the first Slavcordian attack. Now, without steam tanks or bio tanks, or any form of calvary that was not exclusively anti infantry, Josef was filled with anger and disappointment. But that was irrelevant. Josef had a duty. Heaving and panting, Josef prepared for what could very well be his final offensive.

The rectangular bottom of the tank carried several machine guns. The rusted white metal reminded Josef of a bridge burnt into hell. The gray treads and silver gears gave the tank an almost aluminum look. Then, there was the turret. A massive chimney spurted out smoke. An 85 caliber heavy cannon slowly shifted around, looking for targets. Josef breathed in. His now bloodstained uniform was a fitting cloth to be buried in. Josef leapt into the powdery snow. Josef now recognized the tank as a HF-3 “Mountain Goat.” Josef gripped his rifle and screamed like never before. Josef was prepared to die.

End of prologue.

 

Forsythia

An elderly woman basked in a rare patch of sun, tipping her face up to it. Her position at the moment was quite similar to the tabby and white cat that had curled up beside her, occasionally batting at the long skirt that seemed to be mostly made of fabric that everyone else had forsaken, but that she had deemed valuable enough to clothe herself with. The cat stretched, then in one fluid movement, jumped to its paws, eyes wide with alarm and tail bristling. As she watched, it darted off into the hedges behind her. She sighed. It was a chill autumn afternoon; winter hadn’t gotten its cold claws into the last truly warm autumn days that her village rarely saw, but it would soon, as it always did, and the villagers would suffer for it as they always did. She tucked her knees up to her chest and rocked softly, gazing out on the busy clearing proudly; the villagers were busy harvesting corn, pumpkins, and the rest of the hay to keep the horses fed through the winter, so come next spring and summer, they would be able to work again. And so life went on, she thought. But, why shouldn’t it? It had always gone on, ever since that horrid day. She had not, as a young wench, understood why the whole village, nay, the whole world, didn’t stop for Cynthia.

The cat poked a curious head out of the bush it had been hiding in and mewed loudly at her, interrupting her pondering. “Why’d you run off, pretty one?” she asked, rubbing it under the chin. “What’s there to be scared of here in this quiet, little village?” It rolled in the dust at her feet, loudly purring, and then wandered off to grab a scrap of fish from a fisherman, who stroked the soft tabby ears. Again, she glanced up at the rising sun — it was halfway above the skyline now. Turning her nut-brown face up to the sun, she dozed off. But her peace was soon to be disturbed.

“Granny! Granny!” Granny wasn’t really her name, but that was what the children called her. She did not know what her name had been and could not remember it. Perhaps the wind had swept it away, where it would never be heard again, she mused. She did not know why they called her Granny, for she wasn’t really their granny; she had never had children or a partner. However, they had dubbed her that, and she didn’t mind. Feet pounded the dusty ground, sending clouds of dust her way. Refusing to open her eyes, she heard an insistent clamor of childish voices.

“Is she dead?” That voice belonged to a little girl of about ten. Without even opening her eyes, she could picture the children. They were standing in a ragged semi-circle around her, legs covered in the red dust they’d kicked up, shredded clothing hanging off their bodies. The ten-year-old was dressed in a torn blue sweater that had holes in it, most likely made by moths. The rest of the children were dressed in no better condition, and she worried that the cold winter would take a toll on their frail bodies.

“No, she’s just sleeping. My father says old people sleep a lot,” said an arrogant voice. It tried and failed to take away the worry that the urchins had for her, she thought with a sigh. The child who had spoken was Nikolai, the healer’s son. Despite his arrogance, he made creams for her aching joints when it turned colder, without asking for a few coins in return, like most of the village. He was a sturdy boy of twelve and a hard worker. They’d need that in the winter, she thought. When so many fell ill, there was always a need for another healer. She had fallen ill with a cough last winter, and the healer, Gavrill, had been run ragged trying to treat everybody. It was good that he had another pair of hands. Too bad that his daughter, Kalista, would never be a healer. Once, when Nikolai had scratched his hand on a bit of wood and bled, she had panicked at the sight of his blood and fled. To the rest of the village, that was proof that she was not cut out to be a healer.

“Can I poke her, Nikolai? Can I?” That voice belonged to Kalista. Unlike her brother, she showed no interest in healing, and since she could walk, had been tottering after the hunting parties, leaving Granny to amuse and entertain the child. Not an easy task, even when she was somewhat less energetic at eight — only yesterday, she had dared Nikolai to walk along the fence of the hog sty, and then when he refused to, she’d attempted it herself and fallen in. It had been up to Granny to fish her out and wash her mud-stained clothing as the girl squirmed like a fish, complaining that the hogs were her friends, and that she wanted to be put down, and she didn’t mind being dirty. Granny could imagine the child, already dirty finger pointed at her, green eyes wide with excitement, sunset-red hair in a muddy tangle. She sighed again. And no doubt the girl would have fresh scabs on both knees, compensating for the ones just healed.

“Let’s get her to tell us a story!” Nikolai said, poking his sister and edging closer to Granny, along with the rest of the children. They sat down around her, heedless of the mud and worms that wriggled in the dirt.

“Yes, Granny!” the ten-year-old said, reaching for the cat, which gave a loud hiss and hid behind Granny. “Tell us a story, do!” Opening her eyes, she looked down at the begging girl, her brown eyes staring imploringly up at Granny. With a hand as gnarled as the thick brown tree roots that grew in the forest, she reached down and stroked the girl’s thick, dark hair, eyes still closed. She had been the one to name Galina. It meant “light,” and her thankful parents had allowed her to pick the name; Galina’s mother had struggled to birth her, and Granny had helped as best as she could. She had attended births before. When even the healer could not help, Granny would step in and occasionally receive a pence or two for her troubles.

“I have no more stories, my pretty ones,” she said. “Why don’t you leave this poor old woman alone and go look for rolly-pollies under that massive rock?” Finally opening her eyes, she saw that instead of looking upset about the lack of stories, they looked expectant and had moved still closer.

“There are no rolly-pollies under that rock, Granny.” Kalista stood up, hands on her hips and glared, the sun illuminating her hair. “Galina already looked, and, besides, we want a story, not a rolly-polly!” She concluded this sentence with a loud stomp on the ground with her right foot, sending more red dust up and causing the surrounding children to cough and splutter.

“Now look what you’ve done,” Granny scolded, thumping Galina on the back. She was still coughing, and she had always been a delicate girl. “Apologize, Kalista, or your father will know the reason why Galina’s coughing.” Indeed, Gavrill was circling ever closer, looking worried as Galina continued coughing.

Kalista considered her father, Granny, and her friend. Taking a step closer towards Galina, she spoke: “I’m sorry, Galina. I really am. Now, can we please have a story?”

“Yes, Kalista,” Granny murmured, watching as the children pulled Kalista down into the circle. For once, they were silent, and she watched some of the adults glance at the silent group and let out relieved sighs; it was quite a rarity for the children to be so calm. “Thirty days ago — or was it thirty weeks ago?” she began. “In this very village, there were two young girls. They were twins, and they loved each other dearly, but as siblings do, they fought.” Here Kalista gave her brother a vicious poke and seemed disappointed when he did not respond in kind. “However, one day they were disagreeing, and they had been sent down to the stream to gather wool… ”

***

The two girls clambered down the bank. It was slippery, and the grass was wet underfoot as they walked towards a bubbling stream. It was a lovely spring day, and the girls could see that the forsythia bush the village had planted from the top of the incline was blooming, on account of the blossoms being bright yellow. They both wore homespun dresses and carried baskets of wool, which they occasionally had to stop and adjust to a different place; sometimes they balanced them on their sides, other times they held them in front of their chests. They were twins, but you would not know it, had you ever the chance to look at their faces. One had curly dark hair, and striking brown eyes; they had more purple in them than brown. The effect was that they looked quite a bit like a rare crystal and drew much admiration. The other twin had completely straight brown hair and pretty hazel eyes. She had a few blades of grass that had stuck in her hair, as well as one green leaf.

“Zia, come on!” the purple-eyed twin called, ignoring her sister’s annoyed grunt. “If we keep moving at this rate, we won’t ever make it to the stream!”

“Your basket is lighter than mine, Cynthia!” Zia spat. “Don’t blame me if we don’t get this done on time and get scolded; you never took your fair share of it!”

“No, I did not,” Cynthia retorted. “If you hadn’t spent so much time dreaming in the field, you would have been able to take as much wool as you wanted, but the truth is that I got there first, so I took less wool.”

“Ha!” Zia crowed. “You admit it!” Glaring at her twin, she sprang forward and began to run towards her, waving her fists in a menacing fashion.

Cynthia began running faster down the incline, pausing once to stick her tongue out at her sister. Once she had reached the bottom, and seeing her sister running after her waving her fists, she shrieked: “Help! I’m being beset upon by a wild beast! Help!” Zia, at the bottom of the incline, tackled her sister, knocking both baskets full of wool into the stream and causing them to start floating downstream.

“CYNTHIA!” Zia yelled, watching the wool move away from the girls, wool that they had carefully gathered from the herd of sheep the village kept. It had been their responsibility to wash out this wool, to make sure that it was ready for dying and then felting. After that, clothing would be made out of it for the whole village. And now it was gone. They would both receive a beating for that, at best. At worst, they would receive a beating and be told to look after the crowd of village children — a task they both hated, as the children were little hellions. “This is YOUR fault!” she hissed like a cat.

“MY fault? You’re the one who made me and the baskets fall in!” Cynthia retorted, angry tears springing to her eyes. She had always been the one who was the first to cry during arguments, and Zia knew it. “Look, we can get them out.” She bent over the stream, and fished out a dripping skein of wool for her twin to examine, then bent down to grab another. Looking up at Zia (no easy task, Zia was quite tall whereas Cynthia was smaller), she smiled at her. “You tackled me. Help me with this accursed wool, or I’ll tell.”

