A Pop Star’s Thoughts on the Universe

A Pop Star’s Thoughts on the Universe 

What is the universe made of?

A cab without much of a brain. It’s so unbelievably stupid. 

How did life begin?

The teen movie thing wanted this project for an easy paycheck.

Are we alone in the universe?

I worry there is a body. It is super thin. It happens all the time and it’s frightening.

What makes us human?

Sleep, a lot of days. 

What is consciousness?

Wake up screaming at 7 in the morning and become an energetic California preppy.

Why do we dream?

The commercial validates that choice of sly silliness. It’s a satire. 

Why is there stuff?

Absolutely, the prospect of becoming is interesting, a really cool one. Amazing, like a crash course. 

Are there other universes?

I’ve always believed that. I felt from the beginning there are a lot of strange pressures. But you can’t live your lives in fear, a huge challenge for us. 

Sources: 

University of the People, “20 Big Science Questions to Get You Thinking” https://www.uopeople.edu/blog/the-big-scientific-questions/
Cinema.com, “Legally Blonde: Interview with Reese Witherspoon” https://cinema.com/articles/584/legally-blonde-interview-with-reese-witherspoon.phtml

9 Hours: Worth Much More

Every single one of the two million people who fly every day passes through the airport. Those people are there with purpose, whether to attend a funeral, go to a camp, or to return home. They all have their goals, and the airport is a stepping stone on their way to achieve things. For me, Dallas Fort Worth is the place where I missed my connecting flight to San Luis Obispo for a journalism workshop. It is the place where I was stranded for nine hours. But by the time I left Dallas, I had seen and learned so much. Because Dallas is also the place where I met Linda, a 72-year old woman with cancer who wanted to finish her bucket list before she died. 

Linda’s yearning to experience new things as an older woman was respectable, especially as our generation has much trouble trying something different. In class, on the ice, or on the field, teachers and coaches offered, “Do you want to try a new play?” or “Would you like to join the coup club?” My classmates had tendencies to shy away from opportunities, as they have never done it before. However, Linda did not. 

I first saw her at the American Airlines help desk, where tens of people formed a snaking line in the cramped space. Sweating, I shrugged my jacket off, hitting the woman behind me: Linda. When I first looked back, I saw an old lady I can only describe as “coastal grandmother.” She had a light blue headband on with a white dress and blue heels. She was under five feet tall. 

She asked, 

“Why are you here, honey?” 

I shared my story about missing my flight. Linda shared, 

“Oh, I just attended the most beautiful wedding reception for my nephew. It was so special, and nothing like I’d ever seen before. I had a splendid time.” She said she chose to attend their Muslim wedding instead of their Christian wedding the weekend before, because “I wanted to experience something new, something else.” 

I was awed by how she was 72, and she still pursued uniqueness. For me, whenever I was placed into a situation I was not familiar with, I hesitated. For example, on my first day of field hockey camp, I judged it for being different from ice hockey and approached it with a preconceived opinion; seeing Linda with an open mind at her older age genuinely surprised me. 

We decided to eat lunch together — two strangers in a busy airport who had no one else but each other. The one thing we did have in common was a lot of unexpected time. Linda embodied perseverance through problems that were significantly worse than those of young teens. For example, after our conversation, my broken nails and lost earrings felt like miniscule issues. I looked at Linda over my heap of buffalo wings to see her potato salad and corn. 

“Would you like some, Linda?” 

She declined, saying, “Too spicy for me, dear. I only eat soft foods. I have a feeding tube, you know. I’m missing large chunks of my spine.”

I’m sure my head popped up, surprised. My mother had badly injured her spine skiing, so to hear about Linda’s spine worried me. It also put her in a new light, one of a survivor and a fighter. As if that was not enough, Linda pointed to her stomach area. 

“You see here, dear, it’s hollow. There’s nothing there, no stomach.” 

At this moment, my emotional state was flabbergasted. In my mind, she barely had anything holding up her torso! There was little that could make this predicament worse, until Linda said, 

“Don’t worry, angel. I’m still spiffy, though the cancer’s been slowing that down a bit.”

“Cancer?” I asked, stupidly. I could not believe the bad luck this grandma had. As an athlete, the prospect of losing parts of my body scared me a lot. I’d never met anyone missing an organ as important as the stomach, and her willingness to travel alone and be responsible for herself can only be called sheer force. She looked so frail in front of me, the spoon looking heavy in her hands as she scooped up some potato salad. Yet, she was a force, because who could pull off this sort of vacation in the condition she was in? I clearly remembered when my friend sprained her pinky and she acted as if the world was ending. I vowed to myself I would be like Linda, who, even with her unfortunate situation, kept a positive attitude and did what she wanted. 

I admired Linda’s tenacity and sense of adventure. I listened as she recounted how she had sixteen countries she wanted to visit, out of a list she made in 2022. These were all the hometowns of her extended grandparents and great grandparents. Now, barely a year and a half later, she told me that she had three left to visit: Scotland, Croatia, and the Netherlands. I’d been to these places before, as I told Linda, and I thought it would truly be special when Linda saw the charming town of Split, Croatia, or Fife, Scotland. Croatia’s amiable culture and food would appeal to her a lot. For example, Peka, which is food “cooked under a lid,” is very soft and delicious, which Linda can enjoy. I told her it would be amazing to finish her bucket list in these towns where her ancestors were raised.  The determination to do this as a dedication to her family was driven by love for the people she was surrounded by. During the time I spent with her, I felt that love and care too. She always made sure I was right behind her, that I was eating enough, that I was not cold, and not hot. I wanted to be able to support someone I care about, just like Linda.

My relationship with Linda was accidental, formed because of unfortunate circumstances, however, we turned it into something beautiful. We strolled around the airport, as she protected me, a 15-year-old girl, from “the vast airport full of crazy people,” according to Linda herself. I returned this favor by helping Linda find her flight. Linda’s gate and terminal changed four times over the course of a couple of hours. I was able to cross-reference many sources and deduce the right one at the end. On the AirTrain, for the third time that day, Linda said, 

“Thank you so much, baby, you really saved me.” 

I told her, “Bye,” because I could not think of how to condense everything I wanted to say to her, how I admired her, into a few seconds. She later texted me saying, 

“I’m on the plane. Got at the gate four minutes to boarding.  Thank you, Angel. You picked up the pieces when I started getting tired. You’re one heck of a 15 year old.” She told me she considered me one of her grandchildren now. 

The impact a couple of hours could have on a bond between two people is very interesting, especially because we were raised in different time periods. My friendship with Linda in the end taught me to make the most of my life, to ask questions and to try something new. It also put into a new light how age does not hinder one’s attitude, so you should always keep a smile on your face.

Poetry by Emily Rose

it’s not christmas anymore

her bruised lips are stained with sickly sweet pomegranate wine
her hollow eyes drunk with power (and with pain)
the moonlight beams into the darkness through wooden blinds
casting shadows on long-forgotten coffee cups and takeout boxes
and half-full glass bottles (but those are not forgotten)
stacks of books are crammed in every corner and scribbled notes litter the floor
the faded colored lights draped on the walls have been there for months
serving as a reminder of what once was (and what will one day be)
not a word (and barely a breath) passes her chapped red lips
after all if she doesn’t say it, it cannot be true
repeat it together now: it cannot be true, it cannot be true, it cannot be true
but she knows you cannot erase what has already been done
the truth is written in the cracks of her broken heart and in the lines on her face
(even in in the gap between her teeth)
the bitter cold of late february seeps through the cracks in the windows and doors
hollowing her bones, leaving endless space for memories to fill
as her brittle breath fogs the air, tasting of fruit and regret (with a hint of hopelessness)

make it until morning

i swore off of praying when You left.
never again i promised.
why would i pray to Him him
when He he doesn’t even listen to me anyways?
after all, why would i pray
to a God god who would take You away?

back when You were in the hospital,
i prayed every day,
like You always used to.
by the big window
in Your empty room,
in our empty house,
in this empty apartment building.

in the morning, when i woke up,
i prayed for the heat to stay on;
when You left i could no longer afford it.
before dinner,
i prayed for the flowers You grew
outside on our patio
to survive the cold,
to survive the winter,
to survive Your absence;
when You left they began to wilt.
and before i went to sleep,
i prayed for You to
make it until morning.

but now
i wear two pairs of socks each day
and my tattered coat inside the house,
yet somehow i am still cold.
now all of Your flowers have died;
whatever scraps of You
which were planted on that patio
have been buried under a bed of snow.

Hello, what is your wish?

Come inside,
it is getting cold.
Take off your shoes,
I don’t like a mess.
Please stay.
was the wait long?
It was to me.
But I am lonely.
are you?

breath on a dandelion Exhaled.
wishes in the wind Whispered.
coins in a fountain Tossed.

my wishes Drowned in 1994
have you made yours?
regret is unnecessary
as is hope

the best time to do things? why would i know?

all i know is pink sand stuck between toes
and sticky, blackberry-stained fingers
and ‘get in, the water’s warm’

    the most important one? who am i to tell you?

all i know is the tide’s pull, back and forth
and salty film on cool skin
and the sound of crickets chirping

the right thing to do? what do you think?

all i know is floating under a warm Virginia sky
with the clouds above me
and nothing below

Anxiety 

Tendrils of my gray fingers twist and crawl 

Infiltrate the chinks in your armor 

Coil and squeeze around your mind

I will exploit you from within 

I afflict cold chills, sweaty palms upon you: eerie instruments of my success 

Vivid scenarios of doom; One wrong move will spiral into ruin

Bypass coherent thought with omnipresent hysteria

I tip the fragile scale of your sanity 

Replace confidence with bleak doubt 

My whisperings of panic have unbraided you

The despair leads to surrender of the treasure like no other

The hidden door to your subconscious 

Leaving me alone at the control panel; I’ve changed the password, your entry is denied 

The Brief But Extraordinary Life of Stevie Dreger

Trigger warning: suicide

Stevie Dreger was the first friend I ever lost. He was also the last person in the world I would have expected to kill himself. But regardless of any previous premonitions anyone held to him, on that beautiful August day he still walked himself and his beat-up red chucks onto the bridge that connects Shelburne and Buckland and returned himself to the earth.  Stevie used to tell me that he didn’t belong to anyone. He told me that one day 16 years ago, the various elements of the earth came together to form one imperfect being: himself. He never explained why; he just knew. 

Stevie left notes before he died. He left notes to everyone in his life that he loved, or rather, everyone in his life that would want an explanation. He left notes for everyone he knew would be unsatisfied with simplicity. The simple fact that he was done with living. Not because he was depressed or angry at what the world had or had not handed to him, but because he had done everything he had wanted to do. For years after the fact, I was angry at him for that, but I knew the real reason I was mad at him. The most selfless person I had ever known had gone and done the most selfish thing anyone can do: deprive you of their presence. If the dead can be selfish, maybe they are more alive than we think they are. My anger made him real; more than a pile of dust secure in an ugly vase.

For me, Stevie left a checklist. A wrinkled piece of a legal pad, with five items listed on it. I spent night after night trying to decipher what it meant until I came to a conclusion. They were the five things Stevie wanted to do with his life. By each item was a check mark, written in thick black ink. 

There were bystanders on the bridge the day Stevie died. A couple in a blue sedan pulled over as he swung a leg over the railing of the bridge. They said later that as he saw them sprinting in his direction he flashed his crooked smile and waved as he dove into the water, releasing a breath. 

Along with the notes, Stevie left a very detailed description of exactly what his funeral would look like. He wrote that under no circumstances whatsoever was anyone to wear black. He also described how he would like his coffin to be brought down the aisle, with a rendition of Prince’s “Purple Rain” playing in the background. We used to listen to “Purple Rain” on repeat after school sometimes. We would be in Stevie’s room, surrounded by posters of Bowie and Mick Jagger, reading or procrastinating on our homework. After a while of listening to it over and over again, Stevie declared it his favorite song of all time. He had determined that no matter how many times he listened to it, his ears were never bored.

And so there I sat, in my mid-length yellow frock and white sandals, in the chapel of the Immaculate Conception Church, watching the pallbearers in their sky blue suits carry half of my heart in a box down the aisle, tears soaking my handkerchief. I half expected him to open the casket, jump out, and have a laugh. 

Stevie was a Catholic, and a devoted one.  He didn’t believe in the religious aspect of it, the “God crap” as he so eloquently put it, but still, every Sunday there he was, his blonde curls pushed back, his tie loose on his neck, staring ever so intensely at the priest as he gave his sermon. I asked him once why he went if he didn’t believe any of it. We were lying in a field of dandelions, lying in the opposite directions of each other so our faces were side by side. He didn’t respond to the question at first. Instead, he picked a dandelion, uprooted it from the earth, and pushed my hair behind my ear. He wrapped the stem of the flower around the back of my ear so the pretty part would stick out from my hair. He turned his head and grinned as he told me he went because he loved to observe. Watching hundreds of people give up their time to worship something that he didn’t even believe existed was fascinating to him. He liked all of the old ladies sitting in the pews who always turned around to shake his hand. He liked that they always asked how he was doing, how his mother was and if he had a girlfriend. 

I remember after the memorial service my family piled into our beat up white station wagon and drove over to the Dregers. Their brownstone stood at the end of Aster Street, three down from ours. The house looked like it had lost color; the already dull brown bricks looked sadder somehow. I remember their entire living room was crowded, not with family or loved ones, but with lillies. I remember the smell and how it smacked me in the face when I entered the foyer. I had to squeeze onto the couch between Stevie’s little sister and an assortment of colored lilies, each with their own crinkly plastic wrapping and obnoxious ribbon. They were ugly. Plain and ugly. And Stevie was none of those things. 

A few months after Stevie died, I went to visit him at the Delphinium St. Cemetery. His headstone had just been finished, a pile of fresh soil surrounded it. Engraved on the stone was his full name: Steven George Dreger, beloved son, brother, and friend. Words that did not hold a candle to all that he was. It was December, and in classic New England fashion, snow piled up everywhere. Stevie’s mother had made sure that his headstone was untouched by anything that could damage it; I had heard from Ms. Richards down the street that his mother had visited the cemetery every evening since the day of his funeral. I brushed the freshly fallen snow off the top of the stone and sat. The snow soaked through my corduroys but I didn’t care. 

Surrounding his stone were the putrid lilies that had been at his funeral. I turned my head to avoid the smell. Blended with the lillies was baby’s breath, a somewhat mediocre flower. The arrangement was less than beautiful, so I unwrapped the plastic and rearranged the flowers in a more suitable manner. Still, the bouquet was not perfect. I tried again. And again. At last, I gave up and left the flowers in a pile, the plastic wrapping crinkling in the wind. I stomped out of the cemetery in a fury, unsatisfied with the flowers, unsatisfied with their state of ugliness. Disgruntled, I stormed over to the florist, Mr. Beau, to demand that he make something better. Although Mr. Beau had nothing to do with my dislike of lilies and their putridity, off I went.

Freshman year of high school, Stevie and I went out for a while – only for about a month or so, and it didn’t work out the way we thought it would. Stevie’s stubbornness to reveal anything about his emotions led to our eventual breakup. Or maybe it had been my lack of, well, desire to be in a relationship with anyone. The true cause of our romantic downfall was never found, because two weeks later, his father was in the ICU for a heart attack. Every hole we had stabbed in the very fabric of our relationship was patched. I had been sitting in the lobby of the ICU, Stevie asleep on my shoulder, for three hours before the doctor came out to give us the news. His father was stable, or as stable as can be after a heart attack. Stevie collapsed on the floor in sobs of relief. That was the first time I ever saw him cry. 

Mr. Beau called me on New Year’s Eve.  I was watching Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve 1985 regardless of how much pain it caused me; Stevie used to love to watch the ball drop. Mr. Beau had called to offer me a job at the flower shop after I had given him a lecture on the importance of flower fragrance. He figured that he would rather have a motivated employee than a disgruntled customer. I started work there in the New Year, after winter break. The store was always humid because we had to keep the flowers warm in the winter. Nobody wants a dead flower. 

After Stevie’s father’s heart attack, our relationship went almost back to normal. We still hung out after school every day, had dinner at each other’s houses and whatnot, but I don’t think Stevie ever looked at me the same way. Sometimes I would catch him staring in my direction, his head tilted to the side, his blonde curls falling across his face. “What?” I would say. “Is there something on my face?”. He would look at me in a way words cannot describe and shake his head. 

By March, the flower shop had doubled its profits. Mr. Beau was so satisfied with my work that he gave me a 20% pay raise. I could anticipate the needs of every single person that entered the shop just with one look. A young woman in her mid-twenties with freshly manicured nails: a bride in need of a bulk order of roses. A small boy with a collared shirt and blue jeans, hair parted to the side: flowers for his grandmother. A middle aged fat man with a receding hairline: a late present for an anniversary forgotten. I would obsess over the orders, picturing the event in my head and letting my hands do the rest of the work. I watched each of the people walk out of the store, taking in the bouquet I had presented them with, feeling like I had done good work. But I also felt unfulfilled, like there was something missing. Like those people walked out with a bit of me. The bouquets were good, but not good enough – for me, or maybe for Stevie. 

I started working overtime in the shop when school ended in May. I had the summer off before college, no internships or extra work that had to be done. I found myself on the stool for hours at a time, forming bouquets for nobody in particular. Customers were rare in the summer, as most people were off at the Cape for the season. While Mr. Beau was on vacation, I moved the lily stand to the back of the store. I couldn’t bear the smell. The days stretched into nights as I put together a million combinations of flowers together. I hadn’t brought any of my flowers to Stevie, it never seemed right. 

The obsession grew into something bigger as the summer drew on. I placed orders for more varieties of flowers we could buy for the shop, more combinations that were beautiful, but not Stevie’s beautiful. It reached a point at which I was using so many flowers and wasting them on unsellable bouquets, that Mr. Beau had no choice but to fire me. I was completely devastated, I couldn’t sleep for days, images of multicolored daisies and violets floated in front of me. I felt incomplete.

The day before Stevie died, he called me. He wanted to know if I liked Italian Wedding Soup. I told him I had never tried it before, so three minutes later, there he was, outside my door holding a container of his mother’s homemade Italian Wedding Soup. I poured myself a serving and sat down with him in the breakfast nook. The sun reflecting off of his golden locks was almost blinding. He squinted his eyes intensely as I took a sip. It was delicious. I smiled at him and told him that it was the best soup I had ever had the pleasure of tasting. He nodded in satisfaction and told me that this was the last piece of information that he would ever need to know about me. I never understood the gravity of those words until he was gone. 

Stevie never got his perfect bouquet. It was never going to be right. Everything beautiful about Stevie had died with him. But I forgave myself for what I had done. Maybe if I had been a little uglier, or if my hair had been shorter, or if my nose scrunched up at an odd angle when I was thinking, maybe then he wouldn’t have fallen in love with me and maybe then I wouldn’t have been the last task on his list. Because stuffed in the back drawer of my bedroom on Aster Street are the words that completed the short but vivacious life of Stevie Dreger. Stevie used to say that he didn’t belong to anyone, and maybe he didn’t, but as sure as the blue of the sky and the swiftness of the wind moving through the trees, I belonged to him. 

Dear Little Ladybug

Editor’s Note: Content warning — Suicide

***

Dear little ladybug, 

By the time you read this, I will be gone. I didn’t mean to leave you. I love you, but I won’t be coming back.

Sincerely,

Friend 

Laura

Friend was always going to go this way. I mean, if she was going to go at all. At least she had left a note. She probably wasn’t going to leave one, but then maybe she thought of me, and maybe that tempted her to write one more thing.

But not suicide? When I found this note taped to my window as I woke up this morning, I thought the worst had happened. I mean, as soon as I had read it, I ran the ten blocks down to her house as fast as my legs would carry me. My short curls flew behind me, and I nearly fell on my face running up the four crooked steps to her door. I had run up those steps my whole life, and I’m sure I have tripped over those rotting boards countless times. But this time, it felt like it wasn’t me. Like I was out of my own body. Almost like I was watching a stranger run up the steps to her friend’s house, just to find that she had killed herself.

Robson came to the door, as usual. He appeared in his normal disheveled state. His hair was in its state of permanent messiness and his tank top was untucked from his dirty jeans. He probably had just woken up. I knew I hadn’t woken him up, because if I had by knocking on the door, he sure as hell wouldn’t have gotten out of bed for that. But he would have recognized by now how I knocked on the door, and he usually didn’t answer the door for anyone else other than me and Friend.

He took a drag on his cigarette and blew the smoke in my face. Ugh. I didn’t check the time before I ran out of the house, but I knew it was too early in the morning to be smoking that shit. 

“What are you wearing?” he asked, as he looked me up and down with an expression of amusement on his face. 

I must have been a sight. I wanted to get over to Friend’s house as soon as I could, so I didn’t even change. I was still wearing my feathery nightdress, and I had squashed my feet into my rain boots that were lying next to my bed on the floor. I was wearing an old jacket that had actually been Robson’s at one point, but eventually wound up with me when Friend didn’t want it anymore. 

“Is Tuesday awake?” I asked impatiently. 

“You know she wakes up at the crack of dawn. That little shit made such a racket going out the back I’m surprised it didn’t wake you up.” 

That’s when I realized how she had left. She didn’t want anyone to know, so she didn’t do anything out of the ordinary. It was probably just our secret. Friend and I had a lot of secrets that were just for us, and I knew when Friend wanted to have a secret kept. Didn’t mean I ever knew why, though. 

“Sorry, umm,” I fumbled, trying to come up with a lie. The thoughts and questions swirling around in my head weren’t letting any coherent sentences come out of my mouth. “I just wanted to give this back to her.” I took off my jacket and handed it to him. 

“I haven’t seen this thing in a while,” he said almost wistfully. “Why are you giving it back?” 

“I just thought she might want it.” My little lie was coming apart. 

“What’s actually happening, bug?” he tilted his head and looked at me. Not too many people called me “bug.” He was one of the few. As far as he was concerned, that was my actual name. I mean, he knew my given name. But he never used it. 

“Just take the jacket.”

He rolled his eyes, took a drag from his cigarette, and closed the door. I shakily sat down on the steps, even though they were still wet from last night’s rain. Where did she go? My mind continued spinning. She didn’t tell anyone, she just left. We had both gone through our fair share in life, but what in her finally snapped? What made her go? But I knew one thing. Tuesday Adelson didn’t kill herself. She couldn’t have.  

***

I walked back up the street to my house, slowly. Stepping in all the puddles I saw. It had started to rain lightly, wetting my face and hair. The early morning sunshine cast its light onto my bare, freckled arms. It was raining, but it wasn’t overcast. That was my favorite weather. Sun showers. No one was outside yet except for one or two cars driving down the street.

I tried to clear my mind, but how could I? How could I calm my thoughts when every spot on those streets had times spent with Friend? Times spent with Tuesday. Now that she was gone, all the memories of her were flooding my head all at once. I mean, it would have been one thing for me to have just found out that she had left. Robson probably would have come to tell me or asked me if I knew where she was. But it was just that she left a note. She confirmed it herself that she wouldn’t come back. And I was the only one who knew. It hurt a little more this way. A lot of things had hurt both of us, and it was all good and well for her to run away from it. But then she left me with it. Damn her.

I stopped walking and looked down at the small handprints on the sidewalk. This was where I first met Friend. I walked by these handprints every day, but I never stopped to think about the past. To go back in time. It was raining harder now, but I still sat down on the wet sidewalk in front of the hollow hand prints. My hands were so much bigger than those prints were. I couldn’t remember life before Tuesday, but I remembered the day I met her so vividly. 

I think I must have been four or five. It was raining just like it was now. The sun was out, but it was pouring. I remember running out the back door of my house. This part is a bit more hazy, almost like a dream. I mean, you would probably think you were dreaming if you found your older sister hanging in the basement. I didn’t know what was happening — I was only four, after all. I just remember being scared. And running out into the crying sun. I hid behind a big tree where I sat for hours in the rain. I didn’t cry. I just watched the little ladybugs march along in the wet grass. They didn’t care about the rain. They were just enjoying the golden glow before the sun was going to set. I was sitting there for so long. They must have thought I was a part of the grass and the trees and the flowers littered around my feet. If I had stayed there forever, flowers might start to grow and blossom up through my skin. And the grass would grow up, entangling with my arms and legs, rooting me to the ground. And I would have remained a little girl, frozen in time and in the earth. I may have stayed there forever.

If it weren’t for Tuesday. I remember hearing yelling coming from a block or two down. And then I saw her. She was spinning around in the middle of the road with flowers and grass tangled in her hair. But she kept looking back over her shoulder at where the yelling was coming from. Almost like she was trying to ignore it or hide from it somehow. She kept getting closer and closer to me, when all of a sudden, she tripped and fell on the grass. I watched as she slowly picked herself up and looked at her hands. I finally decided to pipe up. 

“Are you okay?” I asked in my timid voice. 

She jumped at the sound of my voice. I think I had startled her. But she took a moment to carefully look at me. 

“Why are you hiding?” 

I didn’t really fully realize I was hiding until she asked me that. I didn’t know how to answer that question, so I just shrugged my shoulders. She looked at me a little longer, so I looked at her. I remember first noticing her golden hair glowing in the light and her hazel green eyes that have not aged with time, even today. You can still see a child’s soul in those green eyes now. Then I remember she reached out her hand, the hand that was scraped and bloody from her fall. I took it, and she pulled me out of the shadow of the tree. I still had ladybugs crawling on my arms, and by now the rain had stopped, but I was still soaked to the skin. 

“Little, little ladybugs,” Tuesday started singing lightly to herself. “Little lady…” 

She sort of trailed off there. She was in a daze. Being four, I didn’t really think there was anything unusual about her behavior. Kids were supposed to play and act like they’re in a dream. I couldn’t believe I even remembered this much about meeting Tuesday, but the whole memory still felt like a hazy dream anyway. We sat there for a little while in silence, just being in each other’s company. Watching her golden hair, watching the ladybugs on my hands, seeing the scrapes on hers, watching the sun sink further into the sky. The day my sister killed herself was beautiful. Maybe that’s why it felt like a dream. Eventually Tuesday broke the silence. 

“Come with me.” 

She stood up and walked over to the sidewalk and sat down on the edge of the grass. I stood up, feeling the ladybugs fly off me when I stood. I sat down next to her and looked at her, waiting for her to say something, which she eventually did. 

“If you put your hands on the sidewalk, they’ll stay there forever.” 

The sidewalk in front of us had just been filled in. The cement was still wet. I remember putting our small, little hands out on the sun-kissed sidewalk. The wet cement felt weird, but we just sat there together. Sitting in silence as we made our mark on our block. The blood on her little hands mixed with the wet cement. We would never stop to look at those handprints. But they were always there. I don’t remember much of anything else about that day or the days after. I don’t remember the funeral; I don’t remember my mom’s endless tears; I don’t remember meeting my dad at that funeral; I don’t remember when my grandmother sank into her own grief. I know it all happened. I just simply don’t remember. All I remember is walking back into the house, shaking from the cold of the rain. I remember my mom wrapping her arms around my little body and crying into me, as if she were a child. I just remember saying in my little baby voice, “I found a friend.” 

And now where is she? How will I find her again? 

Tender

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

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

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

“Dine in or take out?” he said. 

“Dine in,” replied Jac. 

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

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

“Fine by me,” said Jac. 

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

“Alright.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you like it?” asked the butcher.

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

“Fresh is the key really.”

“I’m sure.”

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

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

“Agreed,” said Jac as he swallowed.

“Say, do you know about vegans?”

“Sure.”

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

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

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

“Right.”

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

“Right.”

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

“Like what?”

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

“Hmm.”

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

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

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

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

The butcher leaned towards him.

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

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

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

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

My Deep, Dark Secret

RANDY

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

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

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

RANDY (CONT’D)

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

RANDY waddles to a stool on the stage.

RANDY (CONT’D)

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

(Lowers his voice; breath shaking.)

 I still love you.

(He lets out a little penguin cry.)

RANDY (CONT’D)

(At a whisper.)

Wenk.

BLACKOUT

Thank You, 1844!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Excused

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

My Bright Blue Dreams

Editor’s Note: This story references self-harm and contains homophobic characters who use offensive slurs. 

Chapter One

Hello. I hate the word “hello.” I hate the word “shower.” I hate the word “cheese-stick.” I hate the word “hate” most of all. It puts a bitter taste in my mouth, and that’s why I hate it so much. Jeez, here I go again, thinking of a word that makes the sides of my mouth droop down even more. The teacher turns around to the class to see my scathing expression. 

He laughs. “Rain, does the scientific advancement of the printing press really make you want to burn the world down? I happen to think it is a very important part of history, and I would appreciate it if you give it some attention so you won’t have to go to summer school, despite the printing press’s pure and utter boringness.”

The nerds in the class laugh. I fake a little smile, but when he turns around again, I give such a goddamn dramatic eye roll at his goddamn obnoxious comment that my goddamn eyes hurt. I put my head down on the desk and wrap my arms around them like a little comforting burrito. Due to ordering a small instead of a large coffee this morning, I pass out until the bell rings, and I have to force myself up. 

I try not to meet the stares of people in the hallway because keeping eye contact is an extremely laborious process. Only when I get my life saving energy drink in 3rd period can I have the mental and physical motivation to cover myself with a plastic bag and suffocate the true person I am. To be the Rain that everyone loves to see. No one wants to be friends with a broken, sassy, gay boy. 

Chapter Two

Lunch comes around, and I am forced to sit with my friends and laugh and smile and wink at girls and act like a complete and utter jerk. You see, everyone wants to be me, everyone wants to have my friends, everyone wants to have my sense of humor, everyone wants to have my girlfriend, everyone wants to have my popularity. I wish I could give all of those things — except for the humor, of course — away. I wish it was as easy as giving someone a birthday present. But alas, I am known for not being a generous person, so maybe, just maybe, I keep these dreaded parts of myself because I like being able to taunt people about the things they don’t have. 

My friend, Brandon, snaps his fingers in front of my face. “Get out of your dumbass head, bro. Is it stormy in there, Rain?” he says, very amused by the extraordinarily idiotic pun that he made with my name.

Everyone at the table cracks up, and Brandon lightly shoves my head. They all go back to talking about who has the hottest girlfriend. You see, I never space out, I always listen — I can be in deep thought, but I will always hear what everyone else has to say. That’s the only way that I have been able to withstand these stupid conversations for so long. 

After my friends finish talking about girls, they move the conversation to one of my most dreaded topics: who can list the most reasons why Gregory is a f*g. The thing that perplexes me most is how I contribute the most to this conversation topic whenever it is brought up. With each fiery, disgusting word that comes out of my mouth, my throat burns more. And that burning of my throat travels down my body to my heart, my stomach, my legs, arms, feet, and everything else. When it travels everywhere, that’s when I act like the stupid jerk I am expected to be.

Chapter Three

Eventually, the school day ends, but I have to stay back in detention with Ms. Peder’s class because apparently drawing dicks on the whiteboard is “inappropriate.” I personally think it’s just gay. Either way, I drag myself to the classroom, but upon looking into the room, I stop dead in my tracks. In the back row of the seats are these blue, magnificently bright eyes shining though shiny, windswept hair that is dark as night, but an inviting kind of dark, a dark you want to explore. 

Ms. Peder clears her throat. “Rain, come in already, we don’t bite.” 

I reply with something smart and bitchy that I say purely out of instinct, but I don’t really realize what I say because all of my brain power is focused on not blushing and not staring at this boy. I hobble into the room and almost trip over a few desks until I find my favorite seat. This seat is right next to the window, and through that window you can look out into the pile of rubbish, overly enthusiastic lights, and broken but loyal people that come together to form what we like to call New York City in the 1980s. 

Looking out of this window distracts me from blushing and thinking about the guy right behind me. It’s kind of mesmerizing — the crowded landscape feels so small from the 5th floor, it makes me feel powerful. So I just sit there staring and craving to feel this power more intensely and craving to feel control at least over myself until the hour is over and I am free.

Chapter Four

As we get let out of the classroom, I feel a hand on my shoulder and turn around. I jump with surprise as I see those bright eyes again. He gives me a gentle smile.

“You never thought that you’d talk to one of us nobodys before, did you, Mr. Popular?” He says this in a very sly, unashamed but extremely cute and somehow flirtatious way.

No no no no. He’s got this all wrong, I don’t want this popularity, I don’t want any of this. I just want to escape. I really hope he can see that. I really hope he is joking. 

I mumble, “I — ”

“Save it.” And he smiles through one half of his mouth, winks, and walks away.

I stand there and stare as he leaves until I realize how dumb I look and how if anyone saw me gaping at this boy, my reputation would be ruined. But isn’t killing this reputation that I have what I want? Why am I so afraid of getting what I want? Maybe it’s because you can’t take back what you let out. The words of your truth will be permanently branded on your forehead for all to see.

Sometimes I wonder why I fear permanence when I practice the art of it, when all I want everlasting change, when I try all I can to secure something for the eternity of my existence. Hypocrites, aren’t we? Like writing on the bathroom wall, “Don’t write on the walls.” We fear becoming total hypocrites. But when we are what we fear, that’s when something even greater than permanence overtakes us. And that thing, that feared thing that we become, that dreaded thing is called being human.

It’s unavoidable.

Chapter Five

I head out of school, longing for something to clear my mind, not to erase it or change it, but just to clear enough space for happiness and satisfaction. So instead of doing what most people my age do, which is drugs, I lug my cans of spray paint with me in my backpack to the place that I always go to when I have this longing. You see, I bring spray paint with me most days at school because I never know when I am going to need to use them to distract me from my overflowing thoughts.

Chapter Six

I walk to the subway, past the guys sniffing cocaine on the stairs, past the turnstile, onto the platform. I press my back against the pillar on the platform based on habit so that no one can push me into the tracks in front of the train and smile as they watch my body get crushed. I don’t want to offer anyone that amusement.  

I get out of the train and drag myself up the steps. I walk and walk and walk and eventually stand below my destination, gazing up at it. I check behind me as I walk into the alleyway. Once I reach the end, I climb onto the dumpster and jump to reach the bottom rung of the fire escape. Upon hoisting myself up onto the fire escape, I start my exactly 284 step journey to the top. I climb up hearing the familiar and calming clank of my footsteps on the iron rungs. 

Eventually, at step 107, I get to the roof, but I don’t stop there like I used to when I was younger and afraid. So I run and leap from this roof onto the next. I live for the thrill of that jump, knowing that there is nothing under you but trusting that you will be safe. 

I use this momentum to jump onto the wall on a higher part of the building. From there I walk along the wall until I reach a ladder and from the top of that ladder, I carefully step onto the brick oasis I love more than my home. 

Underneath me is a pretty large brick floor and roof for whatever rats are living in the building. In front of me is a brightly lit, but not too obnoxiously bright, sign. The word “Pepsi” is spelled by these white cursive lights. Behind the sign is a brick wall about 12 feet high. On this wall is a mural that I have been creating for the past 3 years. Every week I come up here once to add patterns or images depicting what I wish myself to be, or what I wish the world to be. In my head I call it the dream mural — it’s what I dream to see if I were to kick that wall down and look out at the world. It is my own world, it is under my control, I can create anything I want and I can destroy anything.

If I turn around away from the sign, away from my dreams, I will see the city and its vastness. I will see the lights of buildings, cars, and the moon. It feels like standing at the edge of the world.

Chapter Seven

I decide to plug and unplug the Pepsi sign, making the light flicker. After a minute of flickering it to the beat of the song that is stuck in my head, I look across the street and see the sign spelling out “Cola” flickering to the same beat. I close my eyes in disbelief, but when I open them again, I see that sign flicker in the same way. Yes, that sign always flickers, but I swear, this time it is different. I smile at the thought of someone across the alleyway doing the same thing, and I suddenly don’t feel so alone. 

I look to the side of the sign and my heart skips a beat at what I see. I rub my eyes but when I look again, I see the same thing. To the left of that sign, I see the same two bright fluorescent eyes gazing back at me. I see a smile light up on his face. Not caring if I am imagining this or not, I smile back. 

I lift up my hand and begin to wave, but as my hand goes up, the light from the sign across the street flickers to black, and I am left waving at this big city. Little insignificant me, waving to this expanse of so much that is so much greater than me. But this time I am satisfied because I know somewhere in that city are those blue eyes, and at that moment, those blue eyes are mine.

Chapter Eight

I will never forget that moment, seeing or not seeing those eyes, because that was the last time I ever saw them. The next day at school I searched the halls, but I couldn’t find him. The principal said that he wasn’t coming back to school. No one really knew where he went, but there were rumors that he had to run away from home that night because he was gay or that his neighbors chased him away or that his father beat him to death or that he left without motive. No one will ever know what happened to him, and I will never know if I actually saw my bright blue dreams that night and his smile that illuminated the city stronger than all of those overly enthusiastic lights. 

The End

Flesh

Editor’s Note: Content warning for subject matter related to eating disorders

Script: This script is meant to be read in podcast format

Archivist:

Statement of Ichika Payne, regarding her time as an employee of Kenley Design Company.

Original statement given 10th of January, 2006. Audio recording done in 2020 by Katherine Adamos, head archivist of the Lampert Institute, London. Statement begins.

Statement:

My eating disorder developed as most do. I don’t really want to dwell on that, because I do not feel like explaining my life story to someone who is not my therapist, as that’s not what I’m here to talk about. But I will say that from a young age, I’ve experienced… real hunger. The deep, deep ache in your stomach when it’s truly empty, and it feels like a black hole inside you. It’s almost like a high, a weird feeling of purity.

I work as a designer. It’s ironic, as the fashion industry is known for being problematic in terms of body image. I’ve always loved fashion though, dressing up, going shopping. But it was never so much about how I felt in the clothes. It was more like… how I felt when people noticed me in them. My parents always told me that I was a sucker for praise, but I don’t think they knew just how right they were. As a child, I was constantly craving attention. Not in an obnoxious or over the top way… just, doing what I could to make people notice me. For example, being the prettiest, being the smartest. Things like that.

I suppose I do have a weird sort of fear surrounding… bodies. Meat, in general. My mother received liposuction when I was six. I had asked her where what they took out would go, and she told me she didn’t know. Even now, I can remember my six-year-old self picturing that bloody fat and flesh, still warm from my mother’s body, swirling down a hospital drain, smeared on white tile.

I apologize for the tangent. In the summer of 2005, I was fresh out of college, and looking for somewhere to start my career, preferably a smaller company, as I wanted to work where there was a good chance of my clothes being made and put on sale. I lived in Bristol at the time, and it wasn’t too hard to find a recent startup brand. Kenley, they were called.

I had submitted some of my winter designs online, and went in for an interview only a week later. According to their website, I was looking for a woman named Patricia. No last name or anything. Just Patricia.

She was a strikingly tall Turkish woman, gaunt, and had the bluest eyes I’d ever seen. The same opaque sky blue a colored pencil might be. She was so thin, so angular. Her bones looked like they could cut. She must have been in her mid-forties, but it was… hard to tell. Upon meeting her, I automatically felt a sense of respect for her. She exuded the confidence of a leader, even though she was only the supervisor of the fifteen people who worked in the studio.

The interview went well enough, I suppose. The building I would be working in was a nondescript two story brick building somewhere downtown. She asked me a few questions about previous work I’d done, what my goals were, that sort of thing, all the while twirling her thick, bleach white hair around a long, thin finger. Looking back on that moment, I feel as if I should’ve known something was wrong when I observed how… sharp her nails looked. Long and pointed, as an acrylic nail would be. But those nails weren’t fake.

I got the job fairly easily. I take pride in my work, and I’d like to say that I got in based on skill alone. But… now I’m not so sure.

The environment there was fairly quiet, only the sounds of graphite moving against paper and the whir of a slightly dented space heater in the corner. The floors were a grey tile, and always sparkling clean. The smell of bleach was quite pervasive.

I didn’t talk to my colleagues very often, aside from idle chat at break times. Any conversations we had were… stilted, as well. Like it was difficult for them to remember the right words to say. Like they hadn’t used their voices in a while. I ignored this well enough. I had barely any friends outside of work, so I took what interactions I could.

Lunch was an interesting matter. The first day I got there, I expected my colleagues to leave their desks and head for the break room at noon, the scheduled time for lunch. However, no one moved. They just all kept their heads bent over their desks and… continued working. I never saw a single person there eat.

At first, I thought I was just among hard workers. It was almost a relief, to be honest. I didn’t have to go through the trouble of excusing why I wasn’t eating lunch, or carrying around an empty lunch bag for the appearance. No one would bat an eye if the only thing I consumed was tea with metamucil stirred in, they were so focused on their work.

But, as time progressed, I started to feel a bit… suspicious? Of my colleagues. They were diverse enough, mostly Malay women, a white lady with red hair whose name I could never remember, and a few men. Whenever I chatted with them, they clearly didn’t keep up with any of the news or popular culture. And of course I can relate to that, I’m not the most updated person but. At least I vaguely knew what was going on in the world. At least it seemed like I checked my phone once in a while.

And the way they were so focused on their work. Constantly at their desks, sketching and sketching and sketching. (pause) I never once saw any of their designs, as they never got published or created. I’m not sure if what they were designing was clothes at all.

Patricia was much different from them. Comparing her to my colleagues was like… comparing a child’s picture book to a novel. She always wore sleek black pantsuits, white coils down to her shoulders, and those nails. Always painted a bright neon pink, and sharp enough to cut. I was more than a little enamored with her, in the way a student might crush on her professor.

She was everything I wanted to be. Often, during the lunch breaks, I would go to her office, she would pull out two Diet Cokes from her mini fridge, and we would talk. About nothing in particular. Fashion, I suppose. I can’t really remember. Her presence was a bit blinding, and I always felt oddly nervous, or giddy, going to talk to her. I suppose maybe that’s what muddied my memory. I’m usually very collected, but I couldn’t help but just… want her praise. I wanted her to like me. She was… ethereal.

We never discussed… eating issues or the like. But there is one thing I distinctly recall her saying to me. I hesitate to call it a memory. It felt almost unreal, like an echo of a conversation.

That day Patricia had seemed more… aggressive. Her usual elegant demeanor replaced by something more (pause) ravenous, though I could see her quite obviously trying to suppress herself. During our usual time together she seemed almost… impatient with me, as if she were talking to a child.

For me, one of the worst feelings in the world is being unwanted, especially from this woman, this role model of mine. I made up some excuse and stood to leave, saying I needed to finish one of my winter designs.

As I reached the door, I felt one of her hands close around my wrist. She had been all the way across the room, and it startled me at how fast she’d closed the gap between us. Her sharp nails were digging into my skin, and for how thin she was, her grip was strong, unnaturally strong. I don’t doubt she could have crushed my hand.

Fear pulsed through me.

There is not enough meat on your bones.”

Now, people have said that to me plenty of times. A casual joke or a knowing look from a professor. 

But she growled it at me. The black hole where my stomach used to be sobbed in hunger, and all I could do was stare into her shallow, sky blue eyes.

She released her nails, and I ran.

When I left her office, every single one of my coworkers had their eyes trained on me. At the time I thought it was just because I’d made some sort of commotion. 

Looking back, I’m fairly certain I was the only one in that room breathing.

I knew I had made a mistake. I left work five hours early, and all my papers and supplies were still on my desk. The deadline for submitting a line of dresses I designed was next week, and I desperately needed to work on them. 

My heart pounded with anxiety and panic, and I paced around my practically empty apartment, feeling cold with horror and a bit of embarrassment. I decided I would go in once the work day ended, grab my things and go. Then, come into work the next day, pretend nothing happened, and keep living my life.

So, at 8 pm, I took the bus back downtown, plugged in the code to unlock the front door, the smell of bleach and floor cleaner not quite as potent as it usually was, and carefully walked up the stairs to the second floor. I’d never been in the building this late in the evening, and the pools of darkness where the setting sun didn’t reach gave me terrible unease.

It felt oddly warm in the building. I was wearing my fall clothes, and sweat was slowly dampening my turtleneck. I was too scared to turn on any lights, and I didn’t know if anyone was still in, so I walked with light footsteps. I noticed a sticky substance on the floor, causing my boots to create an ugly suction sound. I kept walking, the steps getting stickier the more stairs I climbed, and the usual clean smell fading.

I will try my best to describe what I saw when I pushed my way through the door.

My colleagues were there. Still sitting at their desks. Not scribbling on paper, but just… sitting there, eyes wide open, facing forward.

However, there was a yellow-ish oily substance slowly dripping from their legs. As if the bottoms of their feet were removed, and they were left to drain. The murky white completely flooded the white tile of the room, and it smelled awful. It smelled of fat and of rot and infection.

And Patricia. I could see her standing casually at my desk, leaning on it, nothing covering her upper body, and covered in large stripes of red. Heat was radiating from the spot she stood in, and I could see the steam hovering around her. 

She extended one arm, bicep facing up, and used one of those bright, pink nails to slowly saw through her flesh, the same way one might carve a piece of meat. She peeled it off with a sickening rip, and flung it to the tile.

I watched as that same substance seeped from her, trickled down her forearm and legs, her trousers soaked to her thin, boney calves.

I vomited.

And funnily enough, my first thought was that I ruined a pair of £70 corduroy pants.

Sixteen pairs of eyes turned to leer at me, but none of them were human. Not anymore.

I made a brief moment of eye contact with what used to be Patricia. Her smile revealed a set of sharp canines dripping with what I can only assume was blood. 

I saw her mouth form a word, a question.

“Hungry?”

I tripped while sprinting out of the building, even though there was no one chasing me.

I never went back to work. I simply… packed up and left the city. I’m currently staying with my parents in Leeds, and have started receiving clinical help for my disorder. I’m not sure if I’ll ever receive any answers for what happened at Kenley, and I’ve decided that’s for the best. I just… needed to tell someone. Do what you will with this information. Thank you for your time.

Archivist:

(sigh) Statement ends. As this Patricia was not described to have any last name, I can assume that Ms. Payne encountered the entity formerly known as Patricia Yilmaz. We believe it is now working for either the Corruption or Viscera. There are no details concerning the address or location of Kenley Design Studio, other than sparse descriptions of downtown Bristol. When research was done online for the company, a website did pop up, but had been deactivated two months ago. Figures. When I sent in Tom to do a bit of reconnaissance, he found a multitude of two story brick buildings, none of which had any signage to distinguish between them. 

When we contacted Ms. Payne, she refused to disclose the location of the studio, and had no new information for us, other than the fact that, about a month ago, a bill with no forwarding address was sent to her new home in Munich, charging her 87.56 pounds, the exact price of 44 cans of diet coke.

Recording ends.

End audio

Cold

Cool and empty breaths

Leave and return

From my once vibrant colored body.

The warmth that once existed

In the transparent liquid that

Flowed through my veins 

Has now come to a halt.

It oozes and drips

From the rigid and deep wounds

That now decorate my lifeless body.

Though not inflicted these unrelenting lashes

Were obtained and accepted.

Inflicted by the creator of all,

Life.

Year after year

The sharper the simmering blade

She used Became.

It’s slick, but yet finely sharpened body

Was inserted deeper and deeper as 

Time moved forward.

Tearing deeper into my flesh.

The more the scars grew 

The more my wounds bled.

The more something within

Began to fade away.


Bad American Food

There was once a diner on the highway. It was small and dinky, but charming in that old time sense. It invoked a 50’s style aesthetic, with a shiny metallic roof and dim neon signs announcing to the world that it is, in fact, open. The food was bad, no doubt about it. But the people were nice, and the music wasn’t too intrusive, and anyway no one would stay here for very long. After all, it was on the highway. The owner, Johnny Smith, would always say he was gonna start up a new place, up on the 88. He never did though. Barely had enough to scrap this place together, he’d always reasoned.

There once was a Chinese restaurant, in a city far away from the highway. It was never successful, but it made enough to stay afloat. With a red awning covered with yellow Chinese characters, and English ones underneath, it did little to separate itself from anyone else in Chinatown. The food wasn’t particularly special here either, but no one could really tell. After all, did Americans really understand Chinese food? It was named Wang’s, but the owner was named Luo Jinping. He’d always say that a Chinese restaurant needed to be pronounceable by Americans to be successful. Some days, he would look across the street from his home above the restaurant and gaze out at the masses of people crowding the sidewalk, and he’d pray that at least one of them would find him.