“Why should I?” Zia asked, turning her back on Cynthia as if she would start climbing back up the incline. “I’m not afraid of what the village will say, but you should be. You’ve always been the darling of the village — everybody prefers you to me.”

“That’s not true,” Cynthia objected. “The village likes you… ” But there was doubt in her voice, as if for the first time, she was really considering Zia, her reluctance to do chores, to enjoy the company of the other village girls around their age, and her seemingly genuine dislike of the inhabitants themselves. Whereas Cynthia was the opposite of Zia, with her kind behaviors, her willingness to work hard, and her happiness in general with her charmed life. The village did dote on Cynthia and spoiled her terribly, but the girl was none the worst for it.

“You can pick up the wool, Cynthia,” Zia said. “I’m not going to, as Mother will just blame me for it and let you off.” Cynthia’s mouth opened and closed in indignation, but she’d already returned to picking up the wool. Zia sat down on a rock and considered a fat toad hopping towards her, unhappily thinking of the scolding that would come her way.

Quickly and nimbly, Cynthia scooped up every scrap of sopping wet wool, hopping over stones in the river and humming merrily. As young girls, both of them had loved playing in the water, but Cynthia had been faster than Zia in hopping across stones and swimming. Soon, she had filled both baskets with wool, quickly fishing the baskets out of the stream too. A large skein of wool wafted tauntingly past her, and she reached for it, but it slipped out of reach of her fingers. She followed it downstream, and Zia, alertered by the sound of her twin’s splashy footsteps fading away, looked up.

“Cynthia, be careful!” Zia yelled, now standing up and squinting at the forsythia bush, which was a few feet away from her twin. “It’s slippery down there!” Cynthia did not respond, but Zia could see her figure, uselessly trying to pull the wool from the water. Well, if Cynthia wanted to ignore her, that was fine with her, she thought. The stream had a bend that was deeper and faster than the rest, and Cynthia had almost reached it. Zia tried and failed to stop worrying about the water. They were old enough now to ford it — she’d be fine.

As she watched, Cynthia slipped and fell. The rocks were slippery indeed, Zia thought. Or, maybe Cynthia was playing a trick on her and would grab her ankle or splash water in her face when she approached. Yes, that was it. There was nothing to worry about. Moments later, a piercing scream split the air, and Zia’s head jerked up. Almost instantly, she turned and ran toward the area from where she’d heard the scream, her heart thumping in time with her footsteps, dreading what she would find, but knowing she had to go.

“Cynthia? CYNTHIA!” Zia bellowed, desperation taking over as she ran towards the forsythia bush.

***

The children were spellbound, staring at Granny, as two tears slid down her wrinkled cheeks.

“Did she die?” Kalista asked, for once speaking in a voice below a screech. “That girl — Cynthia?”

Granny raised her head, now weeping entirely silently. “Yes. She hit her head on a rock and then drowned,” she somehow managed to say, scrubbing at her face with one wrinkled hand. “And the village blamed Zia for it: They asked her why she couldn’t have pulled Cynthia out of the water, why she hadn’t helped her pull out the wool, why she hadn’t run for help — but by the time I got there, she was already gone.” Realizing what she had said, her eyes widened in fear.

Galina leaned over, putting her head on Zia’s wrinkled shoulder. “It wasn’t your fault,” she said. “You tried to warn her, but she didn’t want to listen.” But there was a bit of fear on her face, as if she had realized what had gone on that day, and why, exactly, the village had blamed Zia.

“Ah, but it was,” Zia said. “If I had gone with her, maybe…” Her voice trailed off as she considered what might have happened.

Nikolai blinked. “So, you’re Zia? And Cynthia was your sister?” He seemed unable to believe her, that the kind, wrinkled woman who had been there to watch him take his first steps, greet his baby sister after her birth, and comforted him after his mother’s death was also Zia — a former outcast who had been too late to save her sister.

Zia nodded. “Yes, I am, and yes, she is.” With that, she turned a serious, hazel-eyed gaze on all of the children. “My sister will always be my sister, no matter if she is with me or not.” Suddenly, her face brightened for an instant. “Did you children notice that there have been more and more forsythia bushes around the village? I planted them each year that Cynthia has been… gone. I planted them for her. For Cynthia.”

 

Don’t Look at Me

Maria smoothed the corners of the picnic blanket, erasing every imperfection she saw. She frowned as a stubborn wrinkle stayed in place. She stretched the picnic blanket as far as it would go until the wrinkle disappeared. Only then did she smile.

She leaned back, trying to relax. Maria breathed deeply, hoping the smell of grass and sunscreen would slow her rapid heartbeat.

In… two, three, four… out… two, three, four, Maria thinks, closing her eyes. In… two, three — Dammit!

Maria growled, jamming her floppy beach hat tighter on her head. She pulled the edges down, annoyance filling her chest when her hat wouldn’t fit properly. It just felt so wrong.

She yanked her hat off her head, letting her curly hair bounce over her shoulders. Maria grit her teeth as her attention drew to her clothes — it was so messed up, everything was. Her eyebrows furrowed as she adjusted her shirt, because it didn’t look as good on her as it did on her friend, Liza. Why couldn’t she feel good, just for one day? Why?

Maria buried her face in her hands, her eyes burning with frustration.

“Hey.”

Maria looked up in surprise, her cheeks turning red. It was embarrassing enough when Liza found her like this, and it was humiliating for a classmate of hers to see this too. She could already see him, talking to his friends about that weird girl in his English class. Maria could already picture walking down the hallway, whispers swarming her ears —

“Maria, right?” he asked, sitting down on her blanket next to her.

“Yeah,” she answered, in a voice a lot weaker than she liked.

“I’m Philip,” he said.

Maria nodded, her cheeks still warm. She knew that she would only embarrass herself more if she said anything.

“Look, I just wanted to see if you were okay,” Philip said sheepishly. “I saw your little, uh — ” He gestured vaguely with his hands, and Maria’s cheeks burned brighter.

“I’m fine,” she insisted, her voice tighter than normal. Her voice quivered as she spoke, and her eyes welled up with tears as she said that. But it was okay, not even Liza noticed those imperfections in her voice.

Philip studied her face, his eyes narrowed. “You don’t look fine,” he pressed. “I can see it in your eyes.”

“Then stop looking,” Maria snapped, turning away from him. It was so unusual for someone to reach this far, and she didn’t want him to get any closer. She didn’t know if she could take it.

“I don’t think you’re okay,” he continued.

Maria curled her fingers into fists, digging her fingernails into her palms.

This can’t be happening, she chanted in her head. It can’t! It was getting harder to breathe, harder to focus. All she could think about was the way people always looked at her when they knew.

“Please. Stop.” Maria refused to look at him. She knew she’d only find pity there.

“I just want to help you,” Philip said. She flinched as he touched her shoulder. Maria could hear the careful way he talked. She couldn’t bear to have another person treat her like broken glass.

“I don’t think you can,” Maria replied softly. “So just go.”

She could sense him hesitating, wondering if he should leave or not. Maria didn’t hold her breath. She knew he’d leave; they always do.

 

The End of a World

For the most part, they are silent and still. Only Hussein paces back and forth across the cramped white room. Not even the heavy thuds his boots make seem to distract anyone. The quietness that drapes the rest of outer space in a smothering quilt now covers the tiny space cruiser.

Sofia’s eyes are still red. She can’t see it, but she can tell by the way Tarah observes her and how everything stings when she blinks. Her sight isn’t blurred over from crying, so she can tell that they have about fifteen minutes left before… everything.

Fifteen minutes until they’re the only ones left. Fifteen minutes until they have to drift further away, farther than they’ve already gone. Fifteen minutes before all the contact will be cut off.

Tarah clears her throat. “We’re going to have to talk to them, you know. We have fifteen minutes and twenty-two seconds, counting.”

Hussein stops pacing. He draws up a chair and seats himself. His voice cracks as he speaks. “… We’ve already talked to the government, they’ve already accepted it. Now it’s just your families left.”

“Who’s going first?” Tarah doesn’t look up from the control panel, choosing instead to tap quietly away at the buttons in front of her. She sits with her back facing them both. “Between Sofia and I, I mean.”

“… I’ll go first. Hussein, are you alright with taking over the control panels?” Sofia undoes her hair from the band holding it in place. She thinks about how she was always the one who wanted to go first in the past: She wanted to be the first one to get ice cream from the ice cream truck, wanted to be the first of the three of them to go into space, wanted to be the first to set foot on Mars. Back then, she always was the one who went first, but that was because she wanted to be first.

Now she is only doing it because she knows she has to be first. No one else will go before her. Tarah has made it clear enough, and Hussein doesn’t have anyone back on Earth — he has only had the crew, and he will only have the crew after this.

Sofia dials the buttons, staring down at the spotless white floor of the shuttle. When she looks back up at the hologram, there is only static. A lump begins to form in her throat. Are they already gone? Is this it?

The static disappears, and she sees them. Mami. Papi. Leo. They’re all staring back from behind their hologram at home. If it weren’t for the occasional flickering, she’d almost reach out and touch them.

“Mi hija?” her mother asks.

She waves a gloved hand through them. “Si, Mami. Es tu hija.”

How long has it been since she’s last spoken in Spanish? Has it really been three years since they’ve been sent up here?

Her mother’s smile is outlined in red lipstick. The dimples form on her cheeks. “I’m so proud of you,” she continues in Spanish. “To think — our daughter is the youngest girl to be sent up into space! You’re my daughter.”