There was once a pizza place, deep in suburbia. It was called “Empire Pizza,” and its gimmick was that it was vaguely modeled after the Empire State Building. Inside were all sorts of New York inspired props and scenery. The kids loved it. Day after day they poured in, ordering pizza, ice cream, pasta, meatballs, and Empire’s signature “Deluxe 5th Avenue Sundae Supreme.” The food itself was, of course, nothing to write home about. Parents only came here because how else would they get their kids to shut up about it? The owner, Jim Evans, liked to greet customers on weekends. Every time he saw a parent and their children walk in, he felt a little pang of regret in his heart.

There once was a wildly successful fast food chain, which sold overcooked burgers and obscenely salty French fries. They were called Sally’s Fries, and their mascot was a little blond girl holding a spatula. Sally was the founder’s daughter. Allegedly, she had made those very first fries all on her own, and her daddy made a business out of selling them. Of course, Sally never did make those fries, and she always resented her father for making her into a marketing tool. Though she objected countless times, her face eventually became a very lucrative one. Her father always regretted estranging her, but hey, at least he made some money off of it.

I was once very hungry, so I searched for restaurants on Google Maps. On the highway was a small diner, in the city was a Chinese place, in the suburbs was a pizzeria, and in two places near me was a fast food outlet.

But they all were below four stars, so I passed and opened Seamless instead.


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

 

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.

 

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.

 

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 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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

The Haunted House

                 

Chapter One

Once there was a spooky haunted house, and a vampire lived in it. It had a lot of spooky things in it like ghosts. Everybody was scared of it. They stayed away from it. The haunted house was in the woods. The woods were dark, gloomy, and misty. The trees were really short. The woods also had a lot of vines, grass, and animals. There were snakes, wolves, and monkeys.

The house was wrecked. The windows and door were broken. It was rusty and had clearly been there for a long time. An old man named Jake used to live there, but he died, and it was really sad. Nobody lived there after that. The villagers did not know about Jake. Nobody liked the house because it was so dirty and nasty now, so the people lived on the other side of the forest. The village had a lot of people. No one had ever seen it except for one man, and he told everybody.

But one day, there were two boys named Alex and Max. They loved to explore in the woods, but one day they were exploring and found a house, so they ran back to the village. They asked somebody who knew about the haunted house.

The guy said, “That house is super dangerous. Do not ever go in there again.”

And then they went to bed, and in the morning, they went back to explore in the woods, but they didn’t go to the house because they knew it was really dangerous. After they explored, they went to the village and geared up because they were going back to the haunted house. But then they realized it was too dangerous and went back. Then, they went home together and watched a TV show about people exploring. And then they geared up in the morning to go to the haunted house. They went to the haunted house, and they saw a ghost, so they hid behind a bush. The ghost started chasing them, so they ran away. Then, they saw two feet and thought, Who was that guy? And then when they went to bed, they couldn’t sleep, so they hid under the covers, and they talked about who that guy could be. And then that morning when their parents were sleeping, they went to the haunted house again, and nobody was there. And then they went back and told everybody. Nobody believed that they saw a ghost.

And then an old man walked by, and Alex and Max asked, “Have you seen a ghost?”

 

Chapter Two

One day, Alex and Max went into the woods and explored the woods.

They wanted to see the haunted house. They ducked under a bush to see a ghost. There were two ghosts on guard. They saw Alex and Max.

“Run!” said Max.

They ran so fast, they ran out of breath. When they got to village, they ran home as fast as they could.

They told their dad, “We saw a ghost!”

The dad did not believe the kids.

And they said, “We really did see one, Dad!”

The dad said, “Did you really see one?”

The kids said, “Yes, we did really see a ghost.”

And then Dad said, “It’s time for bed.”

In the morning, they went into the woods to see the haunted house. This time, there was no ghost on guard, so they went in the house and saw one ghost. It was not scary. The ghost had scared the kids because the ghost had turned his head, so they thought he was scary. So they ran as fast as they could, but the ghost tried to tell them he was nice. The kids heard the ghost’s voice.

 

Chapter Three

The kids ran back to the house and realized that the ghost was nice. They wondered why.

They ran back home. They ran into their room and hid under the covers. The ghost tried to tell them he was nice, but they did not listen to the ghost. They went back to the haunted house, and they hid behind a bush and went in the house and saw the ghost was in the house. They hid behind the chair. The ghost was on the other chair with a book in his lap. He was sad because Max and Alex ran away because they thought he was mean. The ghost saw Alex and Max.

The ghost said, “Stay. I am nice.”

Alex and Max said, “We saw you when you screamed?”

“I know. I tried to tell you that I am nice.”

“But why?”

“My whole family is mean, but I am not. They do not know that I am mean. I try to keep it a secret, because my family always tells me to be bad. But I want to be good. Oh, my dad is coming. Quick, hide. Hey, Dad.”

“Son, who was that? That was other ghost?”

“Oh okay. Was that Aunt Marry?”

“No, did you sneak people in the house?”

“No, I didn’t!”

“Quick, quick, Alex and Max, get outside, quick!”

Max and Alex ran as fast as they could and went to the village. They told their dad that they went to the haunted house, but their dad did not believe them. They went back to their own house. Their brother Jake was getting married to Elizabeth. Alex and Max walked in as the ceremony was happening, and then Jake and Elizabeth kissed.

Alex and Max said, “Let’s go. This is boring.”

They went to the haunted house to see the ghost. The ghost was upstairs in his room. The dad was in the ghost’s room with him because the dad got mad at the ghost because the ghost let in humans. The ghost tried to tell him that he didn’t let in humans, but he actually did and was just lying so he wouldn’t get in trouble.

The dad went downstairs, and Alex said, “Hide quick! The dad is coming.”

The ghost’s dad was the vampire. The kids were so surprised that the dad was the vampire. They ran out of the house. They hid under their covers because they were so surprised that the dad was the vampire. They went back to the house to see the ghost. The vampire was not there, but the ghost was. The ghost was upset because his dad got mad at him because he took his favorite toy away. The dad was coming down stairs.

They ran to their house. They said they were not going to that house tomorrow. So, they thought of a plan. They said, “Alex, you will go upstairs to see if the vampire is there.” They said, “Max, you will stay downstairs to see if the ghost was downstairs. If the ghost is not downstairs, come up and help me. If the vampire is not there, then come down and help me.” Then, they snuck around the house to see if anyone was there. But then, they saw a loose board, and they pushed on it! They saw every ghost downstairs, but the nice ghost was not there because he was in a timeout because the dad thought he let humans in. He actually didn’t, but he was kind of lying, so he wouldn’t get in trouble. They saw every other ghost downstairs, and the vampire was there too. They saw the ghost in his room, and he was really mad because he was in timeout.

They said, “Are you okay?”

And he replied, “Don’t talk to me.”

After a few hours, his dad said he could go to the ghost party. When the vampire came up, they hid under the bed.

The ghost said, “Shhh! Hide under the bed!”

They went to the ghost party and hid right behind the door so that nobody saw them. Then after the ghost party was over, every ghost went to bed. After a couple hours, Alex and Max went to bed. The next day, they woke up and ran to the haunted house. They checked under the broken tunnel, and nobody was there. They checked upstairs — lots of ghosts were there. They were sleeping, but they did not care. They just went into another room. After they went into the ghost’s bedroom, they checked on the vampire to see if he was sleeping. They went back downstairs to watch TV until the ghost friend woke up. They switched channels because all of them were so scary.

 

Ham and Cheese

 

I had just taken BART home from work, the day I met it. Correction: met him. It was hot out, the walk from the station to my house was miserable, and I recall being relieved it was only five minutes. The cars sped by on the road next to me, engines humming loudly. I walked up my driveway, opened the front door, turned off the alarm, and took my shoes off, the usual routine. Then, I grabbed my laundry hamper and hustled down the rickety staircase to the the washing machine in my basement. I opened the machine, dumping my laundry in. As I turned to get my laundry detergent, a flash of color caught my eye. I looked back at my laundry machine and found myself staring right into the eyes of a fish. It was red with tinges of blue on its head and fins. In all, it was about as big as my two fists placed side by side, pretty large for a fish. I didn’t scream, or run away. I just stared open-mouthed. I probably looked like a fish myself. The fish wiggled his way above the surface of my dirty socks, until I could see his entire upper body, as he used his pectoral fins to balance on the rim of the laundry machine. At the time, it didn’t occur to me that fish need water to survive. This fish apparently swam in dirty laundry.

“Ham and cheese,” he said. I stared. “A guy gets mighty hungry when he’s trapped in a laundry machine all day,” he huffed. “Would you please get me some ham and cheese?”

“Ham and cheese,” I repeated idiotically.

“Yes,” he said, “not in a sandwich though, I can’t stand ham and cheese sandwiches. I eat them separately.”

I’m not the questioning type; I do what I’m told. I found shredded mozzarella in my refrigerator and a slice of ham and brought them to the basement. I dropped them into my laundry machine, watching in shocked silence as the fish devoured them both.

“Much better. Thank you,” he said. He leaned over the edge of my machine, peering into my laundry hamper. “Let’s see now, two pairs of jeans, three T-shirts, and a pair of socks. You sure have a lot of socks, you know. There were fifteen pairs in your last load!”

 

The Room on the Fifth Floor (Part 1)

.    

I flopped onto my bed and screamed into my pillow, “UGHHH!! This is going to be the absolutely worst spring break ever!”

“Caitlyn Allen, do not use that tone in this house.” Mom followed me into my room, raising her voice.

“Can you please, please just leave me alone?” I said quietly. She walked out, taking a deep breath. Mom was a busy lady, being the CEO for the Allen Corporation, and all, so she rarely had the time to go on vacation. I knew I was being difficult, but how could I help it? After all, I was staying at Aunt Mildred’s, the most miserable, uptight lady I’ve ever met. She was my father’s sister and had become more evil when he died two years ago from the deadly car crash — when I was in seventh grade.

Dad was an intelligent chemist, so when he passed, everyone was devastated, especially me.  Seriously, I have had many, many memories with Aunt Mildred — all of which have been unpleasant. For example, there was this time where she made me clip her toenails and rub her feet, and even the time where she made me give her angry, clawing cat,  Kiki, a bath. I lay in bed contemplating my life and how I was going to one day run away from my home, Shelby, Alabama, to maybe somewhere like Hawaii, no, maybe Bora Bora?

Don’t worry, Caitlyn, I mean at least you’ll be able to see Ethan. No, no, no. I haven’t seen him since I was ten years old! It’s been 5 years, he is definitely not going to remember me. Oh well, I have to go anyway.

Mom hollered, “Come on, Caitlyn, we are leaving in half an hour. There will be some traffic, so get packing!” Mom had to catch a flight to Shanghai for a conference and did not trust me to stay home for two weeks by myself after the last time. Let’s just say, last time I may have made the house a mess from the pure joy of freedom I had felt. I threw some shirts, shorts, toothbrush, phone, and other stuff into my purple, plaid backpack and jogged out to the driveway. Mom was waiting in the car, speaking on the phone, as always.

She spoke loudly into her earbuds, “Mildred, hello. Yes, yes. Do not worry. We are on our way…. No, no… Yes. She will be on the best behavior… Okay, bye, bye. ”

She hung up and pointedly looked at me, “Be on your best behavior, Caitlyn. Aunt Mildred is our only family left, so you are going to be — ”

“Mom, I know, I know. Like you always say, ‘be the best, most courteous person that way you’ll go through life without getting hurt.’ You’ve said just about five billion times.” I spoke annoyed at her insensitivity. Mom backed out of the driveway, the car ride to the dreaded Aunt Mildred’s was filled with a grudgeful silence. Aunt Mildred lived in the countryside of Alabama — in the spooky town of Beatrice. Tall, branchy oak trees were abundant there, so much so that very little light could reach the town. Aunt Mildred had the largest house there, from what and for what I do not know.

I was lost in my thoughts until Mom interrupted, me, “Ahem, time to stop dreaming. We are here.” It was now seven o’clock at night, and it was almost pitch black. Caw, caw, caw! The crows here freaked me out, but definitely not as much as the mansion itself. Looking up, I saw the towering, once-white mansion. It was tall, with five floors, and large, with 52 rooms. The paint was peeling and graying, and the yellow, flickering lights did not help with its appearance. It looked unkempt with the ivy vines slowly wounding its weigh up the columns.  Honestly, it looked like no one lived there. That is, until you saw the hot pink Lamborghini and heard the creaking of the stairs only to see a tall, haughty lady walk towards us. Click! Clack! Click! Clack! I lowered my eyes only to see two hot pink stilettos, which had to be at least seven inches tall, approaching me.

Then, they stopped, and I heard her snobby voice, “Now, now, Caitlyn Clarisse Allen. That is no way to greet your auntie, is it now?”

I forced myself to look up and mumbled clenching my fists, “Hello, Aunt Mildred.” She smiled fakely revealing her perfect white teeth, while her jet black hair was pulled back neatly in a bun. She was really, truly an image to be feared. Seriously, how could you not fear a lady in a tight pink pantsuit?

Walking past me, she hollered in a high pitched manner, “Oh, Marilyn! Come give me a hug, deary!”

Mom, who was trying to hide in the car because she was on a “conference call” rolled her eyes and faked a smile. “Mildred! How are you? We’ve missed you,” Mom hollered back.

Aunt Mildred exhaled in an irritated manner, “Come out of your darn BMW!” Mom stepped out, her face heating up. Suddenly, through the bushes, I felt someone or something tap my arm.  I turned around, looking through the leaves and spiderwebs (ew) of the bush, and saw a tan arm coming for me. I gasped, Seriously… I’ve literally been here for two minutes and a zombie is already out to get me. Greeeaaat. I pulled my gaze away from the bush, but curiosity overcame me, and I tiptoed to the other side of the bush. In the distance I could hear Mom and Aunt Mildred faking a polite conversation even though everyone knows that they’ve hated each other ever since Mom got married.

“Hey, is that you Catie? It’s me Ethan!” I heard a deep voice whisper in front of me. I looked up to see him. Is that really him? He looks so much taller and so… different. His skin was olive tan (how it became this tan I’m not sure, I mean come on, there’s like no sun in this town), his brown hair was tousled but somehow looking put together. “Hello? Are you going to respond, or are we just gonna have a staring contest?” he asked with a smirk on his face. I felt my face grow hot and my hands clammed up. I forgot I was staring at him.

“Hey, sorry. I go by Cate now. I remember you,” I said rushedly.

Then, a screeching voice broke up the silence, “Caaaiiitttllllyyyn, young lady! Come into the house now. I know you’re in that Evan boy’s lawn!”

Ethan rolled his eyes, but started to laugh. “Hahaha, I just love that cranky lady — don’t you?”

I responded in absolute disbelief, “Um, nope, not at all. Not one bit.” Ethan laughed and I giggled sprinting back to the mansion before Aunt Mildred could yell at me again.

“Oh, good. You’re back. Let me introduce you to the maid,” Aunt Mildred said as she waved me into the mansion. I stepped into the mansion, and it looked exactly like it was five years ago — same black marble floor with a giant marble staircase leading to the East and West Wing. An extremely freaky statue of what looked like a gargoyle greeted me upon my arrival. On my right was the sitting room. I mean it’s sole purpose was for sitting, but no one actually sat there. Big, plump, velvet chairs surrounded one antique looking wooden table carved with beautiful detail. On my left there was Aunt Mildred’s office. I’ve never been in there, but I’ve seen through the door crack. It was actually nice and bright in there. Very pink, also. A wonderful smell wafted to my nose — mmmm… was that pork chops with mashed potatoes? Yum! I tried walking to the kitchen which was in the back, but Aunt Mildred’s bony hand held onto my shoulder.

“Not so fast, young lady. You must meet Caroline first! Ah, here she comes,” she said in her usual omniscient tone.

A stout elderly lady rushed over in an apron with a feather duster and says in a British accent, “Come, Miss Caitlyn, let me show you to your room. I have put your bag in there already.” She turns around, and her curly gray hair bounces up and down. Hmmm… I definitely do not remember this lady when I was here five years ago. She must be at least a hundred. Wow… just ancient. I climbed the staircase with her, and once we neared the top, we encountered three long hallways. Two of them were brightly lit with magnificent chandeliers, but the other one … well, let’s just say it was creepy as heck! The westernmost hallway was so dark that all you could see was one door, that had a crack of light streaming through the bottom. I peered in further and saw two green orbs of light blinking at me. I gasped in fear and tried to look away.

Caroline must have seen my agape mouth and wide eyes, for she quickly turned me around facing the center hallway and whispered in my ear, “Miss Caitlyn, you are strongly forbidden to go into the West wing. Specifically the fifth floor. Mistress Mildred’s orders.” Her cold voice evoked shivers and made me more drawn to the West wing. Then, she forcefully grabbed my hand, and she dragged me briskly into the center hallway. It took my breath away, and I felt my eyes widen, devouring all that was around me. The walls studded with sparkling gems of all sorts. The color and the sparkle weren’t all though. There were paintings too. Some of flowers, others of trees. I felt a pulling at my chest. Dad loved nature so very much. Suddenly I was no longer in this creepy mansion. I was in Muir Forest with Dad, hiking and having a jubilant time. This day, three years ago, was one of the best days I have ever had. This is what flashbacks have been like for me. I should probably take the meds my therapist prescribed.

“Ahem, Miss Caitlyn, shall we get going?” Caroline said, waking me up from the pleasant day dream.  Turning around, I faced another wall. I felt intrigued. There was a huge black and white photograph that covered the whole wall. I squinted, wait a second… that must be Aunt Mildred when she was just a young girl. One would be ignorant to not recognize the jet black hair and sharp nose of hers. She was smiling, something I have never seen her do. Furthermore, she was holding the hand of a boy shorter than her. It had to be Dad. He looked quite different from when I knew him. Curly brown hair sprouted from his round head, his jovial face smiling, revealing his missing front teeth. I missed him.

Tears threatened to escape, but taking a deep breath, I entered the open door which had always been my room here and was elated to see more beautiful decor. Anyone could have guessed that this had been Aunt Mildred’s childhood room, for it was very pink… but beautiful nonetheless. A delicate, little chandelier hung in the center of the circular room. The light reached out to every wall of the room and filled the room with a magical, golden glow. There was an ornate, white dresser next to a dainty pink closet, filled with small, pink clothing. Facing the entrance there was a white, frilly bed — decorated with lace pillows and a pink, faux fur comforter. My favorite part of this room was the balcony, for its French doors opened out to a porch facing Ethan’s window. His baby blue curtains were closed, but a bright light permeated through. His nicely groomed yard and smaller brick home were neat and homely looking. Definitely the opposite of this creepy mansion.

“I’ll leave you here to get ready for dinner. See you later, Miss Caitlyn.” Caroline waved goodbye without a look back.

“Bye, Caroline. Thank you,” I said, but she was already out the door. Sheesh, all the people that work here are so hostile. Reminds me of the kids back at home at Westwood High. Starting to settle in, I suddenly felt a sense of loneliness. I had no one here, except for Aunt Mildred, but she can’t count. I mean come on, have you even seen that lady? I guess I have Ethan. He could be a good choice for a friend. My thoughts were then interrupted by none else, but the one and only, Aunt Mildred.

“Caitlyn!! Come down already. It’s been an hour! Your food is getting cold and eaten by flies.” Aunt Mildred’s high-pitched voice rang throughout the house. Sure enough, I checked my phone and it was already 7:29. It literally felt like five minutes. Ughhh. I dragged myself out of bed and rushed down the stairs. When I exited, I once again encountered the West Wing. Don’t look. Don’t look, Cate. I couldn’t help it. Peering in, I saw the two green orbs again. I got so close to them that I felt everything slow down, and suddenly I felt nauseous.  My eyes widened in fear and my legs felt stuck in place — I couldn’t move. What was that? This mansion is definitely haunted.

“Miss Caitlyn, are you alright? You have been standing there for quite a while now,” Caroline said in a worried tone as her small hand came to rest on my shoulder.

Ummm… I was only standing there for like 30 seconds!

“Caroline, is th-th-there something in that hallway?” I asked quietly.

Caroline replied, “No, sweetie. Nothing. No one uses it, that’s all.”

I looked at her straight in the eyes, “Honest?”

“Honest.”

“Also, Caroline?”

“Yes?”

“Could you please call me Cate. It makes me feel less creeped out by everything and everyone here.”

Caroline hesitated at first, not sure what to say.

“Oh, not you! You are probably one of the more normal people here.”

“Why thank you, Cate,” Caroline replied with the first warm smile I’ve seen all day.

Caroline led me to the dining room. Again, I must have forgotten just how truly beautiful the mansion was. The largest, most luminescent chandelier hung from the decorated ceiling. Yes, I know right. How extra! Who even looks at the ceiling? Little pieces of clear jewels hung from the chandelier like beautiful water droplets. In the middle, there was a long, sandalwood dining table, the legs carved with beautiful images of flowers and herbs. There was one lone plate in the middle of the huge table. Nothing else filled the table. I mean, sure. I usually eat my dinner alone anyway, but this was a whole new level of loneliness. There was an irksome silence, for even Caroline had disappeared. Well, I guess it’s just me and the ghost now. The thought still filled me with shivers, but the delicious smell of pork chops made my mouth water. I couldn’t stop wondering where Aunt Mildred was though. Whatever, it doesn’t matter. She’s probably plotting her next evil conquest. Sinking into the deep red velvet chair, I began to dig into the pork chops and mashed potatoes. Just when I was on my last bite of food, there was a rapping on the front door. I rushed to peer through the door hole to see who this mysterious stranger was. It was Ethan! Unlocking the chains to the door, I opened the door and he rushed in, his eyes wild. He was breathing heavily and scrambled to sit on a loveseat.

“Cate… you gotta believe me. I’ve been seeing crazy… things,” Ethan said between breaths.

“What?! I’ve seen enough crazy for one day!” I said exacerbated. “Also, let’s go into the dining room, I’m just finishing up dinner.”

We rushed quietly into the dining room where Ethan sat on the dining chair next to me.

“Mmmmm… that looks good.”

“Yep, it’s pretty amazing.” I replied through bites. “Do you want any?”

Suddenly, Ethan sucked in air, and I tried to see where he was looking. He continued to stare at my plate with his mouth agape. I looked down predicting the worst. Oh. My. God.

I tried to scream, but Ethan covered my mouth with his hand and said, “Shhh… at least it’s not a bad surprise?” On my plate, sitting there, like the pork chops and mashed potatoes had never been there, was a single slice of red velvet cake. It’s cream cheese frosting and moist looking cake beckoned me to eat it, but I couldn’t. After all, it did just appear from thin air.

“Well, what are you waiting for? That is just about the tastiest red velvet cake I’ve ever seen… so if you’re not gonna eat, I am!” Ethan said, clearly not understanding my point of view.

“Um, not to burst your bubble or anything, but it literally came from nowhere. Like magic, poof! Who knows where it has been? Maybe it’s been poisoned,” I said, flabbergasted.

This whole house was strange and there were always new surprises. I didn’t know how to feel about it. I mean, I was a girl who hated surprises. I was a girl who planned by days out meticulously. I was a girl who turned my homework in early. I was a girl that liked to stay in the comfort of her room. I was anything, but spontaneous. The whole situation really freaked me out.

“Where do you think it came from?” I asked, my voice shaking a little.

“Erm… ” Ethan looked around, “I-I don’t know. There’s no one here.”

Ethan paced around the dining table, looking ready to fight at anytime, “This house is freaking me out. Let’s get outta here.”

 

I nodded, completely overwhelmed, so he pulled on my hand, and we got up. We ran outside. Across the cobbly path with many deadly looking potholes we went, and I was quite surprised that I didn’t die. He stopped once we got to his perfect white, wooden porch lined with succulents. We both collapsed onto the comfy porch swing, our breathing still ragid from sprinting away from that creepy mansion.

“Look! Do you see that? What in the world is that?!” Ethan said with a hint of fear.

He pointed up at the mansion’s roof, and its chimney was truly doing something out of this world. It was spouting out red smoke, that in turn, sprinkled onto the roof in the form of powder.

“I have no idea. I have been in this town for less than a day and suddenly, all these crazy things are happening. And I don’t know why, but this place reminds me of my dad… ” I said on the verge of bursting into tears.

Ethan replied, unsure what to say, “Oh… I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to — never mind, let me just fill you in on what’s been happening these few days.”

Sitting on the steps of his porch, he told me that crazy signs have been coming up starting the last two days. Everyday at 8pm, green, yellow, and sometimes red smoke is emitted from the chimney leaving the roof a powdered mess.

“But listen, Cate. It’s not just the fumes that are abnormal. You see, through my parents’ bedroom, I have the perfect view of a dark hallway,” Ethan said on a roll.

“Woah there, Ethan, slow down. The West wing? The dark hallway is the one Aunt Mildred told me not to go in,” I said disbelievingly.

“Yeah, yeah. The West wing. But get this — the hallway has these tiny green light things that fly all the way to the fifth floor. I can’t really see what’s on the fifth floor exactly. All I know is that Ms. Mildred goes in there every so often,” Ethan said, excited to be part of an adventure.

Feeling faint, I whispered, “I saw those while I was walking past the West Wing hallway. It’s near my room. C’mon, we’ve got to go.”

I grabbed Ethan’s hand, pulling him up from the porch, and we started to run back to the mansion. It was getting, cold and my hands and feet felt numb. We pushed through the cold, running along the windy cobbly path. I couldn’t help but shiver, not from just the cold, but also the creepiness of the dark looming trees. Were the cackling crows up there perhaps making fun of us? Running up the cobblestone driveway careful not to twist an ankle, we finally reached the doorway. The only light shining was that of an old lantern emitting an orange light. There was an eerie silence as we stood at the doorway. But suddenly, there was a, boom! Boom! Looking up, we gasped. It was the largest poof of glowing orbs coming out of the chimney I had ever seen. They looked like a colony of fireflies. However, they weren’t the green orbs I saw in the hallway of the West Wing. They were red, orange, and white, looking like some sort of weird fire.

“Oh my god. What in the freaking world,” Ethan whispered, his face white.

“Oh. My — ” I started to say.

Ethan said, “C’mon Cate, we are going to the fifth floor of the West wing,” pulling on my hand.

I held back shivering in fear, “I can’t, I’m sorry.”

He replied surprised, “I thought you wanted to see what was up there!”

I said, in a sorry manner, “We don’t know what’s up there! It could hurt us.”

Then, hearing how crazy I was being, I changed my mind and said, “Actually you know what, let’s do it. It’s just some powder and weird looking fireflies. It can’t do anything to us.”

We tested the front door, crossing our fingers that it was unlocked. Shoot, it’s locked. I knocked on the door. Knock! Knock! A green eye peered down at us through the door’s peephole. Chain dropping, the door creaked open and I dreaded the sight — Aunt Mildred wearing a cucumber face mask with her fuzzy pink robe and slippers.

“Just what do you think you are doing, young lady?” Aunt Mildred spoke sternly almost exploding with disbelief.

“Nothing, nothing at all. We were just taking a walk, Aunt Mildred,” I spoke quietly, not making eye contact. I nudged Ethan who was trying to stifle his laughter at the view of Aunt Mildred.

“No one can hear you, speak up. Whatever, come on in, now,” she said just noticing Ethan.

“Hey there! Ms. M, it’s me Evan!” Ethan spoke jokingly.

A shadow passed on Aunt Mildred’s face, and she forgot about us. She looked at her watch, then back at us squinting her eyes, as if trying to read our minds. She mumbled to herself looking worried — something about cake. She rushed to the dining room, leaving us in a confused state.

“Was it something I said?” Ethan asked just as perplexed as me.

“Oh no, oh no, oh NOOOOO! The cake. The cake. Why is it still here??” Aunt Mildred cried in distress.

She sprinted out, her green face resembling that of a wild ghoul.

“You come here now, Cate. You eat this cake,” she said, chasing us through gritted teeth.

In complete petrification, my feet were glued to the marble floor next to the front door, the wind outside howling at me.

Ethan unlocked me from the trance and shook my shoulders saying, “C’mon. Your Aunt Mildred is going crazy. We gotta escape from here.”

I nodded at him, and together we fled up the stairs, escaping the green ghoul that was Aunt Mildred.

“No! Come back, children. Look, look at this delicious piece of cake. Don’t you just want to eat it?” Aunt Mildred yelled, gaining on us after kicking off the slippers and throwing the plate of cake onto the ground, the plate shattering in a million pieces.

I heard someone shriek. Wait, was it me?

“Shhhhh!! Just keep running,” Ethan said, covering my mouth with his hand.

After what seemed like a hundred steps of stairs, we finally reached the top. My calves were burning in agony, and my muscles begged me to stop running, but instead, out of pure fear, we zoomed into the West wing.

Aunt Mildred was still climbing the stairs, but must have seen us go into the pitch-black hallway and hollered, “Come out of there right this second, Caitlyn Clarisse Allen. You’ll get hurt in there, trust me.”

I didn’t dare look behind me, I shut my eyes tightly and ran side by side with Ethan.

Ethan whispered, “Stop running Caitlyn, open your eyes.”

I cautiously opened my eyes, scared that there might be a monster or worse — Aunt Mildred standing there. Alas, it wasn’t. Thank god. It’s just the stairs up to the ominous on the fifth floor. That was when I noticed more green orbs circling around us, doing all sorts of things. Most of them were busy fluttering around us, curious at the new visitors. Some other ones were creating a long line and were glowing brightly, like they were trying to aid us in getting up the stairs. Almost like we could read each other’s minds, Ethan and I climbed the stairs together simultaneously, but everything felt slower.

We pushed ourselves to go faster, but everything felt slower up here, except Aunt Mildred’s pitter patter of bare feet on marble and the impossible to miss loud panting. How was she so fast while also being extremely out of shape? Thank goodness we were both wearing sneakers and um, normal clothing. Every floor we passed through brought new surprises and clues to the mystery that was the fifth floor — the second floor of the West Wing had cardboard boxes of all sizes, all filled with flasks and powders. The third floor was a huge library, filled to its cavernous ceilings with largely binded textbooks. The fourth floor, however, was the most shocking with a huge family crest resembling a crow with a sash that said ALLEN on it. It was lit with candles with one twin sized bed right next to it — sheets all tossed off the mattress. Well, I mean, it would have been the most weird floor until we reached the fifth floor.

“Wowzers. How amazing.” Ethan breathed out, clearly tired from all the running.

“Wowzers, indeed,” I whispered back.

Suddenly, the most infuriated screech was emitted, “ARGHHHH!! Those little dweebs, they found it — ”

Aunt Mildred was on the last step leading towards the magnificent fifth floor. Ethan and I quickly scurried behind a tall stack of cardboard boxes, not daring to even let out a breath. Thump!

What happened? Ethan peered out from behind the boxes and started to giggle.

I nudged him, warning him, “Shhh… she can hear you. What’s so funny??”

Ethan replied still laughing, “Hahaha, Ms. M has collapsed!”

“What??” I said in complete disbelief.

I, too then cautiously peered from behind the boxes and yep, there she was. Aunt Mildred, completely out of breath, lay there on the steps, not moving, but still alive.  Oh, poor old woman. Is she okay?? No, Cate, don’t think that way. After all, she was the one chasing you!

We were free from her chasing us, finally. We could now take the time to fully absorb our surroundings. The tall, tall ceilings, that made every motion echo. First, the floor led to a long hallway, but then, Ethan and I made it to a pathway leading to a glass room. We observed into the glass room — somehow, there was sunlight in there. Long rows of all sorts of flowers were lined up in neat, colorful rows as bees and even a few hummingbirds zoomed around happily. The room was completely glass, and it emitted some sort of happy glow that the rest of the mansion failed to do. I moved my eyes to the right side and saw — Was that, was that some sort of mad scientist? It was indeed. There was a tall man, wearing a rumpled white lab coat. Underneath his lab coat, he seemed to be wearing a neon orange shirt with words on it that I could not make out. His hair was turning gray, with only wisps of brown hair peeking through.

“Who is that?” Ethan whispered to me in complete awe.

“No idea, must be Aunt Mildred’s scientist servant.”

We could not make out the scientist’s face because it was completely concealed by lab goggles and even a mouth mask to most likely protect him from the dangerous chemicals it looked like he was producing. The stranger stood behind a tall wooden table that was completely filled with flasks of all sorts of colors and plants. They kept letting out powders every so often which the scientist tried to catch with clear plastic hoods.  The scientist himself worked on what looked like some sort of complex machinery that pumped the flowers from the gardens into those flasks.

Suddenly, we almost jumped at the sound of this strange man’s voice, “Mildred? Is that you?”

She moaned, “Yes… the test subjects just escaped from my grasp and escaped.”

Um, test subjects? What! Me? Everything suddenly made sense, but I didn’t dare to make a sound.

He answered in disbelief, “Come on, Mildreddd. You promised that it would work! How could — ”

“Sorry, sorry. I’ll try again in a few minutes,” Mildred replied weakly.

The scientist mumbled to himself in the glass room — undecipherable to all of us. He took off his thick goggles and then, it almost seemed like he could see Ethan and I in the corner of the hallway.

His honey-colored eyes glowed in the bright light and for a second… wait. Was it really him?

 

Lavender

He wakes up early that morning. The room is dark, and the sofa is lumpy. He flips the pancakes and chops the strawberries and leaves them on a chipped plate on the wooden table. The shards of porcelain dishes turn the floor into a dangerous mosaic he tiptoes over. He sets a note next to the plate, a plea for forgiveness scribbled on it with a ballpoint pen. She will scan it once and throw in the trash. At least, he thinks to himself, she’ll know he cares.

The BART station is near empty at this time when the sun itself is waking up. It’s a pleasant ride. He passes the minutes by humming to himself in time to the rattling of the train car. From the window, he can see the whole world go by, towns, cities, farms. He exits at the final stop of the line, pushing past the bustle of the everyday working American. Life itself is happening around him. He savors the thought, turning to wave as the BART car rattles away. A few people inside wave back.

He takes the steps two at a time, hopping down them in the way a child would. A few people stop and stare, but he doesn’t mind. The stares are in themselves little compliments. He doesn’t trip on the loose fifth stair. He skips over it, then stops to explain to an amazed little girl how to jump just like him.

The brisk September air fills his lungs as he strolls down the street, dropping quarters into the parking meters as he goes by.

At the bus stop, he sits next to a woman wearing an oversized jacket. They talk for a bit, exchanging puzzle pieces of their lives. She tells him about her son and daughter in college who are on scholarships and don’t know that she was evicted three weeks ago. He tells the woman about his love, what he’s done, and where he’s going. The woman laughs and clamps him on the shoulder. He offers her one hundred dollars in the form of a thick wad of bills, but she declines, pushing the money into his pocket. He is sad to leave when his bus arrives.

He takes the bus up to wine country, where the land is covered in its livelihood in the form of grapes. Up here, the taste of wine is a part of every meal. He doesn’t think he could stand all of the finery that comes with it. He wasn’t born for a life of frills and neither, he thinks, was she. He remembers she had said something about that last night after he had shattered the dishes on the floor.

He wonders if she got the pancakes and the little note she probably refused to read. The bus comes to a creaking stop. He pushes the thoughts out of his head and exits in a hurry, handing the driver a plastic rose he found abandoned on the seat.

The world smells of lavender and dirt and mist. A sagging house waits a a mile down from the bus stop. He skips towards it, singing a radio hit from years ago. A couple he knows through their voices on the phone stands in front of the house. Years of happiness are visible in their every move. Behind the house is a world of violet.

The couple smiles when he gasps. They tell him that this lavender is their life’s work. Every flower holds a memory. Two hundred dollars is payment for five bags. He tells the couple that their love story will be perfect to tell her. Maybe then she’ll be able to remember they have a story of their own. The couple gives him a grateful smile and hands him the bags full of lavender sprigs.

He waits almost an hour for the bus to return. The man next to him doesn’t like to talk much. So, he tells the man about her, painting pictures with his words. The man nearly cries. He gives him a sprig of lavender and holds him until the man’s bus arrives.

Joining him now is a teenage girl, absorbed in her phone who chuckles at seemingly random moments. He watches for a while, until she glances up to see his stare. Flashing him a look of disgust, she returns to the tiny world in her screen. Anger bubbles up within him, a monster he has never learned to control. He takes her phone in his hand and throws it as far as possible. The reflective surface glints in the sunlight before it strikes the ground. The girl looks at him in shock, before dashing away to save her device.

The screen is shattered beyond repair. She screams at him and cradles the lifeless phone as if it was her baby. He listens to her for a few moments before telling the girl about her.

Throughout their years together, she never needed the tiny devices. She never needed a wall dividing her from everything else. She flourished in a world of screens by simply opening her eyes beyond that. He hands the girl two hundred dollar bills when his bus is in sight. He then tosses her a sprig of lavender. She catches it in both hands, studying the flower as if it was the first time she had ever seen such a thing. He picks up his bags and steps onto the bus.

The ride back is bumpier with people packed shoulder to shoulder. He takes a seat next to a snoring man. Across from him, a couple shares a bottle of wine. She might’ve liked that once but not after everything that’s happened. He pushes the thought out of his mind and glances around the bus. A little boy watches him. His five-year-old hands cling to a metal pole. He ducks forward, towards the boy, and offers him a sprig. Lavender is passed from big hands to little ones. He smiles and retreats back to his seat.

By the time it reaches his stop, the bus is teeming with the scent of purple flowers. He hands one to every passenger as he makes his way off. He pauses at the driver’s seat and offers her a sprig with two flowers dangling off of it. She smiles and places it next to the plastic rose. The driver’s eyes remind him of hers. He can’t help but grin.

Walking down the sidewalk, he digs out his last few quarters to save a car about to be ticketed. Several moments later, an anxious driver emerges from the station, perplexed to see she has twenty minutes to spare. The station is near full again, despite it being the quiet time of the day. He hands every person he sees a lavender sprig.

He sits across from a woman wearing a gold studded coat and has one side of her head shaved. He learns about her boyfriend who stole her life savings and how she is going to court now. He gives the woman a much needed hug and tucks one of the remaining lavender sprigs behind her ear. She walks out with her head held high, the purple flowers perfectly complimenting her eyes. The first bag is empty now, but still carries a pleasant scent. He ties it around a pole, hoping everyone can share in a little piece of his adventure. A pleasant voice announces his station, and the train comes to a screeching halt. He makes his way out and watches as it travels downs the tunnels.

The remaining four lavender bags seem to become heavier and heavier as he walks down the long winding road towards his home. The smell of an apologetic guilt is in the air.

He arrives to a depressing barren yard. For the first time today, he feels almost lonely. Then, through the window, he sees her shadow. A pianistic melody flows into his ears.

He plunges his hand into the bag and grabs a handful of flowers. He stoops and goes about planting them into the dirt. Slowly, a tapestry of purple begins to form on the rocky soil. He is soon covered in mud with a distinctive earthy scent. Perhaps, if lavender can grow without any roots, maybe so can their love.

He works for hours into the evening. She never does emerge. The tinkling sound of the piano continues to radiate from the window.

The once barren yard is a field of purple. In his hands, he takes the remaining lavender sprigs and ties them in a bouquet. Ignoring his racing heart, he marches up to the front porch and knocks four times, no more, no less. He waits for a moment, rocking back and forth on his heels. She opens the door and stares at him, as if waiting for him to make the first move in a game of chess. Studying her face for forgiveness, he holds out the bouquet. “I’m sorry.”

She looks at him blankly.

“Did you read my note?”

“It’s in the same place you left my heart.” For a moment, she catches a glimpse of the sea of flowers that has sprouted in her yard. Her eyes fill with wonder and hate, but nothing nearing love.

He turns towards his long day’s work. “I did this all for you.” He stares at her with pleading eyes. “You always loved lavender.”

Her laugh slices through his heart. “And how many flowers did you give away while you were on your little adventure?” She takes a step forward. Sunlight splashes onto her face. Inside, he can see the floor has been cleared of porcelain shards. A familiar lump of guilt forms in his throat. Her feet are bandaged with white cloth. “How much time did you spend running away from me by doing your so-called good deeds?”

She snatches the lavender from his hands, crumpling the flowers he had traveled so many miles to obtain. “You are so perfect.” A bit of saliva lands on his cheek. “All you care about is looking perfect and caring to everyone.” Tears run down her cheeks, forging tiny rivers on the landscape of her skin. “Why do I only matter to you when you feel your heart beginning to break?” The lavender bouquet falls to the ground. “You never noticed that my heart was already in pieces.”

 

Me, the Woman and the Man

In the corner of an illuminating empty, dull, gray room, I stand with pale hands that shiver like a shower in mid-December, shaking like the earth I am on. All over this neighborhood are factories, left to right. There is not a single park here. The smoke stacks develop into the sky like an evil crop of corn, and they give off these fumes which cover many of our homes with dust. It almost looks as if I had put black paint on my hands and rubbed it all over miniature, lego-like houses.

Who am I? I ask myself. The idea of not having anyone with me, by my side, is destroying me.

And yet, to this day, I still get these dreams — very vague and foggy — of when I was eleven years old and on a planet similar to Earth, but one that was rust and sepia-colored, and dusty.

The dream started with a woman talking to me…

“Bellumy, we’re finally here — we can start a new life,” this woman told me with a relieving voice and brown eyes which were oddly familiar.

“Where are we… ?” I stated with that sweet wonderful voice. “Are we going home now?”

This is our home now,” she cried.

As soon as I hear the word ‘‘home,’’ I always wake up from my foggy day dream and find myself on a piece of rock I would call Earth. I feel as if I haven’t had a drink of water in years, and my mouth is drier than the Sahara Desert. The sweat from my armpits and forehead reach my feet like an appalling waterfall.

“Oh my God, Bellum! You are sweating like crazy,” a nurse worryingly states. “Here. Drink some water… you’re dehydrated for god’s sake.”

“I am so sorry, Adjútor, I had those nightmares again.”

“I don’t have the time for it. I have to clean your mess,” she yells.

I want to tell her my weird dreams of this woman calling me honey or little sunshine, but I can not bring myself to it.

“Why don’t you care?” I question.

“You can always tell me but not right now. I need to clean your room while you’re eating lunch,” she explains.

“Aren’t you going to have food with me Adjútor?” I ask.

“What did I just say? I will talk to you about your dreams later, after I am done with cleaning your room. So just get your butt up and eat your lunch,” Adjútor commands me to do.

One day I will leave this wretched, scummy place, and I will leave and go somewhere better… somewhere where I belong. There is this program, a program that fixes damaged brain tissue and replaces a broken micro chip with a new one. Well you see, I have had a broken chip since I was ten years old. These microchips are implanted in every baby that was born after 2025. The MCO’s, or MicroChip Organizations, are made in various versions. For example, some improve the brain for those who are mentally challenged or have other physical disabilities. Still, others were implanted in the brains of those who’ve migrated to other planets as a backup plan to ensure the safety for every person adapting to a new environment.

When I was born, I had these tremors. Theses tremor are an involuntary, rhythmic muscle movement. These movements are often back-and-forth actions of one or more body parts.
Most tremors can affect the hands. However, tremors can occur in the arms, head, face, vocal cords, trunk and legs. Other children like me with tremors often have back-and-forth or oscillating body movements. Kids also like me have a shaky voice. Tremors can affect fine motor coordination, such as writing and gripping objects. Tremors become more severe and may be triggered when I am stressed or feeling strong emotion.

Ever since my chip was broken, a point at which I did not remember, there was a sudden increase in my tremors. I needed a nurse to take care of me. She was annoying at first. She never listened to me and never wanted to talk to me. Now, she’s both annoying but empathetic, too. Some days she seems to care, and yet on others she does not because she is busy with some kind of work.

My tremors don’t prevent me from doing work, like delivering pizzas or even taking customers’ orders down. You see, I am currently enrolled in physical rehabilitation program, which simulates real world jobs for people who lost motor skills who want to get a job in the real world. I cannot work in a stressful environment or my hands shake like they do when I get those dreams. Each day I work, I get more exhaustion and more rest. That sounds like a contradiction, but my over-tiredness helps me enjoy my time sleeping in bed much more.

A few nights later, the same old dream initiated in the peace of my subconscious with the woman droning on and on…

“Bellumy, we’re finally here — we can start a new life,” the woman had told me with a relieving voice.

“Where are we… ?” I stated with that sweet, wonderful voice. “Are we going home now?”

This is our home now,” she cried as I could see the reflection of hills in her brown eyes.

Who was this woman? Why is she haunting my dreams? What home is she talking about? I need to get my chip fixed; I need these nightmarish dreams to go away.

I immediately need to ask a doctor to fix my chip so I can get this dream off of my mind for good. I alight off my hospital bed and go on a mission to find the doctor that can help me.

Running faster than the Flash, I collide with my nurse.

“Bellumy are you okay?” Adjutor worriedly asks. “You can’t leave your… ”

“I am leaving this place… I need to look for the doctor who can fix the chip,” I yell at her, pointing to my brain.

I do not want to even talk to her — I just need to find the doctor.

“Calm down, Bellumy,”Adjutor whispers right in front her boss.

“Who is he? Can he fix my chip?” I shout.

“Bellumy, I’m Dr. Medicus, I need you to come with me,” a man with broad shoulders and chin politely asks.

“Bellumy, the chip you’re talking about is causing a decline in muscular movement. This prevents you from doing certain day to day chores,” Medicus informs.

“Sir, is it possible to change the chip?” I curiously ask.

Giving me a contract, he states, “Well, yes, but there is a long waiting list — you would have to wait a couple of weeks.”

“These chips are meant for babies and can only be repaired for babies; it will be dangerous,” Adjutor worriedly states.

I had a lot to consider about this issue.

As the weeks passed, I kept getting those nightmarish and dank dreams. Every day I have to hear ‘this is our home now.’ However, the thought of having my brain chip repaired helped me leave my room with a smile on my face, slowly realizing that I can have a better life without these nightmares. Goodbye brown-eyed woman, I shout in my head.

And then it happened.

One unusually sunny day, the doctor came with the news I was waiting for.

He stood in the doorway like a smiling scarecrow and simply asked, “Are you ready?”

I didn’t have to answer, but he knew what I was going to say.

I slowly entered the surgery room. It was so silent, but the machines were humming, and the oddly shaped tools were shining like the sun on the horizon of some new wonderful land while the nurses were looking at me.

“Sit here,” Medicus commands.

I couldn’t say anything. I was shocked that something this thrilling would ever happen to me. So they gave me anesthesia, which is the injection of drugs before surgical operations which puts people to sleep.

After the surgery, I had to rest and couldn’t do anything physical. I had to sleep and eat through an IV tube.

My mind felt very calm as if this was a sign from God that I am disconnected from my pain. But that feeling of being released from the pain was soon to be crushed by the same repetitive dream and the same brown-eyed woman. However, this was not a dream — it was longer, a man appears to be next to the same brown eyed woman…

“Bellum, do you know where we are?” the man asked me. “We are on Mars.”

“Bellum, let’s go to our new rooms,” the brown-eyed woman ordered politely.

With a happy, relieving voice, the man exclaimed, “This is our home now, I hope you love it.”

“Are you ready to go to school today?” the man asked.

“Yes, I am going to school,” I firmly replied.

I got ready and rushed to the door and leapt towards this floating car that had been given to us by the government.

Hours had passed since I was dropped at this building — so bright, white, and hovering over the entire colony of Mars. This building is like a 6-foot tall man compared to a toddler.

At the end of the day, I saw the same people who had dropped me here, and then I heard an explosion, so loud it shattered my ear drums and broke every bone in my body.

I heard a loud scream echoing through my head saying “Bellum” over and over again.
Even while asleep in this dream like state, this new influx of “dreams” felt real… not like dreams at all.

I woke up, but felt more sweaty and felt more dehydrated than ever before. Suddenly, I remember the rooms filled pictures of me — the woman and the man. We are hugging near these reddish hills; these were not like the ones on Earth which are grassy and green. Slowly trying to sit up, I immediately dropped down to the center of the bed.

I woke up the next morning, relieved that it was all over, and I desperately need to talk to a psychologist or someone like that. My dreams are getting more intense.

As soon as I saw Dr. Medicus, I tried to ask him if he could give me someone I can talk to about my feelings. Medicus gave me a number to this psychologist — her name was Sandra Hollingworth.

Later this week, I met with her, discussing my dreams and describing them with great detail. I notice something strange. She has these tiny tears slowly running down her face. She hands me this newspaper with the headline, Tragedy On Mars 2055.

“Read this article. Take your time,” she offers. Clearly she had lost someone and is still mourning because of this incident on “Mars.”

 

I grab the newspaper and skim it. There was nothing until I come to a picture of a kid, a brown eyed woman and a man. The woman was laying down with all torn clothes and bruised; the man is all bloodied up, eyes closed and grasping for life. Then, the kid is on his knees, tears down his face and fist clenched.

“Do you recognize the lady and man in the picture?” she asks. “Are these the people that were in your dreams?”

“Yes, she is the one that says, ‘This is our home,’ and the man is just a man!” I exclaim.

“These aren’t dreams, these are memories. You had experienced a very traumatizing event, and your brain had cancelled these memories,” she explains to me.

Wait a minute? I thought to myself. The woman in this picture looks like the woman in my dreams, and the man looks like the man in my dreams that had occured not too long ago. The kid looks just like me but only tiny and skinny. The woman has the same color eyes as me, same jawline, same nose shape… same everything.

“Uh — can I go back?” I had wondered.

“Well, yes. Things have changed; those who were injured or survived the 2055 accident can have a free pass back,” she continues to explain. “All the necessary changes have been made to the Colony I, so it is safer to live there.”

I completely ignored what she said, and I packed my bags and rushed out the hospital.

There had to be something more than a hospital bed, solitude, and empty terrestrial life. My destiny lay in another place… one that was red, familiar, and the resting place of the “brown-eyed” people I love.

 

How Kombucha Ruined My Life

I wake up Saturday morning and check my phone from my bed. Looks like it will be another sunny day that I spend inside. I have been rehearsing the musical Legally Blonde all week, and tonight is the performance. I play Brooke Wyndham, an exercise queen accused of murder. Some of my friends and family are coming, so the show has to be really good. While I’m sad it’s almost over, a sense of relief washes over me. It has been a lot of work.

My phone buzzes, and it’s my very energetic best friend Hazel.

GUESS WHAT??!! she writes.

WHAT????? I jokingly reply. We love goofing off together and have been doing it for years. Since fourth grade to be exact. It’s crazy to think that now eleventh grade is just around the corner.

ASHER IS COMING!!!!

My heart leaps into my throat. Asher, my crush since, well since forever, is coming to my show?

WAIT WHAT?! I reply, hoping that what she says next isn’t true. I haven’t talked to him, like really talked to him, since sixth grade when we shared snacks once. I am one of those people who observe and admire from afar.

He asked me about show dates and times and said that there was someone special in the shows that he wants to see. I think that means you!!

O-M-G. My heart pounds. Why would he be coming to see me? He doesn’t even know me now. Sure, our families are friends, and we used to be friends. Before popularity became a thing, we used to ride our bikes together down to the little cafe and get milkshakes. Him, chocolate. Me, vanilla.

I can’t think about this now. I have to focus on tonight. On giving a fabulous last performance. I get dressed and start my hair and makeup; I will finish it when I get to the theater. I grab a frozen waffle and pop it into the toaster oven as I get my things together. My mom comes in from an early morning grocery store trip and pulls out some chocolate cookies, strawberries, and grapes for me to take out of the grocery bag. I stuff them into my already overflowing backpack and run to the car.

“You forgot your waffle,” my mom says, getting into the driver’s seat. She hands me the warm, crunchy waffle wrapped in a napkin.

“Thanks, Mom,” I say, my mouth already full of the sweet breakfast.

“I got you something,” my mom says. She reaches into the back seat and grabs a cold glass bottle filled with some pink liquid and hands it to me.

“What is it?” I asked, a little skeptical of what it was.

“It’s called kombucha. It’s a fermented tea that is really good for your digestion. I want you to try it. It’s grapefruit jasmine flavored and it’s fizzy.” She glances over to me and gestures for me to open it.

I do. Only to please her; my mom always goes on health food cleanses, so it is easiest for everyone to get this over with ASAP. It reeks of vinegar and raw fish — without a doubt, the grossest thing I have ever smelled. I take a small sip, try to hide my gag, and give it back to my mom.

“Here. You try this and tell me if it is something you would drink.”

My mom takes a big sip of the kombucha and chokes.

“That was horrible! I am so sorry I bought that.”

My mom hands the drink back to me, and I put the top back on. We open the windows to air out the car.

“Take it with you, maybe one of your friends will want it.” My mom laughs as I stick the glass bottle as low into my bag as it will go.

As we pull up at the theater, I run in and throw my bag in a corner near where I see my friends Jake and Sami sitting.

“Are you guys pretty nervous too?” Jake continues to run his hands through his nicely gelled hair.

“Stop! I just did your hair. Don’t you dare mess it up again,” Sami responds. She stretches her long, tan legs to get ready for all the dancing we have to do.

We talk for a little bit longer and run a few lines before the stage manager comes in and says, “Time to go into the theatre for notes.”

A few minutes later, we go onto the theater to listen to notes, and I try not to think about that gross kombucha smell at the bottom of my backpack.

Once we finish notes, I grab the kombucha thinking I’ll throw it out, but the stage manager says we can’t leave the dressing room until we are ready for places. Looks like I’m stuck with this gross drink until after the show. I put the it down in the corner and finish getting ready for the run. I take off my clothes and throw them in a pile near the kombucha and get put my costume on.

PLACES!” yells the stage manager as she rushes through the room.

After two solid hours of intense dancing, singing, and acting, the entire cast is super excited for final bows. I am overjoyed because I nailed the super hard dance break in the middle of my song right after intermission. While we are bowing, I try to look over the blinding stage lights, but I can only see as far as the third row. In the first row, my parents stand, smiling and cheering. I still have no idea whether Asher even came or not.

After bows, I go back into the dressing room with Jake and Sami. We change out of our costumes.

“Great show, guys! I’m so happy I didn’t forget my lines,” Jake gushes. I am going to be sad not seeing them every day anymore.

“I’m so happy you didn’t mess up your hair,” Sami jokes.

I smile and pull on my T-shirt, vaguely aware of a weird smell. Everyone smells bad; it’s the last day of shows, that’s how it works. I don’t really think anything of it because we are all sweaty and tired of being in bulky costumes for two hours. Also, the chemical smell of hairspray and hair gel fills the air. Once I am dressed, I wave goodbye to my cast and friends and go out to meet my family.

As I walk out of the dressing room, I see him. Asher. His dirty blonde hair brushed to the side. His shy smile that only reaches the left side of his mouth. His blue eyes that look like the sky on a bright, sunny day. He’s wearing a nice button down shirt and jeans that fit perfectly. He’s looking right at me, and I freeze. As I start to walk toward him, I take a sharp right into the girls bathroom.

I take out my phone and call Hazel.

“Oh. My. God. He’s here. What do I do? What do I say? Oh my god ohmygod ohmygod oh — ”

“AHHH you’ll be fine! You were absolutely stunning out there. You look like a queen! I am on my way to your house, so you can fill me in on all the juicy details!”

Hazel is way too excited for this. I wonder what she knows, but I don’t have time to ask because Asher is here. In the girls bathroom.

“Asher?! What are you doing in here?”

“I was about to ask you the same thing, Zoe. I saw you ran in here, and I thought you should know it’s the boys bathroom.”

“Asher?” Hazel screams before I have time to hang up.

OH MY GOD.

“Oh yeah. Um yeah.” Crap. There’s no way out of this.

I rush out of the bathroom as fast I as I can. Asher follows me.

“Hey, I got you these.” Asher grabs a small bouquet of roses from a chair in a corner.

“Thank you, Asher. Thank you for coming too, you didn’t have to do that.” My face must be the color of an overripe tomato. I can’t believe this is actually happening.

“I did. I wanted to see you.” He takes a step closer. What was he doing? His face changes as he gets closer. His nose crinkles, and he steps back.

I look down and see a light pink stain on my white T-shirt. A stain so big, so smelly, you can practically see the waves of horrid scent coming off it. The kombucha. It must have spilled on my shirt, but I hadn’t noticed because I was in such a rush to see if Asher had come. I cover it with the roses, stutter, “Uh gotta go. Bye,” at Asher and run out of the hallway.

When I get to the dressing room, the smell of vinegar and dead fish hits me like a freight train. I go to where I had put the bottle, and there is a big crack in the glass and juice is leaking out of it. Right into a puddle where my T-shirt had been. Great.

I grab my stuff, throw away the bottle, and go find my parents so we can leave before anyone else knows that the kombucha smell is me.

Asher is still standing outside the bathroom looking confused. He is texting someone on his phone, so he doesn’t see me rush by. That’s probably a good thing.

“Good job, sweetie!” my mom says as she tries to give me a big hug.

“Trust me, Mom, you don’t want to. Let’s just go home.” I need to go home and shower!

“Hey, Zoe! Did you see who came?” My dad loves teasing me about my crushes. He just thinks it’s so funny how little they like me back.

“Yeah I know. He gave me flowers,” I shoot back. I feel some heat come to my face when I see Asher walking towards us.

“Hey, Zoe. Hey, Mr. and Mrs. Brown. Thanks for the ride home.” He’s riding home with us? Oh no.

It is a very quiet car ride home. I just try to suck all the smell off of me onto my side of the car. I open up the window and think very hard about jumping out of the car. Unfortunately my fear of death holds me back. When we drop Asher off at his house down the street from ours, he tries to say something to me, but I push him out and close the door before he can tell me how bad I smell.

“Get me home.” I lean into my parents so they can smell the emergency.

My mom hits the gas.

I jump out of the car once we get home and run into my room. Hazel is sitting on the bed.

“So??? What happened? What did he say to you? C’mon, Zoe! Say something!”

So, I tell her. Everything. From the boys bathroom, to the roses, to the shared car ride. Then I let her smell me as I was still standing in the doorway. Of course she gags and pushes me into the shower, yelling at me for not bringing any body spray or perfume.

“It’s not my fault!!! I didn’t realize kombucha would ruin my life!” I shower and make sure to scrub extra hard.

Once I get out of the shower and into cleaner, comfier clothes, Hazel and I put on Mean Girls and settle into my bed.

Right before we start the movie, the doorbell rings. Hazel goes to the window and squeals.

“You have to get the door, Zoe! MR AND MRS BROWN, ZOE’S GOT THE DOOR!”

I walk to the window, look down, and there is Asher. He’s rocking back on his heels, and he’s holding something. Hazel squirts me with some perfume and pushes me down the stairs.

I take a deep breath and open the door.

There he is, a look of relief on his face as he holds up a piece of paper.

“I was going to leave this for you if you didn’t answer the door,” he says and he holds out the note.

“Um thanks.” I take it but don’t open it yet. I hesitantly step outside and shut the door behind me.

Asher take a step towards me. “Zoe, I don’t know how to say it, but Hazel said — ”

“Hazel? Why were you talking to her?” Yes. I am a little jealous and very confused. Why wouldn’t she have told me?

“Because Zoe, she’s your best friend. I needed advice.”

“Advice on me?” I cross my arms in front of my chest.

“Advice whether to do this.” He steps in, grabs my elbows, and pulls me into a long kiss.

I step back, shocked. Why would Asher like me? What did Hazel do???

“Well I guess she gave me good advice. I’ve liked you for a while, Zoe, I just didn’t know how to tell you. I went to Hazel for help and to see if you would ever say yes,” Asher says, our faces just inches apart.

“Say yes to what?” My heart is trying to fly out of my chest.

“Open the note.” I look down at the note and slowly unfold it.

Written on the paper are the words Please go out with me? Circle YES or NO. I smile at the funny gesture and look at Asher. He has a nervous look on his face as he looks into my eyes.

I laugh. “Yes of course. Yes, Asher!” I lean in and kiss him again. I hear squealing coming from the window, and we look up to see Hazel screaming and jumping around. Asher and I look at each other and laugh.

“I better go, but I’ll see you tomorrow?” I smile and hug him one last time.

“Tomorrow.”

The next morning, I open my eyes and turn to see Hazel still sound asleep next to me in my big bed. She spent the night at my house, so I could fill her in on all the details. The light creeps out from behind the window shades onto my purple walls. The pictures of my family and friends that are hung on my wall glint and sparkle.

I roll out of bed onto my fuzzy carpet that keeps my feet warm in the winter and go to the bathroom to brush my teeth. I see that my hair is a big tangled mess and not all the makeup has come off of my face. I grab a makeup wipe and try my best to rub off the mascara. I can’t stop thinking about last night; I wonder if it was all a dream.

As I go back into my room, the light has fallen on a small bouquet of roses on my bedside dresser with a note tucked into one of the flowers, and I know I wasn’t dreaming.

 

“don’t know when i’ll be back again”

It wasn’t supposed to end like this. The coral-colored suitcase open on the bed, the clothes hanging ready to be packed, the car come to take her away. The sun streams through the window, illuminating the pictures on the wall, reminders of a happier time. Outside, birds are chirping and children are playing in the park across the street. By all rights, it should be a beautiful day.

Marina sits cross-legged on the floor, halfheartedly sorting her possessions into heaps. In front of her is the pile for keeping, to the left a pile for charity. To the right, trash — all the things that are too worn out, too painful, too personal to give away. It’s a numbing process, most things easily separated. Near the end of her things, she picks up a picture of two girls, laughing and holding hands. They don’t have a care in the world, firmly convinced that everything will work in their favor. The hand holding the snapshot shakes a little and wavers over to the right, before Marina places it carefully in front of her.

When she’s finished, the items to keep go in the bottom of her suitcase. Zoe’s promised to take the charity pile to Goodwill — Marina doesn’t intend to stay around long enough to do it herself. She shoves the trash items into a bag and tugs it down the polished stairs. Marina’s just put the bag in the kitchen trash when she’s accosted by a very energetic ten-year-old, with Zoe right behind him.

“Marina!” her brother says, coming to a halt in front of her. His bright smile usually lights up whatever room he’s in, but today it doesn’t provide any comfort.

“Hey, Peter,” she says, absentmindedly reaching out to ruffle his hair. He looks up at her with big brown eyes, the very picture of innocence, and she finds herself wishing for that simpler time.

“Why are you leaving me?” he whines.

She sighs. “You wouldn’t understand.” Sometimes, she’s not even sure she understands why. Sometimes she thinks it would be easier to stay here, stay where she’s lived all her life.

“But I do understand.” He crosses his arms. “It’s because of her, because of… ” Whatever he was going to say is cut off.

“Peter,” Zoe warns. Marina’s stepmother has one hand covering Peter’s mouth, with the other on his shoulder. “What did I say about manners? It is Marina’s choice, and she doesn’t have to tell people why.”

Marina fingers her necklace as she watches them. People always expect the fairytale stereotype of stepmothers, but she’s never resented Zoe, even when she first came to live with them over a decade ago. Marina was five and couldn’t understand why this strange woman lived with them instead of Marina’s mother, but Zoe never forced Marina to accept her. Instead, she was lovely and kind and caring, until Marina couldn’t help but love her. Zoe taught her all the things about being a woman that Marina’s mother, far away in a little apartment, couldn’t. They celebrated the highs of life together, and Zoe held her when she came home sobbing that horrible night.

“Sorry, Marina.” Peter’s sheepish voice brings Marina back to reality.

“It’s okay, Peter. I just… it’s hard to explain,” she says. Her words hang in the stillness of the kitchen for a moment.

“Why don’t you run along?” Zoe says, mercifully breaking the tension. “Go outside and play with your dad or something.”

“Okay,” he chirps, running off to find their dad.

With Peter gone, Zoe turns the full force of her attention to Marina. “How are you holding up, honey?”

“I’m… fine,” Marina says, though they both know she’s lying. She hasn’t been fine since that Saturday in May. “I’m holding up,” she corrects herself.

“Do you need any help packing?” Zoe asks. “I’ve got nothing better to do than chase Peter around.”

“I think I’m good, thanks,” replies Marina. She’s not sure she’s ready to let another person handle all the memories contained in her things.

“I’ll be ready to help you if you decide you want it. Just shout,” says Zoe. They both know that this isn’t just about packing. It’s about Marina starting a new life where she knows nobody but her mother instead of ‘working through her problems in a familiar setting’ like her therapist says she should.

“Will do,” Marina says curtly, turning to go upstairs. She still has a few more things to pack.

The suitcase is almost full and the afternoon sun beginning to set when Marina senses someone enter the room. She turns around to face the door, and sure enough, Lise is leaning against the doorway. Marina forgot how pretty she is, how everything seemed to revolve around her the minute she entered a room.

“Hi, Lise,” Marina says, aware of how pathetic she sounds.

“Hey,” Lise says, coming over to sit next to Marina on the bed. “You’re really leaving, huh?”

“Yeah. I couldn’t stand it any longer. I needed to get away from you.” If Lise is upset by Marina’s candidness, she doesn’t show it.

“We had a good run though, didn’t we?” It’s a rhetorical question, one they both know the answer to, but Marina still replies.

“We’re still best friends forever,” she says, reaching out to touch Lise’s necklace. Marina is wearing her matching one, with the inscription xoxo Lise still visible but slightly tarnished. When they got them for Lise’s 14th birthday, they both promised to wear them forever, and Marina supposes they both will.

“Are you sad to leave?” asks Lise.

Marina mulls the question over. “I’ll miss Zoe and Peter and Dad, but I think staying here would make me even sadder,” she finally replies. “People here are too concerned about me. I want a fresh start.”

“Come back to visit, will you?” Lise asks, and Marina entertains a brief fantasy where she leaves and never comes back, but she knows that could never happen. She’s tied to this place, like it or not.

“Of course,” Marina says instead, because what else can she say? How can she leave this girl she’s known for almost her entire life?

“Alright then, goodbye,” Lise says, and Marina wants to tell her not to go, but her throat goes dry and she can’t force the words out. She closes her eyes.

“And Marina,” she hears distantly, as if Lise is suddenly very far away. “Don’t be sorry for living.”

Marina opens her eyes just in time to see Lise standing in the doorway again. She watches as Lise becomes less and less real, until Marina is left alone again. She stands up, needing to clear her head, and feels something crinkle under her foot. It’s a balled up newspaper, wrinkled and ripped but with the headline still intact.

Local Girl Killed in Car Accident, it reads. Marina must have crumpled the article up and thrown it across the room when she read the headline. It was too painful to even think about Lise at that point.

She tenderly smoothes the article out and places it at the top of her suitcase, then closes the bag and zips it up. She touches her necklace once for good luck, then pulls her suitcase to where her father is waiting. She’s ready to go.

 

For Them All

 

1

 

Kind

He was just kind

Everyone knew it

But I liked it the most

 

He wasn’t good in school

Everyone knew it

I can’t tell you how many times

I defended his intelligence

 

He had red hair

I loved that red hair

I guess I perceived him as innocent
Even though he never was

 

He talked to me

I was crazy

But he talked to me

 

By the time I found out he

Had fallen for me

It was too late

 

2

 

So this guy was kind of a jerk

Everyone thought he was green

I saw blue

I saw blue in that jerk!

I thought he liked me back

And just hid it really well

But he hated me

I was a bother

A massive bother

To that blue, blue jerk

 

3

 

I loved him more than I’ve ever loved anyone

Wished I could just talk to him

Hated that I could never be the one to help him

I wanted him to rely on me

I loved him, I really really did

So much that no one could doubt it

But despite all my hopes

He never knew me

 

I’ve already written countless poems about him

About how he’s the ultimate hero

 

I just kinda wanted to thank him

For saving me

 

4

 

Um… I still like this one

He’s the best of the light and the dark

He’s like me and then he’s a little bit not

Ideal, is what he is

Not that I could resist him if he wasn’t

 

5

 

I’m putting him on the list, aren’t I?

Hasn’t been around for more than a week

and yet here I am, giving him a spot

with the ones who have changed me

because he changed me

he made me fall

god, he’s the most captivating of them all

 

Central Park

There was a sound, like gobs of blinking eyes. It was merely an echo-y whisper, yet it was disconcerting because there was nothing that could make that blinking sound around you, and though you had felt ocean waves hitting your feet then receding, they made no sound. You had been surrounded by a magenta foggy haze that had prevented you from seeing little more than dark purple shadows. Approximately six of these shadows were standing, stationary, people each in their own inhuman positions, in a circle silently around you, on the ground that felt like turf, but looked like concrete and in the distance, upon the horizon, a small circle shined a light lavender hue. Other than this there was nothing. You were taking out your notepad and beginning to write what you saw (you used to always write down your observations) when you were greeted to an echo of garbled speech in a language far from your own. The fog had begun to fade, and you had seen the faces of the people (no, not people, statues), around you. Their faces were wrinkled, raisin-y, gloomy faces, and their broken positions looked as if several bones in their bodies had been broken beyond repair. Despite their traumatizing appearance, they had seemed to compliment the “nothingness” that you had previously thought surrounded you. The “nothingness” had revealed itself to be something you hadn’t expected: the ground under your feet was neither turf nor concrete but wet sand (like the beaches up north — less grainy more compact), and the emptiness that had been covered by the haze was not at all empty, in fact the only thing that was what you thought was the bright (now white) sun looking down at your from its place on the horizon. Behind you had been eyes — what seemed like millions of them of all different sizes and shapes (hooded, almond, monolid, deep set, prominent, round, downturned, upturned, large, and small) — blocking your view of anything but the ocean, and they were blinking. Not all at the same time but all at different times and lengths of times. The eyes were staring nowhere in particular all of them moved in different directions and never seemed to be looking at the same spot. You can’t remember, right now, whether you stayed and watched for a while or just went straight to writing but you do remember that after you had finished writing you clicked your pen. All the eyes had stared at you. Some of them eyeing your scribbles, others your face and various parts of your body. The statues had began to move. They had started to twist and turn in impossible ways. They had not moved anywhere, just stayed in their place on the circle when the world had began to quake (as such worlds often do) and fade into a new one.

 

You were now in a basement. You did not look like yourself. Staring into a puddle formed by leaking pipes you saw your face. Your skin had a sickly yellow pallor, your eyes were sunken and a weird color blue (translucent like fog, but also dark like the deepest parts of the ocean), the bones in your face were pronounced, the bags under your eyes seemed to be the only place where your skin wasn’t tight to your skull. You were beginning to turn away and close your eyes (you were horrified by the face in the water) when the ceiling had disappeared, and whatever the basement was under just left. You were greeted by burning sunlight even though the sun only slightly bigger than the one in your last world, people from the street had looked down at you and your raggy, colorful, too big clothes as tears poured from your eyes. You had been happy to see them, and you attempted to reach them but the house reappeared. Your heart had sank, and you wanted to do nothing more than sleep and cry, but you remembered your book. This time you clicked your pen quietly, and no eyes had stared (there were no staring eyes in this world, silly). Soon you were scribbling words, and drawings that felt strange (but familiar) when a shout had sounded above you. It was a high-pitched squeal that you had never heard before, and wished you hadn’t heard at all. At the sound of it you were filled with dread, and you had longed to see the sun again. You had felt terrified for the person who squealed. Footsteps had been approaching the door that you hadn’t noticed before, the door that seemed to be the only way out. This time, the world simply faded.

 

The next time you were awakened you were close to the ground, you were in a much happier setting, the sun shone delightedly through the trees, and it had been much closer than you remember it being before. This time there was someone with you. They were silently skipping along their short legs, working hard to keep up with your pace, as they danced over foliage and avoided all the visible bugs that lurked beneath the upturned fallen brown leaves. You had slowed down your pace out of consideration for your silent partner, and she had smiled and nodded a thank you. Then, for a minute or two, you guys walked like that under the towering trees with auburn and burgundy and golden leaves, and branches that shook with every soft blow of the wind and movement of a bird. The only sounds that could have been heard were the birds and the cicadas and the trees swaying. Around you were only trees and bushes and flowers and birds one minute and the next you were in a meadow. Now you can’t remember whether you just weren’t paying attention as you walked or if the setting just changed, but it didn’t matter then. Back then you knew where you needed to be. On the picnic blanket with the girl and Apples (the posh anthropomorphic pony who often made declarations for the town of Ridinia). Upon making it there you had been greeted by a feast carried in by ants, and the girl spoke for the first time. “You’ve been awfully silent Madison.” She spoke with a midwest accent, but seemed to be going for a posh English one.

“I am sorry. I am just a bit tired, you must forgive me,” you had said in an equally horrible attempt to be posh.

“You are forgiven, but you must get some sleep or you’ll get sick,” the girl said, her warm brown eyes had seemed very concerned, before she happily turned to Apples. “Any city news Apples it is most boring here in one of my many country homes.”

“Oui, oui, mon amiem,” the pony had whinnied in a failed attempt to speak French. You had sighed and took out your book and silently began to write. (Something in you was telling you how rude it was to do so, but you only had two pages left to write after this one. Surely it would be forgiven.) “Ahem. Madison.”
“Please excuse me, I do not wish to offend you, I simply do not wish to forget this magical day,” you told them. They had looked unimpressed. “Besides I’m preparing for a job as a secretary.” The girl nodded forgivingly, and Apples had simply rolled his eyes.

“Nevertheless, I shall continue,” Apples sighed, “now, Rina is the biggest talk of the town at the moment because… ” Apples was cut off by an alarm echoing for someone to wake up. The girl sighed, and the sun disappeared.

 

You had woken up groggily to an alarm that rang an hour late. A dog had looked up at you as you rushed out of bed, and followed your normal morning routine instinctively. Two minute shower, one minute to dry off and put on clothes, three minutes to eat, five minutes to catch your favorite cartoon. Except something was wrong. You had noticed this around the third minute of your cartoon as Captain Pickles began dueling his rival Captain Coleslaw. Usually, it was around this time your mother would wake up in a tizzy upon hearing the clash of swords, but this time there was no body. Not a sound. Although you had been enthralled in the show, you had been more creeped out by the silence. A quick run around the house you found no one. Twice around, the dog following you this time, you had again found nothing. Panicked, you had sighed, sometimes she was at work at this time you remembered. It was time for you to leave anyway, so you walked outside. At first you had noticed nothing but the fact that the sun was much bigger and much closer than normal (it looked like it was in the town center, and it felt like it was baking you alive). Then you had realized no one was on the street, and your dog was right beside you. The same dog you had just left inside your house. Your hands had begun to shake, not wildly, but enough that you dropped your water bottle and it had echoed sinisterly in the empty streets. Your dog had barked, adding to the echoing and it had created a terrifying din. “Shut up, Sparky,” you had said. Sparky had not shut up. Your fear had turned to anger at this point, and you had stomped away angrily thinking about how when you find these people you’ll… you’ll… if only that dog would shut up. You had turned the corner unto what is usually the biggest street, but all there was were neatly parked cars, and neat little closed shops with clean sparkling windows showcasing neat shoes or clothes or toys in a dark room. You saw the local coffee shop had its door open and other than the sun-lit streets it had been the only well lit place. With the howls of your dog, who was still stuck on your block, ringing in your ears you had marched into the shop in attempts to demand an answer. You were greeted to an interior that was not that of the coffee shop of your childhood, but that of a room with a tiki bar with tie-dye blankets on the walls, and comfortable bean bags speckled with people lazing around a bit drunkenly.

“Sit, stay a while,” a voice, belonging to a man who had tried to lead you to a chair, had slurred. “Don’t you have something to write?” You had nodded, confused on how he knew about your book, but somehow unable to voice that confusion. You had followed him into a room connected to the bar, it was white and brightly lit with a table in the middle that looked like an interrogation table from cop movies.

“Write,” he had said as he pulled out a chair and you sat. You had complied as if hypnotized, immediately scribbling your story. You had been so focused on writing (no, documenting) you had noticed nothing else. Now you try to remember how the floor fell from beneath you, but then all you could do was fall. Still focused on your writing you hadn’t realized you were falling until you had finished the page and you had snapped out of your writing haze. The ground had been close, too close, and you were about to hit it when all had turned black.

 

You were looking up at the hill in front of you, it was green and had a few flowers, and looked like a hill from a fairy tale. You did not have the same majestic look. Your skin had had folds and flopped and stretched out the the spandex you were wearing. For some reason you had convinced yourself that this hill would give you the look you wanted. You just had to run. You had taken a step, and then another (but you had wanted to go faster), and then another one. You had started sweating at this point. Your skin flabs had collided as you used all of your energy to move up the hill, you accelerated and created new bends and warps in time and space. Your breath was short and shallow, and you had wanted to double over, but you had pushed on. The sun seemed as though you could reach it if you ran up this hill, and it beamed as though it was too. You had no book, but you hadn’t really remembered why you thought about a book but you had shrugged it off. The top of the hill had been so far, too far, no book was worth thinking about when the hill was far more important Your earbuds played a song that you can no longer remember. What you do remember are the shimmering notes, the tones that had seeped into your ears and then had circulated throughout your nervous system forcing your feet to move faster than you wanted them to. You fell, and out of nowhere a book had tumbled and landed at the bottom of the hill next to you, a pen rolled neatly on top of it. You had instinctively took the book, popped the pen and wrote furiously. The last page was soon filled with a drawing of the hill, and lovely soliloquies about your first trip up the hill, you had wanted to write more, but you ran out of space. So you had started up the hill again, this time you had felt lighter, skin still twisted and slapped and jiggled but it didn’t hold you down the same way. This time you started and continued, book in hand towards the burning sun. Sweat had dripped off you like rain off a car going way too fast on the freeway, it flew behind you, and had clouded your eyes, and drenched your short dark locks of hair, and discolored the brown spandex that attempted to stretch around you but ended up bunched in your crotch or under your armpits. The sun had seemed to be calling you, it called you Michael, you had been sure that wasn’t your name, but you had no idea what your name was so you accepted Michael. As you edged closer you could see nothing but bright, hot light reflecting off sweat, and possibly tears. Your skin had felt as though it was burning off, the fat melting and unveiling a new person. It was painful at first, but the pain had faded by the time you had made it to the top, and climbed into the sun.

 

You had been (are being?) faced with a totally new setting, you could (can?) not feel yourself or see yourself, you could (can?) only see white. Blinding white, and a frog on a white marble pedestal. You were (are?) staring at it and it was (is?) staring at you for what seemed (seems?) like hours, when it talks. “Michael here is your entrance to reality.” It blinked (blinks?).

 

And you are waking up, cloudy eyed, groggy, and a bit damp. Around you is a garden filled with beautiful marigolds, hydrangeas and roses, and trees with, green leaves, all wet with rain and a little stream with a cute wooden bridge, which is made a splotchy brown from the previous rain. Next to you is an old man who is sleeping, and his head is resting on your shoulder. You are gently placing his head on the back of the damp bench, and standing up. You are looking both ways, trying to decide whether you should follow the trail left or right, or go over the bridge. A fish is swimming close to the surface of the water, it is a goldfish that is larger than usual, and its red and gold scales are twinkling beneath the rippling surface drawing your eyes towards it as it is passing beneath the bridge. You are sighing, and then beginning to walk. Something is jingling with the motion of your feet, you are looking down as you cross the bridge, you are noticing that your shoes are red loafers with hints of gold and a scale like pattern that have little bells attached to the tops of them, and beneath your shoes the fish is swimming. Your bells have stopped tinkling, but something continues blending melodically the sound of the water and the fish has stopped swimming now. It is below you just stationary. There is no wind, but the bells tingle a high pitched, long note, and the fish moves. Everything around and within you is tingling, it feels as if tiny strings are trying to vibrate as one, like an orchestra that helps create the world around you. It has stopped now, and you are continuing to walk, taking soft, quiet steps, and looking only ahead knowing that your journey has commenced.

 

You are walking over a puddle, and you look down (first time since the bridge), your shoes are soaking through, giving them a darker color, which you can see in the puddle along with your black slacks which look newly washed and hang between the puddle and the beginning of your shoes as if unsure whether it wants to get wet or not, but knowing that it does not want to reveal the skin beneath it. Your feet are beginning to get a little cold, so you are hopping out of the puddle and down the asphalt path. The dirt of the garden path had been gone since a while back, it had turned to mud, and then to asphalt. It is still a park, and there are many trees hanging around you, pouring remnants of rain on you whenever the wind blows to hard, and rats scurry beneath the leaf covered grass and dirt on either side of you. You are continuing to walk past that, and towards a playground filled with screaming little kids running wild and tired parents. You are stopping in front of it, leaning on the fence surrounding it, and looking at the kids chase after each other. Their feet are slapping the black rubber tiles, the tiles are the same black as your pants, a deep dark black that almost looks like what nothing would look like. Like the opening to a void, you are staring at it for a minute. For that minute you are focusing only on the foam, the worn, scratched, torn foam, for a moment you are hearing nothing but the sound of slapping feet against foam, it starts out loud and reverberates with the sound of many feet, and then it slows and organizes itself eventually stopping. You are confused and looking up at the children who have started grouping themselves and talking. You are listening to the conversations, and they are typical work conversations filled with surface level scratches at how they’re doing, and what’s up with them. The kids faces are in states of weariness, over enthusiasm and calm expressionless stares. “I haven’t had my morning coffee yet, David, don’t talk to me about this.” One is mumbling in the southwest corner. You are looking towards their parents and you see nothing. You’re staring at the empty benches for a moment. Taking in the absence, and then you are blinking. You are realizing you haven’t blinked in a while, your eyes are dry and your eyelids feel somewhat scratchy as they move to meet each other. You’re find that you are experiencing the same feeling of billions of vibrating strings around you, and inside of you, this time it is more organized, but it is still too messy to make sense of the music, the reason. The kids are playing again. Their shouts and joyful expressions are back, and you are walking away, brushing off the vibrations.

 

You are thinking of nothing as you walk, and right now you can’t remember ever thinking of something. Is remembering thinking? You are stepping into a puddle, and though you can feel the dirt and water seeping into your shoes, you can’t feel anything else. No sense of disappointment at having your shoes ruined or dismay at having soaking feet. The park gates are looming ahead of you, and you are walking towards them staring blankly ahead. Your bells seem to be tinkling a lot quieter now creating a soft din that keeps you marching like a soldier. The gates are even closer, and you can see the black paint peeling and the hardly noticeable warp that causes the gates to curve away from the park at the slightest angle. As you are walking past the gates the smell of damp leaves and trees and urine, are exchanged for the smell of gasoline, sidewalk cart food, garbage, and a tiny bit of sewage surrounding you with every whiff of the slightly suffocating air. You are walking to your left over garbage and past people and tiny plots of dirt harboring garbage and trees. A store door opens and the smell of chemicals with a bit of a flowery scent wafts out with the air conditioned air. You are walking in and are greeted to rows and rows of makeup and perfume. You are walking towards the perfume section, and one bottle is catching your eye. It has a silvery glass, with bejeweled butterflies flying around it, and was topped with a shimmering blue diamond. You are picking it up and holding it, and in the mirror behind it you see your hands (which look huge compared to the tiny bottle, but somehow delicate) and your shirt, a white polo with an unbuttoned top button and an orange suit jacket.

“Are you thinking about buying that for your wife?” a woman is asking you as you are staring at yourself holding the bottle. You give her a confused look at first, and then nod. She is smiling. “Ask me if you need anything.” And then she is walking away.

You spray the perfume in front of your face and take a deep inhale. The smell is oddly bilgy, and you are beginning to cough. In the mirror in front of you, you can see a ship, a hulking beast with it’s hull turned toward you, and the water seems to dampen your face as you cough. No one in the store around you seems to notice, they are continuing to shop as you are watching the ship pass you by, the stench still lingering. You are closing your eyes, but the smell and sea spray continues. The smell is malodorous, and now you are holding your nose. It is stopping and you are standing up straight and turning the perfume bottle away from your face, pulling your finger off the top, and placing the bottle back. There is no longer a foul smell, instead an all to flowery stench is replacing it. You are staring at your shirt, and now your empty hands in the mirror as the same orchestra of tiny strings vibrates everywhere, and this time it is almost as if you can hear a melody. It is stopping, and you are turning away.

 

You are on a train, and it is night time. As the rest of the train sleeps, rocked by the motion of the train and calmed by the gentle hum of the train’s wheels on the tracks, you are staring out the window, dark brown bags attempting to pull your lids down. You are not so much resisting the urge to sleep as you are giving into your curiosity. Outside the window is not the city you had walked around in during the day, nor is it the false forest you woke up in. For a while the scenery consisted of shops in the middle of nowhere, and then suburban backyards, and now it is the forest. Trees that rock with the harsh blowing of the wind (a storm is coming) as their branches reach out for the train, and bushes that are half of your size line the tracks that weeds grow in between. The flowery stench of the perfume is almost gone, and now the only other smell is the dinner you had, the coffee and ham sandwich on rye.

“May we join you?” a woman is asking, standing over you in the doorway of your compartment. She was wearing a black coat trimmed with fur that is hanging to her black shiny boots, and behind her legs stands a small boy with deep brown eyes who is peeking shyly behind her.

“No problem,” you are saying, and she is sitting on the other side of the compartment, her son resting on her lap.

“You look tired,” she is observing in attempts to make quiet conversation.

Her fiery red nails (sharpened at the end like claws) tapped gently on the windowsill. You aren’t particularly sure what to reply, so you let the observation hang in the air between you. It seems just as well, as she is shrugging and now she is leaning back and closing her eyes. Her son was staring up at you curiously, and tugging his jacket closer around him. You are ignoring him and looking out the window, you’re seeing the reflection of the boy and his mother whose finger curls stay stationary despite the bobbing of her head. The boy is touching you, his tiny, skinny hand reaching out and patting your arm. His hands are a sticky, rubbery wet, and suddenly they are grasping your hands, and he is staring up at you. Your hands are feeling as though they are being grabbed by something fluffy and warm, and you are seeing them covered by soft winter gloves whose leathery covering were wet with snow around you a cabin with a warm fire glowing and softly crackling across the room. The torn, and tattered train cushions turn into a warm couch, and the woman is standing in front of you absent mindedly chattering, and then she is turning and staring at you neither of you blinking or talking just staring. Your hands are no longer warm now they are cold and the warm couch is simply the train cushion, the boy is sitting curled up in his mother’s lap and the soft swaying of the train car resumes. You are gripping the arm rests, and the strings are vibrating softly, almost visibly, but definitely audibly. They’re playing an interesting melody, slightly out of tune and out of order, and now they are stopping and you are resuming your ride.

You are walking down a quiet Pennsylvania street towards some house (you can’t remember if it’s yours or not). The sidewalks are small, and plants occasionally spill over from the gardens or form a sort of barrier between you the street making the sidewalks too small to walk on, so you are walking in the street lined with cars neatly parked and stationary (you’ve seen no motion anywhere around you and the air is stale and windless.) There is no noise, and you are facing the ground as you climb up the steep hill, the hot sun shining too bright for you to be able to look up, but you begin to look up now. You are seeing a girl on a bike, her face in shadows and her backlit with the glowing sun, she is not moving, her right hand holds a lollipop in her mouth, while her left is resting on the bike handle. Her left shoulder is sagging lower than her right, and her left foot stands on the ground her while her right lays on the pedal. Her bike, pink with rainbow streamers coming from dark black handles is slanted to the side and unmoving. It looks as if she is preparing to ride down the hill you are attempting to climb and she is fixing you with a harsh, hard stare. Her mouth is fixed and concentrated, her eyebrows are furrowed, her blues eyes doll-like and glassy, and her strawberry blonde hair hangs in a limp ponytail at the top of her head. You are staring at her with equal intensity, and you have stopped moving for what seems like hours but is probably just a minute, then you are walking up a hill towards the house and she is saying, “I could’ve sworn I saw you in my dream” while speeding past you on her bicycle. Now you are turning to look at her, the strings vibrating and playing a sinister song, each one looks like a small dot that makes up the world around you, a dot almost to small to see. She is leaving your line of sight and you are turning around, and continuing your way up the hill slowly but surely, and the sun keeps beating down on you.

 

You are in a house, laying on a bed the strings have not stopped playing and you are tired. They have simmered down, their sinister trills turning into a lullaby. You still see them. You can’t stop seeing them unless you close your eyes. So you are closing your eyes, you are trying to stay awake for some reason but can’t. Something is dragging you down. Something is making everything go dark. Everything is dark, and silent and your snores are filling the room.

 

And you will wake up, cloudy eyed, and groggy. Around you will be a garden filled with beautiful marigolds, hydrangeas and roses, and trees with fresh, green leaves, all wet with rain and a little stream with a cute wooden bridge, which is splotchy from the rain. Next to you will be an old man who is sleeping with his head resting on your shoulder. You will wake him and ask him where you are. He will turn and face you, his face wrinkled and serious and say nothing.

 

Controlling Fate

My heart beats extra hard as I step onto my bike. The ride to school isn’t that long, but if I take the main road instead of my usual back alleyways, I might be able to stretch the ten minute ride into fifteen. That’s five extra minutes I don’t have to spend taking my math test. Five extra minutes I don’t have to spend watching numbers dance uncontrollably across the page, twirling just out of my grasp. The adrenaline rushes through my legs as I pedal, feeling each bump in the sidewalk, each crack in the cement. I pass the park to my left. It’s hard to see, hidden behind large oak trees on the side of the road, nestled away in this residential area. My head buzzes a little. I’m finding it hard to think. The stress creeps onto the edges of my thoughts, like ivy climbing a stone tower. I try to force it back. Breathe, breathe. I put as much energy as I can into pedaling, harder, faster, stronger. My bike surges forward. For a few seconds, I coast along, flying. The moment ends too soon. I hit the breaks as I approach the stoplight, and once again feel myself sink miserably into thoughts of first period Algebra. As the road to school shrinks, my confidence fades with it. My hands tighten on the handle bars. I observe each groove, feeling their texture against my palm. In another attempt at distraction, I wiggle my toes in my shoes. I like knowing I have control over them. I can make them do what I want. I force them to pedal a bike to my fate at the hands of an Algebra test.

 

Bakery Blues

Being hardcore is well, hard. I have to party all night and sleep all day and never study to keep up my image. Do you think I want to be doing shots on the weekends? Please, I’d rather be watching the Barbie TV show with my four-year-old sister. But we all have images to keep up. Some more than others. And we all have a breaking point. Mine was earlier today.

It just smelled so good. As if they had baked happiness into those little cakes. I was coming back from my fifth party of the week, starving. Cheap beer in red solo cups doesn’t really count as food. That’s how they got me. The Cupcakery that is. One minute I was cruising down the road in my beat-up convertible, the next I was standing in front of the glass window eyeing a particularly gruesome pink cupcake.

It was perfect: red paper, vanilla cake, creamy pink frosting, and lemon curd guaranteed on the inside. I wanted it more than anything else, but we all have images to keep up. So, I did what any reasonable person would. I bought myself a friggin awesome disguise. Normally, I’d never be caught dead in that hideous, green sweater. It itched worse than the ones my mom knits. Even worse, it clashed with my new hair which was dyed blue with some cheap wash out stuff from the drugstore. It was a lot for a cupcake. But this was the cupcake. You kind of had to be there to get it.

I strolled into the Cupcakery looking like a loser who was way too obsessed with people like me. I flashed the cashier, a middle-aged woman with greasy brown hair and the face of a kindly grandmother twenty years younger, my usual charming smile. “Could I have the gourmet valentine cupcake.” I winked at her and casually leaned against the cash register. “It’s for someone special.”

The cashier stared at me for a moment before pointing to a little sign hanging in front of the display of cupcakes. “We have the right to refuse service to anyone.”

My jaw dropped. The cashier grinned and did a terrible imitation of my casual lean. “Sorry,” she said with a mockingly deep voice. “That special someone’s going to have to wait.”

“How dare you?” I jabbed my finger in her face for emphasis. “Do you know how many girls I’ve made out with because of that casual lean? Eight!” She burst into laughter. “That’s a lot for someone my age!” I sputtered. “You didn’t even do it right, you know? That is my lean!”

The cashier laughed even harder. Her face looked almost pretty if she hadn’t been laughing at me. She grabbed her sides and looked like she was about to pass out from the hilariousness of the situation. When she came to, she had tears rolling down her cheeks. “L-look, kid.” She gasped and wiped at her eyes. “I’m doing you a favor by denying you that cupcake. I mean, you’re practically bulging out of those skinny jeans.”

I glanced down at my ripped black designer skinny jeans. Had I put on weight? I glanced at the cashier and then back down at my jeans. Well, if anyone knew about weighing too much for your outfit, it was her. But I couldn’t have. I was in my prime. I once ate three family sized bags of Doritos and didn’t gain a thing. I looked back up at the cashier, who undoubtedly could see my whole train of thought. She shrugged at me. “Don’t worry, kid. It happens to the best of us. I used to be a size zero but come my seventeenth birthday, my metabolism just couldn’t keep up.”

A choking sound emitted from my throat. “Bu-but I turned seventeen a month ago.” I was beginning to feel faint. Images of myself, fat and alone, flashed through my mind. I was too popular to be lonely. I was too cool to be fat. I had an image to keep up!

The cashier nodded at me in mock sadness. “Looks like you already need to get some bigger jeans to fit your thighs.”

I couldn’t withhold a gasp. Who did this woman think she was? “No!” I yelled, slamming my hand down on the counter. “Give me the cupcake!”

The cashier sighed. “Well, I tried to warn you.” She pressed a few buttons on her register. “That’ll be $10.66.”

There was that choking sound again. I desperately emptied the pockets of my ripped black designer skinny jeans. They could only hold a tiny bit of cash. I dumped the bills on the counter. “I only have five dollars.”

The cashier sighed. And pushed the money back at me. “Well, I guess after all of that, you don’t have enough for that gourmet cupcake. Now move aside, I have other customers to attend to.”

I glanced behind me to see a huge line of people that in my hunger-induced daze, I hadn’t noticed. I was losing it. I was losing my cupcake. But I was hardcore. I don’t lose things.

Am I proud that I stole the cupcake from the Cupcakery? Yes. I think I did a pretty good job for it being my first major crime. Am I proud that the cashier managed to tackle me and sit on me long enough for the police to show up? Perhaps not. But look at me now, in the jail cell, casually leaning against the wall. I’m hardcore like that.

 

Three Minutes

Three minutes before school ended, the only noises to be heard were the ticking of the clock (that ran two hours too late), the tapping of pencils (like that Britney Spears music video), and the sporadic, panicked scratching of pens on paper (pop quizzes are never fun). If you were to do a pan of the room, expressions would range from concentration to boredom, to faces of pure confusion. In one corner of the room, the class hamster slept, stress-free and content (unbeknownst to it, a respiratory infection was starting to take its life). In another corner, a student’s A+ essay was threatening to fall off the not-so sticky tack, and next to it a fly buzzed lazily in circles. In the janitor’s closet next to this particular classroom, a rat squeaked and scurried in its trap (it was one of those cage ones you see in Disney’s Cinderella and nowhere else), while the janitor whistled an out of tune hymn. The smell of mold and ammonia was somewhat toxic, but the janitor never wore a mask since masks were for pansies and liberals. A mistreated, rotting newspaper in the center of the floor was crawled over by a roach. A roach that, if followed, would lead you to a hole in the wall smaller than you’d expect a roach of its ungodly size to be able to crawl through. A whole that leads to a tunnel which leads to the boys bathroom. In the boys bathroom, there are several inappropriate drawings on the wall, and people who are supposed to be in class, and now, the roach slinks past them into a crevice where it lives as the school bell rings, and the boys exit to go hang out at the local McDonald’s.