“Mami.” She groans a little, remembering all the times before when she’d sit in her cramped kitchen and her mother would be waving around the 99% she got on her test or her scanned certificate from the math teacher.

“You’ve learned so much.” Papi is speaking now, and she can see the tears behind his glasses. “Querida, you are very strong. We are proud to be your parents. You have learned so much, and you have taught us so much.” She thinks back to the hours spent teaching him how to make macaroni y queso as he called (she insisted that he just call it “macaroni and cheese”) and how he’d seat her at the piano and teach her how to play and that she should keep her fingers curved when she played.

“I’m sorry.” She shakes her head. I’m not going to cry again. I’m not going to cry again. “I’m sorry you’re stuck back there. We’ve tried. I’ve tried. Ecuador has tried. The UN has tried. And I hate how there isn’t anything else I can do so far away.”
“Sofia — ” Leo is speaking now.

“People keep telling me it’s not my fault, and I’ve tried to help you get off before it all. But it was never enough. I’m too late.”

Sofia doesn’t realize she’s given in to crying again until she finds herself drying her tears.

“I’m sorry for crying in front of you.” She speaks to Leo now. “I’m sorry you have to see your older sister like this.”

Three minutes left. It’s only felt like a few seconds.

“You did what you could. And it’s okay. I’m not a child anymore — I’m fourteen years old,” Leo says. “It’s okay. I’m just glad to see you before we go.”

And for a moment, like she has thought before, she wants to be back on Earth with them. She knows that she did all she could from so far away on the edge of the galaxy. She just wishes she could do more.

Te amo,” she says. She reaches through the hologram for a moment. Two more minutes.

Te amamos,” Mami says to her. She reaches back, and just for a moment, Sofia thinks she can feel the warm of her mother’s hand holding hers.

She reaches for Papi’s hand, and then Leo’s. She tries holding his hand the longest, pretending that he isn’t a hologram her fingers slip through. She’d taken him to look at the planetarium down in New York, helped him balance on a stool so he could look through a telescope, and hung models of the planets and posters of the constellations up in his room.

They’ve always lived vicariously through the cosmos. Nothing has changed since then.

“I just have one more minute,” she says. One minute before she has to turn her back from their cramped living room all the way down on Ecuador. One minute before she has to turn her back on Earth for good.

Gracias para todo. You taught me a lot,” Leo says.

Forty-five seconds.

“You’ve made it this far. It’ll be hard not to give up, but you have help from your teammates.”

“Be safe. We care about you.”

Thirty seconds.

“I’m going to miss you. I’m going to name some of the planets we find after you like I’ve told you before.”
“So there’ll be a planet named Leo.” He laughs a little. “That sounds awesome.”

Twenty seconds.

“I love you. You’ve taught me a lot, and I’m glad I know everything I do know.”

Fifteen, fourteen, thirteen.

“Thank you for everything.”

Ten, nine, eight. Eight more seconds.

They don’t have to say much more. They’ve already said what needs to be said.

Five, four, three —

“Adios,” she says.

Adios.”

Adios.”

Adios.”

She stares at them for a few more seconds before the hologram flickers off. Her time is up.

“Tarah?” It’s jarring when she switches back to English. “It’s your turn now. You have five minutes.”

“Thank you, Sofia.” She turns away and begins to dial the buttons. Sofia realizes she’s only really seen the pale blonde hair and sleek black eyeliner, and not the dark circles under her eyes and her shaking hands.

The hologram begins to flicker again. Sofia sits down at the table and turns away. She’ll just look away during this.

“Is that you, Tarah?” The voice on the other end shakes, muffled and crackling through the static.

“It’s me, Lauren. Hello.” Sofia doesn’t have to look — she’s seen Lauren before with her short red hair and squarish black glasses.

“I’m scared. I knew this would happen when they talked about it a few days ago, but I never thought it’d be like this. I never thought it would actually happen. I’m scared because I know you and the crew and the USA and the government have tried everything you could for this, and I hate how even though I know it’s all going to be over — ” Lauren cuts off her sentence to breathe through her tears. “ — I’m still scared.”

“I’m scared too,” Tarah says. “I don’t want this to happen, I feel like there was something more I should have done even though we’ve tried everything. I don’t want to leave you behind, but we’re too far away. I feel like I’m hiding away in the shuttle. I feel like I’m a coward.”

Sofia looks at the timer. Four minutes left.

“You aren’t a coward, Tarah. You’ve never been one. You’re brave because you came out to your parents even when you weren’t sure how they’d feel about you. You were the one to talk face-to-face with Mom when she found out about you and found out I was dating ‘another girl.’ You’re brave for asking the government for our marriage papers even when you told me you were scared. You found life on Mars even when NASA told you how dangerous the atmosphere was.”

“Then if I’m not a coward, it’s alright for you to be scared.”

Three minutes and thirty seconds.

“You said I was brave for asking about the marriage papers even if I was scared, right? You told me you were scared, and you’re still here. You’re still holding out till the end even after you told me you’re scared. Even though we got this news from the government a few weeks ago and no one saw it comings, you’re still holding out.”

For a moment, Sofia just hears Lauren breathing.

“I love you. We’ve had obstacles, but I’m glad you’ve made it this far, Lauren. You’re brave for making it this far.”

“I love you too, Tarah. I’m still scared, and I know I can’t help it, but I’m glad to be talking with you before… before I have to go.”

One minute and forty-five seconds, counting.

“I’m glad too. I’m glad I fell in love with you. I’m glad I’ve married you.”

She can still hear quiet crying, but she thinks she can hear Tarah crying too.

Fifty-nine seconds.

“Thank you for everything, Lauren. Thank you for moving in with me at college. Thank you for supporting me when I decided I wanted to do this.”

“Thank you, Tarah.”
Seven, six, five —

“I have to go. Thank you for everything again. Remember you’re full of courage for everything you’ve done for me.”

“I’ll remember. I love you, Tarah.”

Three, two —

One.

The hologram flickers off, and Tarah turns around. She pulls out one of the chairs and stares through the paneled window of the shuttle, away from Earth and the Milky Way and toward the sea of unnamed stars swimming in black.

Hussein doesn’t look up from the control panel, but Sofia asks to make sure.

“Hussein, is there anything you want to do? We have five minutes.”

She expects silence or a brief “no,” but —

“Yes. I want to make a broadcast to Earth.”

“What? Are you sure?” Abrupt, Tarah stands up from her seat.

“I’m sure. I just wanted to say one last goodbye to everyone there. Tarah, could you take over the control panel for me?”

“Yes. I’ll do that.”

The buttons are pressed for the third time in a row. A hologram of Earth starts to flicker to life and spin, and just above that, the faces of everyone on Earth flicker with it.

“Hello.” Hussein waves at the blinking faces.

“My name is Hussein Aamer, I am from Saudi Arabia. Some of you have heard of me, some of you have not, but I am one of the three astronauts sent by NASA into space to look for life on other planets. By then, I was a U.S. citizen and had already completed my science credits for high school and college.”

“My family was killed in the nuclear war when I was a child, and I was sent to America through the refugee program. I’ve lived with foster families for most of my life, and when I turned eighteen, I started my first year at college.”

“I have no one else to say goodbye to but you. You and the crew are my family.”

Four minutes. The engines are shifting into position now, judging by the rumbling.

“I know that Earth can be a cruel place filled with hateful people — I’ve experienced it firsthand. But I also know that my fellow humans can be kind, too. The refugee camp showed me kindness when they rounded us up and tried to teach us English and read us stories. The foster families I have met have been kind, even though they knew I would have to move on to the next family they still wanted me to go to school and get a job and go to college. My crew is my family and have shown me kindness — Sofia Zambrano and Tarah Coleman are two of the most accepting, wonderful people I have ever known.”

“So why am I telling you about this?”

Hussein doesn’t cry, but they hear it in his voice.

“Because until now, Earth is my home, and its people have been my family. We are far from a perfect family, but from the good I know we are capable of being a good family. We have achieved so much in the past few decades, and I am happy to be a part of these achievements.”

Two minutes. Two minutes before everything is over.

“We have discovered life on other worlds together. We have developed temporary cures to slow depletions of natural resources and climate change — think about all the time we have lived. It isn’t luck, it’s because we tried.”

“By now we have done all we could, and I — no, we, the crew of of the Extraterrestrial Life Search shuttle, could not have achieved it by ourselves. We have worked together to make ends meet, we have made compromises, and we have accomplished so much by now.”

Thirty seconds, counting.

“You were my family. Thank you for that. I’m sorry to see you go, but I’m grateful for all that we’ve done together.”

The hologram has begun to flicker. Twenty seconds.

“You have done so much for me as a family I haven’t known for as long, and I will try to repay you as best as I can as we go further. Thank you, NASA. Thank you, Saudi Arabia. Thank you all.”

Nine seconds. Eight, seven, six —

“I don’t have much else to say. So… thank you and goodbye.”

Zero seconds.

The hologram finally flickers out. The faces before Hussein disappear.

Sofia stands up from her seat, wrapping her arms around him. “I don’t believe it’s over. I can’t believe everyone’s… gone now.”

She tries to remember the faces of her parents and Leo, tries to keep them imprinted in her mind just in case the photographs she has from before don’t take. She tries to remember all the words she’s ever learned in Spanish. By now it’s a language she may never use again, but it’s certainly not a language she wants to ever forget.

Tarah stares down at the control panel, looking up to the stars and debris scattered across the edge of the Milky Way. For the first time within these fifteen minutes, she looks back towards the near-blinding light of the Milky Way that they drift further and further away from with each second.

She takes a deep breath. “We don’t know what’s out there.”

“We’ve found life on Mars and Neptune and even Pluto, so there must be something,” Sofia says.

“It won’t replace home,” Hussein says. “But we know there’s something out there to find.”