 

Benevolence of Change

        

The Child With Emerald Eyes (SONNET)

Summer smiles in sun-kissed bliss with her cloudless days,

Watching over a child with emerald eyes,

Who rocks back and forth in his chair in a joyful haze

And laughs in glee under bright and clear skies.

 

Winter smiles with her frigid cool and heavy mist,

Drifting down frail snowflakes that float in the air

And melt on the skin of an emerald-eyed man who wished

To be able to forever rock back and forth in his chair.

 

Summer returns in her sweltering heat,

Watching over a wrinkled old man with a cane,

Whose emerald eyes shine in defeat

At the passing of time that had stolen his youth with no refrain.

 

The wrinkled, old emerald-eyed man rocks back and forth in his chair with an accepting gaze,

Underneath the watchful eye of Winter and Summer and in his wrinkled eyes: a youthful, fiery blaze.

 

With Calm Sways (SESTINA)

She calmly floats, swaying

As waves softly lap and swirl

Against her body under a calm

Sky that appeared not stormy

But painted in a soft pink haze

Above water clear as crystal.

 

Overcome with a sense of rest, her crystal

Blue eyes gazing in swaying

Calm, floating atop water in a peaceful haze

And an unconscious swirl

Of serene lack of a stormy

Sea, washed over with a sense of calm.

 

Amidst her floating in the calm

Sea, she suddenly jolts with crystal

Clear clarity of times stormy

And gray, and with a more intense swaying,

She remembers and recalls in a swirl

Of sharp understanding in a sudden dark and blurry haze.

 

She recalled sitting in silence in a foggy haze

Listening to a doctor with steady calm

Who told of an illness in no swirl

Of emotions, but with crystal

Clear clarity, and under a sympathetic gaze, observed her swaying

At the prospect of times stormy.

 

From then on, there was no end to days stormy

With pain, until one day, a sudden haze

Of dizzy faint struck to leave her swaying

And struck her to the floor with a final sense of calm

And yet sharp crystal

Clear clarity of an overlooming dark, heavy swirl.

 

It was then she faintly recalled the deafening swirl

Of red and blue to save her from times stormy

But left her and her crystal

Blue eyes in a fleeting haze,

As she ended her struggling and finally closed her eyes with calm

And let go of the overwhelming pain to feel herself suddenly swaying.

 

Brought to a clear blue ocean and a soft pink haze

Painted in the sky, free of stormy

Days, she calmly floats, swaying.

 

Missing Tooth (RONDEAU)

Giggling in fleeting bliss, the girl’s face is momentarily illuminated

By the flash of a camera that had caught and captivated

A young girl in the bloom of youth,

Her mouth wide with a missing tooth,

And a laugh, free and liberated.

 

Now a woman, youth fadingly saturated,

She glances at a photo of a young girl faded

But laughing with a missing tooth,

Giggling in fleeting bliss.

 

With deepening wrinkles, the woman, sophisticated

With age and laughs weighted

With a solemn truth,

Glances at a photo with no missing tooth,

Of a young girl liberated,

Giggling in fleeting bliss.

 

Golden, Warm Air

A broken butterfly fluctuates in its soar,

Through a journey over poisonous gardens,

Cool air,

Broken wing flapping,

Flying with its thought: one last time,

But landing with its golden swirls in the warm hands of a warm-handed woman.

 

A broken woman staggers in her walk,

Through a journey heavy of poisonous people,

Dark air,

Broken past looming,

Walking with her thought: one last time,

But landing in her warm hands: a broken, golden-swirled butterfly.

 

The broken butterfly flew with the weight of fragile life

Atop its golden-swirled wings,

But remaining now, safely nuzzled against the warmth of a woman

Who had too walked heavy.

 

The woman weighted with broken past,

Begins to walk steady,

Illuminated by the golden swirls of a golden-swirled butterfly

With a broken wing,

Beginning to fly.

 

Golden-swirled wings glow from ascending warmth of warm hands,

And is released from the warm hands of the warm-handed woman,

Flying away free,

Into the golden, warm air.

 

A golden-swirled butterfly with a broken wing,

A warm-handed woman with a broken past,

But themselves no longer broken in harmonized air:

Whole.

 

The Biggest Game of my Life

          

I’m standing there in the tunnel waiting for my teammates to exit the team room. I’m feeling nervous because I have never been in this big of a game. I know this because I could hear my heart beating and nothing else besides that. This is the state championship game. The game that decides who would be crowned “king” of the state. My teammates are hyped as I try to hide my nervousness from them because I was one of the best players on the team. I could not be having any of these feelings before such a big game. Our coach screams that we are about to run out onto the court.

I close my eyes. I imagine everything our team has accomplished this year. How we were the best team in the league, which was a surprise, how we had four all-state players, and how I broke the scoring record in state history. This was one of the best moments of my career. It might be okay with my teammates for just getting to this big of a game, but I for one wanted to go out there and win it all. After all, not only was it my last season, but it was also my last game ever for my school.

***

I wasn’t always this kid who was amazing at basketball. In the beginning of high school, I was this 5’5” kid who did not have much of a jump shot and below average ball handling skills. But in-between now and then, I had grown to 6’8” and worked harder than I had ever worked before. I had top programs knocking on my door now, and it came down to six different programs. So, I talked it over with my parents, and it came down to Duke, North Carolina, Villanova, Kentucky, Kansas, and Virginia. On National Signing Day, I decided that I would be attending the University of North Carolina. At the end of the day, I reflected on how I had changed so much over the past four years and how my hard work had really paid off.

At the beginning of the season, I did not expect us to do so well. Our practices were terrible because almost nobody knew the plays, and don’t even get me started on the games. So one day, my coach sat me down in his office, and he said to me, “Look, I know this is your last season and you want to go to the state tourney, so what you have to do is become a leader or else this season is a lost cause.” I was leading the practices, and we actually started to win games. By the end of the regular season, our team had secured a spot in the state tournament, finishing with a record of 18-5. It took a lot of hard work, sweat, and grit, but I was proud of this team and what it had accomplished this year.

***

I remember when my son started playing the game that my husband loved for so long. I remember the times when he could barely play, but he stayed out long past dark shooting the basketball in that hoop I bought him for his eighth birthday. One day, he came home from school, and he said, “Mom, I don’t want to continue playing this game because I am terrible at it.” I told him that to get better, you have to practice more. I could tell that he wanted to get better because basketball was his life and one of the most important things that he cared about. My son had worked long and hard to get to the place where he was now; and I’m not just talking about all these college scholarships. I’m talking about the state championship game. He had been talking about this since the first moment of his high school basketball career. And now here he was, just about ready to play in the state championship game.

***

I’m standing there, ready to take the floor. As I run out onto the court, I look at the section where my mom is sitting and see how proud she is of me. She is looking at me and is so happy to see what my teammates and I had accomplished. We were so pumped for this because I know for me and six of my other teammates, it would be our last basketball game for this team. For those other six seniors, it may even be their last competitive basketball game. We take our last warmups, and then our coach calls us in to give us one final pep talk. I’m not really paying attention because I can’t focus with everyone yelling in the stands, but he is probably saying “I’m proud of you guys. You fought hard all year long, and it’s a true accomplishment just to get here.”

Here I am, three minutes before the biggest game of my high school career, and I’m so determined to win this game. This might be because it’s my last game ever for the school or because I want to give the fans a game to remember. But as I waited for the game to start, I remember those three minutes being the most nervous moments of my life. Oh, how I will never forget those three minutes before the game began.

 

Nervous

             

The light stains my eyelids a

lurid pink.

I fumble with the

Pen and paper

That lay on my desk.

The others are still sleeping,

The sun is yet to rise,

And I shiver in the cold.

The room looks too large without

The others.

I fidget in my seat,

Unable to sit still.

The paper stares at me

Marred by my shaky writing.

The timer dings announcing my time is up,

And I hand in a paper half blank, half gibberish,

Dripping with sweat.

So much for my future.

 

for the poets

      

your words coat my lips

like honey

i sit cross-legged on my bed and speak them

over and over again

until i can taste them

imprinted on my tongue

they crackle

on the crumpled papers of

my spiral notebooks

i write them over and over again

the blue ink bleeding from

the margins

of my math homework

seeping over the equations

numbers have always made sense to me and

math is refreshing in its clarity

but i can’t help but be

entranced

by your words

they spill over my walls

printed thoughts that stain the blue paint

until there’s no room for posters

poetry on poetry

even your names flow easily

from my lips

pablo neruda

e. e. cummings

william carlos williams

{is having a poetic name a necessity

to be a poet?

or could beth the barista

publish her own printed thoughts one day?

could jonny the jockey

stain a teenager’s walls?}

eventually your words

the ones that coated my lips

imprinted themselves on my tongue

bled over my math homework

twist themselves up in my trachea

so that when i speak your words

they’re not the same

they’ve been reborn

your words

those honey coated ballpoint pen masterpieces

have been reformed into

new

bright white leather baseballs

shiny copper pennies

brand new words

{extra! extra! hot off the presses!}

your words are repeated

rewritten

recycled

refurbished

some people take quotes from movies

or pop stars

or presidents

but i take mine from you

you poets,

you creators,

you gods of your masterpieces

i dismantle them

i dig into every crack and crevice

i check and double-check to make sure

i shake loose every word

and i reassemble them

so that the barest whisper of you

remains

enough to make it clear

that you are my inspiration

but besides from this whisper

the words, formerly yours,

are unrecognizable

i take my words,

my shining pennies,

my fallen stars

from you

and i make them mine

 

Weird Dream

A dream that I had once, which was extremely odd, was that I started off standing on the top of the moon. I walked forward to the edge of the moon and fell all the way through space, down to earth. When I hit the pavement, I jumped out of my sleep. This dream has happened over at least five or seven times. The only logical explanation I have for this dream occurring multiple times is that when I was younger, I used to imagine that I was sleeping on top of the world. I guess that my wondrous imagination somehow turned into a terrifying dream that winds up having my body completely in pieces when I hit the ground, turning my “awesome dream” into a heart pounding moment for me.

 

Potatoes to Apples

        

“Just a small town girl

Livin’ in a lonely world

She took the midnight train goin’ anywhere” – Journey (1981)

 

For all my life, I’ve wished I could be someone else. Somewhere else. New York. I remember being a kid, flipping through magazines at the one dentist office within a five mile radius, looking at the glamour and flashiness that the models and actresses flaunted in their pictures. I remember the article I was reading, something about the Big Apple, with a beautiful picture of Lindsay Lohan in the right hand corner. You know. Before she got sent to rehab.

She was in a red dress that skimmed the floor with these big hoop earrings. I flipped to the next page where there were even more A-List celebrities, carrying around their mini dogs in their mini bags before it was passé, and I fell in love. From that day on, I knew New York was my town.

I wouldn’t stop bothering my mom for a dress just like Lindsay’s. She got me one from the thrift shop that looked and smelled like it’d been worth about two dollars. Mom told me she’d gotten it for one. Did I care? No. I wore that dress until the fraying sleeves wore down to threads and I had had to cut up one of Dad’s old shirts for makeshift straps.

Idaho wasn’t ready for a star like me. And I made sure everyone around me knew that. My friends got tired of me talking their ears off about how great New York was and how terrible Idaho was. Can you blame me, though? We aren’t called the potato state for nothing. There’s nothing else here. It’s not exactly like you can party it up in a silo or anything.

So I made a plan. My town had one train station about two miles away from where I lived. Maybe I should have bought my tickets a little earlier, considering the fact that the only tickets left were for a train leaving at midnight. The only problem was that the ticket fare for a cross country trip was close to $200. Which meant that I would have to ask my parents for the money.

The closest I’ve ever been to a cross-country trip is driving to my Aunt Tilda’s house about two hours away from mine. My parents aren’t exactly what you’d call well-traveled people either. So I expected them to be a little protective of their only child going to a far away city and whatnot. They laughed. And when they saw how upset I looked, they stopped for a second.

“Why do you want to go to New York?” Dad asks, not even looking up from his newspaper. I could tell they weren’t taking me seriously.

Okay, so maybe I had already threatened to run away from home in eighth grade. They probably thought it was just one of those phases that I went through as a kid. But I’m not a kid anymore! I’m almost 18!

“I’ve looked at the train fare already, and it’s close to $200.” I showed them the online train schedule. I’ve already established that I’m an adult by showing them that I’m responsible for looking up the train times. To ask anything more of me would be overkill.

“And you just expect us to give you the money?” Mom stops peeling potatoes long enough to exchange glances with Dad. I know that glance. It’s the should-we-entertain-our-delusional-daughter-or-tell-her-how-the-world-actually-works glance. Which is ridiculous. I’m not delusional, and this isn’t a phase.

“It’s not just giving me the money, Mom.” I roll my eyes. “Think of this as an investment. I’ll go to New York, I’ll make money, and when I get rich and famous enough, I’ll buy you and Dad a house someplace better than Idaho.”

“How, exactly, do you plan on making this money?”

I stop for a second. Do I even know what I’m planning on doing in New York? Whatever. I’ll figure it out when I get there. They don’t need to know. God! Why can’t they just support me? It’s just $200. And the money I’ll need to rent out a place or stay in a motel. And the money I’ll need for food and a ticket back. But it’s not like I’ll be coming back anyway, so I don’t even need that $200. I’m already thinking ahead and saving money. So I go about convincing my parents the only way I know how: begging.

“Please? Please? Please?” I stretch out each syllable and make eye contact with my parents, hoping to send across some kind of subliminal message that says, “I need to go to New York now, and if I don’t, I might die.”

“Let’s say you did go. Where would you even stay? We’ve only left you at home alone once while we went to Marcie’s wedding.” Mom starts to cut up the potatoes into little chunks. It feels like the potatoes are my dreams, and my parents are just willing to cut them up into pieces for soup, or whatever dish we’re having tonight for dinner.

“I’d stay in a motel,” I answer quickly. “They’re cheap, and I’d be able to stay there for a while.”

They don’t look convinced.

“No.” Mom goes back to the potatoes. I can feel my dream slipping through my fingers like a wet bar of soap. Ew.

“But that’s not fair!” I feel tears gathering behind my eyeballs. I can picture it now. Me, years from today, in another house just like this one. I’m peeling potatoes, or washing dishes, or mucking out a cow yard. I’ll be just like… my parents. My boring, mediocre parents. I can feel the walls of our tiny kitchen start to close in on me. I have to get out of this state.

I manage a smile and try to make eye contact with my dad. “Okay. You’re right. I’m not responsible enough to stay by myself, especially in a whole other state.” I force a laugh but end up sounding like a car backfiring.

Mom pushes her mouth into a straight line and nods. “I’m glad you see it from our perspective.”

“I’ll just go to my room and get ready for dinner.” I turn to walk upstairs.

Dinner that night is kind of weird. Unusually quiet. But that might be because I’m trying to think of how to execute my master plan titled, How I’m Going to Get Out of Idaho by Stealing Money from my Parents While They’re Sleeping.

I mull over my options. I don’t have access to any of the things I see in the spy movies, which means I’ll just have to sneak into their room. They keep this ceramic bottle somewhere on their nightstand that has our emergency money in it. This is an emergency.

We finish eating in silence and go upstairs to wash up and go to sleep. Once I hear the faint snoring coming from the room across the hall, I know it’s time for me to put my plan into action.

I roll across the bed and plant my feet on the floor as softly as I can. I start to make my way to my parents’ room. Barely three steps into my plan, my foot and the floor create this awful creaking sound that gives me a heart attack. I reach the door and turn the handle slowly, wincing a little when it squeaks. I stop for a second and listen for any sign that says they’re awake. When there aren’t any, I turn the handle the rest of the way to let myself in.

I tiptoe my way to Dad’s side of the bed and reach around on the nightstand trying to find the ceramic bottle. I make contact with something cold, smooth, and cylindrical. Score. I shake it around a little to make sure it’s the right thing, and sure enough, the money inside makes a faint swishing sound as it hits the insides of the bottle.

My dad grunts in his sleep, and I almost fall back, but catch myself on the edge of the nightstand. I come back to my room and switch on the lights. I uncork the bottle and pull the money out with a pair of tweezers.

There’s about $500 in 20 dollar bills. I decide to take all of it. I empty out my school bag and pack a sweatshirt, some jeans, three shirts, and four changes of underwear and socks. I stuff the money into a fanny pack that I’ve put on under my hoodie and get downstairs as quietly as I can.

Once I make it outside, I do a little victory dance. Now all I need to do is get to the station. I check the time on my phone. 10:46. I have around an hour to get to the station before midnight. I walk down the driveway connecting my house to the road. It’s a quiet night and close enough to summer that I can feel the shirt under my hoodie start to stick to my skin.

I’m doing it! I’m finally getting out of Idaho!

It takes a while for my eyes to get adjusted to the lighting at the station. I see the ticket desk as soon as I get inside. There’s a pimply, tired looking kid around my age sitting behind it.

“Hi. One ticket for the train to New York?” I slide the money into the little compartment under the speaker. He looks up and types something into a machine and hands me the ticket. I wait for him to be impressed, maybe ask some questions about why I’m going to New York. A couple of seconds pass. Nothing. I lean with my elbow on the counter. “Yeah, I’m going to New York. By myself. I just decided I needed to get out of Idaho, you know? Who knows how long I’ll be gone.” I check to see if he’s listening. He’s not. “I might meet some celebrities there too, no big deal. I’ll ride a subway or two, go to Central Park. I’ve heard it’s all very glamorous.” The guy finally looks up. Yes! A reaction! He opens his mouth to say something. Maybe about how cool it is that I’m taking this journey? Or maybe about how he’s always wanted to go to New York too and how he’s so jealous I’m living out my dream?

“Did you say something?” He takes out the earbuds that I’ve just noticed and looks at me with a unimpressed, mildly annoyed expression. The earbuds play loud rock music that cuts through the silence of the station.

“Um. Nothing. Have a nice night.” I take my elbow off the counter and walk quickly to the seating area. Okay. Not exactly the reaction I was looking for. Not really a reaction at all, if I’m being honest.

But it’s okay! In about 15 minutes, everything about this garbage state will be history. The train will arrive, and I’ll be off to live the life I always knew was for me. I go out to the platform and sit on a bench with my hands tucked into the pocket of my hoodie and wait. Then, the train pulls up.

I enter the car and shuffle all the way to the back. I hoist my duffel bag up into the compartment and sit down in a window seat. It’s all dark outside with the exception of the lights from the station. I’m ready to reenact the victory dance from when I left the house when I notice there are two other people sitting in the car with me. I shrink down into my seat.

There’s a lady sitting in the seat across from me. She has hair that looks like it’s been dyed, and even though I’m sitting pretty far away, the smell of cigarettes and cheap perfume wafts from her direction. I feel kind of awkward, but it’s not like I’ll have any reason to talk to her anyway. I settle down into my seat and lean back into the headrest. I’m just about to doze off when a guy gets on and sits in the seat in front of me. From what I can see from the back, he has on a Pistons jersey.

The train jerks forward a little, and we start to move out of the station. I press my hands up against the window like a little kid and move my face as close to the glass as I can and crane my neck up to look at the sky.

For all I complain about Idaho, it really does look pretty at night. We even got some national reserve for looking at the sky. The stars look scattered, like someone took a paintbrush covered in white paint and flicked the bristles until the dark canvas was covered with tiny dots of light.

We start to pick up speed. I hear shifting in the compartment where my bag is. Then, my bag tumbles to the ground with a graceful thump, articles of clothing flying everywhere within a four foot radius. Crap. I scramble around looking for the things that fell out and manage to locate two shirts and three pairs of socks.

The lady sitting across from me looks around her seat and finds another pair of socks. She hands it to me. “Thank you so much.” I take the socks from her and stuff them into my bag. I’m positive my face is bright red.

“Don’t worry about it,” she says with a small smile. “You seem to have packed quite a bit. Might I ask where you’re going?” Finally! Someone who shows interest. I’m going to pretend she didn’t just see my pair of socks with the embarrassing polka dot print on them.

“I’m going to New York by myself,” I say. The guy in front of me turns around and hands me one of my shirts. I don’t want to seem rude, so I thank him and ask where he’s from. You know. Small talk. I’ll need it for when I rub elbows with Taylor Swift.

“I’m from Detroit.”

“Ohhh. Like 8 Mile?” I hope I’ve hit an emotional chord for him. Like, maybe he really likes Eminem and wants to follow in his footsteps and reach rap stardom. He gives me a blank look.

“What’s that?”

“Nevermind. But isn’t Detroit way closer to New York than Idaho?”

He shrugs. “I stayed with some relatives here for a while.”

I turn to the lady next to me and ask her where she’s from.

“I’m a singer. I have connections with some friends in Brooklyn, and they said they’d book me a gig at their bar.” She brushes her hair behind her ears and checks her phone.
“That’s really cool.” I smile at the both of them. None of us know what else to say, so we all go back to staring out the windows, looking at our phones, and sleeping.

As the anticipation grows in my stomach, so does the exhaustion from all the planning and scheming I’ve done for the past five hours. I close my eyes. Hopefully I’ll wake up just when we arrive in New York. It’s kind of like a fresh start.

A fresh start for me and everyone else on the midnight train.

 

Golden Blood (Excerpt)

“We need to find her.”

“Sorry?”

“The girl.”

“Sir, which girl?”

“The girl, Zira. She’s one of the last ones. We won’t stop until we get what we need — her blood.”

The man stood in front of the committee and swore to do whatever they asked. Immediately, he started to work on finding her in the other world, Earth.

***

I’m concentrating on my comic submission, due next week. Music plays loudly on the radio in my room, but it sounds like background noise to me. The ink flows on my paper freely. I quickly glance at the clock. 11:46 P.M.. New page. Just as I start to draw a new box, my phone rings.

I jump, then scramble to find my phone under the mess on my desk. It’s only my friend, Kyla. I hit the green button and answer with a dry, “Hello?”

She answers much too enthusiastically for this time of the night. “Hey! I’m out right now, so what do you want for your birthday?”

I can’t help but chuckle. “Kyla, why are you out this late? And my birthday is technically in 14 minutes.”

“I know, but I’m getting you something right now anyway. How do you feel about — ”

“It’s okay, I don’t care what you get,” I interrupt. “I’m busy with something. See you tomorrow,” I say and press the “end call” button just as she was about to protest.

I go back to focusing on the comic. I had three pages written already, of my protagonist battling monsters and whatnot. Where I’d left off, my protagonist was standing in front of the biggest, scariest monster of all.

I don’t know what to draw next. I switch my lamp off and go to sleep.

“I’ve come to take you back.”

I shoot up from my bed. I suddenly have a tingly feeling over my entire body, and I grow very hot and dizzy. I find myself too weak to stay sitting up. I see my phone on the bedside table turn to 12:00 A.M.. Thursday, October 11. This isn’t what I thought turning 18 would feel like.

You’ve been in this other world for much too long and need to get back to your people.

The view of my window becomes blurred as I drift back to sleep, or faint. I can’t remember.

When I wake up, I’m only confused.

Am I still dreaming? I don’t know what time it is, but it’s dark. I don’t know what day it is. I check my phone. Friday, October 12. 10:45 P.M.. How? What happened?

I’m not in bed. Still confused, I start to feel scared. I’m as good as paralyzed. Terrified.

Why am I in a fancy dress? I hesitantly stand up and realize that I’m in a classroom. I walk out to the hallway. Empty.

School at night is eerie to begin with. Every sound from outside feels louder than it should be, and everything seems bigger than it is during the day. I struggle to remember why I was here in the first place.

There’s a gash on my thigh, bleeding underneath my dress. I hold the muddy ruffles tight in my fist. Not only am I scared and wondering how I ended up here, but an overwhelming, unexplainable grim feeling consumes me. My spirit had been brought down.

Then, a creak.

Lockers line the entire hallway, but one creaked open behind me. A chill goes down my spine. I’m not turning around.

“Who’s there?”

I stay completely still. My body is cold. I couldn’t keep my mouth shut.

“Who’s there?” I ask again. My breaths were heavy. Nobody’s there.

I squeeze my eyes shut, the way you do when you get a shot at the doctor’s office and you just want it to be over. I spin around and open my eyes.

Nothing. I had a sinking feeling there was nothing there. It wasn’t a draft. The hallway is spotless. No garbage, or bugs, or even a single dust mite. If only I could see a dust mite.

I step gingerly towards the exit. I keep walking, stiff.

Why am I here? Why am I here? I ask myself over and over, as if it would give me the answer. The last thing I remember is drawing, the night before my birthday. I realize I don’t remember what happened on my birthday, which was also homecoming. That’s right, this is my homecoming dress.

I push hard on the exit door to open it. It doesn’t budge. Locked. I’m beginning to feel lightheaded. I’m trapped.

“Is there anyone there?” I call out through the door.

The gash on my thigh is the only injury I can see. It had started partly scabbing over. The rest of my body is just covered in dirt. The horrible, ominous aura wouldn’t go away.

What happened? I rub my eyes, hoping maybe it was a bad dream. Mascara smudges onto my hand.

As I start to lean on the door and cry, it swings open. My heart feels like it dropped to my stomach and is pounding from there.

I look eye to eye with a guy standing in front of me. I recognize him. I can’t put a name to his face at the moment, but surely I’ve spoken to him before.

“Um, are you okay? What are you doing here?” he asks.

“Help me.” I say it in the weakest voice, but the guy helps me out of the building.

***

Next, there are thick, dark clouds. Purple, black. They surround me. It’s cold. Something is talking to me.

“Come,” they say. “Come to the other side… ” Over and over. The echo is everywhere. It doesn’t matter where I turn; the voices and the clouds are all that exist in this moment. I can’t escape.

“No,” I say. “No!”

I wake up in an unfamiliar place, with the same guy by my side. What is his name? I still have a sick feeling. “Where am I? How did I get here?”

He holds a glass of water. “Shh, it was just a dream,” he says. “I brought you here. This is my house. I would have driven you home, but I didn’t know where you lived, and I’m right around the corner from school.” I sit up straight, abruptly. He tries to hold eye contact with me, but I’m flustered. He gives me the water.

“Do you remember anything from last night?” he asks softly.

“I remember last night. I know I was at school, but I don’t… I don’t know why… or what happened before that,” I stutter.

“Okay, well, it’s me, Tyler,” the guy says. Tyler. Right. “Last night was homecoming night.”

“I figured that out from my dress,” I say, gesturing to it. I’m still wearing it.

“Your parents are probably really worried,” Tyler points out. “Do you, like, need help or something?”

“They probably aren’t.” Actually, I bet my dad is. It’s not like I told either of them that I was sleeping over at someone’s house. I just didn’t come home. “And I don’t think you can help me. Something’s going on,”

“Well… yeah, I think that’s safe to assume,” Tyler answers. He looks down at his feet. He kind of looks like he wants to say something but decides against it.

I roll my eyes. “No, I mean… I don’t know. Like, it’s not over.”

“Do you want to talk more after you change clothes? There’s a guest room that no one goes in. There’s clothes there,” he offers. I don’t know Tyler that well, but somehow I trust him. There seems to be a connection. I can’t tell what it is.

I nod, and he tells me to go to the room on the left. I follow his instruction and leave the door the slightest bit open.

The room is painted a subdued red. There are eight pieces of artwork, two on each wall. They’re all overwhelmingly dark, depicting graphic pictures of wars and monsters. There’s one portrait. The girl in the portrait cries dark tears.

How unsettling.

I quickly find a T-shirt and shorts in the dresser under the portrait. My mind was clouded with sounds. I need an aspirin or something.

My perception of time is completely messed up. I close my eyes and try to imagine myself in school. A normal day, before yesterday. I imagine myself on the field, running endlessly. It all seems so far. Whatever happened, I want it to stop. I want them to stop torturing me. I wish I knew who “them” was. If they want to kill me, then why not just do it?

Tyler is sitting with his back turned toward me. He seems to be taking some sort of pill, but his cup holds a dark liquid, like grape juice or something, rather than water. He groans in pain.

“Hey,” I say. “Are you good?”

Tyler looks up now. The light in this room is off, but it’s still bright from the daylight coming through the window. He stands up.

“I’m fine. Hi,” he says.

Ignoring the incident, I ask, “Why do you have those paintings?”

“They’re… ” he pauses. “Memories.”

I sit down on the hard wooden chair. “Where’s your family?” I asked. “Are they their paintings?”

“Yes, but I won’t say anything further than that.”

“What does that mean? Are you, like, adopted? You know, I’m adopted.” Why did I say that? He doesn’t care.

“That’s not quite it,” Tyler says. “I don’t know how to explain them.”

“Can you try?” I want to know more.

“I brought them with me when I came here. They’re, uh, otherworldly, I suppose. We had them in my home when I was younger. I can’t go back, though,” he says.

“Why?”

“It’s just not… here,” he says.

We look at each other for a long moment. Now that I can really look at him, it’s the first time I notice that he’s actually attractive, even though I was acquaintances with him for a while. I look away and focus on an area where the paint is peeling off on the ceiling.

“You should go home and rest. Let’s talk more another time,” Tyler says.

I look back at him. “Okay.” I know he would keep to that. Or at least, I hope.

He drives me home. I stand in front of my house for a few seconds before I walk in. It’s the same. Why wouldn’t it be?

My parents sit together on the couch. My dad looks me up and down, a stern look on his face. “Hannah, how did you get that?” he asks, pointing to my thigh.

“Oh, this… it was, uh, an accident. Someone hit it by accident. ‘Cause it was dark and stuff… ” I decide to shut up before my lies become obvious.

“And why are you still wearing your dress? Are you okay?” my mom asks.

“You just fell? Sober?” Dad comments. Ouch. That stings.

“No, I wasn’t drinking. I was at a friend’s house, that’s all. We were really tired after the party, and I slept over,” I answer. He doesn’t seem convinced.

Mom nods her head. “Okay honey.”

I go upstairs. There’s not much else I can tell them. There’s not much else I know.

My bedroom hadn’t been touched since the night before. The comic book pages were still sprawled on my desk. I picked the first one up. There was a drawing of a thick cloud, similar to the one I found myself in while sleeping.

I feel uncomfortable, so I turn it over.

Down the hallway, I turn on the water for a shower. I stand under the water for a bit, just feeling it run down my face. After I’m done, I don’t know what else to do. I sit on my bed and look out the window.

“Hannah,” I hear my mom call from downstairs. “Dinner’s ready!”

I don’t want to eat. I snuggle under my blanket and face the wall. As soon as I hear her footsteps on the stairs, I close my eyes. I hear my room door open.

“Oh, you’re asleep,” she says. “Alright then. Good night, sleep tight, and don’t let the monsters bite.”

My eyes fly open. I’m still facing the wall, so my mom doesn’t notice. She leaves the room innocently. Did I mishear “bed bugs?”

At first, I think I won’t be able to sleep at all. But I drift to an in-between state — both sleeping and awake. Again, I find myself stuck within these dark clouds. It almost feels as if I am falling. A person emerges from the fog. At least it looks like a person. He’s tall and skinny and wears an all black suit. He sports a thin purple scar across his cheek.

Hannah,” he says. His voice is raspy and intimidating.

“What do you want?”

Come back to us. This is where you belong.”

“Where are you?”

Come back to us… ” he hisses.

“Why? Why are you torturing me?” It feels like I’m screaming at the top of my lungs as I say it. I’m filled with anger, passionate anger. Before this happened, I remember that everything was fine, that I was so excited to be turning 18. And now I don’t know what’s going on.

The person disappears with one gust of wind. The echoing of voices uttering incoherent things makes the setting all the more unsettling.

I wake up out of breath. I check the time. It’s completely dark out. 12:34 A.M.. How?

My family must be sound asleep. I turn on the lamp on my desk and rummage for a post-it note. On it, I write “out for a morning jog, be back soon.” If they wake up while I’m still out, they won’t get worried. And they won’t assume I left this early.

Carefully, I stick it to the outside of my door and then proceed to climb out my window.

Once I reach the ground, I pull my hoodie on and walk twenty minutes to Tyler’s house. I don’t know why. I’m not sure what I really wanted to do outside in the first place. It’s cold. Going to his house just seems natural.

It’s not, of course.

I hesitate for a moment in front of his door. Knock, or don’t. I knock once, pause, and knock again. What am I doing? My heart is racing. What will I even say? It’s the middle of the night; would he even —

The door swings open.

“I really wasn’t expecting you to answer,” I say, kind of shocked and out of breath.

“I really wasn’t expecting you to knock on my door at one in the morning,” Tyler deadpans.

“Me neither.”

Tyler steps back to let me in. “So… why are you here? I mean, not to be rude, but this is one of the weirdest things that has ever happened to me.”

“I don’t know why I’m here either,” I say. “I just wanted to, I guess.”

Tyler nods, but his facial expression shows confusion more than anything else. I debate whether or not I should get into my dream. It seems a bit much to walk all the way to his house just to talk about a bad dream. Talk about being needy.

“I can leave,” I say.

“No, no. Don’t worry about it. Are you sure you don’t want to… talk about something?” Yes. I would like to talk to him about something. Those damn clouds.

He sits down on the couch, but I stay standing in front of him.

“No, it’s not like talking would help.” I pace back and forth a few times.

He’s facing the ground. “So, what do you want?”

“What do I want?” What a loaded question. I wish the clouds would leave me alone. I wish I knew why or even what was happening to me. “I want a regular life back. I don’t understand what’s happening to me. I’m scared all the time, and I can’t sleep anymore. I turned 18 yesterday, and I can’t even remember it. And this, this thing won’t leave me alone!” I cry.

Tyler doesn’t speak immediately after. I burst into tears. He stands up and wraps his arms around me. He hugs me tight, and the warmth makes me feel safer.

“Hannah, I think I know why this is happening,” he whispers to me.

“What do you mean?” I pull back and look at his face. He sighs. He looks down at his feet and avoids eye contact.

“Remember when I said my home isn’t here?” he asks. I nod. “It’s in a parallel universe.”

At first I’m speechless. Nothing. “Am I supposed to play along?”

Tyler drops his head, like he knew I wouldn’t believe him. But who would? “Can I tell you how I came? It’ll help you.”

I roll my eyes slightly. I don’t know where he’s getting at, but I’ll listen.

“I’m sorry, it sounds stupid. But when you leave that world, you automatically lose every memory of it. And some there are special, valuable. They have gold blood, and that’s why they’re always in danger.”

“Okay, wait,” I interrupt. “Out of every explanation you could’ve possibly given me, this one is the most unbelievable. This isn’t even useful.”

“I promise I’m not messing with you. Just listen. You’re one of the special ones. That’s why the smoke or whatever is in your dreams. Because your memory was automatically lost. And you’re valuable to them, so they need you back.”

“Yeah, okay, sure.”

Tyler is obviously frustrated. He puts both hands on my shoulders and moves me out of his way. He leans over to grab the scissors on the table. I become tense. “Tyler, what are you doing?”

He pulls up his sleeve, not answering me. With the scissors, he cuts his hand. Dark purple liquid oozes from the cut. I suddenly think of the portrait. Dark tears. Dark blood.

“Give me your hand.”

I hesitate, holding my clenched fist to my chest.

“Hannah, I need your hand. Please,” Tyler pleads. I slowly open my hand and give it to him, almost against my will. He grabs it and cuts it in one swift motion, too fast for me to react. I don’t pay attention if it hurts.

I stare at my hand. The blood is gold.

“W-why… why wasn’t my blood gold before? And why do you know this? What am I?”

“Calm down.”

“Are you joking? Calm down?”

Tyler puts his hands on my shoulders again. “Yes, I’ll tell you everything. Let me continue.” He makes me sit down and takes a deep breath.

All I could do was stare at my trembling hand. Where did it come from? How did nobody notice, not even me?

“I don’t even know where to start but — ”

“You better start somewhere,” I warn.

Tyler leans back, half sitting on the arm of the couch in the living room. He put his hands in the pocket of his hoodie, but his fingers were still fidgeting.

“So,” he begins. “First of all, I’m the only one who can remember here in this world. I figured out a concoction that kept my memory in place despite going through the portal. The regular purple bloods need the gold-bloods for the gold. And so when they leave, by whatever reason, they need to find a way to get the gold-bloods back. I guess it’s also a punishment for anyone who leaves.

“The portal between our two worlds is the clouds that you’ve been seeing,” he says. “The blood is disguised on Earth until they are discovered, and eventually what they want is to bring you back. So this is what you’re experiencing.”

I stay silent for a few minutes. We sit across from each other, not making a sound or moving one bit. “So… What now?” I say softly. This isn’t what I expected when I came.

“Well now you know. So, it’s up to you what you do next.”

“I’m going home,” I say. “I’ll… see you on Monday, I guess.”

“Do you want me to drive you again?” He starts to get up, but I stop him.

“No, I’m going to run home. Thanks.”

I step outside on the street, and the wind hits me in the face. I don’t know how I’m able to leave so easily with all this new information. I still have so many questions. So many thoughts.

I sneak back to my room without my parents noticing. It’s still dark out.

I’m exhausted. Exhaustion is the least of what I was feeling at the moment, though. I lean against the closed door, ready to just give up.

A thick stream of smoke wafts in through the window. It moves as if it has a brain of its own, and it’s coming straight to my face. It curls around me, but not encompassing me. “Hello… ” it whispers.

“Is this a dream? What are you?”

“I think you’re imagining me. Don’t you, smart girl?” the smoke says to me.

“No. This is real.”

The smoke curls around my feet, and slowly makes its way around my body. “You belong with us. You have a place… ” it hisses.

“No.”

“You were destined for things greater than this weak planet. There’s a set place for you, a rare good under our empire. You’re supposed to come back… you shouldn’t have left. You need to be under our control,” the smoke provokes.

“What if I like it here?” I respond.

“You’re a difficult one.” The smoke curls up around my chest and behind my neck. It feels like breath as it speaks. “Aren’t you looking for something more? An identity, perhaps. A true identity?”

“You aren’t even a real person,” I say bitterly. “You are only a soul.”

The smoke laughs, sending a chill down my spine. “That’s what makes me powerful, dear golden-blood. You can’t hurt me, but I can hurt you.” The smoke nears my face, threatening to suffocate me as I pull away.

I clench my fists hard. “You already have. I know you won’t kill me if you need me back.”

The smoke loosens. “This won’t be the last time we meet. Don’t doubt that we will have it our way.” The smoke vanishes, out my window where it came from. I rush to close the window immediately after.

I breathe heavily. I change my clothes, shaking.

The person I see in the mirror is unrecognizable. There are huge dark circles under my eyes.

I know that I’m becoming a tense and anxious person, something I’d never been before. I close my eyes for a moment to think. What should I do? Inhale, exhale. I think back to when I was happy and carefree. I didn’t know things could change so instantly.

My comic still lay unfinished on my desk. The submission date was fast approaching. Maybe it would take my mind off things. I crack my door open to let in some fresh air. No way was I going to open the window.

Where did I leave off?

The protagonist was fiercely fighting off her antagonists. If the drawing can do it, why can’t I do it? I continue to fill in the background and started a new square.

The sun starts to rise, and before I know it, it becomes complete daytime with the sun streaming into my room. Somebody knocks on my door.

I jump. Mom walks in. “Relax, it’s just me. What’s up? Why so jumpy all of a sudden?”

“I know, I’m just… I’m fine.”

“Come eat with us,” Mom asks. I look at the deep creases in her eyes. She’s so happy and oblivious to my nightmare. I love her. I could never leave her, especially for something like smoke and nightmares.

I say nothing as I sit across both of them. I eat small bites and avoid looking at them. They talk about mundane things. Work, switching the lights, laundry. I zone out into my thoughts. What can I do? How did this all even happen?

“Are you alright?” Dad asks. “You seem really out of it.”

“No,” I say reflexively.

“What’s wrong?” they both ask.

I don’t know how to respond. They don’t even know. I stay quiet.

“Hannah, you can tell us what’s bothering you. We love you,” Mom says. I start formulating what I want to say. They stare at me, very concerned.

“I just… ” I finally begin, cautiously giving the rest of my answer. “I don’t have some information that could help me. Like, I don’t know what happened at homecoming. And… I don’t know who I really am, and I don’t have what I need to figure it out. Where am I from?”

My parents exchange a glance.

“Hannah,” my dad says, “This conversation was a long time coming.” I bet. “I wish I could share your origins with you. But we don’t know anything about before we adopted you either. There’s no information about your birth parents, birthplace, or anything like that.”

There’s no forms. It clicked when he said that. There was my proof that I wasn’t born here. “Absolutely nothing?” I ask.

My parents shake their heads. “You were all alone when we took you in. You weren’t at an orphanage. You were a year old or something, and you were in the street,” Dad says.

“What about the legal stuff? School, doctors… ” I say. Nobody must’ve realized that I had gold blood. Heck, I didn’t know until last night. How did the purple-bloods get away with it? It’s interesting to hear my parents speak about this when I’m referring to drastically different things.

There are still a lot of holes in my story. I sit there, half blanked out, half listening. My parents share about the loopholes they were able to get through, like my birth certificate. I was born “at home,” it seems. My head is spinning.

There was still a big “why?” hanging over me. I understand that I’m obviously from somewhere else, but why did I end up here? Why do I matter so much? Why won’t it go away?

“Thank you, Dad.” I give him a quick hug and rush to my room.

I’m weirdly excited. I feel anticipation for the answers I’ll receive tomorrow. It’s the closest to happiness I’ve felt in a while. Something to look forward to rather than to fear.

I try to sleep. There are too many things on my mind. I sit up. It won’t be long before I speak to Tyler. I tap my leg lightly with my finger, thinking of something to do.

Visually lay it out. Get my thoughts on paper.

I jump out of bed and flip on the lights. I get an empty notebook floating around on my desk and open up to the first page. Just like drawing a story. Except this one is real.

I take a deep breath.

I draw and write furiously. A baby, adopted and moved around, a determined runner, and homecoming night. Arrows and little comments cover the piece.

I drop my pencil and massage my wrist. It’s very late, and it’s been a few hours since I’ve eaten with my parents. I sneak out of my room to get a snack.

The kitchen lights are still on even though both of my parents are sleeping. I grab an apple and slowly make my way back up the stairs. I shut my door gently. I sit back at my desk, ready to keep working.

The drawings were now in color.

I drop my apple and it rolls under my desk.

All of the pictures of me were all colored gold, even though none of them had blood. There was also smoke added. Clearly I wasn’t alone.

I step back and look at the filled up pages. I feel scared once again, just as I was starting to get over it. Just as it was dying down, just as I was about to get answers.

Disregarding the time yet again, I decide to call Tyler.

No answer.

Should I call again? I click on the call button one more time. And again, he doesn’t pick up his phone. I throw my phone on my bed.

I want to show him the pictures. But I don’t want to touch them. I don’t know what’s been done to them. I don’t know if they’re hiding somewhere in my room.

I don’t feel safe.

 

Enough Is Enough

              

An AR-15 has 15 functioning parts. The length of the gun, the speed of the bullet determines how lethal a fatality is.

The time it takes to unload the empty chamber.

That one flick can cause a mass destruction.

The silver ruthless bullets that trigger screams of horror.

The painful, excruciating sound when the revolver clicks revealing the sight of ammunition.

The cylinder, when inclined, locks the hammer into place.

The trigger requires an explicit amount of pressure to fire.

The target erupts, opening a door that cannot be closed. A ruthless act that cannot be undone. A callous school shooting cannot be undone.

That it has many working parts.

The morning of, the child believes the day will be like every other day.

A test first period.

The sound of the bell at 8:15.

The sound of countless kids screaming in the cafeteria.

The sound of bookbags dropping like a ton of bricks. The sound of birds chirping, on the morning on February 14.

The sound of 17 sharp gunshots.

A day filled with laughter was turned into horror in seconds.

The first shot triggers a lockdown.

The bell rings.

Code Red, but it doesn’t seem like a code red. One thought this would never happen to them but it did.

The fire alarm pounds loud in my ears as chaos erupts.

Classrooms become inescapable like gas chambers.

The shooter shoots. The sounds are still and silent.

The eyes are tearful and the stomachs are churning.

The police arrive, with precision, as a shot is fired, the separation begins for the student body.

Those living and those that the shots have hit.

That one massacre of school children triggers the carnage lost in Boston.

Why does this keep happening?

But we barely notice until we marry 6 feet under the ground.

I thought this was supposed to be a good day?

The day with pencils tapping on the desks.

The sound of gossiping.

The sound of teachers demanding for classwork.

The sound of the chairs tipping back.

It all disappears in seconds.

The stoplight turns red but the gun turns green.

The gun doesn’t kill people, the numbers do.

3100 South Springfield Avenue. A truck turned the corner. Not the ice cream truck. This gray truck was mean. It forced her to fight for her life in the hospital bed until 5:24 p.m.. The doctor says, “I’m sorry for the words that I’m about to say.”

Sunday, October 1, 2017, Las Vegas, Nevada. 58 gone. Near the Mandalay Bay.

I was there 2 years prior.

Texas, Sutherland Springs, a day we cherish Jesus and stare at the cross. 26 souls joined with him, but not out of sacrifice. Just one out of sacrifice, but he didn’t have to die if it wasn’t for that silver bullet!

But the debate on gun control only lasted for so long after the Columbine shooting.

How many more times?

A teacher takes a bullet to save her 6 students.

The child did not get a chance to hug Mommy and say, “I love you.”

A father is heartbroken.

He cannot even remember if he even kissed his little girl goodbye when she left for school the morning on February 14.

Now the father is saying, “Enough is Enough.”

 

I So Don’t Want to Be Here (Excerpt)

“I so don’t want to be here.”

Desiree looked up at the blonde girl in surprise. “Why?” she asked her.

“Why? Why? Isn’t it obvious why I don’t wanna be here? We’re in detention,” she said, a flash of irritation in her eyes.

“No — I know that,” Desiree told her, “What I meant is… why are you talking to me?”

Alice thought for a moment and shrugged.

“I — I don’t know,” she mumbled.

“Do you even know my name, Alice?” Desiree asked her, a hint of amusement laced in her voice. Alice said nothing.

“Yeah… didn’t think so.”

Alice still said nothing.

Desiree smiled softly at Alice. “Would you like to know my name, Alice?” she asked.

Alice nodded. “Yes please.”

“It’s Desiree,” she told her and extended her hand so that Alice could shake it, but Alice didn’t budge. Perhaps a handshake was too formal of an action for situations such as these, and Desiree put her hand down on the table in a failed attempt to seem natural. She picked up her pencil and began writing.

“So why are you here, Desiree?” Alice asked, as she proceeded to examine the state of her most recent manicure. She began picking the pink polish off her nails, watching it fall to the table in small pieces. Pick, pick, pick. This action greatly annoyed Desiree, seeing as the chips of nail polish were getting all over the table, and the two would probably have to clean them up afterwards, but she said nothing about it. Instead, she sighed heavily and answered the question she had been asked.

“I’m here for a pretty dumb reason.”

“Oh?” Alice raised an eyebrow, her eyes still focused on the nail polish she was picking off. “And what might that be?”

Desiree thought this was quite rude, but seeing as she was still writing her essay and not fully paying attention to the conversation either, she didn’t really have a right to criticize.

“I’m here for breaking dress code,” she explained, rolling her eyes in irritation. “God forbid I wore something I actually wanted to. To be fair, it was an accident. They change the dress code so often that half of the time I don’t even know what’s in it.”

Alice snorted in response. “Yeah, you were right.”

“About what?”

“That is a really dumb reason.”

Desiree smiled. “Tell me about it. At this point, I’m not even writing an essay. I might as well be writing a book. And instead of writing about what I did wrong and what I can do to fix my ‘dreaded behavior,’ I’m writing about why the dress code is stupid.”

“So rebellious, Desiree,” Alice mumbled, more to herself than anyone else. Desiree pulled at one of the strands of her frizzy, brown hair.

“Yeah, you’re right. I’m not rebellious at all. I guess that’s the thing about me. I follow the rules, even if I hate them. This is really the first time I’m speaking out against them.”

Desiree put her pencil down and turned to face the girl. She was still picking at her nails, completely oblivious to the large mess she was making.

“What’s the point of getting them done if you’re just gonna pick the polish off?” Desiree asked her.

Alice’s head snapped up. She looked at Desiree.

“I’ve got no fucking clue,” she told her.

“Huh. Interesting,” Desiree muttered, and Alice nodded. “Well, regardless of that, will you please stop picking off the nail polish? You’re making a huge mess.”

“Oh.” Alice became flushed with embarrassment. “Yeah, sure. Sorry.”

“It’s fine — ”

“Hello, you two. Have you completed your essays?”

Desiree turned, only to be met face-to-face with the school’s biggest asshole and assistant principal, Ms. Ronen, who stood in front of them with her hands on her hips. Everyone in the school liked Ms. Ronen — everyone but Desiree. She hated this woman with every fiber of her being, mostly hating her for the obnoxious voice she had, which was the voice a person uses when talking to a dog or a baby. It made her feel extremely insignificant and insulted her greatly, though nobody else seemed to care or have any issue with her whatsoever. Desiree also hated Ms. Ronen because she always seemed to get into some sort of trouble whenever she was around — which she hated because she was a good kid. She was always well-behaved — always had been, too, but for whatever reason, she always ended up doing something wrong.

Desiree nodded and handed Ms. Ronen her essay. The woman stood there, shocked as she realized that there were now five back-to-back pages in her hands.

“Is that good enough? I could always add ten more pages.”

Ms. Ronen’s eyes widened in horror at Desiree’s suggestion. “Oh! Oh no, no, no, that’s — that’s fine, Desiree. You’ve done great.”

Desiree smirked. Bet she’ll have a great time reading that, she thought.

“And what about you, Alice?”

Desiree looked over to where Alice was sitting, looking bored and uninterested. She sighed.

“I don’t have my essay.”

“Oh? And why is that?”

“Because I didn’t want to write it.”

The assistant principal looked appalled. “You do realize that you can’t just not write the essay… right, Alice?”

Alice shrugged and turned away.

“I barely did anything, though,” she whined.

“You skipped class, Alice,” Ms. Ronen huffed, “That’s a pretty big deal.”

“But I have to write an essay about why I feel bad for doing what I did,” Alice told her.

“And? Your point is?”

“My point is that I can’t write my essay because I don’t feel bad. I don’t care.”

Ms. Ronen’s face reddened in anger. “Just — just pretend you care… okay?” She sighed, obviously too tired to deal with Alice’s shenanigans. Alice nodded.

“Fine… ”

“And hurry up, too. It’s almost time for you two to leave.”

At this, Alice’s eyes widened fretfully. “But — I can’t! I can’t finish an essay in such a short amount of time!”

Ms. Ronen sighed as if she knew that something like this was going to happen. “Okay, fine. Just — finish it at home and bring it in on Monday.”

Alice nodded vigorously. “Okay! Fine by me! Can we leave now?”

There were more words exchanged between Alice and Ms. Ronen, but what they were exactly Desiree wasn’t sure. The only thing that Desiree cared about in that moment was the use of the word ‘we.’ ‘Can we leave now,’ Alice had asked, not ‘Can I leave now.’ She wondered what Alice meant by this, because as far as she was concerned, there wasn’t a ‘we.’ It’s probably nothing, Desiree thought. She probably just said that by accident. Even so, Desiree planned to ask Alice about this later on… well, if they ever talked again, that is.

Desiree knew for a fact that they probably wouldn’t.

 

Seasons

           

Summer

A lot of times I don’t feel comfortable without a coat on. The thought of people staring at my arms and my body is terrifying to me, so whenever I’m going out anywhere I always take a coat. The only bad thing about this is that it only works in the winter. In the spring and summer is when I really feel uncomfortable.

In the winter and in the fall, it is socially acceptable to wear a coat inside because sometimes, it’s still cold even when you’re in your house or the school building. This is mostly because my school is too cheap to actually turn on the heater. And sometimes, our landlord is too cheap to turn on the heater as well. But in the spring and summer, if you go out wearing a coat, then you look crazy, and the people in the street give you mean looks, which is funny because in those moments it is the very thing that protects me from the judgement of others that is making other people judge me. And then sometimes, when I am going to leave the house for a little while and I go to grab my coat, I am scolded by my mother because “it is scorching outside and you will burn in the heat.” Then, she tells me to leave it at home, and I get upset because if someone I don’t want to talk to comes and tries to talk to me, then I can’t just put my hood up and ignore them, so it won’t be as awkward because I can’t see their face.
I think everyone should just wear coats during the spring and summer.

 

Fall

I’m a very approachable person. This is both a blessing and a curse.

On the one hand, I know how to handle myself in social situations, and I have no problems at all when it comes to talking to people at parties and other social situations, since people are always trying to initiate conversations with me, while on the other hand, I hate being approached.

“You’ve inherited my gift with people,” my mother will often tell me. However, I’m not quite sure whether or not that’s true.

I mean — I’m okay with people, but not great. I’d rather not talk unless it’s required, but when it is required, I’ll always provide at least the bare minimum amount of conversation necessary for whatever situation I’m in. I’d rather avoid being noticed, because contrary to common belief, I’m a very anxious person. But not my mother. My mother is a gracious person, who is skilled when it comes to talking to people. She is witty, and interesting, and humorous, and sociable. She is caring and kind and beautiful, and she has the ability to spark up conversation with pretty much anyone. She can bring introverts out of their shells, and she can make the shy ones laugh. Something about her is just so open and inviting, and just makes you want to get to know her immediately.

I’m not that kind of girl.

I don’t go out of my way just to talk to people. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. It’s just the people who are always going out of their way to talk to me.

Except, I have no idea why…

I’m nothing like my mother. I’m not interesting or appealing or witty or talkative. I’m not particularly pretty either. It’s not like I’m anything special — I’m just a short, pale girl with short, dark hair that curls perfectly over my ears. Perfectly simple, perfectly boring. Just a short, pale girl with a closet full of turtlenecks and pastel colors. Just a short, pale girl who likes to draw and paint. A girl who is utterly and painfully short of any personality.

 

Winter

I don’t know exactly what it was that triggered the start of my ongoing three-and-a-half year battle against dermatillomania, but somehow here I am. I’m not sure if it was something I always had, but if I didn’t have it when I was little, then I certainly have it now.

Perhaps one day, I had an especially bad panic attack and in a flustered, anxious frenzy, decided to dig my nails into the bumps on my arms and after coming to the conclusion that I enjoyed the feeling, decided to return to it whenever I was bored or anxious. Perhaps I had found a pimple on my face and thought that the best course of action was not to pop it, but to scratch it hard until it was gone altogether. Or maybe I had just washed my hair and whilst making sure that I had gotten all of the shampoo out of my hair, I accidently came upon some dandruff and by mistaking it for nits, continued to poke around my scalp with my nails until a piece of my skin was picked off. At this point, who really knows?

But it doesn’t matter, because how I developed this disorder won’t make a difference. In the end, I still end up here in some therapist’s office every Tuesday, where they hire some hippie to come and ask me bullshit questions.

If I’m honest, I don’t even know her name.

I never use her name anyways.

Sometimes, she asks me questions about how my day was, to which I answer truthfully, but other times she’ll ask me questions about my “condition,” to which the answers I give her are always lies.

“What triggered you to pick at your skin?” she’ll ask me. I’ll shrug at her and sigh.

“I don’t know,” I’ll tell her, but this is not true at all — not even in the slightest.

I hate telling lies, and I always have, and because of this, I try to avoid lying as much as possible, and when I do lie, I am always sure to at least reveal a little bit of the truth. For instance, there was this one time when my mom baked a tin of banana bread, which usually is quite good except for this one time when it was extremely dry.

After eating a decently sized slice of it, she came up to me and asked me what I thought of it, to which I responded with, “Yeah, it was really good! Just a little bit dry, but otherwise really good!” and she smiled and went on her merry way.

Was her banana bread really good? No, it was just average. But was it dry? Yes. Yes it was. But I couldn’t just say that, could I?

But with this particular question, I can’t even share my answer. My answer will always be overridden. The truth of the matter is that most of the time, I start picking whenever I am bored and need something to do with my hands — specifically during my classes. But if I even try to explain this to the therapists, they’ll never believe me. They always seem to think that me picking at myself stems from anxiety — some deep, dark fear gnawing at me from the inside out.

Except it’s not.

That’s the thing with therapists. There always needs to be some type of ulterior motive — one that more often than not isn’t there.

At this point, I’ve just stopped trying to defend my illness. There really isn’t any use because I always find myself answering the same goddamn questions over and over again, and at this point have grown tired of it. It’s mentally draining, and I’m over it. The cognitive behavioral therapy doesn’t help — not when the therapists try to act like they know what I’m feeling or thinking better than I do myself. Perhaps one day, I’ll find someone who will just listen.

 

Spring

Sometimes, I like to sit with my dog out on the stoop and watch people walk by. My dog is a Pomeranian, and she’s really fluffy, so lots of people stop to pet her because she looks really soft. But some people don’t like little dogs like mine. They’d much rather have a big dog than a small one. I’ve never understood this. A dog is a dog. I like both big dogs and little dogs equally — and if given the chance, I would totally get a big dog, but I live in an apartment in the city so having a Husky or Bulldog isn’t an option.

I like my dog more than I like most people. I can tell Jazzy anything because she won’t tell anyone or think I’m weird and secretly judge me, and I like this. Another thing Jazzy won’t do is get up and walk away from me when she sees the scabs on my face, like that one lady on the bus did after sitting next to me.

When I was little and Dad was still around, he used to play his jazz CDs on the radio really loud in the morning, and then I would get up and dance around the house. Then one day, he brought Jazzy back to the house, and I named her after something my dad really loved. Then one day, Mom found out about the affair. Then, he left. Now I don’t listen to jazz anymore. I still have Jazzy, though.

Lots of days Laura will come to my house after school, and we will sit on the stoop together. She doesn’t like to hang out in her house very much because she has four younger siblings, and they’re always in her face. But today, Laura isn’t here. This is because we had a fight at school today, and she got mad at me.

I had come out of the principal’s office during last period to find her staring at me with her arms crossed. She looked really mad, and that made me upset — so much so that I felt a sudden urge to open the door to the closest classroom, step inside, and lock myself in there so I wouldn’t have to deal with whatever harsh thing she was gonna say to me, but that wasn’t an option.

We walked to the cafeteria together in silence. It was only after we sat down at our usual table that she said anything.

“What did you do this time?” she asked.

I sighed. Why did she have to be like this?

“I yelled at my para,” I mumbled. I hated the paras. They were basically hired to help me one-on-one, but all they seemed to do was piss me off.

She rolled her eyes, “Go on.”

“O-okay, I cursed at my para.”

“Are you sure that’s all?”

“… I punched my para.”

Laura scoffed, “Really, Callie? Are you serious right now?”

“Yeah!” I yelled, “I am!”

“What the hell were you thinking?!”

“She hit my hand!” I protested.

“Callie, she probably didn’t. She probably just tapped your hand to tell you to stop picking, and you freaked out. Jesus, do you have to be so Special Ed all the time?”

I froze. Only seconds later did she realize what she had said.

“Oh Callie… I’m so sorry.”

“I can’t just stop picking. That’s not how things work. Do you think I enjoy picking myself bloody? Because I don’t, and if it was as easy as not doing it, then I would’ve stopped a long time ago.”

It was at that moment that I got up from my seat and left. I ate by myself in the bathroom. I didn’t talk to her for the rest of the day.

So here I am, sitting on the stoop of my apartment, sketchbook and pencil in hand and a dog at my feet. I listen to music as I draw and this time, I do not draw what is in front of me. I draw what I see in my mind.

I do not look up from what I am doing until around 8:00 when Jazzy starts barking. There’s Laura, refusing to meet my eyes.

“Can I… can I sit with you?” she asks.

I nod, and she comes to sit next to me, wrapping her arm around me tightly. We don’t speak for a long time.

“I’m not just a Special Ed kid,” I tell her, my voice hushed to a whisper. She sighs.

“No,” she agrees, “No, you’re not. I’m sorry.”

“I’m a person.”

She is silent once more.

“Yes, Callie. You are a person.”

“Then why am I treated differently?”

At this point, I am crying my eyes out, and she can definitely tell.

“I don’t know, Callie. You just are.”

She pulls away from me, and my arm feels cold.

“Take off your jacket, Callie. No one’s judging you.”

My jaw drops. “How did you know?”

“I’m your best friend, Callie. I’m psychic,” she winks at me, and I laugh. “But seriously. Take the coat off.”

And I do.

 

Trump Tower

April 2017

 

Jason walked right up to me in front of 70 Pine, our designated meet up spot. As always, he was late, and I was early. The sun was going to set at almost eight o’clock, and it was only six, so we were good to make the sunset shots.

“The man, the myth, the legend. Nice to see you, Jason. You ready?” I said.

“You know it. So how are we getting in?”

“Easy. The school right there. I’m friends with them. I’m sure they’ll let you in… just say you need to use the bathroom.”

“Got it.” I pointed to the school and showed him an outline I wrote earlier in art class of how exactly we were going to get in. We crossed the street and walked into the school.

“Hey Marlon, how are you?” I said, putting my hand out.

“Happy to see you again! What you need.”

“Just need to use the bathroom, if that’s okay. I’ve been looking for so long.”

“Of course, just use the one on the third floor.” I smiled and started walking up the stairs, Jason following right behind me.

“Your friend can wait down here,” he said, looking back at me.

“Okay.” I looked at Jason and signalled for him to ask.

“Do you mind if I go wash my hands upstairs?” Jason asked.

“It’s fine… you can go up,” Marlon said.

We walked up the stairs and looked at each other. I smiled and said, “We’re in. We did it. We passed the hard part.” I smiled a big smile and kind of giggled right as we got out of sight of the security. We got to the third floor and passed by the bathroom and kept walking down the school. We saw the exit sign signalling to go to the right. We took a right, and we were in the clear: no cameras and the stairwell entrance right in front of us.

“Okay, put on your bandana.” I took mine out, and so did Jason. He had a blue on, and I had a red one… ironic.

“This is what we’re going to do. Go to the ninth floor and transfer to staircase H. From there we take it down to the fifth, and we’re past the security in the offices, and we could take the elevator down to the lobby. From there, follow me.”

“Okay,” Jason said. We both had our bandanas on, and my hand was on the staircase door handle. I took a deep breath, turned the handle, and walked in. I covered my eyes in front of the three cameras pointed at the door. It didn’t phase me. I just kept walking and kept my head low. We ran up the stairs and arrived on the ninth floor. We opened the exit door and came inside an office area inside the Trump building. I saw the golden elevators, but there was a glass door blocking me from them. We were close but still a mile away. I led him around to stairwell A, and we took it down to the fifth floor. Open sesame! The moment we opened the doors, we saw the golden sheen of the Trump elevator doors.

“Bingo,” I said, jumping up and down.

“Take your bandana off. We’re good. Just follow me, and don’t be afraid to look around. Try to act normal,” I said while laughing. All the pressure released from my body, and I felt calm. From here, it was just the matter of not getting stopped while going into the elevators, but there was no worry for — Bing! Within seconds, we were already at the lobby, and the golden doors opened to more golden decor and white marble floors. I walked out and took a slight right to the elevators labeled forty-five to sixty-two. We walked into the hall and clicked the button to call the elevator. Immediately we heard a ring, and both of our necks swiveled backwards. We walked in and almost at the same time, we saw the cameras staring us down. We turned around and smiled at each other. We were in Trump’s most valuable tower.

 

The elevator was fast, but relative to the tall building, it took a minute or two to get to the sixty-second floor. The doors opened, and we both sighed in relief. The elevator door shut, and we heard the whirring as it went down beneath us.

“Well… we’re here! Look at that view,” I said, pointing to a huge window looking out at the sunset.

“Damn that’s beautiful,” Jason said, staring into the sun. The blue, almost fluorescent sky lit up as the sun started making its way down, turning it orange inch by inch.

“Okay, what next?” Jason said.

“I’ll take you to the highest we can get, but the door to get to the spire is locked. I checked earlier.”

“This has been done before. I’m sure we can find a way.” I looked back at Jason and clicked the elevator button leading to the top floor. It opened up with a loud, creaking noise. It was an old, freight elevator contrary to the new, golden, shiny ones on the main elevator. Again I clicked the highest floor, and it started to go up. The elevator buzzed, and we made our way out. I stuck my head out of a half open window and looked up. We were about forty feet below from the base of the thinning spire.

“There’s the lock right there.” I pointed to the entrance leading to the spire. Jason walked up to the lock and started fiddling with it, turning it, and banging it. We even tried to break the lock, but nothing worked.

“I guess we should find another floor where we could go on the outside,” Jason said. I nodded back. I walked into the stairwell and lightly walked down the stairs. We checked every door on every floor, and everything was locked, but when we got to the sixty-fourth floor we found a wide open hole in the wall. It was dim, and the walls were made of brick. There were loud noises and lights coming from inside from rusty machines that probably have been there since 1930, when the Trump building was made. We walked into the room and saw orange light peeking through the windows. We walked toward it. It was a fully open three-foot window. Just enough for us to easily get in and out.

“Jackpot.” We dropped our bags and jackets and looked out. It was breathtaking and familiar, but it felt as we say in the Philippines, “biten” (BIH-TIN), meaning not enough or that it didn’t hit the spot. We both knew this wasn’t the building’s full potential, and it didn’t really satisfy what we did all this work for. We stayed there for a good twenty minutes and got a lot done. Not a second is wasted when rooftopping. Everything has to be as correct and precise as possible while still being quick and silent. We took photos, Snapchats, and hung from one hand from the side of the building. Just normal things. We were both done, and all I wanted to do was leave. I gave up, and in my mind I knew getting up to the top would be impossible without a pick lock or explosive.

“Okay Jason, let’s go… I don’t wanna get caught.”

“Hold up. C’mon, I have an idea”

“No, we’re going.” I called the elevator and got in. Jason got in and shook his head.

“Silly you.” He pressed the highest floor we could get in again. The door shut, and we were going back.

 

The elevator door opened, and I had a feeling that I normally get while rooftopping. Most rooftoppers have anxiety that when the elevator door opens, a horde of police and security will be waiting there for them. In all honesty, using the elevators is the most nerve-wracking, especially when going down. But that didn’t happen today, it never does. It’s something that happens on YouTube.

“Get your keys out right now,” Jason said, as he walked out of the elevator.

“Stop, that’s not going to work.”

“I’m being so serious. Give it to me.” I shrugged and dug through my overfilled pockets. I felt the rigid ends of the keys and yanked it out. I tossed it to Jason, and he walked over to the locked door.

“This should work.” Jason stuck the key in. It fit perfectly, sliding in with ease. He turned it left… didn’t budge… he turned it right. Didn’t budge. Then he wiggled the key and left just about a hair line out of the lock. Then boom, he turned right, and I heard the most satisfying sound I’ve ever been a part of.

“NO FUCKING WAY! NO WAY!” I screamed.

Jason looked at me nonchalantly and said, “Ladies first.”

I gladly said yes and slowly walked up the spiral stairs. Within the stairs there were small circle windows about 1.5 feet in diameter. I saw higher than I ever saw before. So many things were racing through my head. I didn’t even care if I got caught anymore. This was the most badass thing I’ve ever done. Everyone dreams of climbing the Trump Tower, and I could basically do this in my sleep now. We walked all the way to another metallic, almost brand new, spiral staircase. I saw the bright lights surrounding us pointed out to the city. I knew exactly where we were… we were in the spire of Trump’s most valuable tower.

 

“I think we should leave our bags here,” Jason said. I nodded and dropped my bag down. All I needed was my camera. Everything was setup and ready to go. We started to climb up the rusty, old, steel ladder to the top. I kept my camera hanging from my neck and propped off the side of my back. I tried my best not to let my camera hit the grimy bars on the ladder. The ladder went about forty feet up and got dirtier and rustier the higher I got. When I got to the top, I stood on the bars that went across the ten-foot space. The window out was right in front of me, waiting for me to go through. I held on to the side walls as I waited for Jason to come up. He got up and looked outside the window.

“No way… we are here man. No turning back.” Jason said.

“I know. Is it safe to go out?”

“Yeah, I’m going first, then just follow along. Here, hold my camera.” Jason handed me his camera, and legs first, he squeezed through the window.

“Okay, pass my camera.” I climbed toward the window and handed Jason his camera. He stood out there fiddling with his camera and looking around the sky. He looked up and froze.

“Yo. Yo, grab my camera right now… RIGHT NOW.” I grabbed his camera without hesitation.

“What happened,” I said, as I started to make my way down the ladder.

“No, no, no, stay here we’re fine, there’s just too many helicopters out here. Let’s wait till it gets a bit darker.” He awkwardly squeezed back through the window facing backwards. When he got back in, we both sat on the rusty bars and looked at each other in silence. We sat there slowly relaxing every second. I felt my heart rate slow down, and my thoughts about getting caught slowly slipped out my mind. We were in the roof area for about an hour now and nothing has happened. No cameras, no motion detectors… nothing. I could, with authority, say this was one of the easiest roofs in NYC. We waited inside looking out the window for about thirty minutes. The helicopters didn’t stop, but they slowed down as the sun went down.

“I think we should go now,” I said.

“Okay, hold my camera.” I took the camera and cradled the lens like a baby. He quickly got out to the spire and grabbed his camera. It was my turn, and by God, was I ready. I held on to the top ledge of the window and propped myself out legs first. I looked up and saw about thirty feet up till the end. Never had I been so high in my life, and there was nothing that could top this, so I tried to make the most out of this trip. I took out my camera that was already set up and started firing away on rapid speed.

 

The shots came out beautifully and needed minimal editing. I tried to hang or do some daredevilish stunts, but everything was thin and flimsy and hadn’t been restored since 1930. We walked in circles. The distinct, almost mint green still sticks in my mind. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a beautiful, worn out green so close up in my life. You have to see it to appreciate it. I continued to take shots and videos of this mission. But for just a minute, I put the camera down and enjoyed what I wouldn’t have for a long time. The World Trade Center glowed with its smaller buildings, making it seem like a small, utopian village in the middle of other futuristic office buildings which took up the Financial District. Then, you walked to the opposite side and saw Manhattan’s tapering down to the Staten Island Ferry. It was surreal looking down and seeing nothing but the green of the rest of the roof.

“I’m doing it,” Jason said, as he walked toward the ladder leading up.

“Crazy mofo.” He started scaling even higher than the nine-hundred feet we were at. Relative to where we were already at it didn’t seem to make a difference, but the view was beautiful. Jason climbed to the top of the spire as I peered down. He took one candid shot, and I went back to shooting. What I didn’t know was that he took the best photo of me I’ve ever seen.

 

He headed down, and we knew it was time to go. We’d been up there close to two and half hours, and we didn’t want to cut it any closer. Jason climbed down from the spire, and I passed him my camera. I hopped inside the small room back in and squatted on the bars I was standing on.

“Get my camera,” Jason said. I took his camera, and he awkwardly squeezed himself halfway and then got stuck because he was coming out backwards.

“Fuck, what do I do,” he said.

“Jeez, let me help you.” I went across the bars and slowly held him as he went back out to try again. He went feet first and pulled himself in. I gave him his camera, and he packed it away in his bag. I strapped my camera to my shoulder and started climbing the ladder back down. Jason then followed behind me. I packed my camera into my bag and put my light cashmere sweater on. We were back to where the big LED lights faced out. I remember staring at this a couple years before and enjoyed the thought of such a tall, beautiful building. New memories like this always make me appreciate and compare my past experiences.

“Wow, I can’t believe we’ve done it,” I said. Jason looked at me and started laughing about how hilarious and insane this situation was.

“We’ve really done it this time,” Jason said. We were all packed and ready to leave the roof. I looked one last time and started heading down the spiral staircase. On the way down, we saw small, circular windows that gave us the first and last views from the roof. We then came to the end of the staircase and the gate that was opened with my key. I looked back at Jason and looked out to see if any workers were there waiting for us. I took a deep breath and pushed the bar. It was almost over. We walked over to the elevators and took it down to the sixtieth floor, where we would transfer to the lobby elevator. The doors opened, and I clicked the button for the next elevator. We waited for a good three minutes for the elevator to come. By then, we started getting worried about the security catching on. We heard a ring from behind us, and the elevator door started to open. It fully opened, and it wasn’t filled with police… phew. We got in and pressed the lobby. The elevator down was nerve-wracking. I could only think of the worst… getting caught. We whirred down the flights and finally arrived at the lobby. The elevator door clicked open and opened to a full lobby of not police, but gold rimmed chandeliers, and the exit! We took a right from the elevator trying to act as normal as possible. We came up to the door, and it was blocked by red velvet rope. I looked at Jason, and we quickly turned around. This meant we had to leave from the main entrance. We walked toward the turnstiles and walked straight through them.

“Have a nice night, guys,” the doorman said.

We both looked at him and nodded. We walked out and looked at each other with the most “I can’t believe we just did that” look.

“You know what this calls for,” I said.

“What?”

“Mission accomplished Snapchat videos!” We both put on our bandanas and went across the street to a plaza. We did our handshake and stared at 40 Wall. We then parted ways and had to explain to our moms why we came home so late.

 

It was June 18th, 1999

It was June 18, 1999, when Bob lost his first finger. It was an otherwise normal day at Gleg’s Edible Food. The vegetable guy had gone on a “mission to mars” (this was a scam), so Bobby “Ten Fingers” was to do the job. He was instructed to cut the frungis, by Gleg himself. Gleg told him to take the first knife down the rack and then hit the frungis with it until the frungis was thin enough to put on something that looks like a sandwich if you squint.

“When the knife breaks, get a new one. This will happen every ten ‘time inches’ or so,” said Gleg.

Bob didn’t understand what a “time inch” was, but he assumed that it’s about a minute or an hour. It was good for the first 48.09 time meters until he got to a very hard bit of frugis. Every time he’d chop at it, the knife would break and catch on fire a bit. After trying with twenty-three knives in counting, he got Glegs (in)famous “punishment katana.” The punishment katana set on fire and soon the frungis was on fire and then everything was on fire. Then a rocket made out of old car parts, with the old vegetable guy in it, landed on a quite surprised Bob’s left pinky finger. And that was how Bob lost his first finger.

Ten years later came the day Gleg died. Gleg had never been the most lovely looking guy to most. His greenish, brown flesh, black eyes, bull dog/toad like face, and one tusk was “a turn off” and “horrific” and “unnatural” and “holy mother of a cube what is that?!” so Gleg was never one to interact with customers. But June 18, 2009, a strange beast known as a VEVIVALOGALOGANBRIVCALQUINTEZSRABCOONADECRITXIAOPLAVINGRELVALOFEDINVERININIVOLOMORPH or a VEVOLOMORPH (in our tongue). The VEVOLOMORPH was a scaled, black beast. Its back and its head were in armored plates with predatory teeth exposed when its mouth was closed — its body bulging with muscles and eyes glowing deep blue. It ordered the first thing on the menu, which was some fried whatever (a classic middle of nowhere meal), then when Bobby “only thumbs” ran up to the counter, the VEVOLOMORPH smiled a smile that could shake a rock of adequate size and number.

Bob replied, “That will be 1 46.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.”

The creature handed him 34 arembles, after writing it down on a mobius strip and dividing it by zero. It came out to about 1 46.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.5, but he kept the change after handing the beast the fried whatever.

He said, “Good day.”

To the VEVOLOMORPH, this was insanely offensive (not to all VEVOLOMORPHs, but to this VEVOLOMORPH). Because “good day” is not “great day,” so he rushed into Gleg’s room and politely explained why he was mad. Bob misinterpreted the intentions of the creature and called the cops (they knew to have someone armed near Gleg’s by now). The cop rushed in. It shocked poor Gleg into a heart attack, killing him.

It was December 29, 1971, when an immigrant (this was Gleg) from central nowhere came to the United Regions of Lacrundest to open up a store — a very store-ly store after buying some unbuyable land from a shady man with a “mars program.” That man opened Gleg’s Edible Food. He outcompeted What You Look At You Pay For and Asderof’s Incomprehensible Meals, but on one bright and cloudless night on September 15, 1972, came the greatest threat to Gleg’s, the FDA… dun dun dun… which is somehow the same as in our world. The FDA had a visit last whenever and gave the first ever G- grade due to ludicrously high number of mutated roaches in Gleg’s. The FDA (or fida) used the new, scorched earth method on Gleg. Soon, a gentleman for the FDA named B-10-9.vrt, who happened to be a killer robot with an old teddy bear for a head, katanas for hands, and a distaste for all things unclean, walked in. The vaguely deformed cockroaches saw B-10-9.vrt and descended on him and quickly were sliced into bits. The robot saw Gleg. It ran at him, firing two katanas (one of which would become the punishment katana). B-10-9.vrt was out of katanas, but seeing as the roach problem was gone, he left…

 

The Absence of Hope

The stars were punch-outs in the blackness above her, sometimes it hurt to think about space. She could think herself out of the earth, through the blue ring of atmosphere and even further beyond, looking down. If she willed it, it was possible for her to imagine herself growing more distant, shrinking, fading into… what? She stopped there, unable to visualize anything more. She returned to the night now, wet grass and a slight frostiness. The flowers were curled into themselves, huddled and chilly, hugging themselves closer. She was damp but decided not to care. She fell back into the cool foliage, choosing to embrace the discomfort. She wished she had someone to share this with. Someone as young and idealistic as she was, right at this very moment. She ached for someone perfect, knowing she was alone. She let herself drift away to think crazy, hopeless thoughts.The stars blinked and remained steady. Now she was only empty and abandoned, the romanticism faded but lingered at her edges. She felt she could cry, or maybe she would laugh instead. Moonlight played in the shadows. She sat up and felt the pressing moisture on the fabric at her back. She wanted companionship, love, a hand to hold, a mind that would absorb her thoughts just as she meant them, spin them with poetry and return them to her. The moment of such youthful, breathtaking, painful joy faded into dim and threadbare sadness. She pushed herself off the grass and began to walk ponderingly towards home.

He could hear music as he lay there in the meadow. He opened his arms and spread out, looking up. He liked knowing he was alone there, far away, he could think silly things but make them beautiful in his head. He loved nighttime in this way, he could be isolated but alive. He felt like there was a chasm in his chest filled with inexplicable elation, he was flying as he lay smiling in the dark. He soared. All the same, he was aware that he wanted someone else here. They could laugh loudly in this place. Recklessly, without abandon. He could see him and that someone else falling into each other, down, laughing, laughing, warm together in the great, wide openness. The music played on. Violins, maybe a flute. Pretty music that dwindled and then surged with his thoughts. He closed his eyes and fell back into himself. His eyes opened, he was opaque again, no longer dreaming. He sat and regarded the world at large for a moment before lifting himself up and cementing himself back into reality.

Carefree. Brimming with wonder. Life was serious now, but she could still appreciate beauty as she always had. It was her superpower. She could endlessly enjoy small things: the smell of home, a petal, sunlight through tall trees. She was an adult, though still young. She had escaped bitterness thus far and probably always would. People around her moved in generic patterns, only partially awake and still sleepy. There was sunlight and people, faint sounds of cars and friendship and leaves rustling halfheartedly. The world was bright and still miraculous but in a solid way. There were no more uncertain fairies brushing by in the twilight, no longer any bursting flashes of happiness to be found lying exultantly in the weeds. She wished now for those things, but there were concrete tasks to be completed, responsibilities to assume.

Sometimes he still heard music, internal snatches when he least expected them. He had grown and matured, but some of his innocence remained. His life was busy and cluttered, like his mind. Some of the poetry had drained from his thoughts. He thought now in prose, at least most often. He had a job and a small, constraining office that looked out on the ocean. It was a cubicle, but his mind often strayed beyond its thin, gritty walls. He was a “real man,” but he frequently felt still like the teenager who had worshiped the beauty in sunlight and the fire of dusk. He was someone who loved old books and read them in big, drafty libraries with muted light fraught with dust dripping through the windows. Even in groups he felt isolated. He didn’t fit with other people. Rarely did he have the time to explore new worlds from the comfort of a large chair.

The air was thin and frozen. Time felt like something silly, but also pressing, as she made her way down the side of the empty highway. The grass crunched pleasingly under her feet, but she wasn’t only a forlorn daydreamer anymore. Mundane things like treadmills and shoelaces and orange juice were a part of her. She could fold back into past buoyant thoughts easily, but in her day-to-day existence she did not. She was still young, not bitter, but she had a yearning for something that was always out of reach. She wore sweatpants and ate tabbouleh salad in the lunchroom, and her imagination livened the monotony of office work in a small town. When she sat at noon every day with her plastic fork and the muddy snow melting outdoors, she would imagine herself away to a forest or on top of a mountain looking into the sea. Everything in her mind glistened with impossible beauty and a faint, sad knowledge that none of it would ever be as splendid and untainted. She knew people thought of her as distant and aloof. She was. She wanted more, more of something. Was she pretentious for feeling this way? She didn’t know. Some days, she still hiked far away from everyone and watched the sun set in the cold. She was happy then but lonely. She had phony friends, but she knew they were fake. It was mutual. She had never found anyone who shared the glory and the grandeur of her inner self. Someone who could understand the flashes of joy she derived from lying alone in a garden or staring out a window at the rain. Life happened, and she lived inside herself.

She noticed only because the sun was dimming. She loved the sun because she could count on it and because it was beautiful. Her sunrises were paler, faded. She thought it was just her imagination waning at first, but then it grew whiter and increasingly washed out. News reached her little office on the outskirts of the world a few hours after it had become cause for panic elsewhere. She heard and put down her plastic fork. Solemn, resigned. It made a small sound on the folding table. She stared and then sat silent as the chaos surged, until they told her she needed to leave to get in line.

The line was much less than that, a messy horde. In corners, people huddled trying to believe it wasn’t true. In town halls all over the world, in schools and parking lots and community centers people gathered. All around them rose the clear bubbles they waited to board, huge, perfectly round, life-preserving prisons. Apparently they’d known for years and had been working out this system. He was angry at first, then frightened, and finally indifferent. It was probably better this way, he reflected, the horror of not knowing was put off until the final moments. It was now more than ever he wished he had someone to care so much about. Someone to comfort and to comfort him, someone to climb into the future with, whatever it looked like.

Now it was haphazard. An escape method was available, it was there to take or leave. Push the green button and theoretically you were safe. People all around him found each other and latched on. They needed to feel that they would not be forgotten. Sparks flew and buttons were pressed. Momentous decisions were made perhaps without thought, but there wasn’t time. Often, choices were unexpected. Familial ties that had worn thin, fraying over the years, snapped suddenly with the shutting of the doors. Heartbreak spilled and tore through millions, chasms opened where before there had been love, trust, kindness. He stood straight, and they paired him with a woman from nearby he’d never met. Strange, how someone could live one neighborhood over, and he didn’t recognize her face. There were only enough bubbles if everyone had two or more people. This was it, and he was oddly emotionless. The doors closed, and her hand came down on the button. The bubble clicked and rose into darkness. They were alone but together, and he pressed his face up against the side. The end.

Except, of course, it wasn’t. As they lifted away, she was silent. The earth grew fainter, and the pain inside her swelled. The world, her world, with its breezes and smooth stones, its flower petals and warm sand that could stick between your toes. She missed rivers already and forests and beaches, mountains and the jungles she had never seen. It all looked so tiny to her. She felt tiny, miniscule. Why bother to build a bubble. She couldn’t possibly live without snowy mornings or the sound of raindrops falling on wet leaves. The smell of a lake in nighttime or the feeling she had sitting high up in a tree. But living she was, inexplicably. It didn’t feel real anymore, but it was. The world drifted from view and she realized now that she was crying. Space unfolded itself before her and now she was in the midst of something she had imagined forever. It was nothing like she’d thought, but it fulfilled all her wildest dreams. Everything was bigger, actual, so much less abstract. She cried in earnest now, guttural sobs that racked her body and propelled her to the curved floor. It fit her body perfectly but the unresponsive glass beneath her could never compare to dirt, or grass, or sand, or layers of decomposed forest. It was artificial, nonliving forever.

“Well.”

“So.”

She pulled herself to her feet, and they stood side by side, looking out. She imagined their silhouettes. There was light inside but outside only obscurity. She didn’t know how, it emanated, not piercing their surroundings at all, simply existing. The bubble shone dully in its own glow. She thought of what was going on out there, in space, that there was so much she was unaware of. She thought of what had happened somewhere in the distance, she no longer knew where, and then she decided to stop thinking.

They stood until they broke, and then he cried while she comforted until she couldn’t not cry anymore. Then he held her until they were sobbing together as one. They sat and drowned in common grief, mourning their lostness and the absence of hope that they both felt so sharply. Up here, they were so detached, so incredibly isolated, but now they also had each other, they were two people who so completely shared the same experience.

For days, there had been a glow from some eerie distant world, their own but no more. They were here now, and that was behind them. The glow seemed to settle into itself then, to subside and taper before it melted out of sight completely. Like a puppy getting ready for bed, the waning sunlight began brighter and gradually its energy drooped until it had vanished calmly and they were left in darkness. There was still a pale and cloudy light that radiated from inside the bubble. They were deserted now.

The reality set in. It was hazy at first, surreal. Then the awareness hit them, but still they remained in their own misty worlds of isolation and forgotten dreams. Did survival truly matter any more? What was the point of continuing to endure living if you could only meander through darkness full to brimming with stories to tell no one would ever hear.

They decided together without speaking that they would simply live until they couldn’t. They didn’t ration or conserve. Somehow they were able to breathe. They didn’t cry anymore. They didn’t talk. Once she opened her mouth as is if to say something, but it closed after a split second of heavy expectation, and she retreated once more into her own mind. Hours later, or days or a year or a lifetime, a fragment of a poem stumbled across his lips. It was accidental, a mistake from another existence, but it was a rock thrown into water. After the poem, there was quiet. She stared.

“I.”

“Oh.”

“Do you?”

“No! Yes!”

“I’m…”

“I’m so.”

“I know.”

“Are you?”

She nodded.

“I’m glad.”

“It’s beautiful up here. Sad. I’d always imagined it would look like, well, not quite like this.”

“I understand.”

“You do?”

“It’s real up here, not a dream. I can’t — think myself down.”

Something from outside grazed the bubble. She took his hand, and they stood together, like on their first day. The glass of the pond trembled and broke, and then the two of them struggled to retain the air to make their thoughts into language. Words tumbled into sentences that were strung together like precious beads on a necklace into paragraphs and then pages. Words upon words that crowded into and on top of one another. The ink of broken silence blurred as they twisted sound into meaning from where before was only stillness. They shouted sometimes because they could, and then they whispered until they couldn’t articulate words. It was a release, an explosion. A torrent of suppressed emotion that had been kept hidden for no reason at all. But here it was, here they were. Trapped, but free nonetheless. They talked first of the past, of what they had left behind, what they missed, and what they hadn’t realized was important. Of people and places and the indescribable indistinct quality of clouds. Once, he sang. She clapped, and the sound of her hands against one another in the midst of infinity was at once intimidating but independently perfect. They discussed poetry, art, literature, elite, and perhaps supercilious forms of enjoyment before they spoke of simple joys one had encountered like little buried treasures in the past world. Something new surfaced in the bubble now, a small bit of happiness had dripped its way into being. With this later followed companionship, affection, tenderness, and eventually love which was expressed and then explored as the two of them glided silent between the stars. It was just what she had hoped in an entirely unexpected setting.

Finally, there was someone on the other end of his thoughts. As a teenager, when he’d lain smiling in a moonlit meadow, he had taken himself seriously. Later, but still so far away from the present he had reflected, slightly chagrined but still faithful. It was funny to him that now in this situation, so strange and unlike any place he’d ever envisioned, somewhere where his life chances were so slim and escape could not be considered he could be so gloriously happy. The pieces of his own individual puzzle seemed to fit into place even if the smooth, outside edges would never be configured. He’d always been told to put the corners together first and then fill in the center, but here he could break the rules recklessly. The whole puzzle might never be complete, but he had some parts connected and the section of the image he could see now was almost too brilliant already.

It felt like she could fly, like the bubble had opened, and she could spiral through space. That was the problem. She wanted to skyrocket, to leap and bound through a wide open space. But they were shut in here, closed off, stale. The worst was that it would never be any different. They would stay like this for as long as forever lasted. She wanted room to dance, room to spread out her soul knowing her emotions could reach into faraway places before she herself could get there. At the very least, she needed to feel that the possibility of change, or variety or escape was remotely a possibility. But here she was, surrounded by nothingness. Sounds echoed in the bubble, but she wished that when she dropped something, the outside would be affected too. She hated that her surroundings were so cold and oblivious, so impassive and untouchable. She had wanted children in her time spent on Earth, but that was just another door this new life had closed for her with the pressing of a button. She had wanted kids, so she could raise them in the past world, she could teach them how to tell wildflowers apart and how to skip stones. How to appreciate butterflies or the smell of the forest or the sound of other people’s happiness. It was unthinkable, bringing someone new into this settled existence of blank space and numbing insignificance. She needed at least a glimmer of a potentially different reality. But that candle had burned down long ago and was stiff with congealed wax. Up here, there were no matches with which to relight it and no way to get any more. What she truly wanted was hope, and hope was gone.

Still, they were not jaded. Love made them buoyant, but they knew a change was necessary if they were to retain their sanity. Then again, why was that such a concern? A decision was reached after endless discussion. They turned it over and over as they continued to float through eternity. After a while, it seemed the only option.

It took days, weeks maybe. Measures of time were unimportant now, the concept of the Earth’s revolution around the sun had vanished with both of those celestial bodies themselves. It was risky, but was it riskier than the hasty decision they had made before, idealistic, uninformed, naive. It was dangerous, irrational, enormously stupid. They cut a hole. Plastic sawdust piled at the floor. They took turns sawing at it with whatever small tools they could find. The absurdity of the risk elated them with its being so absolutely out of the ordinary. They had found human connection in each other, but the expansiveness of life had disappeared. This ridiculous alternative terrified them with how singularly enticing it was.

Her turn was the last. They had cut a rectangular groove in the thick plastic so deep that if moderate force were applied to it, it would give way. She shook him by the shoulder, gently, but with an urgency that was simultaneously meaningless and present. He came awake slowly.

“Now. It’s ready.”

This registered. He blinked the sleep away. It took him a moment to remember where he was, even after so many instances just like this. They walked to the rounded wall. She looked at him. There was half a smile on her lips, but her eyes were wet. He looked back, and his throat felt stiff with helplessness, resignation, regret, love, anticipation, anguish. Flutes played tremendously in his head, the violins reached a panicked crescendo. The space outside seemed to pulsate with everything pent-up that could never happen. Together they pushed the worthless piece of plastic into the extreme. It fell noiselessly into the void, pathetically flimsy in the depths of the universe. He had always thought that in books, when people’s lives flashed before their eyes, it was just fantasized wordplay, but he could see now all the nights in the cold, the people he had known, the characters he had resonated with, and the dreams he had cherished. She nodded, and they gripped hands as they flung themselves wordlessly into the outside. There was a sigh — of relief, elation, gladness, pain, or sorrow and then they were gone, forgotten. The black dust and the stars rose up to greet them. The open bubble still bobbed through the boundlessness, not above where they had fallen but simply somewhere in relation to them. The existence of everything continued as it had, and with a plunge into the unknown, two people who had lived so vividly were instantaneously erased. Somewhere a star exploded and elsewhere a planet turned on its axis, slowly, methodically, spinning unceasingly over and over itself, unnoticed and undisturbed.

 

grey

      

I.

the type of tiredness that settles behind your eyes and doesn’t leave.

the type of quiet that twists your gut and unsettles your mind.

the type of moments that make you wish for an alternate reality.

 

it’s not dark out, yet.

the sun hasn’t fallen asleep.

the sunset is colorless.

 

your world is monochrome,

your life colored by shades of grey,

blurring, blurring, indistinguishable.

 

your emotions faded and wrung out to dry,

worn through by the people who came before,

hand me downs that don’t quite fit right,

and the person in the mirror is not yourself.

 

perpetual dusk, perpetual dawn,

unreached potential and unused opportunities,

the feeling when the curtain is lifted

and the magic wasn’t real all along.

 

the sidewalk is endless.

the buildings are identical.

your eyes never near the horizon.

the pedestrians are like ghosts,

whispering in languages long since forgotten.

 

you are tired.

you’re just so, so tired,

and the darkness wins.

 

sometimes the colors come back.

sometimes the grey fades to black.

 

II.

the darkness whispers.

quiet, steady tones,

to the rhythm of your heartbeat.

 

your mind is blank and racing.

 

the nothingness gets stronger, more overpowering,

drowning out your thoughts

and ideas

and hopes

and dreams

into

nothing

nothing nothing

nothing nothing nothing

 

the void so loud you might as well be screaming

but your face is blank and your eyes are blank,

easily masked and easily masqueraded,

false emotions replicated through sounds and words,

everything exactly as empty as you.

 

you’re gone.

 

not a blank canvas, not a new start,

not the pure, pale white of literary symbolism,

swallowed by the type of endless grey that numbs your soul and your feet and your words.

 

so fill it-

fill it with books and music and art and work and friends

and anything you can get your hands on

because everything fades.

 

blank, empty, fading.

 

III.

the crowd is muffled and the colours are muted.

you can’t quite recall how many people are outside, or how you found your way home.

you can’t quite recall whether this is your home, your bed, your life.

maybe that’s the point.

 

maybe every now and then you have to hit mute on life and listen to the white noise,

the background static otherwise drowned out by your everyday living,

 

it’s almost peaceful, this lack of emotion.

you could stay there forever.

forever- forever’s a long time, you tell yourself,

but it doesn’t seem worth it to get up,

much less to go outside.

 

so you compromise and sit.

and you wait.

 

time ticks by

as you wish for the colors to come back.

 

IV.

i watch the colors swirl down the drain.

the neons and the pastels and the brights,

the shades that made the streets lively and the city interesting,

gone.

 

all that is left is shades of grey

and the constant beat of rain.

taptaptaptaptap

in time with my racing heart.

 

there is a simplicity to be found

in a world devoid of colour,

where all that’s left if shapes and silhouettes and essence.

a shadow of another world, maybe,

but there is beauty to be found in this reflection.

 

i see myself staring plainly back at me.

i see the potential in each colorless house,

i see what could be and what once was.

 

i am one with the rain,

i blend in with the shades of grey.

 

beautiful. simple. honest.

 

gasoline sickness

 

and they told stories, too, of gasoline sickness,

the bloodshot eyes and ragged breaths,
the sleepless nights and sleepwalking days,
how they were homesick/homesick/seasick/homesick,

the unsteady children riding unsteady waves into an unsteady future,
the ground and the capitol walls always
hours
minutes
seconds away from breaking,

how they had gone from sanitized news to desensitized people,
from sanitary streets to desensitized passerby.

how they built the walls around them,
they brought the hated to them
with their unwillingness to believe
and unwillingness to change,

poisoning the bodies of some,
with lead and bullets and dirt,
and poisoning the minds of others,
with ignorance and neglect and hurt,

how this world had so much and was still yet so empty.

how a few hard workers,
a few believers,
a few who see how it should be

cannot push past the fragile gasoline outline of a world
where empty houses and galas take place
while people starve to death right outside.

for you cannot push away your conscience
(as much as you may try)
and the sickness,
the empty, numbing, kerosene and matches,

will burn you from the bottom up.

 

Darling

The doorbell jingled as a woman and her daughter entered the cafe. They did not look at all alike.

The daughter was short and chubby and seemed to waddle instead of walk; the mother was tall and lanky, each angle from chin to elbow sharpened to a point. The woman wore a close-lipped, businesslike smile as she strode up to the counter. A pair of metal-framed glasses balanced precariously on her sharp cheekbones, the lenses immaculately clear. The girl followed behind, close enough to tread on her mother’s heels.

“How can I help you this morning, miss?”