Exploring new horizons. That’s the motto they picked. That’s what they’re going to adhere to.

Sofia turns her chair away from the window, to face Tarah and Hussein. “Vamonos.”

They turn away from the Milky Way, not looking back as they press the control buttons and the engines speed up.

And then the Extraterrestrial Life Search floats away from the Milky Way, towards whatever new horizons they may chance to find.

No new horizon can replace the planet they used to call home.

 

Testing

      

Flashing lights. Large hands. Tubes. Needles. Moaning. Silence. Coroners. Bodies. Syringes. Blood. Sleep.

 

I stand upon a pristine white stage. I look down at the many cameras and reporters, and I take a deep breath. I smile. “Hello. Hello, everybody. Thank you so much for joining us here today. Soon, as you all know, will be the tenth anniversary of United Labs! Here at United Labs, we’ve created miracles. We’ve cured thousands, and now there are United Hospitals all throughout the world! So we thank you, the citizens, for supporting us through ten years of greatness. We are now putting all our effort into curing and preventing the plague using state of the art technology and the greatest scientific minds to solve this issue. Now, I’ll open up the stage for questions.”

A reporter in a blue suit steps up. “Hello. Don Hei, Metropia Post. Are you sure your tests are humane?”

“Of course! We have created a set of standards to ensure that… ”

 

Blood. Capsule two is vomiting blood. The Attendants rush in. One gives me a sedative. As if it would damage me to see what is inevitably my future.

“Oh, come on. Capsules 6-2 have all died! What was it this time?”

A man in a white lab coat responds. “Vomiting blood, side effect of the plague. The counter drug is only slowing the process.” The man walks swiftly away, making marks on a chart.

“Ugh, wow. Leave us to the dirty work. You know we never get any appreciation. It’s always, oh noble scientist saving us from the plague, but what about us, you know?! Who mops the blood after they vomit?! Who collects the bodies?!”

 

They’re wheeling me up. The soft fuzz that’s grown on my head since my last surgery is being shaved off, revealing a map of scars. Scalpels, masks, tubes, darkness.

 

“Hello. Mr. Green. How have the trials been going?”

“Wonderful. I talked to my lead scientists this morning, and everything’s going great! We are taking some huge steps, and I just want to thank you. Your performance as head of press has been beyond satisfactory.”

“Thank you, sir. Would you mind having the analysis crew send me the statistics on deaths in the labs?”

“Of course.”

 

I remember the before. I don’t think the others do. I have flashbacks from before the plague. I remember them: my family. Not everything. Just bits and pieces. The one I remember most is a little boy. My brother… I think. Sometimes, if I let my vision go fuzzy and squint just right, I can see a pair of hazel eyes staring down at me. The same pair that in my memories looked up at me as I held… my brother’s hand. The other test subjects can’t remember, I don’t think. They used to have a spark of life. A hint of emotion in their eyes, but after two surgeries, it begins to dull, and they start becoming the lab rats the scientists are convinced we are. I’m only me in my memories. I am a product of my mind. On the outside, I am identical to the rest of the subjects. On the outside, I am patient 204589. It’s only when I close my eyes and remember that I live.

 

I sink into my couch and sigh contentedly. I try not to look out the window. Even from the penthouse, the destruction caused by the plague is horribly obvious. The bloodstained streets and the beggars begging for just a couple more cents to buy the latest medicine make it all too apparent. My status. But I am doing my part, seeing as I work for United Labs, which is helping cure this awful sickness. I mean, it’s awesome. I do my part, and they provide me with a state of the art plague protection kit. I wonder what it would be like to be a test subject at United Labs.

 

I hear I’m some sort of marvel. I don’t pass on the plague. It just stays trapped inside of me, killing me slowly. I think I broke some sort of record. Longest life of any test subject. Not that I would know how long that is. I have no idea how long I’ve been here. Time melts under the constant glare of the fluorescent lights. Day and night are lost. I tried to keep track by deaths around me, but there were soon too many to keep track. If I close my eyes and concentrate, sometimes I can almost convince myself that I’m not some sort of human lab rat.

 

Every single tabloid and magazine have created their own crazy United Labs scandal, usually revolving around inhumane experimentation or some such nonsense. It keeps me on a tight schedule of press conferences and meetings. How dare they accuse United Labs of such atrocities! United Labs has given me everything! After my family died, I was put in the orphan relocation center at United Labs, and then when I was old enough to work, they gave me a job. They have built futures for so many. Plus, they are working on developing a cure to this terrible plague!!

 

My favorite thing to think about is escape. It’s pure fantasy of course. I’m kept so sedated I can barely move, and even if I could somehow override that insurmountable hurdle, I’m kept on so many drug’s I might just die from a withdrawal without the drugs. But I can still dream, although I can’t help but wonder: For how much longer?

 

The next wave of fake scandals is bigger than most I’ve seen and calls for me to personally oversee inspections. So of course, I start supervising inspections. The scent of bleach and plastic fills my nostrils, and I pinch my nose. Bed after bed after bed lay in a seemingly endless corridor. Each one identical and immaculate. The only difference being the people themselves. They all have the same vacant look in their eyes. They look like mannequins, and a shiver runs up my spine. I can’t wait for this to be over. I walk quickly down the rows of beds, checking boxes on my clipboard haphazardly and my heart racing. I stop for a second as something catches my eye. A woman about my age, maybe a little older, is lying in a hospital bed identical to all of the other beds lying identically to all of the other test subjects, but something flickers in her eye. I shake my head. I’m seeing things. I have to get out of here.

 

A young man walked passed me today. He’s new. He looked scared out of his mind. His eyes were wide, and I swear he looked at me and saw life. He saw the difference between me and the other subjects. He saw that I was no husk. Even so, his perfect suit and expensive haircut gave everything away. My bet was that he was some hotshot working for United Labs, completely unaware of the truth. Oh well, I will try to act unconscious all day, so they might not sedate me as much, and maybe I’ll tap my finger or something if the man comes by. I can’t wait to see the look on his face.

Something about that woman freaked me out. She seemed… familiar somehow. Her eyes’ seemed almost desperate. As if United Labs was doing anything awful to her. Ha! In any event, there was definitely something strange going on. It was probably just a trick of the light. Yes, that’s it. When I go back tomorrow, she’ll be just as empty as the other test subjects.

Today is my lucky day. Fifteen patients in my row died today. Fifteen!!! The scientists and lab assistants were so busy cleaning that they forgot to sedate me. I’m so happy I could fly. Well actually, I’m like 90% sure that I won’t be able to walk, so flying seems out of the question. But still. I feel free or at least less trapped! I can make some sort of signal to that strange United Labs inspector. I hope his ignorance doesn’t completely blind him.

I hate these daily inspections. Row after row of subjects. They look like corpses, except their chest rise and fall with shallow breaths. It is good that United Labs is helping them. I walk and walk until I find the girl from yesterday. She’s easily distinguishable because of her scars. Most only have one or two, but her head is covered with crisscrossing scars. Puckered white skin that will never again be smooth. In fact, there’s more scarring than unblemished skin on her scalp. I walk over, ticking off boxes on my clipboard haphazardly. When I reach her, her eyes widen, and her body seems to tense, and I hear a faint tapping. I walk closer, and the tapping becomes louder. I look down, and her pale bony finger is tapping the metal frame of her bed. I stare back at her. All of the other patients have been completely still. She’s straining, and her eyes are bulging like she’s trying to tell me something. Her muscles are tensed, and she’s breaking out in sweat with the sheer effort of attempted communication. Her dry lips crack open. I lean in, trying to distinguish any words she’s trying to say. Vocal cords that have been long out of use vibrate tentatively and a voice that had been silent for so long bubbles up forming a single word in a hoarse whisper.

“Lies,” she croaks.

“Crap, sorry about that one. We must have forgotten to sedate her this morning. Just a sec, lemme pump her up,” an attendant blurts out.

Pain. My throat is on fire. Each of my vocal cords a string of torture. The only relief I will find is in the sharp point of the syringe in the attendants hand. One push of the attendant’s thumb will be as good as pulling a trigger, because before I know it, I will be drugged back into submission. Barely alive yet so painfully far from the mercy of death, which seems to taunt me each day, holding blissful oblivion in front of my face, then yanking it away at the last second, forcing me to endure this torture they call life.

Lies. That was what she said to me. Lies. This single word could mean anything, Anything. United Labs has given me everything. Why should I believe that patient over United Labs, who has made me who I am. I stop myself. Who am I kidding. I have read angry letter after angry letter, each one illustrating a new unspeakable crime that United Labs has commited. This single whispered word has given these words life. Each frantically scrawled letter will rise from the page upon which they were written and form a noose around United Labs’ neck. They will that is, if word gets out.

I drift in and out of consciousness. Darkness occasionally fractured by the glare of fluorescent lights. Sometimes in the darkness, hazy, distorted images appear of syringes and blood and operating tables and sometimes a glimpse from the before. A flower in a meadow swinging slightly in the breeze, or a hand weathered and calloused but gentle, or sometimes even a face, distorted and twisted, but still a face of someone I once knew.

I go over the possibilities again. Maybe some rival company snuck in here and made her say it. Maybe she was having some sort of hallucination. These naive questions are merely space fillers, distractions in a flimsy attempt to block off the real question: What should I do about this? There is little doubt she is lying, but… her words open a new door. A whole new realm of possibilities. Her voice has given meaning to the thousands of conspiracies, allegations, and failed lawsuits. What now separates fact from fiction? Which theories are just that, and which ones are more, and even if I somehow uncover truths, what will I do? What can I do against the most powerful corporation there is? What can anyone?

I must escape. My drug induced dream land has finally disappeared, and I must escape. I am completely and utterly trapped. Trapped in a prison of flesh that refuses to obey me. I must break loose from the constant stream of sedatives. My last spindly fragile thread of hope has snapped in that United Labs employee. The so-called press secretary. The one who was supposed to speak the truth to the public. What an atrocity. The strongest words for hate or anger could not begin to express what I feel towards these sins. I must do something, anything! If this only leads to death, well it’s not like I have anything worth living for. I suck in a breath mustering all the strength I have, and…

I’m sprinting towards the center, towards the patient beds. I’ve finally figured it out, well, bits of it. But first, before anything, I must get that test subject before the guard’s break is over.

I stare down at my feet. Blood trickles out of the places where my many IVs and tubes once were. I feel nothing. I’m lightheaded, and pinpricks of light dance through my vision, but all I am focused on is my body. I sway slightly. My bones feel brittle, hollow like birds. It’s almost as if I could take flight at any moment, fly out of this broken body. What once was muscle is now flaps of skin. Clinging to my bird-bones. The lights in my eyes grow brighter, and suddenly I am in a grassy field at dusk. Blinking lights dance all around the field as if they are flying. I look down and wide hazel eyes look up, accompanied by a grin of crooked teeth. The lights go out, and all of a sudden, I am alone.

I sprint into the hospital, and the test subject is on the floor, a tangle of IVs framing her head like a twisted crown. I whip my head around. No guards in sight. I shake her frantically, willing her to wake. She jolts awake and immediately tries to wobble to her feet. I loop my arm around her, and we start to walk. Each disjointed step she takes sends spears of anxiety through me. I constantly check my shoulder, terrified of a guard meandering through the hallway. She is painstakingly slow, and by the time we finally make it to my car, it seems as though eons have passed. I help her into the car and speed off, leaving an empty hospital a little more empty. Black skid marks from my car scar the pavement. As absolute as what I had just done.

I quickly realized that going up the stairs to my apartment is futile. I give up and steer the patient into the elevator. I’m barely paying attention to the patient. My mind is a storm of thoughts and emotions. What did I just do. My thoughts are interrupted as I see the patient tearing at my apartment.

“Wait, what are you doing?!” I blurt out.

She doesn’t respond and continues to paw through my home until finally she reaches the pantry. Her eyes widen, and she snatches a brightly colored box of cookies. The big bright pink letters contrast with the bleak white of her hospital gown and the pale deathly pallor of her skin. She sits on the couch, keeping her distance from me, and starts shoveling the cookies in her mouth. She suddenly looks so familiar, like family almost, but no. I’m an orphan, my parents and twin sister died of the plague. I was raised in a United Labs orphan relocation center, but now that I see it, her face, her eyes, she looks like me. The patient is staring at me.

“Brynn?” I whisper.

I stare at this person, the sweet, familiar aftertaste of the cookies still lingering. This person who has just uttered my name, and suddenly I catch his eye. His eyes are the very same hazel eyes that visited me in my memories. The very same ones of my brother.

“Ronan?”

It all comes together.

It all comes back.

Each memory.

Each moment.

“What happened,” I whisper. What horrible fire consumed our happy lives and left us with this burned, disfigured world.

 

Over several hours, Brynn and I place shards of memory in place and pick apart conspiracies until we have something resembling a timeline. Basically, our lives were normal. United Labs was merely a shadow, until a brilliant idea struck the (clearly insane) CEO of United Labs, Eris Eliades. She would create a plague that would stump every other health organization. The world would go crazy, and out of the chaos, United Labs would come, providing pricey partial cures to the plague. Everyone in the world would want these cures, and United Labs would have complete control. Anyone, especially those in power, would do anything for safety from the plague. Soon, United Labs controlled the world. Anyone opposing Eris Eliades would be sure to get the plague and die a horrible death.

“We have to find her”
I jump, still not used to the grating voice of Brynn.

“Who?”

“Eris Eliades. We have to stop this.”

I pause. There is no way the security cameras didn’t pick up what I did. There are probably already “wanted” posters with my face on it ready to be plastered all around the world.

“It’s hopeless,” I respond.

“Not when there are others.”

“I have spent so long listening in to the secrets of guards and scientists. I know that there is a small resistance on the edge of United Labs controlled area. Even if we fail to get to Eliades, if we can broadcast it, then we can succeed. Now I need you to sketch out the building.”

“Here is the hospital building,” I say as I point to the largest square on the paper. “These circle are guard stations. This big circle in the middle is the central guard station. Not only is it constantly staffed by guards, it is where the surveillance database is located. Now this little box branching off of the central guard station is the break room, where the guards are when they finish a shift. Now this building branching off of the hospital is the Laboratory area. This is where they are testing new substances. It has crazy security, but if we manage to get through there, I’m sure we could find some incriminating evidence. Finally, these are the corporate offices, where I work. From what I know, Eliades splits her time between the top office.” I point to the top of the corporate offices. “Which is covered in security, and the lab.” I finish.

I nod, thinking. “So I propose that we go into the hospital, at the time when the guards switch shifts, then we lock them in the breakroom. We then find extra uniforms. I’ll wear a hazmat suit, because I look a little conspicuous with my scars and all, and you will wear a scientist uniform. Of course we’ll have to knock one out to get their ID cards. Then we will go through the lab, and if Eris Eliades is there, we will get revenge.”

“And if not?” Ronan asks.

“Then we will go to the corporate offices and say we are there for a meeting with Eliades.”

“So it’s a plan,” Ronan says, his eyes hardening with determination.

I run into the back room of my apartment and grab my mobile broadcasting equipment. It’s what I use for press conferences if my TV crew can’t come. “With my password, I can broadcast this all over the world.” I know the power of media. I know that this could be the spark that sets the world aflame. Brynn nods her head and gazes forward, her eyes as hard, as sharp, as the knives that scarred her.

 

We stand outside of the hospital, My eyes on my watch. In exactly five seconds, we will creep into United Labs and put our plan into motion. I click my mobile broadcasting set, and it whirs to life.

Five.

Four.

Three.

Two.

One.

We dash through the sliding doors and sprint underneath a bed right behind the central guard system. We see one shift worker sigh and head towards the break room. They step in, and the door squeals shut. Brynn, ghostlike, runs towards the door and shifts the bolts into place. She turns back at me, and her pain seeps through her stony expression. This, for her, is a place of nightmares. “Let’s go,” she whispers. We run to the nearest supply closet, and we dig around until we find what we are looking for, an extra uniform for me and a hazmat suit for her. With all of the profits that United Labs is rolling in, it is no wonder they are able to have such lavishly stocked supply closets. I try hard to remember what my life was like, what I was like before my world turned upside down, when I was just an unassuming United Labs employee. I take a deep breath in, and I push open the supply closet doors.

I walk down the halls as confidently as possible. I clench my hands together, a desperate and useless attempt to stop myself from shaking. The fluorescent lights illuminate my too-pale skin. Even under the hazmat suit, I feel naked. Something’s off. I just know it. We haven’t seen anyone since the guard station. I try to shake my unease. I look towards Ronan. He looks equally perturbed. He is focused on his broadcasting equipment, and he is typing up captions. We reach the huge metal door separating the hospital from the lab. Ronan enters the security code, and the door whooshes open. Not a single soul is inside the lab. I gasp as Eris Eliades steps into the light of the lab, a giant clock behind her. Her perfectly tailored white suit smells of bleach, and each white hair on her head is perfectly swept into a tight bun. The harsh lights make her pale skin look ghostly and her sharp features skull-like.

“Well, isn’t this a picture,” she croons, her voice dripping with sarcasm.

“The runaway patient and her ex-employee brother.”

I look at Ronan. His mouth is agape in horror as she walks towards us.

“Oh, don’t look so surprised,” she says to Ronan. “You didn’t really think that you might fool me.” She puts a hand on her chest, fake surprised.

 

“You think that I didn’t know about what you were up to this whole time? You think that your apartment doesn’t have surveillance cameras in every room? You think I didn’t know that you two were siblings?” Eliades sighs. “Such ignorance. Well, I suppose you know I can’t have this getting to the press.”

My eyes widen. She doesn’t know about the broadcasting equipment. She doesn’t know that her every word is being shown to her loyal employees right now.

“Why?” Ronan asks, his eyes fiery.

“Humans have ruined this world for too long! I will fix the mistakes of our stupid predecessors, I will control the population, and with me there will be peace, and I can’t have you ruining it.” Ronan shakes his head.

Her eyes harden. She pulls out a white revolver as pristine as she is and points it, at me. Ronan’s eyes widen. Her eyes harden and she

Pulls

The

Trigger.

 

I stare in shock as she falls backwards, slowly. All I can hear is the tick tock of that huge clock across the wall.

Her body hits the floor.

Tick.

Blood rushes out.

Tock.

Her lips part.

Tick.

“Take the video and run,” she whispers.

Tock.

I look into those dying green eyes.

Tick.

I look down at the person who changed my life.

Tock.

And I run.

 

Epilogue

Ronan positioned the mobile broadcasting equipment atop his podium. He clutched his speech, the piece of paper too flimsy for the heavy words upon it. He looked down at the crowd below him. He saw hard faces, eyes aflame with anger and passion, each one wanting revenge for what United Labs had took from them. These were the writers of the angry letters. These were the people who United Labs left behind, these were the victims, the survivors. They held Red Flags, each one plastered with Brynn’s face with a crown atop her head. They had made her beautiful, with a full face and open eyes. So foreign from her hollow face and dying eyes. They made her a martyr, a symbol for survival. How funny that they now gathered around her casket. He took a deep breath, checked his equipment one last time, and began to speak, each of his words a dagger into the facade of United Labs.

 

Untitled Novel (Excerpt)

 

Chapter One

 

He shivered.