“One black coffee please,” the woman replied curtly, without a single glance at the menu. She had already pulled out her wallet when she noticed that the girl had pressed her face up against the glass case of pastries, mesmerized by the colors. The woman’s pale cheeks flushed suddenly and furiously, as if she had been slapped, “…and a pastry,” she added. She smiled somewhat embarrassingly, thin lips peeling back to reveal sharp teeth.

“Sure thing, miss. Which would you like?”

“You heard her, darling. Which one would you like?” The woman bent down to be at the same height as her daughter. “Do you want,” she squinted through her glasses at the menu, “a slice of cake, or a cookie? Or perhaps a brownie?” “Darling?”

The girl turned her head and stared up at her mother with big, blank eyes, then turned back to the glass case. The woman noted with a little shudder that the girl had already left several hazy, smudged handprints on the glass. With a sigh, the woman straightened herself and gave the cashier a terse smile. “A piece of cake, please.”

“That’ll be $4.89, miss.”

The woman exchanged glossy credit card for a paper bag and cup, warily eyeing the spots of grease already forming on the brown paper. She took a step back from the counter, carrying the bag, when she nearly tripped over her daughter, who had been silently standing close behind her. As the mother regained her balance, her daughter only stared at her silently with big eyes. The thin eyebrows of the mother suddenly twitched as something flashed across her eyes, quick as lightning. She pressed the bag firmly into the girl’s hands. “Darling, please, stand a bit further from me. You always get in my way.”

 

partition

         

partition:

an indian pakistani sestina

 

August, 1947. The British divide Colonial India into two independent countries, Muslim Pakistan

and Hindu India, inciting the largest and bloodiest mass migration in human history.

 

One nation, torn apart

by cartographic line

and the thunder of fifteen million footfalls.

Bodies pile and neighbors leave

for a chance to live.

That history, I am its future.

 

The fated future.

Like cells, doomed to split apart

tearing people, taking lives

like each human had a dotted line

across their heart, “cut here” and leave

unaware of the destruction, of the fall-

 

-out, the cleanup, the spilled blood which falls

from my veins as I watch from the future

unable to scream or leave

like the little boy hiding, watching his parents diced apart

with swords, closing his eyes and mouth and running across the line

with only a bloody teddy bear, to live.

 

He prays for his parents in the religion that took their lives.

It doesn’t matter which faith; both fall

under the same nation, divided by a false line.

False, because fifteen million people needed to run to have a future

and refugees pulled apart

doors of trains only to find hundreds of dead bodies, murdered trying to leave.

 

On the tree of Hindustan, I am the leaves.

The massacre gave way to life

as my parents, on the fiftieth anniversary of partition, vowed “till death do us part.”

My blood is the innocent blood that fell

on both sides; the animosity of the past only a haunting memory in the future

where I straddle the line.

 

I am half-Indian Hindu, half-Pakistani Muslim; my family line

proves there is hope, if you believe

in miracles, I am one, I am the future.

Each day I live

is a day closer to the fall

of the forces tearing my nation apart.

 

It’s time to take apart this line.

Make this wall of wills fall to the ground, and leave.

As long as I live, I am the future.

 

Stigma

                           

You know that feeling when some days, we wake up and we just don’t want to get out of bed? So bedridden that sometimes, it even hurts to breathe.

What’s the point of all this?

Why do I have to get out of bed and put myself out there into a world that doesn’t feel?

But the feelings are strong. We can all feel it.

Or can we?

Maybe the person to my right can feel it, but not everyone is so lucky. Only some of us know what pain feels like. When somebody sticks a knife through you, or better yet, fifteen. But you don’t see what’s on the inside, because you are not me. It’s a constant battle inside. Like your mom, brother, sister, cat, dog died, but it doesn’t go away. It can’t go away.

When the stigma says “get over it.” It’s like a joke or even worse, a tease. Don’t you think if I could, I would?

I’m sorry I don’t want to do anything. Just leave me alone. I’m tired of it making me get the image of jumping off a bridge.

It’s always like you have to be happy, you know?

Do I need to if I can’t? Is that how it works? Can I just decide to be happy?

Like it’s my choice to feel this constant pit of emptiness inside of me?

The fact is, I don’t even know why I’m angry. I just am. I’m sad not because I want to. It’s because I just am. It’s like when somebody turns on and off a light switch.

Because, the word ‘’stigma’’ defines us as some little kid’s entertainment. You know: on, off, on, off.

We need help, but you just don’t see it. You’re so caught up in this fog, that you are blinded by this stigma that makes me feel worthless. I need help.

Or do I?

I hadn’t noticed these cuts and scratches on my body. Have you ever looked at them as anything  besides disappointment? Have you ever just thought for a second how much pain one can be going through? Really, look at them. To you, I may just seem as one who is “attention seeking.” No.

They may just look like random lines and scars, but they tell a story. They tell my story.  A story that I could not put in words. I just couldn’t, and why can’t you understand that?

Remember that day when I didn’t come to school and I told you I was sick?

You didn’t ask why.

Maybe it was better that way, to ask absolutely nothing, to stay completely silent.  Because depression is not always obvious. Nobody walks around with a tag around their neck that reads, “Hello, I’m OCD.”  I don’t walk around saying that my name is Anxiety. And you most certainly do not walk around with a name tag that says, ‘’The World’s Prettiest Girl.”

Remember the day you asked if I was okay?

Well, when I went home that day, you texted me a heart. I think we both knew what happened or what had happened, already happened. What gave it away?

Was it the letter, signed with my name? Or was it the knife on the kitchen counter?

I bet you thought it was just a “phase.” I bet you thought it was just a “mood.” No.

It’s a freaking disease that requires help. When someone has lung cancer, are they crazy? So why should we be labeled in that category?

I didn’t choose to be depressed or angry.

Did you see my footprints in the snow as I ran home as fast as I could? I was alone through every bit of it.

“Why me?” I ask myself everyday as I stare into that filthy mirror.

I tried to kill myself.

But, something, someone inside of me whispered, “don’t.”

I don’t want this “thing” to define me. Will I ever get better? Fifteen years too long. Fifteen years too young. More than a precious life ahead of me.

I am too young. I can’t go back to where I was before. It’s not pretty or happy or in any way, shape, or form easy. It’s not easy.

But I’m doing better. And everyday that’s ahead of me, I continue to do better than the day before. But I’m going to need some help. And now, I’m not afraid to reach out, because I know that I am just like every other person in this world. Normal and unique.

I hate the word “schizo.” It’s not nice. Are schizophrenic people crazy to you? Is that what you think?

Whatever happened to being a “leader” rather than a follower?

I hate that depressed people are labeled as losers, emo, or crazy. I hate that when you ask someone what’s the first word that comes to your mind when you hear the word “mental hospital.” Why is it “crazy people” or “the addicts”? “Drug dealers” or “the insane”? Like in the movies, “insane asylum.”

I hate that we are called names that are so hurtful in ways that you can’t even understand. You just say them like gunshots heading straight for the target.

Why?

Do we look different? Because last time I checked, depression is not always obvious. Maybe it’s how society labels us as: disgusting freaks.

Why?

God damn, why?

Why us?

Guess the main question is: how did we end up as outcasts or “not important?”

And most certainly, taking medication does not mean you are weak.

And how come this stigma targets eating disorders as well?

If a girl is thin, is she anorexic?

Why put labels on our backs of the LGBTQ community too? So, to you it’s different? It’s different, right? Different, right? Different, right? Right?

Oh wait, sorry. It’s my OCD again.

They are not labels or adjectives, so stop!

I’m pretty sure it’s because we’re different? Is it?

If you can’t explain it, then keep your mouth shut.

We are tired of running and dreaming of getting hit by cars. We just want to wake up happy, but sometimes we don’t even want to wake up. Poor mental illness is a killer, but you make it worse due to your actions. Yes, you. Don’t look away, and don’t stop and stare. Don’t take a picture and post it on the media, labeling me as “mental.” Don’t freak out when you see scars on my arms. Don’t leave me when you have seen me at my worst of times.

Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not real. I don’t want to be another statistic for suicide. I don’t want to be labelled. I want to wake up and be myself. Go out into the world and not be ashamed of having depression or bipolar disorder or any other mental illness.

So, if this has to be said, it has to be said…

I am not the stigma, and I no longer want to be.

So break the silence and stop the stigma towards mental health.

 

Province of Darkness

The Gathering

In the early morning, the large waves were crashing against the thick sand. The beach was shadowed by a small, grass covered cliff, which was shadowed by a large mountain. The top of the mountain was an open crater, and inside the crater was a large fortress. The fortress was made of light brown stone. The walls were made of large, square stones with battlements on the top. Tall, circular towers soared over the wall. In the middle of the fortress was a large, square building with four towers.

This was not an ordinary fortress. It was the Hall of Concord, the official meeting place of the Universal Congress. The hall was located on an island south of Maltopia. Although it was within the boundaries of Maltopia, the island was owned by all the nations of the world.

Today, the Universal Congress would meet in the Hall of Concord. It had been two years since they’ve met. There were many reasons for this meeting, many proposals. But one proposal was heard to be appalling.

In an open space shadowed by the main building, a Venorian maid, wearing her long, brown dress, was sweeping the leaves off the stone floor. The space was a circle, with four entrances and seating on the edge. In the middle of two entrances was a statue. The maid brushed her scaly forehead and looked up at the statue. It was a large, marble sculpture of a Dark Elf woman holding a sword in one hand and an olive branch in the other. The maid looked down at the engraved label that lay on the base of the monument. It read:

This monument is dedicated to Queen Alexandra of Mirewood.

Founder of the Universal Congress and Co-signer of the Great Law of Peace.

The maid let out a great sigh, and shook her head in grief.

From one of the entrances came a human boy. He had white skin. His straight, brown hair grew from the top of his head while the rest was shaved off. The boy stood straight beside the maid.

“Boy!” said the maid, towering over the boy. “What are you doing here? Aren’t you supposed to be cleaning the garderobes?”

“I did,” said the boy in disgust. “The housekeeper told me to help you.”

“Well, it’s about time,” said the maid. “I can’t sweep these leaves all by myself.”

The boy got himself a broom and began to sweep the leaves.

“So, what’s the commotion this time?” asked the boy.

“What?”

“I mean, why is the Congress meeting after all this time?”

The maid put her broom down and let out a breath. “Well, there are many things being presented, from what I’ve heard. Queen Andrea of Mirewood’s proposal is apparently the most shocking.”

“What is it?” asked the boy with wide eyes.

“I don’t know,” sighed the maid in exhaustion. “But a nobleman fainted when he heard it.”

“My lord,” gasped the boy in excitement. “I want to hear it now!”

“Whatever it is,” stated the maid, “it probably won’t be as good as her mother’s proposals.”

The maid stopped her work and gazed at the statue.

“I remember when I started working here. I remember seeing Queen Alexandra’s face for the first time. It was ten years ago, and she made a proposal to build better roads connecting all the cities of Lavonia and Kanaida. A proposal so basic and genius, even I, a maid with the knowledge of a peasant, could understand its benefits. Like many proposals, it had a great opposition. The rivals were overly wealthy humans who would spend a coin on nothing but themselves. Every word they spoke made me angrier and angrier. No one called them out for their rudeness that day, except Alexandra. She did not give those men respect. After a long while of arguing, the proposition to build better roads was passed.”

The maid turned her head to the boy who stood still, leaning his broom on his shoulder.

“You see, boy, those were the days. Back then, the Universal Congress met every month! But alas,” sobbed the maid, “Queen Alexandra is dead. And now her daughter, Andrea, is Queen.”

“Well, who knows?” said the boy in a high-pitched voice. “Maybe proposition-making runs in the family.”

“Let’s hope so. I haven’t seen a good proposal since Alexandra’s last meeting.”

The next day, the maid, the boy, and the housekeeper, who were the only people living in the Hall of Concord, stood waiting for the members of the Universal Congress. The housekeeper, who was only an inch taller than the small boy, stood nervously, sweeping his balding head and twitching his pointy ears. Usually, the housekeeper was much calmer, but this was different. It was Queen Andrea’s first meeting, and he wanted everything to be perfect. He didn’t know Andrea, and due to her being Alexandra’s daughter, he did not want her to leave the Universal Congress.

Every once in awhile, the housekeeper would turn towards the boy and maid and ask if all the chores were done. Every time, they would answer yes.

As the sun was almost in the middle of the sky, the housekeeper saw the first ship enter the harbor below. He quickly went to the entrance of the fortress, the maid and boy following. When all three were there, they waited anxiously to see the first arrival.

Without surprise, it was King Eremurus of Maltopia. With two guards beside him, the lizard king walked forward. His golden rings reflected the light of the sun, as his dragonskin gauntlets blended with his turquoise scales. The housekeeper looked up at the tall Venorian and saw his bare chest, his abdomen which was guarded by an iron corset, and his pelvis area which was clothed by a thick, blue, linen-wrapped skirt.  

“Derik!” said Eremurus. “It has been so long. How are you?”

“Patricia and Jonathan have kept me company,” said the housekeeper, waving his hand to the maid and the boy, still looking up at the lizard king. “Have you heard of Andrea’s proposition?”

Derik always spoke to royalty in a formal manner, but always talked to Eremurus normally. Eremurus was much friendlier to the housekeeper, unlike the other leaders, which allowed Derik to speak in an informal tone.

“Ah yes, I’ve heard,” said the lizard king in excitement. “I only hope it’s better than one of Dido’s proposals. Ever since Alexandra’s death, she’s manipulated the whole continent of Lavonia to do her bidding.”

“Yes, but not Mirewood,” smiled Derik.

“Oh please,” sighed Eremurus angrily. “Andrea is only sixteen. She’ll probably be kissing Dido’s feet in no time.”

When the sun hit the middle of the sky, another ship entered the harbor. The longboat was more narrow and had wooden swan heads on both points.

Through the entrance came a six-foot tall Orc wearing a seal hide over his ice-blue skin. His thick upper body was clothed by a necklace with two walrus tusks on both sides.

“Greetings, King Ukmar of Ek’da,” said Derik. “Shall I take your coat?”

“No need,” said Ukmar. “The heat is soothing.”

Another ship entered the harbor. This longboat had steel platings on the bottom, used for tearing through ice. Through the entrance came Chief Karnok of Pangona, a black-haired Orc wearing brown bear fur.

Over time, more ships arrived in the harbor. Through the entrance came Chief Toure of the Apocalypse, a dark skinned human wearing a black, hooded shawl and gray clothing. After him came King Lumos IV of Morrisland, a moon-skinned Elf with dark blue eyes and golden hair. He was followed by Lord Demeter of Silver Coast. Her long copper hair was braided on the top of her head as her sparkling green dress glittered the light of the sun. Soon after her was Chief Pocatowa of Indie, a muscular human dressed in a wolf pelt and leather pants.

The leaders were scattered across the entrance area, talking and waiting for the other members. Karnok and Ukmar, who were the only Orcs there, were plotting for tomorrow’s meeting.

“So, when Grognar states his case,” said Karnok quietly, “we’ll come in and demand retribution.”

“Do you think we can convince the whole Congress?” asked Ukmar.

“Trust me, at their state, the Venorians would not want another conflict.”

As the two went on, another ship had entered the harbor. Through the entrance came King Grognar of Red Rock. Grognar was thinner than the other two Orcs, and much taller, rising seven feet. His jet black hair grew all the way to his chest. His rose red skin glimmered in the setting sunlight. He wore a sleeveless leather shirt with a silver neck guard, and a bronze armband on his upper left arm. Unlike other Orcs, his fangs were small, and his nose, the most attractive part of his face, was thin and curved. Its nostrils were almost unnoticeable, and its bridge was dented like an arch.

After being greeted by the housekeeper, Grognar walked up to Karnok and Ukmar, who stood silently.

“Fellow Orcs,” greeted Grognar. “Tomorrow is the day. The day justice is finally served. After many painful years, the scars will be healed.”

“Yes, Grognar,” stated Ukmar sadly, “but unfortunately, nothing can heal the damage the Venorians brought upon our people.”    

“I disagree,” said Grognar in a hopeful voice.

But Grognar’s optimism soon died when another leader came through the entrance. He recognized his brown skin, his hooked nose, his black short hair and shaven face, his pointy shoes, his golden sparkling cape, and his white turban with a diamond in the middle. It was Sultan Ahmad of Gold Coast. Grognar looked at the young Sultan, walking proudly with his small Goblin servant, as rage swarmed the young Orc’s insides.

For twelve years, Red Rock and Gold Coast were at war with each other. During the war, Alexandra (who was not queen at the time) took Red Rock’s ancestral Fire Stone and gave it to Gold Coast. Soon after, the Orcs declared peace and gave a heavy payment to Gold Coast. Grognar and Ahmad were not ruling during the war or the peace treaty, but because of Ahmad’s refusal to give back the Fire Stone, the two were enemies.

“Keep close to me, just in case,” said Ahmad to his Goblin servant as he walked up to Grognar.

When Ahmad stood straight in front of him, Grognar looked down at his purple pointy shoes. He then turned his head and noticed the small Goblin beside him.

“First, you disrespect and persecute our culture, and now you’re enslaving Goblins?!”

“I can assure you,” stated Ahmad, “that this Goblin is paid more than the amount of money stored in your vault.”

Grognar was boiling with rage. He growled, clamping his white teeth, until he heard someone yell.

“Everyone, quiet!” yelled Derik. “She’s here!”

Through the entrance came four servants carrying a gold draped sedan chair. When the servants lay down the chair, two guards on each side stood in front, facing each other. From the chair came a tall Elf woman in a long, white dress with a small crown on the top of her head. Her braided, black hair and gray eyes blended with her white skin. She walked slowly out of the sedan chair as the others stared at her. Derik walked up to the woman and greeted her.

“Empress Dido of the Fifth Vergimin Empire and Chairman of the Vergomon Council. Welcome back to the Hall of Concord.”

Dido looked down at the housekeeper. “Is my room clean?” she asked.

“They are very clean,” said the housekeeper loudly so all the leaders could hear.

Through the entrance, a human dressed in a violet fur cape and a golden crown stomped on the stone floor.

Before Derik could greet him, he yelled, “Hello everyone!”

As the rest of the leaders greeted him back, he gave a big grin, covered by his short orange beard. Finally, Derik was able to greet the fat man.

“King Charles of Galdoria. Welcome back.”

Standing beside Charles was another human dressed in a white and gold robe. His brown hair was balding at the top, forming a halo on his head. The monk walked up to the short housekeeper.

“Hello, Derik.”

“Brother Martin!” said the housekeeper, looking up at the monk. “How have you been?”

“I’ve been well. Are we waiting for anyone else?”

“Well,” said Derik nervously, “Andrea is the only one left.”

“May the divines carry her safely to this island,” prayed Martin. “Come, let us pray for our safety tomorrow.”

Brother Martin was the head of the Universal Congress. His job was to keep the peace amongst the members and break ties during a voting session. Although he was supposed to be in a neutral position, he was secretly sided with King Charles, who was sided with Dido and Lumos.

As the sun finally set, the leaders stood with excitement, waiting for the new member. They were all silent. Jonathan, looking over the wall, saw a caravel, with a black sail with a diamond and an eye in the middle, docking in the harbor. He ran towards the housekeeper, who stood near the entrance.

“She’s here! She’s here!” cried the boy. “The Queen of Mirewood is here!”

The housekeeper and leaders all stood frozen with their eyes fixed on the entrance. Their hearts raced at the same time, creating a quire of heart beats. After a long suspense, the quire of heartbeats turned into applause. Through the door came the new member of the Universal Congress. She walked casually, almost like a commoner. But she received the applause of a divine hero.  

She was a thin, tall girl, rising five feet and ten inches. She had bedraggled, blackish-indigo hair that went to her jaw. Unlike other Dark Elves, her skin was a lighter shade of blue. Besides that, she had pointy ears and yellow hawk eyes. She wore a black, satin shirt, which draped over her black, knee-high leggings. Her sleeveless shirt was choked at the waist by a brown, leather belt. Covering that was a thin, black cloak going to her ankles. Unlike the other leaders, shel did not wear any gold or silver.

Derik walked up to greet her, but everyone else beat him to it. A quire of cheers and hellos filled the entrance area. The girl, in reaction to this madness, gave a surprised but frightened smile. Finally, Brother Martin shushed the leaders and walked up to the girl.

“Queen Andrea of Mirewood. Welcome to the Hall of Concord. We are proud to have you in the Universal Congress. Your mother would’ve been proud.”

Andrea gave a silent “Thank you” as the members of the Universal Congress, except Grognar, clapped their hands.

 

Laughter Heals All Wounds

  

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

M.

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

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

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

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

Three: He wasn’t worth her spit.

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

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

I am here.

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

They got married last spring.

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

“Marissa, baby,”

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

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

 

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

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

A promise is just air out of lungs.

 

The Curious Cottage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Welcome!” she had said.

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

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

“I’m 13.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come with us,” another boy said.  

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

“Climb.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay,” he agreed, gaining confidence.  

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

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

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

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

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

He put his arms behind his head and crouched over.

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

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

 

The Factory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No one was, so I opened the doors.

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

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

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

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

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

No answer.

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

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

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

But, of course, no response.

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

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

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

I was strangely at peace.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chasing Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We can get ice cream at Brookeville.”

“I hope they have bubblegum,” she says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

“No, no, Lily, stop it.” My mom says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How is he?” I ask, tentatively.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stranger by the Lake,” I respond, intrigued.

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

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

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

“Me too,” I whisper.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Janitor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

“Hello?” the janitor said, tentatively.

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

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

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

“Questioning?” asked the janitor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Teddy Bear

A headless teddy bear lay in the grass. Its body reached for its head only a few feet away. It stretched its neck in vain. The teddy bear was hopeless, hapless, and distraught. A few feet away, a man took out a pencil and began to sketch the trees, bushes, and grass that surrounded the teddy bear. The man breathed in the park smells: pine, wet grass, and crushed cigarettes. He didn’t notice the teddy bear’s head by his boot.

The teddy bear frantically called out to the man, “Please, sir, if you could just pass me my head! Right by your foot!”

But the man didn’t hear him. He kept sketching the park, finished his drawing, and left.

A businesswoman passed by next. She walked along the grass on the pavement, talking to someone angrily on the phone. She yelled about her finances and her stupid, no-good secretary. She huffed and rolled her eyes, then said, “Fine, I’ll tell you the number, but this is the last time, I swear…”

The woman dug around inside her purse until she found a piece of paper with some numbers on it. As she took it out, her red, leather wallet fell out onto the grass.

“Miss, your wallet has fallen from your bag!” the teddy bear called.

The woman ignored the the bear and kept reading the numbers, with her hand on her hip and her eyes rolling constantly.

Then she said, “Yes, of course,” sighed, “Yes, you’re welcome,” rolled her eyes, and left.

The teddy bear began to cry, only to realize that its head was still two feet away and was now covered in salty tears. More tears pooled around the the head, and it began to float away.

“My head!” cried the teddy bear.

“Where is your head?” A little girl cocked her head to the side. She sat criss-crossed in the grass beside the bear. She wore sandals with little pink flowers and dancing Hello Kitties.

“There! There!” The teddy bear pointed halfway down the little river of tears that had formed.

Its head bobbed up and down. The girl chased after the teddy’s head, splashing in the tears as she ran. Finally she caught the head and gleefully brought it back to the teddy bear.

“Oh, thank you! I have been trying to get my head back all day!”

Relieved, the teddy bear pushed its head back into place, stood up, and started off.

“Wait! Wait!” called the little girl. “I thought maybe we could play? I have a doll house and another teddy bear. They can play too!”

“Sorry, little miss, but I have a job to get back to. Why don’t you sit in the grass and play alone?” The teddy bear continued to walk off. “Oh — and thanks for my head!” it called over its shoulder.

The little girl sat down in the damp, tear-stained grass. She didn’t like to play alone; she always played alone. She smelled the pine, wet grass, and crushed cigarettes, pushed aside a red wallet on the pavement beside her, stared at her sandals, and watched the little flowers sway and the pink Hello Kitties dance.

 

Space Baby

Eliza’s eyes grew wide at the world. The space around her was light and airy. She floated up and around the little room in the aircraft. Her face was soft, cheeks glowing and red. Her lips were thin and moist, but no breath escaped them.

For a moment, everything was silent in the little, white room with no windows. The baby floated higher. Everyone stood about the little child in a dome below her, waiting. Eliza’s mother sat up, staring almost angrily at her baby. Her eyes wanted to command the child to breathe.

And then a cry rang out. Bubbling from Eliza’s mouth, a shrill, joyous cry echoed throughout the tiny room and into the ears of her family, the astronauts, the doctors. Everyone had been waiting for this moment, and it had come. In only a moment, the scary, silent room became abuzz with laughter, crying, shouts, and whoops. Eliza’s mother silently sobbed in a corner, watching in wonder as her beautiful, baby girl bounced around the room, crying gleefully.

Then it was time to take Eliza out of the room she was born in, to show her a world much bigger than the one she already knew. A universe.

Carried in the arms of her mother, Eliza was led to an enormous window at the front of the aircraft.

“Look, Eliza,” her mother said. “This is my world. And now, it is yours.”

Eliza cried again. But through her glassy tears, Eliza could see the world. She saw the dark sky with smudged stripes of purple and pink. She saw the sun’s bright rays and the moon’s pale, mysterious reflections. She saw the planets which she would one day explore. And the infinite stars were reflected in her wide, elliptical eyes.

Eliza slept in her cradle. A large paperweight held her blanket down, and she snuggled into it. Eliza’s mother watched her newborn with sunken, hollowed out eyes.

“You should get rest. Your girl isn’t going anywhere.” The doctor gave an encouraging smile.

“She won’t go anywhere, but I’m already gone. We’re years away from Earth. You know I won’t make it.”

“We don’t know that. I’m not making any predictions yet. Hold on for your baby, for the future of space science. You’re making history!” the doctor insisted.

Eliza’s mother smiled sadly and lay down on the floor next to her baby’s cradle. Her skeleton curved around the walls of the little cage. She cried. Her tears all gathered in the deep circles under her eyes. Bubbles of the salty liquid floated off of her face and made it look like the walls were crying, too. Her face was a waterfall that didn’t flow. She was a broken woman.

And they had made history. Even if both Eliza and her mother died, the first baby had been born in space.

 

Colorado

         

The creak of broken brakes and

the soft whoosh of bicycle wheels

lift up lazy dogs’ heads

as we slip through the night.

 

Blinking red lights announce the arrival

of the thunderstorm of a train pounding past,

the rhythmic thudding echoing with

our pulsing hearts,

pumped full of exhilaration,

a drug that makes us pedal faster,

round and round empty lots,

our hands lifted recklessly in the air,

our eyes reflected, full of light.

 

As the train pulls away,

the empty night, stars masked by the scintillating city,

receives our worries and confessions,

covered up by the train’s screaming whistles.

 

Iceland

        

We woke up early that day,

a cold morning with icy winds that burnt our faces.

We gripped our hot chocolates with stiff fingers,

every sip of warm rich liquid somehow warmer than a summer day,

because despite the cold wasteland surrounding us,

we felt warm inside, and happy.

 

We woke up early that day,

at the hour when even streetlights and road signs were drowsy.

I slept in the back seat of a borrowed car while my parents drank coffee,

and struggled to stop their eyes from sinking

as they stayed awake through the deep white blue snow that led down the road

to where the earliest touches of sun, orange and glowing,

lit up through the clouds and shone upon the glaciers that surrounded us,

and filled up the sky more than the sky itself.

 

We woke up early that day,

to set steady feet on a swaying deck

that would carry us across vast blue waves with foamy white crests

to a distant island with only duck prints, and icy hills

that could be skated down with any old shoes.

So we ran and slid across the slick surface

before falling down the rest of the way,

our laughter guarding us from the jagged ice at the bottom.

 

The Worst Roommate

 

**CONTENT ADVISORY: The following story contains sensitive content regarding suicide that some readers may find disturbing and/or may not be suitable for younger readers.**

I had the worst roommate on the planet. You may think I’m exaggerating, but someone has to be the worst, and I genuinely believe it was this guy. The university I’m at has an absurd policy regarding changing your roommate, and if yours isn’t actively plotting to murder you, you’re out of luck.

Anyways, on the first day at school, I walked into the dorm and I found him sitting in the fetal position on one of the kitchen stools. He had an unfortunate combination of greasy long hair and a messy beard that did not compliment anything about him. He was wearing a long sleeve, flannel shirt with some ominous stains and nothing else besides some boxers. I paused for a moment but decided that I was nobody to judge and nodded to him. He gave no signs of having noticed my presence, his eyes fixed on the entirely unremarkable wall opposite of him. I went and unpacked my stuff in the room he hadn’t taken and returned to the common area to find him sitting in the exact same position, looking like he hadn’t moved a muscle. I cleared my throat. No response. I cautiously offered a simple verbal greeting. Nothing. At this point, decently creeped out, I slowly made my way over to him and tapped him on the shoulder. His head violently spun around, and he focused his beady eyes on mine. I had no idea how to react, and apparently neither did he, because we sat there staring at each other for a moment. Finally, he broke the silence with a line that I’m now sure he has tried dozens of times.

“Let me tell you about the Jews and their lies,” he said sharply.

What followed was a very uncomfortable and very one-sided conversation about lizard people, the moonmen, the world government, Hillary Clinton and of course, the Jews. I was finally able to make my escape by claiming a need to use the restroom.

“Make sure not to drink the water from the sink!” he shouted after me.

Although it had originally upset me, I was suddenly very glad that my pet lizard was safe at home, being taken care of my Jewish, liberal family, far, far away from this madman. I spent a few moments mentally preparing myself for the year I would have to spend with this man. I stepped back outside into the common room, calming myself with the knowledge that this was probably the worst it would get. Boy, was I wrong. When I had exited the bathroom, my roommate was once again intently staring at the exact same point on the wall as before.

“What are you looking at anyway?” I asked, curiosity having finally got the better of me

“Ghosts,” he muttered.

I decided to end the conversation right there and walked into my room and pulled out my laptop, hoping to find some distraction from what had just transpired. I mainly played video games on a console back home, but I had finally caved into the pressure from my friends and bought a gaming laptop and a few games I hadn’t gotten around to yet. I fished around for the paper with the wi-fi information and password I had been given, and once I connected I started downloading a few games that my friends had recommended. I opened up my web browser and mindlessly browsed the internet while I waited for the games to finish downloading. An hour or so later I alt-tab-ed over to see how the download progress was going and was shocked to see that it had barely downloaded anything. The download speed was abysmal, significantly lower than what was promised by the university. I was annoyed at myself for actually believing the promise of high speed internet when something occurred to me.

I walked out into the common area and was briefly surprised to see the stool that my roommate had been occupying was now empty, but I figured he must be in his room. I walked up to the closed door and knocked on it.

“Who is it?” shouted his muffled voice.

“It’s just me,” I responded.

Labored footsteps could be heard approaching the door, followed by the sound of many locks being undone. When the door was finally open, he had a toothy grin.

“Well, you should have just said so!” he stated excitedly as he welcomed me in. “But for future reference, could you knock three times? That way I know it’s not the police,” he requested as he closed the door behind him and locked it’s many locks.

My feeling of discomfort only strengthened as I entered the room. In only a short few hours, he had managed to make the dorm room that had been meticulously cleaned only days ago look like it had not seen any love in a very long time. The window was covered by a black painted piece of plywood and the lights were off, so the only source of light was coming from a nice-looking computer monitor sitting on the floor in the corner of the room. It was attached to an impressive looking PC with a fan that sounded like a jet engine, and a blanket and some pillows were sitting around the setup with the keyboard and mouse, all strategically placed on the floor in what was most likely the only possible comfortable position. There were a few cardboard boxes lying around, all unlabeled. The only decoration was a bright and happy poster for some K-pop act, which only managed to make the room altogether even sadder.

“You wouldn’t happen to be doing anything bandwidth-intensive, would you?” I inquired, after having taken it all in.

“Oh, yeah yeah yeah! I have a special program that encrypts everything I do online so that it can’t be monitored by an ISP or the government and right now I’m downloading some stuff so it kinda eats through the bandwidth, sorry about that. I set it up for you if you’d like though!” he said, emphatically motioning over to the monitor, where an unfamiliar user interface sat, doing … something. As I looked closer I realized that he was torrenting some file with a name that appeared to be Japanese written in the English alphabet. An idea hit me.

“Hey, I gotta go out to do something, but I just realized that I don’t even know your name,” I said cautiously.

“Oh, you can call me Wiley,” he responded.

“Thanks. I’m Logan,” I said as I started towards the door. I reached for the handle when I realized that I had no idea how to undo the hastily installed extra locks.

“Sorry, I’ll get that for you,” Wiley said.

When I was in the common area, I took out my phone and Googled the name of the Japanese file he was downloading. It was anime porn.

***

“What!?” I spat.

“Can you prove that you have been threatened or are in danger?” repeated the annoyed-looking lady in the campus dormitory offices.

“Well, no, I just got here. He just creeps me out, okay?” I responded.

“If you can’t prove anything, we can’t do anything, got that?” she said, rolling her eyes.

“He said that the Jews are controlling everything! I’m Jewish!” I said, bewildered.

“Well, that’s just his opinion, okay? Now, if you’re done complaining, I have work to do,” she said, turning her body away from me and making it very clear that the conversation was over.

Feeling defeated and offended, I returned to the dorm room to find Wiley in the common area setting up a TV that had probably been impressive a few years ago. It was connected to a very long cable that snaked over to and under his door.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s you! I was thinking that maybe we could play some video games!” he said excitedly, motioning over to the couch where a wireless controller was sitting there waiting for me. I was going to just head back to my room without saying a word, but when I thought about how much time he had put into setting up the TV, I decided to indulge him for a bit and sat down on the couch. He started up Portal 2, one of the games I had attempted to download earlier and had always wanted to play. He selected the co-op mode and we started playing the game. It was fun. A lot of fun, actually. At first neither of us said much, but as the puzzles ramped up in difficulty, we were forced to communicate and actually ended up with some decent banter and jokes and ate some pizza. Although many of the jokes were somewhat offensive (most notably when he referred to the game’s villain as “what happens when you have more chromosomes than IQ points”), he mostly seemed to be in good fun. Thankfully, he never brought up any of his conspiracy theories, although he did examine the pizza for an unnecessarily long time before allowing either of us to bite into it. When I finally got to bed, my face had taken on a smile.

***

“So there’s this girl in one of my classes, and I think I might be interested in her,” I said during a lull in the gameplay. It had been several months now, and us playing games and talking about unrelated things had become a fairly regular occurrence.

“What’s her name?” Wiley asked in the same monotone voice he always spoke in.

“I haven’t talked to her yet, but I believe her name is Rochelle,” I responded.

“What’s she like?” he asked.

“Well, as I said, we haven’t talked yet, but she has this adorable smile and laugh, and she seems super nice and likes a lot of the same music as me,” I said, barely concealing my excitement.

“I see,” Wiley responded in the same cadence as before.

***

“Listen, he’s just creepy, okay?” my girlfriend Rochelle said.

“Look, he’s not that bad once you get to know him, and besides he doesn’t have the long-term planning skills to murder someone anyways,” I said.

“That man is a school shooting waiting to happen, and you know it,” she retorted.

“That sounds like something that he would say,” I teased.

“Shut up!” Rochelle said, with an embarrassed smile on her face. She continued, “Going back to the topic at hand, do you want to come over tonight or not?”

“Yeah sure, but I already told you that I’m going back at 10. Wiley and I have plans to finally finish up Castle Crashers,” I responded.

That night I had found myself cuddling with Rochelle when I suddenly became aware of the time. It was 10:45.

“Oh fuck,” I muttered, mostly to myself. “I gotta shoot Wiley a message to let him know that I’m busy.” I hammered out a basic text message saying that I was with Rochelle and that I was busy. I then put my phone back down and slowly drifted off to sleep.

I woke up and reached for my phone to check the time. It was dead. I had forgotten to plug it back in after I sent the message to Wiley. Shit. I checked the physical clock on the wall and saw that I was late for my engineering classes. Shit. With no time to charge my phone, I quickly threw on last night’s clothes and ran to my class.

Wiley wasn’t in class that day. Not that him skipping class was an unusual occurrence – in fact he he did it more often than not, but I was eager to see him in person to apologize. When class ended, I dashed back to our dorm room to find him. I found a small, handwritten note on the common room table.

“I’m sorry that I wasn’t good enough for you. It was nice to know what it felt like to have a friend. Goodbye Logan.” the note read.

Terrified, I looked around for him. His door was closed. I reached for the handle. It was unlocked. As long as I had known him, Wiley had never had his door unlocked, whether he was there or not. With a massive sense of dread, I slowly turned the knob, pushed, and stepped into the dark room.

A great roommate leaves you with a friend for life. A good roommate leaves you with a friend for college. An average roommate leaves you with nothing. A bad roommate leaves you with a pain in your ass. The worst roommate leaves you feeling guilty for the rest of your life.

After his suicide, I was invited to Wiley’s funeral by his parents where I learned a lot about him. Wiley wasn’t his real name. His family was Jewish. He had a very similar upbringing to me. He suffered some kind of head trauma when he was seven, seemed to have developed schizophrenia and began to suffer from intense paranoia and anxiety. After that point, he rarely ever left his house and didn’t have any friends. I was the only person outside of family at the funeral.

Personality seems so constant, so baked in, but is it really? I wonder if the only true difference between the two of us was that he hit his head as a kid and I didn’t. Was the only deciding factor between a decently happy college kid and a paranoid suicide victim random chance? I’ve come to the realization and accepted that any moment anyone could die, but I’ve always looked at it from the point of view of the person dying, not the others. What does it feel like to watch your child reject everything about himself and isolate himself from everyone?

Wiley was certainly crazy, had an abrasive personality and was sometimes an asshole, but I cared about him. He was probably the worst roommate on the goddamn planet, but he was my friend.

 

Downward Spiral

THURSDAY

George woke up sweat-drenched and anxious from his slumber. Before he could think, George’s thirst couldn’t be contained, and water was what he desired. Unfortunately for him, this was not possible. His surroundings began explaining themselves: the absence of windows, the tiny lantern serving as the room’s only light source, and worst of all, the rope that tied him to a wooden chair. Suspicion only increased when he noticed a massive trash can next to a writing desk. Recalling the past events was a struggle for him, but the reason for this difficulty was unknown. He was certain that he was being held captive, and George thought, Food will be brought any second now. And seconds passed, then hours, then days. His stomach screamed in agony, and his throat cried in pain. Tied to this chair for the past three days, George began to ask, “Will you comfort me when I die, Mr. Wallace?”

But Mr. Wallace didn’t respond. Instead, he slowly vanished as George reached his long-awaited death.

 

TUESDAY

“I’m sorry, sir, but we can’t hire someone with a crime of this magnitude on their record,” said the employer. “Jobs don’t come easy for a guy like you, Mr. Wallace.”

Walking away from the building as fast as he could, George’s hopelessness became more agonizing than ever. His fridge was empty. He wouldn’t be able to live in his apartment for much longer. He couldn’t wash his clothes, and his depression was corrupting his brain. As a last ditch effort to save his life, he bought a stack of loose-leaf paper and a pen, and walked back to his two-room apartment. When he entered his old, dark, and sweaty home, he hastily sat down and got into his writing position. George was never a great writer, so ideas were quickly scrapped, and papers were crumpled. After four hours of torturous disappointment, George fainted from heat exhaustion.

 

WEDNESDAY

George woke up.

Dehydrated and hungry, George managed to lift himself from his chair and wondered, How long have I been asleep? As he rose from his wooden chair, a wave of inadequacy washed over him once he saw his trash can filled to the brim with failed ideas. Walking out of the room, George began to notice something strange. An old friend that he had met in prison, Mr. Wallace, was waiting for him, with only a rope in his hand.

“I always knew you were a disappointment.”

Mr. Wallace jumped onto the skinny and frail George, overpowering him with his unfathomable strength. Blood was spilled as each one of Mr. Wallace’s sharp knuckles rushed into George’s skull. Succumbing to the pain, George became unconscious.

 

A Rainbow Appears

A Rainbow appears. When I started 6th grade, I thought I was gay because I liked to cross one leg over the other when I sat, and I liked talking about my feelings. Then I started finding girls pretty again and learned how to sit leaning back with my backpack on and my legs splayed out. Gay was something that described my grandma’s and some of my mom’s strange, effeminate friends. Strange because all of Grandma’s friends were strange. In the latter part of 6th grade, once I had a round table in the front-back end of the lunchroom and a regular group that took the B61 together past 4th ave, gay meant lame or stupid. Gay was the tiny cookie in the cafeteria that day or the friendly comment made when a vicious comeback was expected. Gay was something they called each other on South Park and Family Guy.

In 7th grade, gay was the wierd, emo kid with dyed pink and blue hair. In 8th grade, gay was cool in girls but scary in guys. In 8th grade, boys played football with their shirts off while girls sat in the grass. Trans was the strange porn you accused your friends of watching while you called them gay. In 9th grade, gay was what you thought would be a good wingman and the strange kid you talked to sometimes and maybe hung out with in a group once or twice. In 10th grade, gender-queer was my music teacher of five years, a camp counselor who was all-around badass, and one of my favorites, David Bowie, and the Australian person from Orange is the New Black.

Gay was a 5th Avenue pride parade and Cherry Grove in the summer. In 11th grade, queer was me and three, four, two, three of my close friends, and kind of a little bit of everyone. Eleventh grade was the year “the group got gayer.” Queer was feeling guilty, and paranoid, and the urgent need to end every sentence with bro instead of habibi. Gay was why, as my dad said, we had no leftist unity. Gay was rich, white men taking advantage of the efforts of women of color like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. Gay was the two dads of my one friend who lived in a certified mansion. Two dollars beat $1.70, and both certainly beat my $0.70+ odd child support payment I got. There is no gold pot at the end of the rainbow.

 

Basketball Should Not Be Done with One-and-Done

In 2006, a rule was implemented that stated that all players picked in the NBA draft must be 19 years old during the calendar year of the draft, and any player, who is not an international player, must be at least one year removed from the graduation of his high school class. This rule has come to be known as the one-and-done rule. In the 2017 NBA Draft, 10 of the first 11 players drafted were one-and-done players, with the lone exception being an international player, Frank Ntilikina. At 18 years old, Ntilikina was younger than most of the one-and-done players selected. I am a basketball fan who enjoys watching the NBA and the NCAA tournament. I am a Knicks fan, and many of my favorite basketball players are one-and-done players, including Carmelo Anthony and John Wall. NBA players want to be able to declare for the NBA draft right after high school. Many people want these student-athletes to be forced to go to college for more than one year, while others argue for a format similar to the MLB’s, where athletes have the opportunity to declare for the draft after high school. But if they do go to college, they must stay for at least three years. However, I believe that the one-and-done rule should stay the way it is. It gives fans the opportunity to watch players for a year in college and then see them compete at the highest level in the NBA.

Many college basketball observers argue that players need to stay in college for longer than one year because 19-year-old kids are not mature enough to handle millions of dollars. As Jason Clary wrote in a 2009 article for bleacher report, “Go from rags to riches too quickly, and these athletes may not know what to do with their money. Before you know it, they could own a ten bedroom house on Miami Beach with a BMW and Ferrari in the garage. You may say ‘what’s the big deal?’, but both you and I know this is not how money should be spent.” There is also a common belief held among many college basketball fans that the one-and-done rule is bad for college basketball, a point that it is very difficult to counter. They argue that having the best college players leave for the NBA after one year ruins the entertainment value of college basketball, as many fanbases lose their team’s best player each year. Although going one-and-done usually works out for the players, critics of the rule argue that some players have a false sense of confidence and make the costly decision of becoming a one-and-done too early. Jereme Richmond, Tommy Mason-Griffin, Evan Burns, Thomas Hamilton, Jonathan Hargett and Adrian Walton were one-and-done players who were not drafted at all and did not go on to have success in the NBA.

The one-and-done rule may not be the best thing for college basketball. The one-and-done rule ensures that the best young players, who would otherwise be dominating in college basketball, are playing in the NBA. If it wasn’t for the one-and-done rule, players such as Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, Myles Turner, Ben Simmons, and Lonzo Ball would still be playing college basketball. But consider the early careers of Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving, Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, and Kevin Durant. All were one-and-done players who were also all-stars within the three years after they left college. These players were capable of being NBA all-stars during the years that they would have been in college. Had they stayed until their senior year, they would have missed out on those early chances to prove themselves against the superior competition in the NBA and the resulting increase in the appeal of the game. The best basketball players belong in the NBA, and most one-and-done players are good enough to compete in the NBA after their freshman year. Those players do not belong in college basketball, and they should be in the NBA. Also the NCAA tournament is not any less successful due to one-and-done players. In fact, the 2017 NCAA tournament was one of the most watched NCAA tournaments in history. The one-and-done rule does not ruin the NCAA tournament, it just gives players who are capable of playing in the NBA an opportunity to join the NBA earlier.

Many people believe that 19-year-olds are too immature to handle millions of dollars. Critics argue that 19-year-olds are too immature to handle all of the money they earn and that they will waste it on cars and other expensive things that are not good long term investments.  The NBA should not make a rule to deny every great 18 or 19-year-old college basketball player the ability to secure their future by declaring for the draft just because some of them make bad decisions with the money. Professional athletes can use their money on whatever they want. It is not right to deny them money as a result of things they buy.

The drafting of one-and-done players does not always pan out, but that is largely because one-and-done players often declare for the draft before they are ready, or before they are good enough to be a high draft pick. But not becoming a one-and-done may also hurt a player’s draft stock. Failing to choose the correct option may mess up a player’s career. Ivan Rabb would have been a lottery pick if he had declared for the 2016 NBA draft. Instead, he elected to return to Cal for his sophomore season and was a 2nd round pick in the 2017 draft. He would have been guaranteed a salary of $7,807,100 in his rookie deal had he declared in 2016. Instead he dropped to a second round draft pick, where no contracts are guaranteed. This was a costly decision for him. If a player is going to be a first round pick, he should use the one-and-done rule and declare for the draft rather than risk injury or a bad season, which could derail his career. However if the player is not going to be a high draft pick, it is not a good idea for them to become a one-and-done player. However, each year several players make the decision to leave for the pros too early and are left in a bad position when they are not picked. The one-and-done rule does not cause these problems. The decisions of players who are not that good causes this problem.

The one-and-done rule allows for the best college basketball players to join the NBA. The one-and-done rule is a change that has caused lots of controversy during its 11 year existence. I believe the addition of the one-and-done rule was a positive change for the NBA. The best basketball players in the world belong in the NBA. I’m excited to see all of the one-and-done players from what is supposedly a very promising draft class, and all of the top players in the 2017 draft class are one-and-done. One-and-done players are what the NBA draft is built around. One-and-done players are part of the reason the NBA draft is exciting, and the 2017 NBA draft had 3.4 million viewers. Every year, basketball fans get excited to watch the players who were drafted by their favorite team whenever the team has a high pick in the draft. I am excited to watch Frank Ntilikina, an 18-year-old French point guard, play for the Knicks this season. The best draft picks are usually one-and-done players, and young European players, and they often make for the most exciting rookies.

 

Works Cited

Aaron Dodson, All the NBA Draft’s One-and-Done Lottery Picks: A Scorecard (theundefeated.com, 6/22/17)

National Basketball Players Association Website (http://www.nbpa.com/cba_articles/article-X.php)

Jason Clary, College Vs. Pros: Should Athletes Leave School Early? (bleacherreport.com, 12/13/09)

Kerry Miller, Ranking the Worst 1-and-Done Decisions in College Basketball History (bleacherreport.com, 6/24/14)

2016-2017 NBA Rookie Scale (basketball.realgm.com)

NCAA, 2017 NCAA Tournament is Most-Watched in 24 Years Across Television Through First Sunday, Plus Record-Setting Digital Consumption (ncaa.com, 3/20/17)

 

Time Wears Gloves

     

Time wears gloves on its hands.