After hours of searching through the forest, Ky had curled up on the roots of a great oak. Even though the huge branches and thick leaves kept the worst of the rain away, some had still made it through, soaking his already wet clothes. His brain was still a bit dazed from the confusion, but he was sure this wasn’t a dream.

 

Ky had woken up that very morning, feeling just fine, when his parents had taken him on a car ride. It was bizarre for his parents to wake up so early, but he agreed. He was still tired so he had fallen asleep at one point during the trip.

Next thing he knew, he was awake, rain pouring down on his face, and his parents nowhere to be seen. First, he had felt confused, but that quickly turned into panic. A stone feeling inside his heart, making his breathing uneven. Frantically, Ky had wandered through the forest, shouting for his father and mother. All that answered was the howl of the wind. At least they let me have my Holo, he thought. The watch surface of the Holo generated a coat-like hologram that protected him from the weather. But that thought soon disappeared, when water had somehow seeped into the mechanism. Slowly, the rain that pelted down on him drenched his clothes and hair. In his boots, his feet swam in rainwater until they became completely numb.

The forest was huge, for even after hours of trekking, Ky still couldn’t see the edge. The rain turned into thunder, joined by occasional lightning far away. He knew he’d have to find shelter soon, so he continued his hiking. He didn’t know how long he had been in the rain when he finally found the great oak. He huddled next to the trunk of the tree and closed his eyes for the first time since the morning. That’s when he heard it. A rustle somewhere in the bushes that surrounded him. The source of the noise revealed itself, a huge black bear. Little cubs ambled behind their mother, not sure why she stopped. Ky froze. This was one of the worst situations he could possibly encounter; a mother bear. He knew that mothers were the fierce ones, especially when their cubs were nearby.

Getting back to his senses, he slowly stood up, careful to not startle the bear. His hands shook as he carefully moved around the tree. Her eyes followed his every move, boring into his. Suddenly, she jumped onto her hind legs, roaring. She lunged at Ky, paws outstretched.

 

Little Bird

     

The Cove

Its water an incredible, powerful beast

Dormant for years

Warmly welcoming her father’s fishing boat and allowing her to splash in the shallows as a child

Then suddenly awake

Awake

Awake and angry

Filled with the things people toss away

Plastic straws from summer picnics and papers with old news

It swallows all that come near

Swallows them in rising tides

And storms that have no mercy

Its waves, its hands, pound

Against rocks made smooth by weather and time

Wren

Her mother’s little bird

The one her father left behind when he found out

Left in the night in the boat that first caught her mother’s eye

She stands in the surf

Her white dress soaked through

Numb

 

Home

Her home

Its broken glass

And shells and things from the deep

Blown in from the storm

All covered in dust

A fractured nest

Since the storm

The storm that took everything

Family photos and china plates

Patio chairs and hand painted shutters

The storm that broke the glass and tore open the walls

The storm that sucked her mother into its maw

Taking her forever

And then left

Left the little bird by herself, without a mother

 

Alone she walks

The little of what’s left of her red hair

Caught in the cool summer breeze

The dust clinging to her dress

Her dress

Once so perfect

But torn and dirty now

Alone she walks

Through the town miles away from her broken home

The town of stares and whispers and pointed fingers

The town of normalcy and family dinners

Of barbecues and sunny days

The town of friends long gone

Gone, blaming her for her father’s choice

Vilifying her mother for not finding another

She’s learned to ignore it

She wouldn’t come here at all

But even little birds have to eat

 

By the market she sits

Tin can in hand

A tin can found in the wreckage of her home

The clink of people’s spare change her only hope

Relying on the guilt

Of people that call her mad

To them, she is simply a girl who went insane after the storm they barely noticed

 

Walking home

The dirt path again

Stale bread sandwich in hand

Fireflies flicker around her

Dancing in the dark of the twilit forest

Walking up the stairs

That creak and moan and bend

The door

A purple door

A rusted knob

At the table

Where she once sat with her mother braiding her hair

Red hair just like her own

But her eyes are her father’s

As the lights flickered on and off

And a harsh wind rattled the windows

The booming thunder

The crackling lightning

And clouds that can’t decide if they’re blue or gray

Now she sits

By herself

Red hair uneven

Cut by scissors she found in the bathroom

 

Trying to find sleep

On a blanket outside her mother’s door

Sleep doesn’t come

Instead come visions

Visions of running along the cove

With her mother and a faceless man

Visions of family dinners on Sundays

Her parents laughing at a joke she just told

About a pirate’s 80th birthday

And at bedtime

Her parents tell her the story of the wren

The one that wasn’t as strong or as fast as the other birds

But realized it didn’t necessarily need to be

And became king of the birds

But even in her dreams she knows none of it is real

 

Morning

The pale sunlight sneaks through the broken window

And dances upon her head

From the dust she rises

Walking out of the house

Down to the shore

The water calm and shimmering with early morning light

A washed up rowboat bobs gently on the surface

In that moment she makes a decision

Looking back at what was her home

But hasn’t been in months

 

Thinking of the possibilities

Of finding her father

Of joining her mother

She pushed off the shore

And flew away

Over the coral guts of the great beast

 

Train Ticket

I woke up with the sun. I never used to wake up with the sun, sleeping well into ten o’clock, but very recently, my body began to shake me awake in time to watch the sunrise. I didn’t know what change had caused that, but it wasn’t entirely unpleasant. Sure, it required an extra cup of coffee at work, but I didn’t mind watching the yellow and orange hues of the sky.

That’s not true, I lied, I know what caused the change. What had begun the trend of waking up with the sun. It was him. It was the move.

I yawned, sitting up in my bed. Stretching my arms out, eyes closed and still full of sleep. It felt strange, waking up in a bare room. Not entirely bare, though, filled to the brim with brown boxes. Taped up so that it locked my stuff, my memories, away. It didn’t feel like my room anymore. All its charm was lost, charm that I had worked so hard to build.

But whatever, I thought, no use complaining now. It was all said and done, and now I had a train ticket on the dresser and an apartment full of boxed up memories. Joshua was expecting me soon, anyway.

I had coached myself into the same speech every time I watched the sunrise at an ungodly hour. You love him. He loves you. This is the natural progression of your relationship. It usually worked, providing at least a little bit of comfort.

That was months ago, though, and now it seemed too real. Too soon. And that same speech couldn’t take the edge off the anxiousness I felt.

It also didn’t help that today was my last day of work and the day the movers were coming, and the first thing I saw was the train ticket, sitting quietly on my bedside dresser. Not quietly enough for my taste.

Joshua booked me a train ticket himself… he thought I would like the view better than a plane.

I staggered out of bed, head still clouded with missed sleep. The boxes continued out of the bedroom and into the kitchen and living room. Piled boxes that taunted me. Saddened me. I ignored them as I also trained myself to do ever since they’d been packed up.

My phone was charging on the kitchen counter, and it was the first thing I picked up. I turned it on and found a message from Joshua and Tabitha. Unsurprising but not unpleasant though, not entirely.

 

Josh: one more day! miss you so much!

 

Reading his messages made me feel guilty for all the time I’d spent regretting my decisions and worrying about the future. It was clear what we were supposed to do and what was supposed to happen, so… why did it feel so wrong to me? I couldn’t tell you, still can’t, but all I do is feel wrong. Then, I feel guilty. It’s a pretty shitty cycle, so I moved on to Tabitha’s text.

 

Tab: last day 🙁

 

I frowned, lightly. Last day of a lot of things, I guess. Last day of work, something that I should celebrate, but it also felt like yet another part of my life that I was abandoning.

I glanced behind my shoulder and out the large living room window. The sun was beginning to peak out from the tops of the buildings. I had a lot of time before my last day of work. I wasn’t exactly looking forward to spending quality time with my thoughts.

 

The rest of the day was a little bit of a blur. Perhaps my body had been doing everything to prevent the wave of emotions from flooding into my system, so it reverted to blocking it all out. I wasn’t sad about it, though. I didn’t mind not feeling much.

There were a lot of tearful goodbyes from my coworkers. Cards and hugs. Tabitha was there too. She usually was off on Thursdays but had promised to be there for my last day.

“The magazine won’t be the same without our star journalist,” she joked. I laughed, but it felt a little too real. A little too close to home.

She had offered to take me to the train station tomorrow too, but I had declined. It was my own battle to fight, that train.

After work, the movers came and took all my boxes and furniture that I didn’t need anymore. Couches, lamps, kitchen supplies, all sold and leaving me. Posters, video game controllers, and my 80’s movies DVD collection were packed inside big suitcases.

I felt empty when they left. An empty person to match their empty house. It was like every bit of my life was taken from me and loaded onto a truck, and I didn’t understand it. Shouldn’t I be happy? Josh and I were moving in together. I get to see my boyfriend everyday and not just through nighttime Skype calls. Shouldn’t I be over the moon, jumping for joy? Shouldn’t I feel somethinganything? No, I felt something.

Sadness. I felt a lot of sadness.

Finally, I gave up. I couldn’t stand being in this apartment anymore. So, I left for the deli. I walked past yellow taxis that honked too much, and I wondered how long I had to be annoyed at them.

 

“Leaving today, huh?” Mike asked, arms crossed over the counter. I smiled.

“Uh-huh. Train bound for Chicago leaves tomorrow… ”

“You excited?” he asked.

“Of course.” That was always my response. I thought maybe if I said I was excited enough, I’d grow to believe it.

“Well… I’ll miss you, Jen. The usual?”

My usual was a turkey on a roll. Little bit of mayo and three tomatoes. No lettuce. Mike knew. I’d been coming here as long as I’d lived in the city. My little slice of home. It never hit me that in Chicago there’d be no Mike. No Sal either, and I wouldn’t get to say goodbye to Sal because he worked the first half of the week and Mike worked the second half. In Chicago, there’d be no Mike or Sal, and I’d have to say my order out loud because the deli owners there wouldn’t know my usual.

The emptiness was coming back to me.

“Here you go,” Mike said, sliding the wax wrapped sandwich across the counter. I handed him my crumpled five dollar bill. He refused with a sad smile.

“Tonight is on me, Jen,” he told me. My heart bubbled with warmth. “Consider it a going away present.”

“Mike… I’m gonna miss you so much.”

I’d miss Mike and Sal. I’d miss Tabitha. I’d miss the city and the Hudson River and Central Park. I’d miss the West End Magazine, and I’d miss my apartment. Not the one now, but the one where all my boxes were unpacked and all my memories were preserved.

God, I’d miss my home.

 

The last thing the movers took was my bed, and I only had my suitcase filled with essential items I used last night and will use on the… train ride. Chargers, toothbrush and toothpaste, and other stuff I absolutely needed. Everything was finally gone. It hurt… it was all gone.

My train ticket was still there, though. Burning a hole into my kitchen counter. I was stalling all morning. Took an extra ten minutes in the bathroom. Ate an exceptionally long breakfast of pasta leftovers that I took a little bit too much care into stirring before putting in the microwave. I stared out the window, blank-faced, for longer than normal. I called the cab twenty minutes later than I should have.

I lingered inside my apartment, my home, and wished it would all go away. The texts Josh was sending me, full of smileys and hearts and warm messages about seeing me. The movers, the empty living room. I wanted it all to just… stop.

It wouldn’t though, and I had a train to catch.

 

The cab ride was smelly. Cabs were always smelly, though, so I wasn’t particularly surprised. Something was different about this cab ride, though, because I found myself feeling nostalgic at the bad smell rather than lightheaded and annoyed. A small smile twitched at the corner of my lips, my heartstrings tugging.

I peered out of the taxi window to see the New York City skyline becoming smaller and smaller. I closed my eyes, leaning back against the car seat. It’s really happening, huh? was my only thought. I’m really leaving the city.

I wasn’t sure the nausea pooling in my stomach was entirely from the lurching taxi ride.

 

I arrived at the platform just in time to see the loud train, screeching and clunking and roaring down the tracks. I ran towards the edge, breathless from the running across the train station to make the train I was watching pull away. I had missed it.

For a few seconds, I was silent as I watched my ride towards Josh and towards my new life disappear down the endless tracks.

Then, slowly, a thought dawned in my hazy mind and fast, rising chest. My face crumpled up in both guilt and joy. How am I going to explain this to Joshua? was my first question. It didn’t matter. None of all of this mattered because, even from the moment Josh asked me to move in with him, I always wanted to miss the train.

 

Mastermind (Excerpt)

        

Prologue

Colorado, Denver, USA

2103

I stepped over the broken glass shards and entered the bank. Right in front of me was the reception, and to the left of me was a flight of cobble stairs. To the right of me were three doors. The first one was an oak door which said money counting room. The second one read file room, and the third one read surveillance room. This was at midnight, when the number of guards was smallest. I leveled my gun to my eye and looked around. My name is Deben, Deben Heathrow. I own new tech industries, and I am the richest man alive. Right now, I’m about to get richer. I heard footsteps against the cobble floors coming from the second floor. That was probably the cops. I ran toward the nearest door and hid inside it. I then turned the smooth metal lock.

“You hear something, John?” shouted the first cop.

“Nope,” replied the second cop, John.

I looked around the room I was in. I realized that I was in the file room. To the right of me was a bookshelf, and opposite to that was a window. In front of me was a wooden desk with a portrait facing the opposite direction. On the desk was a computer. Next to the computer was an Ikea lamp, and in front of the computer was scattered with files, but one file caught my eye. It was stuffed with photos, articles, headlines, and Post-it notes, and it all was crammed into one vanilla colored file.

 

Genius files: classified

 

I knew what this was. This was the file for the 10 gifted geniuses in the world. I slipped it into my bag and carefully unlocked the lock. Then, a bright light shone beneath the small crack in the door, and I locked the door again. I think the police heard me because the footsteps got louder.

“Hey, anyone in there? John, you in there?” He tried the knob, and when he found it wouldn’t give, he cocked his gun.

I opened the door and smashed the butt of my machine gun onto his head. His nameplate read out Mike. He was a middle-aged man wearing a blue shirt and black pants. He had a jug of coffee in one hand which had spilled all over the floor. I ran up the flight of stairs three steps at a time and looked around. There were three vaults and a staircase to the next level. I ran to the first vault and started working my way through the passwords. The vault was silver, and the handles were gold. I put my ear against the vault door, its smooth, cold surface touching my ear. 90 70 100 40 50. Then, I heard the metallic clink as the vault door opened. I jumped inside and locked myself in. I stepped inside the circular vault. In the center was a tower of gold bars and stacks of money. There were coins scattered across the floor, and the ceiling was as tall as a giraffe. Then, I started filling my bag with gold bars and stacks of money. The coins that didn’t go into the bag clattered on the floor. A few dozen coins clattered out of my hand, and that’s when the cop heard me.

“Hey, open the door! Mike, come in here. I need the password for vault one!” shouted the other cop, John. I froze. “Mike? Mike, answer me!”

I heard the footsteps descend the stairs. That bought me more time. I continued to fill my money bag for 15 minutes when I heard John’s gun, but then I also heard five more guns getting loaded. I slung my money bag over one shoulder and aimed my gun at the vault door that would open any minute. I talked my command into my valtraneon that was parked in the roof of the bank. A valtraneon was a car that had multiple functions. The whole front part was black. Even the windows were black. It emitted red light from both headlights and the taillights. But the wheels were the special part. They could turn 270 degrees, and they would release fire, hence making the car hover. It also had a sticky function which defied gravity, letting it fly up walls. It had rope functions, speed functions, gun functions, and a skydiving option.

“Valtra, dig a hole in exactly 39° 44’ 34”N 104° 58’ 36”W!” I shouted into my electronic wireless wristband. A few seconds later, I heard the electronic hum of my valtraneon above the bank. I heard the turning of the dial as the police unlocked the vault.

“We need backup at the Denver bank! I repeat, we need backup at Denver bank!” shouted John into his walkie-talkie.

Then, the vault opened in a whoosh, and the six police stepped in. Then, I threw my smoke bomb. It started spinning madly while it released foggy, green air. The looks on their confused and surprised faces were all I saw before they perished in a gust of smoke. I heard the sirens outside the bank. The wailing escalated as it finally arrived. I carefully stepped over the deceased bodies and saw as the FBI charged in in formation. They all wore black suits with black bulletproof armor, and their heads were covered with black paintball helmets and black ski goggles. I ran back into the vault to find that a circular chunk of the ceiling had fallen off.

“Valtra, deploy rope!” I shouted into my wristband. Instantly, a tightly knotted rope fell down, just scraping the floor. I grabbed the rope.

“Valtra, pull up rope!” The rope started pulling up, and that was when the FBI came. They pointed their gun at me and started shooting rapidly. I was halfway when a bullet pierced half the rope, and I lost balance. The files in my pocket slipped out, and I was too late. They fell to the floor, but when they reached the floor, they had a big hole straight through the middle.

“No!” I screamed. “You bastards, do you know what that is?”

“Come down now!” said one of the soldiers in a deep voice. I got onto my valtraneon and closed the door and opened its black window.

“It’s the freakin genius files!” I screamed as the valtraneon whirred away. “And now you destroyed the files!”

I dropped a grenade into the roof and closed my window. I knew what was coming next. I closed my eyes and put my pinkies in my ears. The ear deafening boom could be heard across the horizon. I heard the screams of terror from the innocent men. I saw the red and orange billowing out of the roof of the bank. I looked outside the window at the sun. I had lost track of time at the bank. It was 3:00. I made my way to my mansion on the edge of Michigan. It was going to be a long way home.

 

The Cooling Rack (Excerpt)

Death is not something people take lightly. People die, others mourn them, and then we eventually forget about them.

***

“Hey, Ian! How’s it going? It’s such a nice day outside, right?” A woman’s voice screams through the phone. “Look, man. We’re understaffed today and could use your help in the kitchen. Sorry not sorry, this is mandatory!” The phone beeps, signaling the end of the call.

I look up at the overcast sky, then down at the phone. BOSS LADY reads the caller ID. This woman, Paige, is the owner of the only bakery in town, The Cooling Rack. I happen to be her favorite employee, as I don’t complain when tasked with cleaning or any kitchen-related tasks, even when the orders are given everyday. Paige was never close to her employees, but even though I’ve been one of the longest lasting employees, she’s still so cold. Yet, I have the vague sense that she’s developing some sort of motherly affection for me. Paige is only four years older than me, yet she treats me like a young child, and “children shouldn’t be late to work!” as she is known to say. I sigh, letting my feet mechanically drag me towards the bakery, tripping over the uneven sidewalk and tree roots. The walk is not long, but by the time I arrive at The Cooling Rack, rain has started to fall. The little bells on the glass door announce my entrance into the bakery, and that’s where Paige, a short woman with dyed bright blue hair, bounces up to me and shoves a dark blue apron into my hands.

The Cooling Rack is not big and roomy, but it has a feeling of home. The walls are wooden, and the light is tinted a soft orange, which blends with the fiery hues of fake fireplaces. Black and white photos, ranging in content from leaves blowing in the wind to a woman walking her dog, add a small but noticeable contrast that evens out the excessive warm tones. People of all shapes and sizes pass by, picking up coffee, a snack, or a loaf of bread to bring home to their family. Children sip mugs of hot chocolate while their guardians type on silver laptops, buried in work. It’s a refuge for all, and it would be a shame if it were to close.