It tiptoes past us,

Cautious of alerting us to its shadowy presence.

We only notice its movement once it has gone.

 

It tiptoes past us,

The absence echoes other absences, stolen and loved.

We only notice its movement once it has gone.

Ghosts coat all our rooms in dust, the fixtures in dust.

 

The absence echoes other absences, stolen and loved.

Plucking memories without a trace

Ghosts coat all our rooms in dust, the fixtures in dust.

My mind used to be so much more.

 

Plucking memories without a trace

I feel empty

My mind used to be so much more

I long for the beach. I want to feel the sand tickle my toes

 

I feel empty

Time wears gloves on its hands.

I long for the beach. I want to feel the sand tickle my toes

Cautious of alerting us to its shadowy presence.

 

Peeled Away

     

A layer of skin has been peeled away

Revealing what lies beneath me

Secrets exposing themselves

In the burning light

 

Revealing what lies beneath me

A heart like a broken clock

In the burning light

The timing of feelings is always slightly off

 

A heart like a broken clock

Our face like its display

The timing of feelings is always slightly off

It’s imperfect, but not needing to be perfect

 

Our face like its display

Hands covering the eyes, the expression of the lips

It’s imperfect, but not needing to be perfect

Only safe from such piercing, cold indifference

 

Hands covering the eyes, the expression of the lips

A layer of skin has been peeled away

It’s imperfect, but not needing to be perfect

Secrets exposing themselves

 

Anger and Fear

    

Anger and fear are very similar

they both lead to death

fear: the most powerful spark in history

anger: a flame that burns faster

 

They both lead to death

crossing a high, wooden bridge

anger: a flame that burns faster

plunging us unwillingly into the waters below

 

Crossing a high, wooden bridge

chasing our hopes for love, for glory, for honor

plunging us unwillingly into the waters below

where rapids pummel our limbs

 

Chasing our hopes for love, for glory, for honor

swimming against the tides of time

where rapids pummel our limbs

shoving us towards the shores of death.

 

Swimming against the tides of time

anger and fear are very similar

shoving us towards the shores of death.

fear: the most powerful spark in history

 

The Foundation behind the Teal Ribbon*

     

Just because you have a mental

illness, does not mean you are different.

People with anxiety are fighters. People

with depression are survivors. People who

self harm are strong.

I am strong. They did not just tell me to

walk again, but they taught me a new way

of walking. Not with my head down, but up.

Because rock bottom is where I rebuilt my

life again leading to the road of recovery. I

am worthy of recovery because I am

human, just like you. I am a warrior to top

that. The semicolon stands strong beside

me. My story was going to end with a

period, but I chose to keep writing it because

it’s not over yet. I am a warrior, with the “I”

being a semicolon. It makes me strong. I am

strong. I am a fighter. I am beautiful.

I am a friend.

I am a daughter and

I am survivor.

 

*(Teal ribbon for anxiety disorders)

 

The Stag

Prologue

The cave was filled with the smoke of a thousand herbs smelling sweet, smoky and savory. Pools of water bubbled on the ground, releasing gouts of steam.  Somewhere, water dripped, making echoing, plinking sounds. Mara entered in her white robe, an acolyte of the Oracle. Her hair and face were covered by a light veil.

From the back of the cave, a voice. High and serene, the voice intoned: “Come, my child, I have something to tell.”

Picking up the the hem of her robes, she hurried towards the back of the cave . She pushed through a wall of steam and saw her, the oracle. She was a wizened old thing, ensconced in her brown robes, sitting on a chair carved into the rock of the cave. From her robes emerged a single gaunt hand with one thin finger beckoning Mara towards her. Mara stepped forward and waited.

The oracle began to shake, her bent frame convulsing. Her eyes rolled back, and a milky white was all that was visible in the sockets. Her head bent back and the oracle in an otherworldly voice declared:

“Though the land is broken,

The fields awash with blood,

One will come to rule them,

And unite them in the mud.

The child of the unmarried will do this,

Flying the blue flag,

But to bring peace to the nation,

They must slay the white stag.”

The shaking ceased, the hand went back into the brown robes, and the eyes rolled back and then closed. She muttered a prayer in the hope those eyes would open again. Mara ran back to the entrance of the cave. She had to spread the word.

She emerged from the cave and made her way down the rough track to the monastery, almost tripping on the rough red stone. She could see it now, smoke rising from the kitchens, the spire of the temple reaching up to the gods above. Abbess Eleanor, thought Mara, she would know what to do. She reached the bottom of the path and entered the wide courtyard of the monastery.

“Child, what did the oracle tell you?” said the Abbess, a stern-faced woman, a head taller than Mara with her hair and limbs hidden by voluminous blue robes. Mara repeated what she had heard.

“My, that is important,” said the Abbess. “Come with me.” The Abbess turned heel and Mara followed hastily.

They headed into the main building of the monastery itself. It was built from the same red stone as the mountain with floors worn smooth from centuries of feet walking across them. They turned left and then right and ascended a spiral staircase. Mara could tell they were going to the pigeon roost.

They came to the top of the stairs into a huge room filled with grey and brown pigeons warbling and cooing in little cages. Instead of an outside wall, there was just a giant window out of which the pigeons would fly when released. From out of a corner hustled a short, mousy woman in a brown robe, the pigeon keeper.

“Abbess, to what do we owe the pleasure?” she chirped.

“We have a message, a prophecy, from the oracle,” replied the abbess.

“Ah! Understood. I’ll get the pigeons ready!” she squeaked.

“Abbess,” began Mara softly, “what will happen?”

“Well, we will send a copy of the prophecy to every town and castle in the land.”

“But what if it causes chaos? What if there’s another war?”

“Mara, our responsibility, given to us by the gods, is to hear their will in the form of prophecy.  We do not interfere in worldly affairs.”            

“I suppose so…” Mara was troubled, but she forced herself to seem convinced.

The Abbess lifted Mara’s head to look her in the eyes. “I know it’s hard for one so young to understand, child, but in time you will come to.”  

 

Chapter One

Winter, the castle shivered in the last snow of the season. Out on the walls, a lone sentry walked, trudging through a foot of snow. Clinging to his spear, he shivered even through his layers of fur, leather, and mail surrounded by a wool cloak. On the tip of his spear flapped the flag bearing the white eagle on a blue field of the House of Maren. He looked out on the snowy field surrounding the castle where once there had been a road and fields of wheat, but now there was only a desolate whiteness.

Jack had lived here all his life, born of a miller’s daughter and a traveling bard in the nearby village. As soon as he was old enough to be considered a man, he was brought into the service of Lord Maren to fight at the Bloody Marsh. He shivered again, this time not from cold, and muttered a quick prayer. A man now of four and twenty, it still haunted him. At night, he still heard it. The braying of trumpets, the clash of steel, the thrum of arrows, a brother’s scream.

The winter had muted the once-lively castle. Where once training swords clashed and horses whinnied, now there was only the soft crunching of snow and the furtive whistling of wind. Through the walls of the great hall Jack could hear them, the people of the castle breaking their fast. The sound of their laughter would be his only companion until he was relieved.

Then he heard it. A clomping sound, like the one made by the destriers the knights rode into battle. It was coming from the forest, but Jack couldn’t see the source at first through the pines and the bare branches of the oaks. He strained his eyes and saw a flash of gold through the trees moving quickly toward the field in front of the castle. Then in a blast of snow it burst from the forest: The Stag.

As tall as two men, its fur was a ghostly white. Atop its head were two enormous golden antlers long as a man’s leg curved and twisted half a hundred times with points like daggers. The sun rippled off them like on a river in summer. And when it snorted, smoke puffed out of its nostrils. But what struck Jack was not the fur, not the antlers, but the eyes. They burned a scarlet red and seemed to flicker like a flame. The Stag reared up and let out a roaring bellow. It was like hundreds of warhorns blowing together in a blast that seemed to go on for a year.

The sound of it shook Jack like a thunderclap did a dog. He sprinted to the nearest tower, dropping his spear. As he ran up the spiral steps, he could see through the windows that the sound had roused some of the men from the great hall and a few were running to the walls. He reached the top of the tower and began to ring the great alarm bell, pulling the rope with both arms. The roar stopped and as Jack looked at the Stag, it looked back, peering into him. He felt its fiery eyes burning into him.

Then, with a push of its powerful legs, it was off again flying over the snow.

“By the gods, what madness is this? What’s going on beyond my walls?”

Clovis Maren, Lord of Rookfort and Stone Harbor, had climbed onto the walls. Closer to fifty than he was to forty, Lord Clovis was no longer the strong man he had been in his youth. He was red in the face and short of breath from walking the long stairs up to the wall. Behind him walked his second son and heir Peter, a young man of middling height and a thicket of curly brown hair.  Adjusting his blue velvet tunic, Clovis turned to Sir Wyatt Witspear, the master-at-arms.

“Sir Wyatt, what’s going on here?”  

“A stag, my lord, a white one with golden antlers just like in the prophecy,” replied Sir Wyatt. His gravelly voice and scarred face revealed him as one who had lived his life as a creature of the battlefield. A head taller than most men, he wore a tough leather jerkin and at his belt carried a mace, a short iron-headed lead-weighted club with sharp spikes.

“Well who first saw it?” asked Clovis loudly, so all could hear it.

Jack, now back on the wall, shouted back “I did, milord!”

“There’s three gold coins for you. The rest of you, go back to your posts. I have no need of a crown.”

Behind him, Peter raised an eyebrow and smirked.

***

The forest was eerily beautiful, he thought. The steps of the horses muffled by the snow, the soft clink of armor, a soft chuckle here and there; in the forest, it seemed that everything became quieter. Long, thin icicles dripped down from tree branches, and the green of pine and fir trees was the only break from the endless white and grey and blue of snow and stone and sky.  

Hunting was a thirsty business. Hunting for a stag, hunting for a crown…Sir Ryan of Velburg took a sip from his wineskin to keep away the cold. He put it back in the saddlebag of his palfrey. They’d been following the stag for nigh on three weeks now. It had not been a fruitful search. He and twelve of his best riders had been tracking it ever since it was spotted in the forest near Velburg and had been following its huge hoofprints ever since.

He supposed it was fitting that he would try to kill the animal that was his coat of arms. He wore a steel breastplate with a white stag emblazoned on the front. His helmet, slung on the back of his Squire Wat’s horse, had two golden antlers coming from the top. His sword hilt had a pommel with a white stag’s head with ruby eyes. He had been granted Velburg by the King for loyal service just before Bloody Marsh, and with it he took the symbol of the town for his coat-of-arms. He smiled a cold smile when he thought of what he’d done at the marsh.

“Lamb, where in the hell are we?” he shouted back to one of the riders.

“I think we’re in Clovis Maren’s land!” Lamb shouted back. Lambert Till fancied himself the intellectual of the group. He, too, was trained in arms, but he had a stack of books in his saddlebags.

“Maren! Is that fat oaf still the lord? I think he is!” he cackled. “Boys,” he turned his horse and faced his men, “I think we should pay the lovely Lord Clovis a visit!”

Spurring his horse, he gestured back at his men with a wave of the hand and they galloped on. Maren! Ryan remembered that charge, when his horsemen had broken Maren’s lines and won the battle for the king. The king for now… Paying the Lord a visit would be droll. Custom would demand he and his men be accepted into the castle and into the feast hall with open arms. He cackled again. Being a noble was fun.

 

First a Whimper, Than a Roar

A girl and her family sat on a pale brown couch. They were in a one bedroom apartment with muted green walls. The TV in front of the family clicked on.

“The hunt for the Leomates has gotten stronger. Military forces have been searching homes and office buildings,” said a lady on the television. She had a bright red sweater on.

“Thank God for this, Susie. The Leomates are a danger to the society, and I do not want them anywhere near me and my family,” said a man in a green shirt, standing next to the lady with the red sweater.

The TV went black. Silence overcame the room.

“Well, enough of that, it’s nonsense. We’re safe. They won’t check our house. It’s all talk to scare us out,” the father rambled.

The mother worriedly signaled to the father. They walked over to the backroom, to where they thought the girl couldn’t hear them, then slammed the door shut. The young girl, maybe fifteen years old, tiptoed over to the backroom. She pressed her ear up against the peeling, plastered wall.

“We are in danger, Matt. We will be hunted and killed if we do not flee and hide from the military,” said the mother, stiffly.

“Well, what do you propose we do? Run out of this house while people have been searching up and down this block? I think we should stay here, and when things get really bad, we will run as fast as we can and leave this bloody house!” the father exclaimed.

“Matt, it has already gotten really bad.”  

The mother shot open the door.  

“Come on, Isla, pack your bags. We are leaving,” the mother said calmly.

The girl knew better than to talk back to her mother. She ran to the corner of her apartment, to a wooden dresser. She thrusted open the rusty drawers and grabbed all of her clothes in one fell swoop. She stuffed them into a small, green bag. She looked up at her bed, which was shoved into a corner, where the roof caved above her head. On her bed lay a small, stuffed brown bear. She grabbed him by his neck and kissed him on his check, feeling his scraggly, fake fur on her lips. Then she stuffed him into her bag.

She looked at the clock on the ceiling of the living room. It read 12:13 am. Her father came over to her bed. Her stroked her soft, blonde hair.

“Hey, bean, wake up. We have to go now.”

The girl was already awake. She rose up out of bed and hugged her father. She hugged him so hard, she thought his ribs might break.

They slowly made their way down the rotting staircase, being careful not to make a sound, freezing every time they heard a noise. The girl held her father’s hand as the mother led them through the darkness with her dim flashlight. The mother pushed open the heavy, metal door. The girl and her father stood behind a wall, protecting them from what might be beyond the heavy doors. The mother signaled back at them, meaning it was safe for them to go. The father and the girl hesitantly walked over to the mother. They stood by the door frame, looking out into the distance. The mother took a breath in.

“Go,” the mother exhaled.

The girl, still grasping onto her father’s hand, ran as fast as she could. Her ribs began to ache. Her feet began to slow and slur on the dirt road. Her father, now well ahead of her, looked back at her. He squeezed her hand and looked into her soft brown eyes. She ran. She ran as hard as she could. Hot tears rolled down her face, making her vision blurry. But she just squeezed her father’s hand and ran. Ran for her life.

***

The girl, who was sleeping, woke up to see her mother and father embracing. They were swaying back and forth. Tears streamed down her mother’s face. The tears dropped down onto her cheek, then on her father’s shoulder.

She resented her mother. She didn’t want her mom to cry. While the family had been hiding in the house for months, the mother wouldn’t let the girl cry. Even when the girl missed her friends and family, who were caught and captured by the military, she was to stay stone cold, showing no emotions. The girl sat up from the dirt. The father noticed. He moved his wife from his shoulder and crouched down to be at the girl’s level.

“Hi, bean. Good morning,” the father said quietly.

Isla nodded in response, her knotted, blonde hair swishing back and forth. She then turned on the radio that was positioned next to her.

“The Leomates are destroying the world. I mean, you have seen them. They are disgusting. They infecting the world with cancer, which the rest of us have already become immune to. And you know what? There is a reason for this. They are stupider, they are dumber than us. They can’t adapt to the bloody sickness that we have already been immune to for thousands of years,” grunted a man with deep raspy voice.

The father licked his lips in anxiousness. He rested his hand on the girl’s knee.

“Don’t listen to them. They don’t bloody know anything. We are just as good as them if not better,” the father affirmed.

The girl just sat there, not listening to what her father was saying, just listening to the radio. Just listening to their hateful words that she thought were true.

Bang. The sound of a gunshot. In horror, the family hurled themselves around, looking for a hiding space. The mother’s dark brown skirt swished in front of the girl. She grabbed it, clinging on. The mother looked behind her with her light green eyes. She grabbed the girl’s dirty hand and ran. They hid under a pile of fallen trees. They stayed there in silence, not speaking a word. They both knew what had happened to the father, but both were too scared to admit it. After the darkness had fallen once again, they ran out to the initial hideout. There lay the father, a pool of blood surrounded his head. The mother let out a small whimper and fell onto the father’s dead body. The girl just stood above them, confused. She did not cry or whimper. She just stood, unable to believe her eyes.

***

The sun rose again. As it always did. But this morning was different. Her father did not come to wake her up with his soft, sweet voice. Today, it was her mother. Her mom’s rough, stiff voice whispered in her ear.

“Get up.”

Isla shoved her mother away from her.

“Young lady, you better apologize for that right now.”

Isla didn’t respond. Isla felt the burning sting of her mother’s cold, hard slap on her face. The mother’s nostrils flared, and her eyes widened.

“I did not ask for this. I am doing my best to keep you safe. I loved your father, and I wish that it were me lying on the floor with a puddle of blood surrounding my head. But it is not. Now, you better listen to me and respond to me when I tell you. Do you hear me?” the mother yelled.

“You’re a selfish pig. You didn’t even try to save father. You don’t care about me. You care about saving yourself. Dad was ten times the person you are. You know what? I wish it was you in the puddle of blood too.”

The mother gulped. Her eyes filled with tears as a knot formed in her throat. She calmly got up and walked her way over to a tree, distancing herself from Isla. She slid her back down a tree trunk, dropping down onto the dirt. Letting out a small whimper of pain, then a roar.

Night had fallen once again. Isla sat alone on a large rock. Her stuffed bear was sitting on her lap as she played with its ears. The mother slowly walked towards the girl and her bear. Isla prepared herself for the yelling and pain she would endure from her mother. But instead, the mother sat down on the rock with the girl. She reached out to touch the Isla’s knee. Isla flinched in response.  A single tear rolled down Isla’s pale skin. Her jaw clenched. The mother then hugged her around the neck. Isla pressed her cheek against her mother’s, making her feel an indescribable sense of warmth. They stayed here, feeling the warmth of each other for what seemed like the first time.

***

Isla was woken up by her mother’s pleading voice.

“I beg of you, please, I am the only one here. You killed my husband, and now I am to follow in his fate. Please do it, and then be done.”

“Load her in the back of the truck. We will kill her when we get there,” ordered one of the head military officials.

Isla continued to hear her mother’s pleading and begging, as she sat quietly, hiding behind the pile of fallen trees. Her knees curled up under her chest, tears streaming down her tired face. Her teeth dug into her knees as she held back wailing screams. Stomps that had once been far away had become closer. Her heart heaved. The stomps ceased. Isla saw the green and brown boots of a military official in front of her. Her eyes slowly scanned the man. First to his green jumpsuit that had been splattered with patches of blood and dirt. Then to his face. He had pitch black hair with dark brown eyes. His eyes not filled with distaste or hate, but with sorrow and pain, eyes that resembled her own. The man called out.

“No one here. Just a rabbit.”

“Okay, you can come back and return to your duties,” called out another military official.

“I am gonna stay here and look around a bit more. Is that okay?”

“Yeah, just come back before nightfall.”

The man crouched down to the girl, just like her father had a few days ago. He reached out and grabbed the girl’s hand. His eyes filled with tears. Isla swung her arms around his neck, hugging him. She then let out a small whimper of pain, then a roar.

 

Nameless

It was colder than usual. Nothing was right. The wind blew so hard, the candles on the table went out. The sound of leaves whisking around the house was unbearable.

The thump of high-heeled shoes walking across the wooden floor alarmed the girl.

“I shall not support this. She has to leave. If you keep her here, I won’t help you. Do it for her. The boy doesn’t stand a chance there. He is only eight. The reform is clear: nine and older. I am sorry,” said the lady that was fluffing up her curly, orange hair and pulling up her long, puffy, purple dress that seemed recently sown at the finest dressmaker in the village.

“NO… NO…  I… can’t. She is mine. I won’t let her go. Why would you… No… NEVER.”

The little girl heard the footsteps stomping towards her, and she ran to her bed while her mother opened the door.

“She is leaving now,” she said, calmly, and closed the door. That poor mom slipped sweat off her face. She took a deep breath and slammed the door behind the orange-haired lady. She knelt down and started crying as silent as she could. Time passed. Minutes… hours… days.

“God, Beth, I say we go for it,” said the drunk man, walking around, all dizzy, bumping into the table and wooden plates.

“Pete, you’re drunk again. How could you do that to her, me, and Benjamin.”

The mother looked into her husband’s eyes to see if there was a bit of humanity left in him.

“Who cares anymore? We need the money. Take it, or I will,” said Pete.

“She is our daughter. How could you say such a… what happened?”

The mother’s worried eyes looked down to Pete’s bloody arm.

“You owe debt,” she said calmly, as she walked towards a small stove and a wooden table they called kitchen. She picked up a glass bottle sitting on the table. She screamed and threw it at the door.

“Calm it, Beth. You know I did it to win us some money.”

Beth started laughing loudly. A bit too loudly.

“And yet you lost it all. And the worst part is you want to… give our child away to her… of all the people in the world.” Beth took a breath. “How about Benje?”

Pete looked down.

“I thought he could start work. Besides, it’s not like I want to give our daughter to a stranger. It’s your sister.”

Beth sat down on the only piece of furniture in that cottage.

“My sister wants to make our daughter a labor worker…” said Beth, like she was disappointed.

“But she will give her lessons to read, and a better home,” said Pete.

“So you forgot the part about you getting her salary till she is older. She is my daughter. I won’t let her leave my side… I can’t,” said a sobbing Beth.

“Good God, let her go… I will give you another one or something,” Pete said with humor.

All was silent for a while as far as Benjamin and his sister could tell. Their ears were close, trying to hear the result.

“They won’t give you up,” said Benjamin, trying to convince himself and her. The sounds started. They had lower pitches this time.

“She is only twelve, and he is only eight. We can’t separate them,” said Beth, trying to find a way out of her husband’s poor judgment.

“ Hm…” said Pete, “it’s not like they depend on each other.”

Beth took a deeper breath. “YES, THEY BLOODY DO!” she shouted.

What could she say? How could her husband be like this? She could not believe this. Anger took control. This was the 5th time this was happening. A drunken man with no clue of the important things in life other than money. Yet Beth knew deep down that without that money Pete lost, they were doomed. She did not care. She pushed Pete aside.

“Good night,” she said plainly and walked way.

She went to the bucket of water and splashed her face. Beth undressed from her daily clothes and plopped on her hay-like bed, crying.

Every second next to Pete was torture for Beth after that night.

“Wake up, kids. It’s harvest day.”

The family of four headed out with buckets and shovels and tools.

“Start there, boy, and you help your sister. Me and Mama will take the bottoms,” ordered Pete.

“Actually, you and Benjamin can take the sides, and we will take the bottom,” said Beth with a sly look to Pete.

The day was hotter than ever. The poor mother and little girl worked in their heavy dresses, which were now wet.

“How are you, my sweet?” said Beth with a fake smile, trying to make her daughter feel better. She nodded, as in a fake “Okay.”

“I am sorry for your father’s behavior. He was affected by alcohol, and we all learned how bad that is, sweetheart.”

Again she nodded, as in “Whatever.” Yes, she knew her mother would not let her go, but she knew at the end, they were broke. How could her mother fix that? Unless God sent magic seeds to make them have ten times the wheat they have now, nothing would work.  

“Work, boy. We don’t want you to fail at this easy job. You will be a working man soon,” said Pete, trying to cut as much wheat as possible.

“But Papa, I am only eight. My friends in the village say they go to school and all,” said Benjamin, trying to put some sense into his father. Pete lightly laughed. After a second, it became a shameful laugh.

“Yes, boy,” said Pete. “I understand you want that too, but we don’t live near the village, and we can’t send you to school.”

The rest of the day, the family tried to keep quiet, because they had nothing else to say.

The next evening was intense. The dinner was only bread and a few sprigs of parsley they had left. Beth thought Pete had decided to skip dinner, apparently. He was not even back from town, and Beth was worried.

“I love the food, Mama. It’s so good,” said Benjamin trying to keep a positive atmosphere. “How about you? Do you like it, sis?”

She nodded, but did not say a word, and continued eating. Beth turned and looked into her daughter’s bloodshot, red eyes. It was obvious she was not sleeping.

“Okay, it’s time for bed. Head along, children,” said Beth, nicely.

The children got up and went to their small room. Beth picked up their wooden plate, and she put it on the counter. She sat down on a chair, staring at their window, waiting. Hours passed, and Beth was about to give up and go to bed.

“I have made a breakthrough,” shouted Pete, crashing into the door. “Why don’t we invent something? A device that can make you sober in a second. How funny would that be?”

Beth stood up as fast as she could.

“Yes, and then men will want it, and we can make a fortune,” said Pete.

“Oh, Pete, I was worried sick. What is wrong with you? Go to bed. I don’t want to hear another word out of that wrecked mouth. Go now to bed, before I force you out of the house.”

Pete laughed. “No way. We have a giant workshop to build.”

Beth shook her head in disappointment. “No, we are not…you are not doing that. Go to bed before you wake the kids.”

Pete stood there lifeless for a second. “I don’t know really how you feel about them…”

Beth looked up and asked, “You mean our children?”

Pete nodded. “We either have to sell them or put them up for work.”

Beth stared with impatience. “You make absolutely no sense. Have you lost your heart?”

Pete continued on about how he had been able to find buyers for their children for slaves or labor work, and so on. He started from bad ideas to awful, but he could not stop. He did not care. Beth grew madder by the second.

“GET OUT NOW!”

Beth slammed the door on Pete and went to bed.

Deep thoughts went through that family’s heads that night. All of them.

BANG. A loud sound took over the field. Beth and the children ran outside to find the most horrifying scene. Beth looked with shock. The children looked stunned. Pete was lying between the wheat… dead, with a wheat cutter gone through him. The blood had splattered, and the wheat was no longer yellow, but deep red. Benjamin looked at his sister, who started to cry. Beth looked down at her traumatized children.

“Go inside, now.” The kids held each other’s hands and they ran inside.

“God, why, God,” Beth screamed and sobbed.

***

She woke up confused. She looked at her brother’s bed but he was not there. She got up and opened the door to her room and looked into their cottage. Nothing was there. More importantly, no one was there. She opened the cottage door to find two horses connected to small wooden carriages. Beth walked towards her. She smiled at her daughter and handed her a small bag. Beth took her hand and led her to one of the carriages. She kissed her on the cheek and helped her climb on top of it. She gave her a hug and left to the other carriage. Benjamin sat with a suitcase on a bale of strain wheat. Beth went towards him and gave him a kiss.

“Goodbye, my sweets,” she said out loud.

The two men on the horses said, “Giddy up,” and the horses started trotting on the road.

The kids looked back on to their mother’s crying face.

 

Psychologist

As I sit on the dull gray chair, the distant drone of an old AC stops every so often. Just beyond the small, barred window is a cat that scavenges on the littered pavement. Staring at the glossy tile floor, the blurry reflection of deja vu stares back at me. I look away. Closely observing my curious behavior is a woman with piercing, green eyes and long, frizzy hair. Her pale hands tap rhythmically on a blank, white notepad. She asks me to share my thoughts even though she knows I won’t. I can’t. I look down. Down to the secluded darkness that isolates me from the rest of reality. The girl. The sweet, innocent girl who was taken away from me. The girl with the small, doughy hands, hopelessly crying for help. Papa, Papa. Over and over again. Papa, Papa. But time has run out.  Now, the woman with the pale hands comforts me. She tells me that I’m different, that it wasn’t my fault. That I couldn’t control what happened to the girl. Papa, Papa. The woman gives me a picture. A man. I recognize him. Papa, Papa. I hear the girl shouting my name, but I can’t do anything. This man in the picture, he killed her. Who is he? Who is the man who took the girl with the small, doughy hands away from me?

“You.”

 

Rowdy

What haunts me most had absolutely no effect on anyone but me. It did not hurt anyone, or change anyone else’s life. But the scene still replays in my head, as though I tore out the heart of my best friend.

My dog, Rowdy, was almost fifteen years old. He had black and white fur, and was on the larger side. His dark eyes were a bit filmy with age, but they still glittered. He would eat absolutely anything, including paper towels. Once, he ate several pounds of dark, imported chocolate. We called the vet, who told us to make him sick to his stomach. Rowdy and his sister, Chessie, had a strange quirk where, if they ate anything frozen, be it ice cream or an ice cube, they would get sick. So we put out a bowl of vanilla ice cream, which Rowdy ate happily. And that did it. He was saved.

When he was angry at us for going out and leaving him alone, he would destroy something in the house, usually our mail. When we came home, he would get so excited and rush at the door. One of my first words was “Back!” spoken as soon as the front door opened.

He had been my only dog for quite some time, as Chessie had died, when I was three, from lymphoma, gained through our ignorance in letting her walk on pesticide-soaked grass. At that time, Rowdy’s eyes lost their sparkle. He moped around the house and ate only about half of his food. For him, that was akin to a hunger strike. We had to do something to shake him out of his grief and bewilderment.

But we never thought that a brief trip we took to Philadelphia would be what did it.

Rowdy had fallen asleep in the back of the car, like always. But just as we were driving into the city, he woke up and looked around. His head snapped from one window to another, his eyes widening. He gave a short bark. He was amazed. He regained the jaunt in his walk, and the gleam in his eye. Philadelphia saved him.

But five years later, I couldn’t.

Rowdy was past his best years. His kidney was failing, and it was time. I was eight years old and begged for more time, more nights when Rowdy would come into my room and lick my hand, more days where we would go on walks. I did not understand what home would be without a dog, and I didn’t want to understand.

But my parents were adults and less selfish. They explained that Rowdy would suffer if we let him continue on as he was, and the kindest thing for him would be to put him to sleep.

I remembered watching him get shots (benign ones), boosters, and vaccines at the vet before. The vet would put a dollop of spray cheese on a tongue depressor, and Rowdy would lick it up without the slightest idea that a needle was entering his flesh. I wondered if it would be the same way this time.

But I wouldn’t know. I wouldn’t be there. I had to go to theatre camp, though I had no thespian talents to speak of. Our play was almost ready for production, and I needed to be there for the dress rehearsal, though I would have gladly skipped the entire show.

The last morning, we had plans for me to stay at a neighbor’s while my parents went to the vet, and she would drive me to camp when it was time. I woke up, dressed, and felt the little time I had left pressing upon me like a vise, so that I couldn’t savor any of it.

The neighbor came over to get me. She, my parents, and I were standing in our front hall. Rowdy was sitting in the middle, looking curiously at us all.

Everybody was watching me, knowing this would be the last time Rowdy and I saw each other. It was our goodbye, our final moment. I knelt down, scratched his ears and his head for a few seconds, looked into his eyes, and went out the door.

That was it.

In the midst of my conglomeration of eight-year-old feelings, from awkwardness to sadness to stress to confusion, I did not say goodbye. I did not tell him he was a good boy one last time. I did not tell him I loved him.

Maybe I didn’t say anything more because of all the people watching me, and I felt embarrassed. Maybe it was because I had to go to camp, act in a play, and like a normal person in general, and I didn’t want to start crying. Maybe I just wanted to pretend none of this was happening. But whatever the reason, I did not tell my moribund dog that I loved him.

That did not matter at all. It had no effect. Rowdy didn’t understand, and my parents were probably so distracted by their own grief that they weren’t really listening. Rowdy understood a few words, of course, like “sit” and “treat,” but he had no idea of what I had said or not said to him his last day on Earth. I could have recited a poem in his honor, and he would not have felt any differently.

Yet, I regret my final meeting with him more than almost anything else.

At camp that day, the grade above mine did their dress rehearsal while we watched. I couldn’t believe it, but the star of their show was a kid — boy or girl, I’m not sure — dressed as a dog, which depressed and annoyed me at the same time. And there was a maudlin song in their play called “Memories” (not the one from Cats.) All the while, I was unsure whether or not Rowdy was still alive and wondered if I should somehow sense the moment he died.

My failure to make the most of my last moment with Rowdy is a strange thing to be so fixated on. It’s insignificant and compared to the other problems in the world, ridiculously minor. But thanks to me, something that should have happened didn’t.

Rowdy never knew that I hadn’t said goodbye that day, but maybe he somehow hears the goodbye that I carry within me every day since.

 

Breathe Again

Cecily hated the color yellow. Everyone knew that. Well, she hoped they knew, but she was always wrong about that. Sadly, the paint in her eyes that slowly started seeping into her mouth was yellow. As she wiped the paint from her eyes and spit out the rest from her mouth, she stared at the culprit who had dared to throw paint at her. As she looked through her paint-filled eyes, she knew this was going to be a very long day.

“Sorry,” said Martinho sarcastically.

Martinho hated her. He was constantly pulling pranks on her, causing her to always bring a change of clothes. The first time he pulled a prank on her, she had to endure the rest of the day with whipped cream in her hair, eggs on her butt, and tomatoes all over her body.

She knew he hated her, but she did not know why. She never said a word to him. She probably wouldn’t even know his name if it wasn’t for her friend, Varinia, who was crushing on him hard.

She gave him look that said, Why do you always do this to me?

He knew that look all too well. She gave him that look every time he pulled a prank on her. He started laughing at her and taking pictures of her. He always took pictures because he always had to have a souvenir. He ran into the cafeteria, grabbing The Richards, the most popular guys at school, to join him laughing at her.

When she saw them coming, she ran into the bathroom, hoping they didn’t see her. As she hid out in the bathroom, her friend, Luciana, ran in, wondering if she was okay. She wasn’t okay. Martinho was starting to get on her nerves.

Cecily asked Luciana to get her change of clothes from her locker, but before she could get them, someone pulled the fire alarm. Everyone grabbed their jackets and ran outside.  It was pouring outside, but she didn’t care. As Cecily stood outside in the rain, the paint started to wash off, and she realized that she couldn’t let this go on.

Behind Cecily, there was a crash! Bang! Zander jumped out from behind the dumpster. The teachers saw him and took him to the principal’s office. They assumed that he did it because he was always causing mischief around the school.   

“Well, that was unexpected,” Luciana said.

Cecily smirked and gave her a look that said, Really. “We both know he had it coming. Plus, we know who really pulled that fire alarm,” Cecily said, looking at Diamanda.

“Yeah, Diamanda. So, tell me, what’re you gonna do about it?”

“I’m going to do nothing. There’s no point,” she said, defeated.

What!” Luciana screamed, and everyone within a five mile radius turned to look at them. They didn’t care, but decided to talk a little softer. “What? This has been going on for half a year now. You need to tell somebody and stop going on, bringing different clothes.”

“Maybe you’re right. My parents are starting to wonder if I’m going to school to change my clothes and impress a guy, but I’m not. Now, my dad wont even let me keep my door locked unless I’m using the bathroom. Sometimes I’ll take a shower, and I’ll come out and find out my door is unlocked when I clearly locked my door,” Cecily said, crossing her arms.

Luciana started laughing her butt off.  She could never take Cecily seriously. She was the kindest person she had ever met. She would never hurt a soul. She would act all serious, but she always had kind eyes.

“Dang, girl,” she said, still giggling, “how do you live like that?”

Cecily whined, “Will you stop laughing at me? It’s not funny.”

“Fine, I’ll stop. But you’re gonna have to figure out what to do.”

“I don’t know what to do. It’s getting harder and harder, being someone’s puppet on a string.”

“Well, never forget that I’m always here for you, okay? Unless Elijah calls. Then, I’m going to be preoccupied.”

“Girl, you are never gonna be preoccupied because we both know that Elijah will be calling me up, not you.”

“In your dreams, chica.”

“You’re right. He is in my dreams.”

At that, they both started laughing. Elijah has never even spoken to them, let alone known who they are.

After the Fire Department declared it a false alarm, they went back inside. Once Cecily was inside, she quickly grabbed her change of clothes and went to the bathroom. When she opened the bag, she cursed like a madwoman. She accidently grabbed her younger sister’s clothes, which looked like booty shorts on her.

Meanwhile, outside the bathroom, Martinho gathered up The Richards, Diamanda, and whole bunch of other people to see Cecily look like a wet dog. In the bathroom, Cecily realized she only had two options: put on her sister’s booty shorts, or keep on the wet sticky paint clothes. Cecily really only had one option, but she made two to make herself feel better.  As she put the clothes on, they became smaller and tighter around her waist. Her top turned into a crop top, showing way too much belly button for her liking.  As she looked at herself in the mirror, her knees started to tingle and became very wobbly.

“Dang, girl. You look hot,” Luciana said, staring at Cecily with amazement.

Stop!!! You’re not helping! You’re supposed to tell me that I don’t look good,” Cecily said desperately.

As her voice got higher, Luciana said, ”Now why would I do that? I would never lie to you.”

She looked away at that last comment. “Lies. If I had a nickel for every time you lied to me, I would be rich.”

“Now, that is a lie. Look at yourself. I bet you, the moment you walk out of that door, those guys will be following your every move.”

“The only way I’m going out there is if there is no one out there. Go check for me.”

While Luciana went to go check to make sure no one was there, Cecily tried to boost her confidence and self esteem.

Luciana came back with bad news. “Ummm… I uh… really think you should put on your gym clothes.”

“I’m not taking gym this year, so these clothes are my only option.”

“Well… you see… there’s this really big crowd outside, and they’re waiting for you to come out.”

No!! Why does he hate me so much? I’ve done nothing to him!” Cecily whined.

“I don’t know. If you say you’ve done nothing to him, then I believe you. But your best bet is to suck it up, pull it together, and go out there like you came to school in that outfit.”

“Yeah, that’s easy for you to say. You’re not the one wearing this skimpy outfit,” Cecily started to yell.

She tended to yell when things were getting out of hand, and she couldn’t do anything.

“Yeah, I’m not wearing the ‘skimpy’ clothing, but you are the sweetest, nicest person I know who wouldn’t dare get mad at someone, even when justified. You need to stop caring what everyone thinks about you, and only worry about what your friends think, because we’re the ones who are beside you through thick and thin, not them.”

“You know, you maybe a bookworm and a soccer fanatic, but sometimes, you give really good advice.”

“So, are ready to go out there?”

“Do you think we can wait a bit? I mean-”

“No. We can’t wait any longer. You need to face your fear. And buy me lunch, because lunch was shortened thanks to the fire alarm. So we need to hurry before they run out of fries.”

“Okay, fine. Let’s get this over with.”

As they walked to the door of the bathroom, Cecily could feel her stomach clenching with butterflies. She came to the door and paused. As she was about to bail, Luciana yanked the door open. Everyone couldn’t believe their eyes. The nerdy girl, who always wore oversized clothes, actually looked hot. Even Martinho was staring, which is a first for everyone. As she looked upon the crowd, she saw smiles and looks of encouragement. Well, except for Martinho and Diamanda. Martinho stood next to The Richards with his mouth opened wide, staring at her, while Diamanda looked like she was going to kill her.

Diamanda growled at her, ”What are you wearing?”

Cecily replied, “Clothes, like you.”

Everyone started laughing. Cecily didn’t know what was so funny, but Diamanda sure did. Apparently, the “joke” Cecily made was to say, “Well, I’m wearing skimpy clothes, just like you wear skimpy clothes all year long.”

“Was that supposed to be joke?” she asked angrily.

“What was supposed to be a joke? I just answered your question.”

Cecily may have been a nerd, but when it came to popular stuff and noticing when a guy likes her, she was clueless. Diamanda started walking in a circle around Cecily, making her feel very uncomfortable.

“So, you think that you can just go around skimpy clothing, and everyone will forget what a dork you are?”

“I’m not a dork.”

“Oh, really? What are you, then?”

“I’m a decent person, unlike you,” Cecily said with a bit confidence.

Now Diamanda was furious. She could not let Cecily get the better of her. Cecily also couldn’t believe what she was hearing and seeing. Diamanda had the nerve to question what she was wearing, when she practically wore this everyday. If she didn’t know any better, she’d say Diamanda was little jealous. But why? She felt herself getting angry about this whole situation.

Cecily walked straight up to Diamanda, got in her face, and said, “You know what, Diamanda? I don’t care what you think about me. I know that you pulled the fire alarm so I could be soaking wet. And the best of all, I know damn well that I look good in these clothes, way better than you ever will.”

At that note, Cecily strutted into the cafeteria, with Luciana on her heels, who was laughing uncontrollably.

“Damn girl, I didn’t think you had it in you. You were on fire. After you left, Diamanda looked like you just took whatever soul she had left and ripped it into a million pieces.”

“Thanks, Luciana. Now I feel bad. Should I go and apologize?”

“Are you crazy? You just stood up to her, and now you want to say sorry? You shouldn’t feel bad about something that was a long time coming.”

“Yeah, you’re right. She totally deserved it.”

Luciana and Cecily were at the cashier, having their daily talk with the lunch ladies. Meanwhile, nobody could believe what just happened. Nobody spoke to Diamanda like that, let alone leaving her speechless in the process.   

“Well, Cecily’s a little spitfire, isn’t she? I thought you guys said she was a shy one,” said someone in a black sweatshirt.

He was one of The Richards.

“She is. I don’t know what’s gotten in her,” said Martinho.

He sure did like the new Cecily, but he kept that thought to himself.  

“She is so dead. The next time I see her…”

“Diamanda, just leave her alone. It’s not cool what you’ve been doing to her,” said Black Sweatshirt. “You too, Martinho. Why do you guys always mess with her?”

“Why do you wanna know?” Martinho asked defensively. “I didn’t ask questions when you were messing with…”

‘That’s in the past, and it’s going to stay in the past,” said Black Sweatshirt defensively.

The boys were neck and neck right now. Diamanda was about to step in when Cecily and Luciana walked out of the cafeteria. When Diamanda caught wind of Cecily, she glared like no tomorrow. Cecily was about to act like a coward when she decided to glare back.

As Cecily and Luciana were walking to the counselor’s office, Black Sweatshirt ran up to them. His heart was guiding him, not his mind. Black Sweatshirt secretly has had a crush on Cecily since kindergarten. She left soon after that, but he never forgot what she looked like. Seeing her again going into high school was like walking in a dream for him. He never thought he would get the chance to her again.

“Hey, Cecily! Wait up,” said Black Sweatshirt as he ran to her.

“Uh… hi,” Cecily said nervously.

“You don’t remember me, do you? We went to kindergarten together,” Black Sweatshirt said, hoping she would remember something.

“Uh… sorry. I don’t remember you,” she said nervously.

Black Sweatshirt gave Luciana a look that said, “Can you give us minute?” and she slowly slipped away.

“Don’t worry about it, it was a long time ago anyway,” he said. “My names Elektrec, and I was wondering if you could help me with something,” he said nervously, hoping she wouldn’t say no.

“Uh… maybe. Will I get in trouble for it?”

“No, of course not. I would never do anything like that to you,” he said sweetly.

Cecily couldn’t believe her ears. That was the nicest thing anyone had ever said to her. When Elektrec realized what he said, he started to blush.

Diamanda, Martinho, and the rest of The Richards were watching this whole exchange. Diamanda couldn’t believe that the hottest guy in school (and her long time crush since 5th grade) would ever like someone like Cecily.

Martinho was suddenly very jealous. He liked the new Cecily. Before, she was a nobody, a nerd. Now that she was finally something, he wanted her. He was the reason that she was a somebody now anyway. He sprayed her with that yellow paint that made her change her clothes, and that probably gave her the boost to stand up to Diamanda. She owed him, and he knew exactly what he wanted from her. He gritted his teeth and began walking towards the two to interrupt whatever was going on between them.

“Hey guys. How’s it goin?” Martinho said mischievously.

“What do you want?” Cecily said, annoyed.

“Oh, I just wanted to come and talk to you for a second. In private,” Martinho smirked.

“Actually, I was talking to her first. I just need to ask her one question, so could you give us a minute?” Elektrec asked nicely.

“You know what? I think I’m gonna stay right here. So you ask her whatever you want. I’m not going anywhere,” Martinho said, crossing his arms.

Elektrec slowly breathed out, “Uh, okay. Well, I was wondering if you wanted to go on a date with me this weekend?”

“You… want to go on a date… with me?” Cecily asked, not believing a word that just came out his mouth.

“Yes. I really want to go on a date with you.”

“Is this a game? Are you just trying to play with me? Because that’s not cool and-”

Elektrec took a couple of step forwards and grabbed her arms. Looking deeply into her eyes, he said, “I want to be with you, and only you. So what do you say we go out Saturday night? I’ll pick you up at 7. Wear something comfortable and warm, because we’re going to be outside.”

Cecily was in awe. She couldn’t believe her ears. The only thing she could do was nod her head.  Elektrec gave her a swoon-worthy smile and, boy, did she swoon.

As he was leaving, he told Martinho, “You hurt her, and I hurt you. Got it?”

Martinho gulped and answered, “Yes, sir.” He turned to Cecily. “So, Uh-”

“No, just stop right there. I don’t care about what you have say. You don’t have the right to say anything to me after everything you have done to me,” Cecily said, getting angrier by the second.

On that note, she turned on the ball of her foot and went inside the counselor’s office. As soon as she got into the room, her friends started pestering her with questions about what happened. She told them about her date with Elektrec, and how she stood up to Martinho. She then realized that although today may have started out a terrible day, she stuck through it. Instead of today being the worst day of her life, it turned out to be the best day of her life, for new things began today. She might even wear her yellow scarf on the date.

 

The Sky (A Sestina)

            

The blue

sky shows your heart,

Shows you how to sing,

Lets you speak,

Teaches you to think,

Helps you be you.

 

Sometimes you

might wonder,

Why you are blue,

But remember to think,

Your heart

is yours, so speak

your mind, and always sing

 

Your own song, you must sing

even if it seems insane to you,

And when you speak,

You won’t be blue.

Your heart

will shine once again, freeing you to think.

 

You may think,

You may sing

a different song, but your heart

may not want to listen, may not trust me over you.

But please, don’t let others make you blue.

Don’t be afraid to speak.

 

Never be afraid to speak.

You think

bad things will happen when you speak out, but if you don’t you will stay blue.

Remember to sing.

Sing loudly, let them hear you,

Let them hear your heart.

 

Let your heart,

shine out, let it speak,

Glowing through you,

Ignore what they think,

Just help your heart sing,

Show what you’ve learned from the sky of blue.

 

Right now, don’t think,

Just sing,

And trust in the bright sky, oh so blue.

 

Anxiety

    

I know it’s you,

I can always tell,

when you show up at my door,

and lean on the bell.

 

As I reach to turn the knob,

I want to turn away,

refuse you entry

and go on with my day.

 

But I know from experience

that, if I lock my doors,

you’ll rattle my windows

And shake my floors.

 

Too soon, the glass will break.

Was there ever any doubt

you’d get in and show me

it was foolish to keep you out?

 

You’ll break all the dishes,

scatter clothes across the lawn,

leave my house one big mess

I’m left to clean up when you’re gone.

 

There’s no way to ward you off,

I know that by now,

so I welcome you as honored guest

and before you I bow.

 

A Man-made World

                       

My breath leaves clouds on the small window,

Dissipating to reveal fluffy clouds outside,

The wing of the airplane in which I sit.

 

Below those clouds, the ground is a patchwork,

A carefully cultivated quilt of orderly green squares,

All the same, like they were made in a factory.

 

I doze off as the blanket below grows boring,

Settling into the kind of monotonous patter only man can create.

My head bumps softly against the window.

 

When I wake, the scene has changed.

The plane has passed through the gates of Eden,

To a wild, untampered land, unmarked by Adam or Eve.

 

The snowy peaks of a vast mountain range spread out below,

Wild as white-capped waves on a rough and windy sea,

So bright I have to shield my eyes.

 

But wait, could that be? Yes —

A chairlift,

A stain of civilization on even this wintry scene.

 

A Collection of Fears

Account One: Creating

I think my biggest fear is creating something of little worth. More than that, creating something that floats around aimlessly in space on its own, not meaning anything to anyone. No one would be paying attention to it. No one would be bothering to even glimpse at it. Or, if someone did look at it, they would be detached, unfeeling, uncaring towards this thing. What’s the point of making something if no one even cares?

You could do it for self-fulfillment, to tell yourself, Wow, I made something. But that only satisfies you a bit for a certain amount of time before fading into a sad, insignificant speck.

I see other creators who are widely successful. It’s crazy, the amount of people who like them. People are inspired by them! People are actually changed by them. Isn’t that insane?