“Hey, man! Haven’t seen you since yesterday! Anything fun happen?” A tall man pulls me into a constricting hug against my will. The strong arms belong to my friend, Eli.

I shrug my way out of his grasp. “No, just the usual. Nothing exciting.” I speak quietly, hoping not to get in the way of any of my coworkers. “What’s my job for today?”

“If I remember correctly,” he bends down to my height, “cleaning. Good luck, man!”

With a slap on my shoulder, I make my way to the closet, tying my apron on the way. I pick up a broom and dustpan, find an empty and quiet corner of the kitchen, and start the monotonous task of sweeping burnt bread crumbs off the floor. I hum a tune, in sync with my sweeping, but not in sync with the music already playing softly throughout The Cooling Rack. The sound of an oven beeping joins me in song, but I barely acknowledge it. The quiet jazz playing throughout the store masks the continuous noise from the machine by my waist. The people crammed into the kitchen workspace are all immersed in their work, whether the task was spreading jelly on toast or shaping dough into little bunnies. The quiet beeping remains unnoticed, even when small streams of smoke sneak their way into the air.

“Is something burning?” The woman stirring soup looks over her shoulder and locks eyes with me. “Could you check it out?”

I nod and take a look around the kitchen. Something in the oven I was just standing near is indeed burning, even though there is not enough to set the smoke detectors off. Crouching down, I open the door, and my glasses do little to stop the sudden cloud of smoke that encases my face. The smoke detectors rip through the forgotten music and panicked voices of the employees and customers.

“Get everybody out of here!” Fire seems to be the death for today. Yesterday it was drowning. I wonder what tomorrow will bring. The burst of heat pulls me from my thoughts, and I’m thrown backwards and against the wall as my glasses shatter on the floor. My apron gets caught on a stovetop dial, which turns on the stove at max heat. Fire erupts from the grate beneath my right hand, burning the thin flesh. I yank my hand upwards and out of the fire, only to hit the cupboard above my head with a loud thud, and the metal pots and pans tumble down from the shelves. Each time a pan smacks my body, a painful blood-curdling scream follows. I fall to my knees and land on my the remains of my glasses with a broken cry. The shards tear through the exposed skin, which would only be possible when a person is wearing ripped jeans, as I am. I hold my hand to my mouth, as an instinctive attempt to block out the smoke, but I already knew it was pointless. Looking up into the smoke, the biggest metal pot, the one we never use, glints in the firelight, as if smiling at my inevitable death.

“Oh, dear lord,” I whisper before the impact and everything goes black.

 

Then It Hit Me

Then it hit me. Well, not literally, but it felt like it at the time. The creamy peanut butter was dripping over the sides when… Wait a second, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning…

I was tired, groggy, and I was pretty sure I didn’t fall asleep halfway across the room and half stuffed in the laundry bin. Oh well. I dragged myself out of the bin and pondered what to do next. My small and useless brain didn’t help. So I stumbled over to my bed, sat down (if you call throwing yourself upon your bed sitting down, then yes, I did sit down), and observed my room. It was a mess. Socks here and there, a piece of crumpled paper, and a tangy smell that I was sure hadn’t been there yesterday. My laptop was half falling off my desk. I’ll have to fix that when I get up. I saw a brown lump. I wasn’t wearing my glasses, but it looked kind of like a cinnamon roll if it was stepped on 3,587 times, run over by three trucks, dipped in acid, and then chewed on by a rat. Oops. So, recap: my room was a mess, and I was really tired.

But at that moment, I realized something. I had to be somewhere! I got up, fixed my laptop positioning, and proceeded to my bathroom. Then, I stepped in the shower and attempted to take a bath. I think that’s the shampoo. I decided to rub it into my hair. My hair instantly fluffed up as if I had stuck my finger in a socket. That’s not the shampoo. In my defense, I was still pretty tired, so yeah. I tried the next bottle. Orange blossom shampoo and body wash, it read. I quickly rubbed it all over myself, praying it would work. I stepped out of the shower adventure and into another. Where are my clothes? You see, I pride myself with having six pairs of everything. I wear the same thing, so I don’t have to think. Yours truly is smart sometimes.

I continued on with my adventure. I looked inside of drawers and under my bed, but I couldn’t find a pair of pants. Where could they be? I didn’t know, so I decided to take a break from looking. However, luckily, I did find a pair of underwear, so I strutted off to my living room. My grandma, who was staying over from Mexico, was still asleep. I looked out the window. What a nice day. The moment I thought that, of course it started raining. Sigh. Sometimes, days are good. Sometimes, days are not. At least I have a peanut butter sandwich…

 

The End

 

Uncontrolled Fury

   

darting through her head, faster

than her hand can keep up with.

She tries

to grasp one before

it disappears, but her hand holds

nothing

except a pen.

The sound of it scratching

against paper fills

the empty silence.

 

And suddenly,

it stops.

Her head is hollow, filled with bits of

useless thoughts.

Her pen stops,

ink the color of the ocean tide

blooming like a navy blue flower

from the tip.

The pristine whiteness of the page

floods with the darkness

of lost ideas.

She lets it fall,

clattering

Against the table.

 

Ruined.

It’s ruined.

The page

crumples in her hand,

ink smudging,

her thoughts dead.

The page

falls from her hand.

It hits the floor with a sound

softer than

a kitten purring,

but louder than

a tiger roaring.

 

She begins again,

puts pen to paper,

writing until she

Decides, again, that it’s not good enough.

It never will be.

Her thoughts are gone,

the thrashing ideas that once filled her

head until it felt like bursting

have disappeared

without a trace.

 

Instead,

she is filled with a

disappointment, a

longing, an

uncontrolled fury.

 

The Vanishing (Excerpt)

     

Prologue

My dad used to tell me that if life throws something bad at you, you just have to live through it and then let it go. He said that you should take into account those bad things, but then, in a way, forget that they ever happened. Well, I hate to tell you, Dad, but sometimes, that’s not really how life works. He was a smart man, and still is, I think, but his vision is limited by his experiences. Most of the time there is no need for one to dwell on things that have no need for dwelling on. Perhaps you may not forget your mistakes, but put them in a part of your brain where they slowly fade into obscurity. Maybe you will begin anew, a new leaf turned over, your past put completely behind. However, there are some things that I cannot let go of, and never will be able to for the rest of my life.

Before, I was not a dweller. I was happy, positive and mostly guilt-free. I lingered on things from time to time, but other than that, I let my mistakes slide right off my back, like mud in a landslide. I acknowledged them, but did not let them get to me. Then, I did not know what a real error, what a true failure was. Well, then the storm came, the ball was dropped, a horrible event occurred. And, let’s say that’s when things changed. I could not even attempt to forgive myself, because how could I forgive myself when I made an absolutely unforgivable mistake? It was a mistake far beyond bad. A mistake that happened because I let it happen. A mistake that has distanced me from the people I love and care about. A mistake that has caused me to fall apart on the inside.

Now, I spend my life in seclusion, slowly wearing away as the days come and go. I used to say more, but now I barely say anything at all. I live in my room, only leaving to use the bathroom and prepare my own food. Sometimes, I don’t even eat at all, for nothing can truly fill the emptiness inside of me. My parents leave me alone, for they know I don’t want to hear “Lilia” being said by another human being ever again. It is too hard for them, and it reminds me too much of what happened to Elodie. Elodie, my best friend as long as I can remember. Elodie, who I have not seen in four years. Elodie, who I will probably never see again. And, it’s all because of me. The night she disappeared, nothing was ever the same again. The night she disappeared, I knew I had changed forever.

 

Chapter One

I am standing on a beach. It is unfamiliar, unlike any place that I have ever been. There is no explanation as to where I am and why, it just seems that I am here. Topaz blue water laps against the shoreline, deepening and darkening its imprint. Under my feet, the sand is warm, its golden grains seeming to emit heat. A flash of vibrant color catches my eye. Birds of every shade imaginable are encircling my head, eyeing me curiously as if trying to figure out what I am. One alights on my shoulder for a brief respite. Its plumage is a striking crimson, the color of a fresh strawberry. It takes off, leading its companions away into the air. And at the center of it all is the sun. Bright and blinding, yet warm and comforting all at once. This is true paradise and nothing less. A swift breeze skims my face, and I breathe. I take in everything, from the birds to the sharp and salty scent of the sea. There is no place I would rather be, for all is calm and undisturbed. But then, I hear something that sounds out of place.

“Lilia!”

“Lilia, wake up!”

There it is again.

“Lilia, come on!”

Where is it coming from?

“Lilia Madeleine Corvington!”

Okay, what’s happening?

My eyes open to my best friend, Elodie, vigorously poking my arm with a pencil.

“Ow, Elodie! What the — ” I begin, still drowsy.

“Shhhh!” she hisses in my ear.

And then through half-asleep eyes, I notice old Mrs. Sheridan pacing around the room in circles. I must have passed out because of having to endure her horrible class. Now, before any judgements are made, I have a perfectly good reason for falling asleep. I just hate hearing her drone about the Battle of Antietam or whatever other crap we’re learning about in her annoying monotone voice.

I sit back in my seat, attempting to blink the sleep away from my eyes. And, oh, I remember my glorious dream.

“I was dreaming about a beach,” I murmur. “It was surreal.”

“That sounds very nice,” Elodie mutters.

“I could feel every grain of sand beneath my feet,” I sigh.

“Good to hear!” she snickers in return.

“Birds were circling around my head, and, and… ” I breathe.

A wave of post-sleep fatigue hits me, and I slump back down in my seat. Running her fingers through her thick, wavy chestnut brown hair, Elodie holds her hands up at me, as if to s