But I also see creators who create and create and create. But they get nothing. Absolutely nothing. And that’s terrifying.

 

Account Two: Grainy Memories

When I was younger, my friends and I would run down hills, climb and fumble on top of gray-red slides, and build fantastic things of imagination, only to leave it alone and start a new project. Even with a cold, fall wind whispering about the incoming winter, nipping at our noses and ears, we still played outside, hugging our knees, and leaning on our toes while trying to capture crickets. The next year, we didn’t go outside as much.

One day, we stayed inside as the clouds clung together, rumbling ever so softly once or twice. My friend’s phone glowed bright on her face, and her hair spread out behind her since she was lying atop of the table. I sat on a squished chair, that was meant for equally-as-squished toddlers, sketching with flat, teal crayons that would go in every direction except for where I wanted them to go.

My other friend was opposite from me. Her arms were crossed, and her head was comfortably placed on them.

“I’m so bored.”

“Hmm.”

“Yeah.”

“Do you remember pretending to do gymnastics at the old building?”

“Yeah.”

“Hmm.”

We kept on sitting there, each to their own, by ourselves, with the rain randomly tapping the window.

 

Account Three: The Dark

The dark is an unknown expanse that swallows anything with its boneless jaws. In a house, it’s unbearable. Every whining creak from old, wooden floorboards made in the 60’s, every soft whirr from basement machines, every sound fills me up till it’s overcome by an even more booming heartbeat.

God, I almost want to laugh at myself. The dark? Seriously? Especially in my own home? One that I’ve lived in for so long, that the smell of it is my blanket. Each squeaking floorboard engraved into my very being, and I know every secret. Yet, here I am, struggling at 1 a.m., trying to walk to my own bed. Groping the walls while I lie to myself that I am okay. I am definitely okay. Ha.

The light reveals – no, confirms – everything that I know. Everything is in its proper place, and I am perfectly sure that nothing will change. But in the dark, that comfort is replaced by uncertainty. I think that the bag I just stepped on is mine? Or is it my sister’s? Maybe that’s my bedroom over there? Or maybe it’s my mom’s bedroom. No, it’s my mom’s bedroom. I can hear her light snore.

In the dark, my once-assured guffaws at serial killers and slippery demons that crawl along the walls, with deception slithering out of their grinning lips, fade away into fake chuckles. The kind that the main characters of a horror movie does in order to persuade themselves that nothing is wrong, and they won’t die. But they usually die.

In the end, I do make it to my bed, the bright, neon clock in our room glows on the silhouette of my sister. I lie down. I cover my entire head with my quilt and try to sleep.

 

Account Four: Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

I hate making the wrong choice or feeling like I’ve made the wrong decision. What if that wrong choice leads to a terrible future, which then makes my life miserable, and all of that terribleness is just because of something I had decided?

So I sit down in the middle of the room. My arms are holding my legs close to my breathing chest. And I sit, eyes closed, doing absolutely nothing.

On the flip side, I hate missing chances, chances that could be absolutely amazing, and change my world someway, somehow. So I stay in this stalemate, where I sit and refuse to do a thing.

 

Account Five: Love

I’m afraid of love. More specifically, I’m afraid of loving someone so much that the love is squeezed out of me until I’ve fallen out of it. Then that would mean I was never really in love with that person. Or maybe I was. I suppose I was in love when I only knew them for what I perceived them to be rather than for who they were. Maybe I was in love with only half of the person, or maybe just a quarter, or maybe even less.

People romanticize the idea of falling in love. This flowery, rosy affair where both parties are happy. But what happens when you spend too much time with them? What happens once the rose petals and pastry crumbs are dusted off? What happens then?

Of course, a good, healthy relationship goes beyond the flat gifts and compliments. It’s a deeper understanding of that person. It’s the maturity to know that a person is a multi-faceted being that needs more than just hugs and soft kisses on cheeks. It’s for that knowledge to really click. I don’t know if I’ll ever have that kind of relationship, though. Maybe I will. Maybe I won’t. Who knows.

 

Inquisition

Prologue

Dr. Howard

The Tyrian purple carpets of Dr. Howard’s waiting room gave the whole room a medieval feel, like I was waiting within the walls of a castle. Even with the navy blue carpeting in the outside that felt as modern as it could be. It’s funny how once you’re severed from the rest of a building, the entire aesthetic can change. Just like how this room looked like a place suited for royalty, but it felt like some sort of dungeon. My mother had promised me that this would be a “way to practice socialization with other children your age” and “help you get to know people in the real world better.” But let me tell you, it didn’t feel like it would help me whatsoever. Two therapy sessions a week, plus many more at school, was good enough. And I still wish she hadn’t forced me into a group, especially not Dr. Howard’s group. Especially not his.

I took a seat. The chairs were the same color as the carpeting. There were two other kids here: one African-American kid wearing a suit and tie, and another kid with light brown hair who was wearing a T-shirt that stated “If History Repeats Itself, I’m Getting a Dinosaur” in bold, green letters, along with a helpful illustration of a tyrannosaurus rex. They weren’t talking or even looking at each other; one reading his phone and the other a copy of Action Comics which was apparently in the bin of comic books and encyclopedias. The whole place seemed to have an aura of menace to it; I wasn’t sure if that was my own feelings or the serious looks on people’s faces, but it was something.

It took a full five minutes for Dr. Howard to come out of the waiting room and beckon us into the main room. Immediately, I noticed how the slate-grey couches changed the aesthetic a bit more to the modern side of things, but the purple shade of carpet was still there.

“So, today we have a new member of our group,” Dr. Howard began. “Would you like to introduce yourself?”

“Um, sure,” I said, caught off-guard by the question.”My name is Theo Moore, and I am in 8th grade at the Peterson Day School.”

“Excellent,” Dr. Howard said, ”Just what I was looking for. Sebastian, would you like to begin the group by introducing yourself to Theo?”

“Alright,” the African-American kid said, “My name is Sebastian. I’m in 9th grade at Lockhart Academy.”

“And why are you here at this group?” Dr. Howard asked.

“My mother recently left my dad and married some new guy. Still trying to cope.”

“And Gregory, why don’t you introduce yourself and your goals?”

The other kid perked up. “Well, my name’s Gregory, and I go to 11th grade at the Candlelight School. I’m apparently here because I’m too ‘intolerant of others’ and a bunch of other crap like that. But for real, I’m just trying to help some Jews at my school figure out the right way through life.”

“So, you’re a Nazi,” I said flatly.

This was not what I was looking for — I was going to be spending an hour and fifteen minutes a week with some crazy racist.

“Dude, Hitler killed eleven million people. That’s bad any way you slice it. But now apparently it’s awful to hate Jews, or to try to convince them to repent, because six million of those guys just happened to be Jewish. So, no, I’m not a Nazi, thank you very much. I’m just a humble anti-Semite, and I wear that badge proudly.”

I looked over at Sebastian, shocked to hear these words coming out of somebody I was supposed to practice bonding with.

“Yep, he’s a Nazi,” he said.

“I am not — okay, whatever. I’m not gonna explain it for the umpteenth time.”

“So, Theo,” Dr. Howard interjected, “What’s your goal for this group?”

“Well, I guess it’d be to be more social with people, as that’s the reason my mother signed me up.”

Everyone nodded. This group would grow to do the opposite of what my mother wanted; it would not turn my social life into a success, but it would actually destroy the remnants of a social life I would grow to have. If my mother had found a different group, and I had never met Gregory Redford, none of this would have happened. None of it.

 

Chapter One

Welcome to Candlelight School

The first time I had heard the term “Asperger’s” was on some YouTube meme; an ad for a McDonald’s burger that aired in some Asian country overseas. I was six, and YouTube was what I used for downtime. Apparently this type of thing was funny to me. The commercial involved a seductive Ronald McDonald pulling a burger from, well, behind his lower back. An “ass-burger,” if you will. Many commenters were smart to notice this and said that they finally understood “ass-burgers,” which I thought was just a funny use of the word. But it was because of my “ass-burgers” that I thought seeing such a tame curse word being used randomly and indiscriminately was funny.

This is the story of how my life went for the first eight years of school. I went to the Peterson School and tried to justify every pamphlet about how it treats kids with “learning differences” as “everyone’s different, and we use that in our teaching.” Medication was just something I thought everyone took; my dad took vitamins for a period of time when I started taking my pills, which reinforced the idea that I was the same. Even when it started to dawn on me, there were still misconceptions. If you had asked me back in 6th grade what my disorder was, I’d say OCD. I exhibited symptoms of it, and I heard people mentioning it, so I thought it had to be what I had. But I eventually found out, even if I couldn’t pinpoint an exact time when I realized I was on the spectrum instead.

But as I realized the fact that I wasn’t the most normal kid, I also realized the benefits. To put it simply, I was smart. I may not have been the most well-mannered kid (far from it), but I ran academic circles around my classmates who couldn’t remember how to format an essay. Obviously, this meant we learned it every single year of school. Eventually, we decided that enough was enough and started to look for a new school. That school became Candlelight. Now, I’m not gonna go into all of the schools that rejected me, because there are a lot. But I will say that Candlelight was probably my second choice once I visited it. It was a great school for me, and I got accepted to the school around mid-May. I ditched Peterson shortly after and was ready to start my new life.

The orientation was fun; this was where I turned in the homework they gave me over the summer and picked my classes. There were five classes in a day: you started with an English class you choose for the whole year, followed by two classes that rotate every seven weeks: A science and social studies class (the latter can be another English class, history, or anything that isn’t science). After that, you have lunch, followed by math, advisory and an afternoon elective. No classes were separated by grade, minus maybe a few of the harder ones. Candlelight was a very small school, only around sixty kids total.

Orientation was fun. But after a long weekend, it was time for business.

“Welcome, welcome, welcome. My name is Julian, and I’ll be your English teacher. This class will be focused on expressing race and identity through literature.”

I chose this class because it was something I was interested in, well, the identity part more than the race part. I’m a white Christian male, but I did have “ass-burgers” to shake things up. Julian was an older man who had brown hair that was greying slightly and thick-rimmed glasses. Simply put, he looked like a professor.

“It looks like you’re all here today. So I’ll begin with you guys introducing yourself to me with your name, grade level, and your favorite soda.”

We started to go around the circle. I think now’s probably a good time to mention something. If you’ve been observant, you may have noticed that Gregory went to Candlelight. He was asked to leave, but he still went there. And of course, that means he told me lots about the happenings of the school. So I know… um, a bit more about the school than some other new kids.

“My name is Emily, I’m in eleventh grade, and my favorite soda is Sprite.” Attempted suicide by sticking her head into a carbon monoxide oven.

“My name is Devon, I’m in tenth grade, and my favorite soda is Pepsi!” Cheated on his then-girlfriend because she was overweight.

“My name is April, I’m in tenth grade, and I like most types of orange soda.” Heroin addict, suffers from crippling depression.

“My name is Derrick, I’m in twelfth grade, and my favorite soda is Coke.” Got into a fight with his friend that resulted in a three-week suspension.

“My name is Jeanette, I’m in tenth grade, and my favorite soda is Dr. Pepper.” Prone to migraines, tends to often leave class because of them.

“My name is Thomas, I’m in ninth grade, and I love Sprite.” New kid, I think. Not someone I had heard of before.

“My name is Zach, I’m in tenth grade, and my favorite soda is cream soda.” Hoo boy, this one’s a doozy.

If any kid was mentioned in the group more than the others, it was Zach. The Jew. The degenerate. The stubborn kid who wouldn’t accept the evils of Judaism and repent. The kid whose hate-filled stories you didn’t need to read between the lines to figure out: he was being bullied. By Gregory. I felt really bad for the guy, no matter how much Nazi propaganda Gregory spewed about him. It was hard not to. And here he was, sitting in the class, seen for the first time with real eyes from the group. It’s always weird meeting someone like this in person. I mean, I kept insisting that “Zach’s a human being,” but now I knew it.

And finally, myself.

“My name is Theo, I’m in ninth grade, and I’m not a fan of carbonated beverages. I do enjoy Snapple drinks a lot, though.”

***

The rest of the class was a Q&A session with Julian about himself, the class, and what to expect from his classes. After that, we headed to our science classes, mine being a genetics class.

Abe, our genetics teacher, was a little late, so we piled into the room. I sat down and grabbed a Chromebook from the cabinet nearby, going off of the veteran kids who did the same. Everyone was talking… well, except for myself and a couple others who were most likely new. Suddenly, something caught my eye, or rather, ear.

“Looks like Gregory isn’t coming back.”

It was a girl with light brown hair and braids. My heart sank. I hated Gregory, but I was hoping nobody would bring him up.

“Praise the Lord,” muttered another kid I realized was Derrick. “Hallelujah.”

“Are you guys seriously out of the loop? Kid was expelled, like, three weeks before school ended. What, you thought he was going on a trip?” This one was a girl with long, flowing black hair, brilliant blue eyes, and a beautiful smile.

“That’s too late, though,” Derrick continued. “Erwin should’ve shut it down as soon at the bullying became apparent. Not waited two or three months until Zach got mental trauma.”

“Yeah, but he’s gone now. Can’t change the past.” Braids again.

“Damage has been done, Valerie,” the other girl said, “Both to Zach, and to me. You have no idea what he’s done to me.”

Before Valerie could inquire what the other girl was talking about, a voice came in from the other room.

“Okay, chuckleheads. Time to start class.”

And thus marked the end of that discussion.

 

Chapter Two

Kelly and Amelia

“Hey, how was your first day, Theo?”

I hopped into my dad’s car as we began to drive home.

“It was fun,” I said.

I didn’t want to mention anything about Gregory to him, about what they talked about in genetics class.

“So what classes did you get?”

“Well,” I began, “I didn’t get geology, but I got genetics. Other than that, I got the race and identity English class, Roman history for social studies, algebra one for a math class, and ceramics as an elective. Pretty much all my first choices.”

“And who’s your advisor?”

“Well, I didn’t get Abe as my advisor like I wanted, but Julian, my actual advisor, seems nice enough.”

We talked until we got home. When we got home, my mother was cooking a pot roast in the slow cooker, and my senior year brother, Lawrence, was at study hall. His school started a week ago, and he was already lagging behind. Stella, my seven-year-old sister, was watching TV.

“So, Theo, Stella,” my mother began, “I am pleased to tell you that Nana and Grandpa have been fully moved to Crisp Gardens, and we’ll be seeing them over the weekend.”

“Does — does that mean we’ve sold their house already?” Stella seemed to be on the verge of tears.

My mother sighed. “Well, technically, not yet. But we’ve been moving stuff out of their house. Uncle Elvin’s currently in Pittsburgh to sort things out.”

Stella started to cry. “But I — I love their house. I don’t want it to be sold! Could we make it, like, a vacation home for the Moore family?”

“Sorry, honey, but there’s really nothing we can do. Houses are expensive; we can’t just buy another one like that.”

“Please? Uncle Elvin could pay half of it! Please?”

“I’m sorry, but you’re just gonna have to deal with it.”

Stella stormed upstairs, crying. This has been an ongoing struggle with the family. Amelia, or “Nana” as I call her, has lost her short term memory, and “Grandpa” Paul has been struggling with assisting Nana with everything that she has trouble with these days. I was upset about losing the house, but I didn’t show it. I was never one to cry. Lawrence also doesn’t show it, but I think he’s pretty upset himself. Stella, however, has been taking it hard.

***

The next day, the three of us piled into the car. We first dropped off Stella and Lawrence at the Raymond School, a private, academically competitive school that seriously makes me wonder how my parents pay for our combined tuition. Then, it was just me in the car. When we got there, my dad turned off the radio, currently set to 2000’s hits, and issued me a challenge.

“Hey, so I know it can be hard to socialize, but you can take it slow. I challenge you to say hi to another student. It’s that simple.”

I spent the rest of the day contemplating who the simple hi should be directed at, who might be a kindred spirit, and who definitely wasn’t. Eventually, I decided on Zach, as he probably felt lonely due to the bullying anyway. So I was ready to sit down next to him at lunch when a girl walked up to me. The girl with long, flowing hair who was previously talking about Gregory in my genetics class.

“Hi,” she said.

In what universe does a girl like her walk up to me anyway?

“Um, hi,” I said.

Mission accomplished.

“What’s your name?” She was smiling, and just overall gave an aura of positivity around me.

“Theo,” I responded after three solid seconds after staring into space.

“I’m Kelly. Welcome to Candlelight! Mind if I show you around?”

“I guess,” I said.

My heart sank. Remember when I was talking about how Zach was the most used name by Gregory in our group? Well, Kelly’s up there. Like, really up there. His girlfriend. His pride and joy who he would always talk about quite creepily. And then, she cheated on him with someone from her hometown. Walter or something. They broke up shortly after. I walked with her, but it was more of a sleepwalk, because I was barely hearing her talking. I was thinking about Kelly, and how she cheated on Gregory. I didn’t blame her, but it was still quite a jerk move. I knew my way around, so it didn’t matter whether I was listening to her tour.

We got to the upstairs area, and I tuned back in. Her voice was very beautiful and uplifting. Why would she go out with someone like Gregory anyway? Whatever. After the tour, we decided to eat lunch together. My mother had made pasta with sausage sauce last night, and so I ate that.

“So what school did you go to before Candlelight?”

“Peterson,” I responded.

“Ooh, just across the street!”

It was true; Peterson was really close to Candlelight. Most people’s reactions to hearing that someone went to Peterson would say something like “What do you have?” or “Autism or ADHD?” Something that would make you feel a little uneasy. But she was nice about it, just pointing out other things relating to Peterson other than “the bad kids” that go there.

“Yeah, it’s nice because we don’t have to change our morning routine. We can still drop my siblings off at Raymond before dropping me off.”

“Wow! You have siblings that go to Raymond?”

I could see genuine wonder in her eyes; Raymond is a very selective school. `

“Yep. Sister and a brother. Brother’s not taking it well, though. Senior year and his attention’s still elsewhere.”

“Oh. Hope he’s going to do better later, especially in such a crucial year.”

Kelly was actually really good at keeping up a conversation with me, and I felt at home. I didn’t forget the cheating part, but I kept it in the back of my mind as we hit it off. She was clearly more than Gregory said about her.

***

“So, what grade are you in, Theo?” Amelia had asked me this not half an hour ago.

I felt bad for her, but Lawrence was just annoyed. Sorry, I mean “Elvin,” my uncle’s name, and the name Amelia was calling Lawrence for a while.

“Ninth,” I sighed.

I was getting tired of it, too, but it wasn’t her fault. Therefore, I kept it in.

“Sorry, could you speak a little louder, sweetheart?”

“Ninth,” I said, accentuating my voice.

I made sure that she could hear.

“Oh, ninth! You know, when I was in ninth grade–”

“Come on!” Lawrence growled before my father walked him out of their room in the assisted living complex.

A brief silence.

“Continue?” I asked, to my mother’s delight.

“Oh, yes, yes, yes. Ninth grade, right?”

I nodded.

“Yes, when I was in ninth grade I went to a new school. I told the whole place that at the old school I went to, I was a cheerleader! I wasn’t, though, but people believed it! It was truly delightful to see all the young men there crushing over me. But halfway through the year, a girl I knew from my last school came. And you see, she actually was a cheerleader. The illusion broke, and everyone hated me. I was the loneliest kid in the–”

“That’s enough, Amelia,” Paul said very directly.

This story was new to me, but apparently not to Paul.

“What she’s trying to say is not to pretend to be someone else. It will backfire.”

“Okay,” I muttered. I waited a while and then said, out of earshot from my mother, “What if you just told half the story? Where nothing I said was a lie, but I still don’t mention the bad stuff?”

Paul looked into my eyes and said to me, “Then you’re playing a dangerous game of Russian roulette.”

 

Chapter Three

The Smackdown

It was not yet two weeks into my class when the first conflict happened.

It was early morning, at around 8:00 a.m. I got seated in the classroom early, as I usually did so I wouldn’t be late. Jeanette and Derrick came in together a few minutes after, then April and Emily. Then Devon, then Zach, then Thomas. We all got seated and waited. All the students were there. And none of us really noticed that Julian, the only member of the class who needed to be there, was not.

After a short while, Derrick spoke up. “Hey Thomas, where were you yesterday? You’ve missed school three days in a row.”

Thomas, who was typically the quiet kid, muttered something under his breath.

“Sorry,” Derrick responded, “what did you say?”

“I said, it’s none of your business,” said Thomas, with the nastiest tone he could have used.

“Okay, sheesh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know if it was personal. Sorry if it was a problem. I mean, if you’re depressed or anything, I’m free to talk whenev–”

Smack. Next thing I noticed, Derrick was on the floor, rubbing his cheek.

“You’re gonna pay for that, you little shit!”

He jumped up and charged at Thomas, knocking him to the floor and beginning to choke him. Thomas started kicking frantically until one of his kicks hit a part of Derrick that I shall not mention in this text. Derrick let go and ran back. Thomas punched him again. Zach pulled out his phone.

“Do not talk to me again. Period. Got it?”

Thomas kept punching him over and over again. Zach held his phone in the air, apparently filming the sequence of events. Derrick raised his fist up in the air and hit him hard in the head, knocking Thomas over and onto the ground.

“Ow…” Thomas replied, clenching his head.

“That’s what you get,” Derrick said angrily.

He marched away and back to his seat. I looked down at Thomas, who was now in pain a mere nine inches away from the back right leg of my chair. He looked at me back in agony. I ran up the flight of stairs that took you from my English classroom in the basement up to the main floor, and burst into the front office.

“Um, I think we’re gonna need a teacher in Julian’s classroom quickly. Please.”

The next day, I entered the common room for morning announcements. When I walked in, I noticed an large, old man with white sideburns and little hair other than those sideburns. It was Erwin, the head of the school.

“Greetings,” he began when we went into the room. “Now I’m sure some of you had heard about the fight yesterday between Thomas and Derrick in the English classroom, or at least a tiny snippet of what happened yesterday.”

Everyone nodded.

He continued. “It was quite the nasty fight. Thomas is currently in the hospital from a minor concussion, and the rest of the people involved have been disciplined accordingly. There have been many fights at Candlelight. But very few reach the level that this one did. Remember: once you decide to put hands on another person, the entire situation escalates beyond your control. And none of you got a teacher in the room until the damage was done. I thank Theo for what he did, but honestly, he should have found someone at least a full five minutes before Thomas hit his head on the tiled floor of our classroom. Devon could have done it too, as could have April, or Emily, or anyone there, really. But nobody made the right choice in time, and the price was paid. Zach is currently facing a two-day suspension for his decision to film the incident. Thomas will be returning to the school after his own suspension and head injury are each taken care of. But Derrick, due to having a history of fights much like this one, will not be returning to our community here at Candlelight. I hope you understand the severity of this incident, and that we will not tolerate something like this again. Have a good day, and go to class.”

The whole day had a bit of a somber undertone to it, mostly due to the long speech Erwin gave about the fight I stopped. I did feel bad about not getting to the front office earlier, but Erwin grilled me about this whole incident, and I was on the verge of tears.

So, thinking that telling a group of people meant to comfort me and keep my secrets safe would’ve been a good idea can be forgiven.

***

“Hold on? Derrick was expelled? Finally, I thought that dude would never go.”

“Please, Gregory,” I said, “this isn’t something I want to make light of, okay? It was a shocking experience for me.”

“Yeah, but not as much of a shocking experience for this Thomas kid, am I right?” he winked at me.

Gregory has a tendency to make jokes that only he out of the entire room didn’t hate.

“Please stop!”

“Okay, okay. And what did you say Zach did? Filmed the thing?”

“Yeah,” I muttered.

I did not like where this was going.

“That degenerate has always liked watching people suffer. Just like the Jewish elite care so little about anyone minus themselves. It’s in their blood.”

For the past few months, Gregory had been looking at a website dedicated to “exposing” the Jewish conspiracy behind all our money and has gone from a “humble anti-Semite” to a full-on lunatic about this stuff.

“He’s not a degenerate. Seriously, stop calling him that.”

“Can’t stop calling him that if it’s the truth.”

“Please, please stop.”

“Okay, okay,” interjected Dr. Howard. “We get the point, Gregory, you don’t like Jews, and you don’t like Zach. Theo has asked you to stop, so please stop.”

Gregory sighed. “Fine.”

Sebastian, known to give great advice to both myself and Gregory, spoke up. “I know that principals can be tough on us, but he’s punished who he’s wanted to punish. You did the right thing, even if it was a bit late to the party. Don’t keep feeling bad for yourself.”

“Thanks,” I said, even if I didn’t feel much better.

***

I didn’t hear anything more about this until Thursday, two days after my group meeting with Gregory and Sebastian and the day Zach got out of his two-day suspension. It just so happened that when I was about to go to lunch with Kelly, Zach had walked up to her and started talking.

“Listen, Kelly. We’re kindred spirits here. Both of us have been wronged by Gregory. So I feel it’s important for you to see this first.”

Kelly let out a small “Mhm”, and I walked up to them.

“Hey Theo, this is Zach,” Kelly said, clueless about how much I truly know about Zach.

“Hi,” I said, “I believe we’re both in Julian’s English class,” I said matter-of factly, ignoring what happened in that class.

“So you need to know about this too, I guess, considering you saw the fight. Have you heard of Gregory Redford?”

“Know the name,” I said, startled.

“Well, long story short, he’s a bully. Bullied me because I’m Jewish. Got expelled late last year, but it appears the tirade has not yet ended. Listen to this.”

What followed were the most intimidating sixteen sentences of my life.

Listen, I heard what happened yesterday. Two guys duked it out in your class. Beating each other up, choking each other. It was a mess, that’s for sure. And did you alert a teacher? Did you try to intervene? No, you just stood around and recorded it on your phone. How could you do that? Just keep a record of one of the worst fights in Candlelight history? Doesn’t surprise me, honestly. I mean, you people do it all the time. Don’t think you’re off the hook yet, Jew. I’m still around. I got a spy at Candlelight reporting everything you do and more. And maybe one day you’ll consider repenting. I sure hope so.

“Wow,” Kelly said. “I thought the guy’s expulsion would be it. Sorry this happened to you.”

“That’s not the problem. I’ve learned to ignore the guy. But listen.” He rewinded the voicemail and played the last five of those sentences.

Don’t think you’re off the hook yet, Jew. I’m still around. I got a spy at Candlelight reporting everything you do and more. And maybe one day you’ll consider repenting. I sure hope so.

Rewinded again.

I got a spy at Candlelight reporting everything you do and more. And maybe one day you’ll consider repenting. I sure hope so.

And one more time.

I got a spy at Candlelight—

Paused.

“This is a big deal. Means he still talks to people outside of Candlelight, and they tell him things about the happenings around the school.”

“Is that really a big development?” I asked timidly. “I — I mean, he has to have some friends here.”

“Nope,” Zach said. “Pretty much everyone here hated his guts. Besides, his parents block social media on his devices, so he couldn’t have gotten it that way. This is really big.”

“I need to go to the bathroom,” I said.

I called home sick before math class that day. I had never hated Gregory so much in my life. He broke confidentiality just so he could get a kick out of someone. I mean, what we say in group is supposed to stay in group. And I knew that the “spy” wasn’t anyone who went to Candlelight last year.

I knew it was me.

 

Melt Away

                

You watched your grandfather die.

I believe you were 7 years old at the time

But the strangest thing was even though he wasn’t blind

he refused to acknowledge your face.

 

It was strange; he acted like it was a game

He would just close his eyes when they fell on your frame

Even when you were trying to keep him away

From the trance he was making his grave.

 

You could tell his mind was dying

while his shrink was simply trying

to keep the thoughts clumped in his brain

from falling right out of his head

 

But his childish actions receded

As the doctor, he then treated

him with a little too much of the drug

that started his demise.

 

He seemed to have a moment,

“The Surge,” I think they call it

during which his eyes were full of

such a sudden recognition!

 

“Please, grandson,” he called out, desperate,

and you rushed; your eyes, they met his

but he simply held your gaze

unlike anything before.

 

“I will leave this Earth in sadness

and in hatred of my madness

for I have stopped myself

from seeing your beautiful face.”

 

And with that, his vitals worsened

a stench filled around his person

and you could tell by his face

his soul had left while incomplete.

 

Maturity

              

Earbuds vibrating inside my head

A barrier from those who leave me dead

They park their hearse outside my weary skull

Emotions bubble but my face remains dull

 

The hearse takes out a coffin so grandiose

It takes my childhood and starts to close

Wonder swells from within its closed walls

I try to defend, but the noise made me fall

 

The feelings start to invade

and the hearse, it drives away

with his soul

 

It was life; I could not deny that fact,

But something sacred persuaded me to act,

So I began to conquer the edges of my mind,

I could tell it was hiding something deep behind

 

My attack reigned,

new thoughts reclaimed

I could make them

happy again

 

And then I noticed

a bit of cold

as a cave dared to unfold


I saw within it

a strange glow

the cold increased

as I went to go

 

And then I saw

with tearing eyes

a gun held up to my pride

 

My attack reigned,

new thoughts reclaimed

I could make them

happy again

 

And then I noticed

a bit of cold

as a cave dared to unfold


I saw within it

a strange glow

the cold increased

as I went to go

 

And then I saw

with tearing eyes

a gun held up to my pride

 

Within the cave I saw a face

reflected from this creature

it was mine

 

Earbuds vibrating inside my head

as I try to clean up what I have just bled

my doubt of myself has ended its decline

I have confronted it; now I can climb

 

My derelict soul then sees the truth

naivety seeps from us

as we live

 

Houses on May 28th

Mary went upstairs later that night to check on Jamie. She knocked on his door quietly.

“Jamie… are you there? It’s Mommy.” Mary jiggled the handle and the door was locked.

There was no sound. “Jamie… I’m sorry I yelled at you earlier.”

Still, no reply came.

“Jamie, listen. How about we go to the arcade? You and Lisa would have much more fun there than picking out a toy from a store.”

Mary went downstairs and got the emergency key they kept in case somebody accidentally locked themselves in a room. She unlocked the door and the room was empty. Everything was completely untouched. Peter’s books were all in order by genre on his shelf and the globe he got for his birthday was in its regular spot.

“Peter!” Mary yelled.

Peter came running up the stairs.

“Mary, what’s wrong?” Peter was out of breath, although lately he’d been trying to work out more.

“Jamie’s gone! He’s not in his room!”

“I’m sure he’s in the house somewhere. You check the bathrooms and I’ll check Lisa’s room.”

Minutes later, Peter and Mary met up again in front of Jamie’s room.

“He’s not in the bathrooms!”

“Lisa’s gone too!”

“Where do you think they went?” Mary asked.

“The arcade!” Peter replied quickly.

“No, you ass! They wouldn’t be able to get to the arcade by foot.”

“Maybe they went exploring. You know how much Jamie loves exploring. And how courageous Lisa is.”

“You get the car keys and I’ll get some flashlights and we’ll go!” Mary said.

Together, they left to find their children.

 

***

“Jamie, are you sure this is a good idea?” Lisa asked.

They were walking in the woods behind their house, and it was about half past one. A slight breeze blew through the air and the sky was clear.

“I think it’s a great idea.” Jamie answered.

“We’re gonna get in trouble.”

“No, we’ll be home before Mom and Dad wake up.”

“Are you sure,  Jamie?”

Jamie paused. Lisa’s flashlight was flickering. The bushes were rustling and a small figure stepped out from behind them.

“Good morning, kiddos.” It was a boy about eleven years old, the same age as Jamie. He had blue eyes like the ocean and chocolate colored hair.

“I’m the same age as you, Scott,” Jamie said.

Scott laughed. “It’s a figure of speech.”

Lisa looked grumpy. She reminded Jamie of the floating rainclouds over grouchy people’s heads in cartoons.

“Why the long face, Lisa?” Scott teased.

“Scott, I’m eight years old. Don’t call me kiddo.”

“Alright. If it really bothers you guys that much, I won’t do it.”

“Scott, where are we even going?” Jamie asked.

Scott smiled and his eyes lit up.

“It’s this old house that I live next to. It’s really cool and I wanted to explore it with you guys.”

“I’ve got two water bottles, my flashlight, a pack of batteries I stole from the kitchen cabinet, and a box of Girl Scout cookies.”

“Yep, that’s everything we need to survive,” Jamie said sarcastically.

“What kind are they?” Scott asked.

Lisa looked inside her yellow backpack.

“Shortbreads,” she said.

“Goddamnit. I wish they were Thin Mints.”

The kids continued walking to the house. They approached train tracks that smelled of rust after rain, which was strange because it hadn’t rained that night or the day before.

“Jamie, please don’t go on the train tracks,” Lisa said.

“Why not?” Jamie said.

“I don’t want anything to happen. I have a really bad feeling.”

“What do you think, Scott?”

Scott froze. “I think you should listen to your sister. For some reason I think she’s right.”

“Are you really sure, Lisa?”

“Yes.”

Jamie got off the tracks and they continued to walk along them. It had been about five minutes when Lisa turned around and they noticed a light in the distance.

“Jamie, do you see that?” Lisa asked.

“What?” Jamie said and then turned around. He saw the light.

Scott saw it too. “It’s a train. And it’s getting faster.”

Scott was right. The kids could hear the sound of the train huffing and puffing. The train whisked by them.

“Lisa, if I had stayed on those train tracks, I don’t even want to think about what would have happened,” Jamie said.

“You made a good call,” Scott said.

“Are there trains on this track often?” Jamie asked.

“Not usually… ” Scott said, and trailed off.

The house was the size of a mansion with tiles coming off the roof and a mailbox practically grasping to hang onto its pole. It was covered with vines and the bushes were overgrown. On the porch was a cracked light and a wooden rocking chair. There was also a small driveway, which was strange, because the house was in the middle of the woods.

“This looks like a shack,” Lisa said.

“Scott. What. Is. This?” Jamie asked.

“A house.”  

“You know, I never really noticed that.”

“Are we gonna go in or what?” Lisa said.
Together they walked onto the porch, and Scott opened the door. The first thing they saw were crimson colored stairs.

“Where do you guys wanna go?” Scott asked, with a grin.

“Let’s go into the bedrooms,” Jamie said.

Scott led them upstairs and there were three bedrooms. The first one they entered seemed to be a guest bedroom. It was pretty bare and simple with only a bed and a dresser. The second room was a child’s room. There was a small bed with pale, pink blankets and pale, yellow pillows. There was a shelf with books, dolls, and records. Jamie reached up and picked one up off the shelf.

“Scott, do these still work?”

“When I found this place two weeks ago they did.”

Jamie went up to the record player on a table and put on a record. It was jazz music with a man singing about how he missed somebody.

Scott picked up one of the dolls. It had a crack in its cheek. The doll had green eyes and brown hair. It had on a dark blue dress with lace falling off. Its eyes seemed to glint in the flashlight’s beam. He shuddered.

Lisa looked at the books on the shelf. A Wrinkle in Time, The Wizard of Oz, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Secret Garden, and Peter Pan. Lisa looked around, and she got a sickening feeling.

“Let’s go into another room,” Lisa said. They went into the next bedroom, which must have been the parent’s bedroom. There was a bed with green covers and white pillows. There was a table with old makeup products, and the mirror above was chipped. There was also a large wardrobe with a drawer hanging open.

“Hey, guys. Look at this,” Jamie said, and pulled out a large book from the drawer.

Scott frowned. “That’s strange. When I was here, that drawer wasn’t open.”

Scott hesitantly sat down next to Jamie and Lisa did the same. The book happened to be a photo album. The first picture was of a young man and woman smiling. The man was a sailor. The next photo was with the same man and woman, but she was kissing his cheek. Another photo was their wedding and there were many photos of what must have been aunts and uncles and cousins. Another photo was the house. The next one was the couple sitting by the fireplace in the living room, and the woman had a rounded belly. The photo after was a baby. The next photo was the couple playing with a female toddler. There were no other photos after that.

“You know what’s weird?” Lisa asked.

“What?” Jamie said.

“None of the pictures are labeled,” Lisa said.
“This is really creepy,” Scott said.

Lisa looked at the mirror, her eyes widened in fear.

“Lisa, what’s wrong?!” Jamie cried.

“Did you turn the record player off?” Lisa asked.

“No. Why?”

“Because it stopped playing.”

They all went silent.

“We should leave,” Lisa said.

“Yeah. Make sure you have all your stuff,” Jamie said.  

Together, the kids got up and closed the door behind them. They quietly walked down the hall as though they were trying not to disturb a sleeping dragon.

Suddenly, there was a thumping sound coming from the child’s room. It was getting louder and louder.

“Guys. Quick. Go!” Scott cried. They ran as fast as they could. The thumping sound got louder. When Jamie and Lisa got out of the house and into the woods, they stopped to relax.

“Where’s Scott?” Jamie asked.

“Scott! Scott! Where are you?!” Lisa yelled. But no matter how loud they yelled and how far they searched, Scott was nowhere to be found.

 

***

“Where’s Mom and Dad?” Lisa’s quivering voice came from upstairs.

Jamie and Lisa had arrived home after running all the way through the forest, back to their house. As soon as they got to their lawn, Lisa was filled with a burst of energy and she ran through the door, all the way upstairs. She quickly realized that her parents weren’t there.

“I don’t know!” Jamie said. “Maybe they went shopping?”

“Why would they go shopping at five in the morning?” Lisa asked.

“Right. Alright,” Jamie said, trying to calm himself down.

The front door flew open loudly and in came their mom and dad.

“Jamie! Lisa! Thank God. We’ve been looking for you for hours!” Peter said.

Mary hugged both of her kids. “What were you doing out this early in the morning? We were going to call the police!”

“Mommy, Scott’s gone!” Lisa cried.

“What do you mean?” Peter asked.

Jamie began to explain. He talked about his plan to go exploring with Scott and the house he took them into. He described the fright they got and how they left Scott. Jamie hung his head low.

“I’ll call the cops,” said their dad. “He’s probably still stuck in there.”

Jamie and Lisa were sent to their rooms as a punishment. They fell asleep with hope in their heart because they knew their dear friend would be found.

 

***

The police went and searched the house, but they found nothing. Scott’s parents were devastated. So were Jamie and Lisa. A giant search was led to find Scott. They searched for five months. At the end of the fifth month, a scrap of paper was found in the house which was believed to be in Scott’s handwriting. It said: May 28th. Nobody could figure what that meant.

A funeral was held in Scott’s name in November. Jamie and Lisa thought that the date meant something, and that Scott was still alive somewhere. They kept this between themselves.

 

The Stone of Shadows

 

Chapter One: Elf in a Tent

 

It was the crack of dawn, and the evergreens were standing proud and tall by the small river. The trees stood twenty-seven feet tall, making plant life on the forest floor almost impossible. But these trees were surrounded by roaring hills, standing so tall that they could not be measured. In response to the rising sun, the birds had gone as wild as a tiger in the radius of fire. The bird’s chirping had echoed off the forest with the response being confused as real.

A small, leather tent stood by the fast, running river. Within the tent, a dark elf, by the name of Alexandra, awoke to the sounds of dawn. Poor Alexandra laid sick from the cold, for today was the second day of winter, and she was unprepared. It wasn’t that she lost her winter coat or anything like that. Alexandra intentionally left it. She had escaped her sanctuary during the winter solstice and didn’t bring her coat. But her lack of warmth was not the main issue (her race was known for having a small resistance to the cold), it was the amount of damage done to her body that showed. Scars and bruises went from her face to her ankles, and they were not going anytime soon. Besides that, Alexandra’s appearance had cloaked her true age, for she was a twenty-seven-year-old trapped in the body of a fourteen-year-old. But for a dark elf, she was quite tall, standing five-feet and eleven inches, three inches above the average height.

Alexandra, looking up while lying in the tent, had to figure out what to do. A town had settled not too far away from her location. But her wear had consisted of a completely black shirt with sleeves going to her elbows, pants that went to her knees, and a hooded linen cloak. With damage all over her arms and legs, she could not go to town. Alexandra wanted to avoid questioning and suspicion from the town.

An hour later, Alexandra was squatting outside the tent by a small fire. She stood close by the fire to keep herself warm. Unfortunately, it did not provide much warmth. At a nearby tree, a deer was sniffing the ground for whatever he could find. Although it was the second day of winter, it had not snowed. Therefore, the ground looked like that of a steppe. Alexandra looked at the deer’s fur with envy. The deer looked up and saw Alexandra squatting by a fire. Suddenly, the deer wiggled his ears and galloped away. Alexandra looked confused. She did not move a limb, but the deer ran away. She looked behind herself and saw a man standing high above her. The man had a fur cap and wore a fur coat going down to his knees. The man’s face, in addition to his rough beard, was quite frightening. Slowly, Alexandra stood herself straight in front of the vicious looking man. Although she was tall, the man had stood around a foot taller. Alexandra slouched herself to show the man he was more powerful. The man didn’t seem to care. In a deep voice, he began to speak.

“What are you doing near my tent?”

Alexandra did not know how to respond to the large man. She began to straighten up.

“I use that tent during spring, summer, and autumn,” said the man. “I am a hunter, so you understand why I don’t use it during the winter.”

Alexandra nodded her head.

“Usually, I find runaway slaves and traveling prostitutes staying in my tent. But you’re different.”

The hunter observed Alexandra with his eyes and hands, with no intention of hurting or sleeping with her. She stood frozen in awkwardness. The hunter noticed her long, pointy ears, longish black hair, yellow eyes, and blue skin color. It was not common to find a dark elf running about, but the hunter was unimpressed. He then noticed the damage on her naked arm.

“Well, you have a story,” said the hunter. “But, I know you’re not a slave because you’re not wearing ragged clothes.”

The hunter observed Alexandra again.

“And you’re definitely not a whore. So, if you are neither of those two, what are you?”

Alexandra relaxed herself and spoke in a calm tone. “My story can’t be explained in one word. And I don’t title myself as any sort of class.”

The hunter looked surprised by Alexandra’s voice.

“You are obviously older than you look,” he said. “Follow me, you can tell your story by a warm fire.”

The hunter walked away, beside the river. Alexandra needed warm asylum, but the hunter seemed sketchy. If he did try something on me, she concluded, I can fight back. Alexandra followed.

 

***

The fire crackled loud while Alexandra sat in comfort and warmth. She took a drink from her warm, pine tea. The hunter was in another room, fixing a solution for Alexandra’s scars. Alexandra looked around the fireplace and saw the display of bows and arrows. These bows were not just a simple stick and string. These bows looked very powerful and expensive.

“You are obviously very wealthy,” Alexandra yelled to the hunter.

“Yes. I am the only hunter in town, so I tend to get a lot of customers,” said the hunter, walking towards the fire.

Sitting next to Alexandra, he handed her a bowl of crushed herbs.

“Here,” he said. “This should get rid of those scars.”

Alexandra rubbed the solution on her scars.

“What’s your name?” asked the hunter.

“Alexandra. And yours?”

“Bjor.”

The two stood still while the fire cracked.

“Are you hungry?” asked Bjor.

“I’ll be alright. I don’t want to take any of your product.”

“Well, of course you’ll pay me,” said Bjor.

“Well, I’m sorry, Bjor, but I don’t have any money,” said Alexandra. “And I’m not paying any other way.”

“How about your story?” asked Bjor.

Alexandra felt bad for judging Bjor. He was not the perverted freak she expected.

“Alright,” said Alexandra, putting her tea on the ground. “Now, listen closely, because this is very important.”

 

***

A day before the winter solstice, Alexandra was with her two sisters in a dressing room of her family’s castle. The room had a mirror and a small window looking out to the black, oak forest. It was near the end of the day, and a large glare had entered the room. Fortunately, the mirror and window were right next to each other, so the glare did not hit the mirror.

Alexandra and her older sister, Anna, were in front of the mirror, trying out clothes for tomorrow’s party. For dark elves (and other elves as well), the winter solstice was a very important day, for it signified the end of life. Usually on the first day of winter, Alexandra’s father, Mallekath, would host a large party. The party would consist of other families within the region of Mirewood. It was a very large gathering, over a hundred and seventy people or so.

Anna looked at herself, wearing a white dress, in the mirror with Alexandra standing two inches taller than her.

“Alex, do you think this is an excellent dress?” said Anna, posing to the mirror.

“Why would it not be?” asked Alexandra.

“I feel like it would bring too much attention.”

“But isn’t that good?”

“Yes, but last time, I felt like the main attraction of the party.”

Anna took another glance at the mirror.

“I think I’ll give it a second try,” said Anna. “What are you going wear, Alex?”

“Just the usual black cloak, shirt, and pants,” answered Alexandra.

Anna stuck her tongue out at Alexandra in disgust. Alexandra looked at her little sister, Krosna, sitting in the corner of the room. Krosna was only twelve but was very intelligent. However, she was also shy and tended to hide in her room during the winter solstice parties.

“What are you going to do this year, Krosna?” said Alexandra.

“I think I’ll pass on the party this year,” said Krosna in a soft voice. “I’m worried about father. He’s been acting very strange lately. I think he’s getting too close to the Shadow Stone.”

The Shadow Stone was one of the many ancient artifacts that granted absolute power. Each stone provided a special attribute to the user. The Shadow Stone allowed the user to create an army of shadows, if handled by the right person. However, if the Shadow Stone (or any other stone in general) was handled without caution, it would be catastrophic.

“Krosna, that’s silly,” said Anna in a minorly frightful voice. “Father knows what he’s doing.”

Krosna silently shook her head.

“I wouldn’t worry about it,” said Alexandra.

 

***

At midnight, Alexandra was lying in her bed looking at her toes, which were uncovered by the blanket. She looked up at the ceiling and saw how extremely tall her room was. She then looked at her large window and saw the moonlight streaming into her room. Alexandra got out of her bed and walked towards the window to draw the curtains. Suddenly, she heard a crash. The sound came from the main hallway, the room where the Shadow Stone sat on a large column.

“What could that be?” Alexandra said aloud.

She left her room and quietly ran towards the hall. When she entered, she saw her older brother, Michael, trying to clean up a vase he broke. Michael looked up at his sister with an evil eye. Michael didn’t have a good relationship with Alexandra. He usually tried to take control of things. But Alexandra tended to resist.

“What are you doing?” Alexandra asked.

“None of your concern,” answered Michael in a rude tone.

Suddenly, their mother, Elis, entered the hall.

“What is going on here?” asked Elis in an annoyed tone.

Michael looked at Alexandra, then at his mother.

“It was Alexandra. She intentionally broke the vase and tried to frame me,” cried Michael in an accusing voice.

“That’s a lie!” yelled Alexandra. “I was in my bedroom when…”

“Alright, alright, I don’t want to hear it,” said Elis. “I don’t care. Just let the servants get to it and go back to bed.”

Michael left the room, not looking at anyone or anything. Elis turned around, walking towards the doorway.

“Mother…”

“Go to bed, Alexandra!” yelled Elis.

Then, Alexandra’s mother had left the hall. Alexandra did the same, but she was more frustrated. As Alexandra walked towards her room, she ran into Babastian, the Venorian servant. For those of you who don’t know what a Venorian is, they were basically a cross breed between a lizard and a human. They usually lived in the deserts, wetlands, and mountains, and they originated from the continent of Maltopia.   

“Master Alexandra, why do you walk the halls at midnight?” asked Babastian in a concerned voice.

“Why do you ask?” said Alexandra.

“It is my job to make sure you are well, and lack of sleep can turn a man insane.”

“But I am a woman, am I not?”

“It applies to all,” said Babastian.

Alexandra walked on. She then remembered her father.

“Babastian,” she said turning around. “Has my father been acting strange lately?”

“Oh, my dear,” sobbed Babastian. “Your father has truly gone mad. He always stumbles his way to bed, yells out rude things to your mother, and talks to himself all the time.”

Alexandra looked worried. Her father was usually not like this at all. Maybe Krosna was right.

“Do you think it’s the Shadow Stone?” said Alexandra.

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” said Babastian. “I saw him stare at it for over half an hour. Just the other day, little Krosna suggested destroying the stone itself. Although she presented a solid a